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The seven jewels of the aryas: Learning in Tibetan Monasteries

The seven jewels of the aryas: Learning in Tibetan Monasteries

Part of a series of short talks on the Seven Jewels of the Aryas.

  • Entering Tibetan monasteries at a very young age
  • Sequence of learning and the degrees that can be obtained
  • Why the difference in learning between Tibetan and Western culture

Let me read the verse that we have again. Two versions:

Faith and ethical discipline
Learning, generosity,
an untainted sense of integrity,
and consideration for others,
and wisdom,
are the seven jewels spoken of by the Buddha.
Know that other worldly riches have no value.

And the other one was:

The wealth of faith, the wealth of ethics
Giving, learning,
conscience and remorse.

I’m not sure which order they have those two in. There are so many different translations for some of the terms that it’s hard.

I thought with the “learning” one, because that’s what we talked about last time, just to maybe go over briefly some of the learning that they do in the Tibetan monasteries, just so that you have an idea of what happens in Gelug monasteries. Some of that program we do here, and some we are not doing because it’s a wonderful program, but I think it doesn’t necessarily meet the inner needs of Westerners. There’s a lot of study, a lot of debate, and nobody really teaches you to meditate. And I think Westerners who come into the Dharma really want something that’s going to touch their heart and help them with their problems. That’s why I think the program they do in the Tibetan monasteries is wonderful for the Tibetans, but we’re not going to duplicate it here.

Part of the reason is many years ago I went to Tharpa Choeling—this was many, many years ago—it was Geshe Rabten’s monastery in Switzerland. It was very interesting going there. It was completely filled with (non-Tibetan) monks, and a few Tibetans, but everything was just like a Tibetan monastery. The monks did their morning puja in Tibetan, they debated in Tibetan, the classes were in Tibetan, everything. The chanting before meals. Everything. And very sadly, after Geshe Rabten passed away, then the monks all scattered, and I don’t know if any of them are still ordained or not.

And one time I was talking with Zopa Rinpoche about this, and he commented that he thought part of it was that the Westerners really need something that would touch their heart and move their heart. And that kind of program, beautiful the way it was, didn’t quite do that.

While personally I love that kind of study, I also grew up on lojong and lamrim, and treasure that, and I know that is what really helps me, keeps me balanced, and gives me the overall view of what the path is about, what the practice is about. But still, because we’re in that tradition, it’s very helpful to know what they’re doing in those monasteries.

When you enter, first of all, usually you enter as a little kid. Little kids do what they’re told. Most of them. So what you start out with is memorization. Westerners don’t meet the Dharma usually until they’re adults. And if you sit them down with a Tibetan text and tell them to memorize it, I don’t think they’re going to cooperate very much. And most of the texts that the Tibetans are memorizing, like Abhisamayālaṃkāra, are not translated into English. So you’re not going to memorize them in English. And even if they did, a text like that is basically lists of terms, and an adult, at least in our culture, is not going to do that.

The traditional Buddhist culture is an oral culture. That’s what we’ve been learning on Friday nights. You learn everything by heart. Our Western culture is an information culture where we learn how to find the information we want. We’re not always required to remember it, but we need to know how to find it. It’s two different ways of looking at knowledge.

So you enter the monastery when you’re a little kid, and you start memorizing these texts. And now they also have school for some of the kids. At least for the boys. For the girls, I don’t know, maybe they go to one of the TCV schools, or central Tibetan schools. But at least for the boys it’s Sera and Drepung, and Ganden, all three of them, they have schools where they’re now getting a little bit of secular education together with the Buddhist education. When we first went there, there was no secular education at all.

Now they’re getting that. And they start out with debating, with Dudra, the collected topics, that we’re doing. And then they go on. There are three parts to the Dudra, three sections. One is learning about colors and all these different terms and so on. The second one is Lorig (mind and awareness), learning the mental factors, and also the different kinds of awarenesses and how they know objects. Then the third is Tarig, where you’re learning the reasonings, the different kinds of reasonings that can make a correct syllogism. That usually takes three or four years.

Then they start out with the Perfection of Wisdom. They are using the Abhisamayālaṃkāra (“Ornament of Clear Realization”), which is by Maitreya. (In the Tibetan tradition it’s by Maitreya.) Interestingly, this text was not translated into Chinese until this century. That’s usually done for five to seven years. The programs at the three seats, the three large monasteries, are fairly similar, although they do have their own differences. They study that because that text gives you a big overview of lots of topics. And even though it’s called The Perfection of Wisdom, it has some passages and sections on wisdom, but it’s mostly about the path. It talks about the path of the sravaka, the path of the solitary realizer, the path of the bodhisattva. And then of course the resultant buddhahood. So lots of different topics in there. You learn that and debate that.

Then they have certain periods during that time where, I’m not sure what time of year it is, where they take a month or two off and they study Pramanavarttika, which we’ve been doing with Geshe Thabke. But they go much more in depth in the reasonings. They do that for a few months every year for several years to go through the text.

After The Ornament of Clear Realization, then they go on to Madhyamaka. There the basic text is Chandrakirti’s Supplement to Nagarjuna’s “Treatise on the Middle Way”. But they also do Tsongkhapa’s Lekshe Nyingpo (Essence of Eloquence)1 Those two texts are done in the Gelug monasteries. That’s where they really get into emptiness. And they usually spend two years, sometimes three or sometimes more, on those two texts.

Some people stop their education after that because those three texts are kind of the primary ones, and they feel like they have enough and they want to go meditate and they want to practice or do something else. Other people stay on for the last two topics, where it doesn’t involve so much debate. They do debate, but it’s a different kind of study and they’ve already gotten very used to debating by then, and so they like it, so the other kind of study is different.

The fourth text they do is Abhidarmakosha by Vasubandu. Then the fifth is they study Vinaya and they use the Vinayasutra, which isn’t a sutra, it was written by Guṇaprabha. Then Sakyaprabha wrote another commentary. And they use the Tibetan one by Sonowa to learn that.

They can get their geshe degree at that point. Some of them want to get a lharampa degree they do some extra years of study and review and then they go for those exams, then they become geshe lharampas.

That’s what the program looks like in the Tibetan monasteries and nunneries. It can last eighteen, nineteen years, and then more if you’re going for the lharampa degree. But when you start when you’re six or seven years old, not when you’re 25 or 35, and you already know the language of them, it’s much easier to complete that.

Some of them will start out at small monasteries, and then go to the three seats when they’re done with the Collected Topics. But even so, they’re always living with relatives or friends of the family, people from their own area in Tibet, and so just by living there they pick up a lot of how you’re supposed to behave, and so on, as a monastic. And when they enter the monastery, they’re already entering with a community. Whereas Westerners, we grew up in a very individualistic society, which adds a certain amount of stress, where you always have to prove yourself and be somebody and stick out, be an individual by conforming to being an individual. People often come to the Dharma and, because it’s not a Buddhist culture here, so they’re going outside their family, they’re going outside the religious culture they grew up in, and they’re coming in with a mind that is quite individualistic. And there aren’t any communities set up. Very few monastic communities set up for people to go into. You may ordain, but then go live at a Dharma center. But at a Dharma center people are coming and going all the time. You’re a staff member, basically, if you’re a monastic at a Dharma center, and you help to keep it running. And then as you progress, then you can start leading courses and teaching, and so on.

Westerners come in and we need to learn how to do community. The Tibetans, the culture itself, is very communal oriented. That’s why in old Tibet they didn’t have social services in the government, because they didn’t need it because the families took care of everybody. Now they’re starting to have some social services in exile, because many of the families were fractured by going into exile. But we already come from many fractured families in this culture. So learning how to live in community…. We all want community, but we don’t know how to live in community. We desperately want to be with other people and we want to have companions, but we also want to get our way.

So a different kind of learning, I think, is necessary for creating non-Tibetan monasteries. For a number of reasons. The culture, and also because the religion of the country. If you ordain in Tibet or Taiwan, everybody knows what Buddhism is. Your family may not like it, but you’re not doing anything that weird. Whereas here, you get ordained and people really think you’ve gone out on a limb and you’re maybe a little…out there. But it’s getting better. Oh my goodness, it’s getting better than it used to be years ago.

The point I’m trying to get at is that because we’re coming from a different culture, a different country, our conditions, our mentality are different in that way, that I think we need a different kind of education system. Not a replica of what they’re doing. But what they’re doing in Tibet is wonderful for the Tibetans. And I think there are certain aspects of it we can adopt and adjust to. But right now, in terms of carrying on the full tradition and the lineage, it’s going to be the Tibetans who do it. Because we don’t have access, in our own language, to all the texts. But that’s okay. They’ve been carrying it on for years and centuries, and they’re doing a good job. We want to work in a way that helps our mind.

Audience: For those who only study through the first three topics and leave before the Abhidarmakosha, is there any kind of degree at that level or no?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a degree at that level.

I should add, the Nyingma tradition, for their studies, they use 13 texts that cover the same five topics. The Gelugs choose one or two texts and go very deeply for the five topics, the Nyingmas have 13 texts that they study, but it’s within the same five topics, so slightly different program.

Audience: Something I was thinking about last week was how everyone in this room pretty much had to be a non-conformist in order to adopt this lifestyle, and then we all have to get together and conform. [laughter] You’re going against the stream, and then you get together and you have to all go the same direction. It doesn’t always work so smoothly. [laughter]

VTC: At first it’s a shock. And then you get used to it and you begin to see the value of it. And you begin to especially feel the value of having a community, and how that can really help your practice. So if you have to give up a little bit of what you want to get a lot of something that’s very meaningful to you and helps you practice, then that’s okay. But it takes some getting used to.

We come in and we’re like little kids. We’re more polite. Sometimes. Sometimes not.

So and so gets to do that, how come I can’t? It’s not fair. The monastics in this place are partial.

That’s why you look in Vinaya and so many things about accusing the sangha of being partial. Because that’s what our individualistic mind does.

And then we come back to did you come here to get your way or did you come here to train your mind? What’s your purpose?

  1. Venerable mistakenly translates the title as “Illumination of Eloquence.” The main text by Tsongkhapa that is studied is the “Gongpa Rabsal” which is translated as Illumination of the Thought, a commentary on Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the “Treatise on the Middle Way.” 

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.