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Monks and Laymen in Buddhist Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

... lid.

And you may find eventually as you go up and up, as you approach the higher and higher seats, that on the little lids of the tea cups there is a jewel and the jewel becomes more and more precious. And then you get gold creeping in and eventually to your astonishment, and this happened to me, you find yourself being served with tea in a massive, a very ancient jade cup on a solid silver stand with a gold gauze decorated lid and a magnificent jewel. And then of course you know, that as far as Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhists are concerned, you've really arrived. But I mention all these things just to illustrate this principle of precedence. A social principle, a social practice admittedly, but based on a spiritual idea, the idea of spiritual hierarchy. The idea that in as much as there is a path, and inasmuch there are stages on that path there are also grades of attainment, grades of realisation and that people can be, as it were organised along these lines and looked up to and regarded along these lines. Inasmuch as they form a sort of hierarchy, so that every thing with they do, or everything that is done in connection with them, should reflect this hierarchy, reflect these stages and grades of realisation and attainment. So inasmuch we are talking about Tibetan Buddhism, it is only right it is only correct, it is only proper that we ourselves should observe a sort of precedence otherwise you deal with Tibetan Buddhism in a manner that is not in accordance with the spirit of Tibetan Buddhism itself.

So we are going to observe a suitable precedence in accordance with the ideas of Tibetan Buddhism this evening. We are going to deal with the monks first and then we're going to deal with the lay people because in Tibet in all formal religious occasions the monks take precedence. And after, that we are going to study, we are going to try to understand the connections between them, the connections between the monks on the one hand, and the laity on the other, both social and spiritual. And we shall also have something to say on the subject of nuns and the subject of lay women.

Now first of all, before we really start, I want to clear up a misunderstanding, at least a possible misunderstanding about monks in Tibet. Some people I discovered both in India and in this country, are under the impression that there are no monks, at least no proper monks, no real monks in Tibet. That you could say, no monks in the sense that one has monks in Ceylon or in Burma and this misunderstanding I know is rather widespread in the Theravadin countries of the Buddhist East in Ceylon, in Burma in Thailand and so on.

They seem to be under the impression that in Tibet there are no monks or at least no real Buddhist monks. And this impression is based partly simply on lack of information, they don't seem to know very much about Buddhism in Tibet having being cut off from it for centuries. It is also based on, one must admit, on a certain emphasis that one does find in some of these Theravadin countries on the non-essential. For example, if you wore an orange robe or a yellow robe like this, they would think you were a real monk but if you wear a red one like the Tibetans do they might be rather doubtful as to whether you were a monk or whether you are not. So they do tend to attach in some parts of the Buddhist world, in some Theravadin countries importance to things of this sort, so it is rather difficult sometimes for them to see the Tibetan monk to be really and truly monks. It's a bit like in this country if you see a clergyman without his dog collar you can't really feel he's a clergyman if you been brought up as a strict High Anglican. So it is a little bit like that with some of the Theravadin Buddhists. If they see the Tibetan monks in their red robes they don't react in the same way, they don't respond in the same way as they would do if they saw someone in a yellow or in a saffron coloured robe. But one can state, one can affirm quite definitely that Tibet does contain monks in the full technical sense of term and the Tibetan monks belong to the Sarvastivadin branch of the Sangha. Perhaps I should explain something here. The early Indian Sangha the early Indian monastic orders split into four great divisions that are known as Nikayas. And when the Buddha passed away there was nothing very organised in the way of a Sangha, in the way of a monastic order. There were various people, men and women, following him, having given up worldly life, devoting themselves to meditation, devoting themselves to the realisation of higher things. There were just a few rules, but on the whole, they led a fairly free and easy sort of existence not unlike I would say that of the modern Hindu sadhu. But as time went on, more rules were introduced, the monastic order became more organised, and inevitably certain differences of opinions started to manifest themselves. So we find that about 100 years after the death of the Buddha, there was a split in the monastic order between what we call the Sthaviras and what we call the Madhyamikans. The Sthaviras means the elders and the Madhyamikans means we may say the great assemblies. The Sthaviras tended to be more conservative and the Madhyamikans, the great assemblists, they tended to be more progressive. And it was in fact out of the Madhyamikans, out of the great assemblists, that eventually arose the Mahayana.

Now subsequently the Sthaviras themselves, the conservative party, split in the course of the next 150 to 200 years, they produced first of all the Pudkalavardins or personalists and secondly the Sarvastivadins or plain realists. There is not time this evening, in fact it isn't necessary to explain why the Nikaya had these names but we may say briefly that these were the four Nikaya. First of all the Sthaviras then the Pudgalavadins and then the Sarvastivadins. And subsequently these all subdivided even more and these subdivision make up the 18 schools, the classical 18 schools of early Buddhism. And these 18 schools are collectively are known as the Hinayanas.

Now all four Nikaya whether it's the Staveras or the Madhyamikans or the Pudkalavadin or the Sarvastivadin, they all transmit what is essentially the same code of monastic discipline or vinaya. And in India itself, all these four Nikaya accorded one other mutual recognition, there was mutual respect between them even though they did differ on several particulars. Now all the Tibetan monks, all the monks of Tibet today belong to the Sarvastivadin branch of the Sangha and they follow the Tibetan version of one of the sanskrit recentions of the Vinaya ­ it is rather important I think to remember this. The lineages of the Pudkalvardins and the Madhyamikans these have died out in the Buddhist world. You've got only two traditions nowadays of monastic ordination. One is that of the Staveras in their Theravadin form which you find in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand and so on and the other is the Sarvastivadin tradition which you find in Tibet, China in Mongolia in Vietnam and a few other places. So the Tibetans we say follow the Tibetan version of one of the sanskrit recentions, there are many recentions of Vinaya or the monastic law.

Now those who attended the first lecture may remember that the second religious King Trisong Detseb (?) in the 8th Century decided that Tibetan Buddhism should be a Three vardin system, that is it should comprehend, it should embrace all the 3 great stages of the development of Buddhism ­ Hinayana, Theravadin and Vadjrayana. He decreed we saw that Tibetan Buddhism should follow the Sarvastivadins Vinaya the .......in Philosophy and the Tantra in meditation and this system as we pointed out then and subsequently continues right down to the present day and this explains why the Tibetan monks belong to the Sarvastivadins Branch of the sangha rather than to either of the 2 Branches which have died out or the Theravadin branch which flourishes in south East Asia.

So hence we may say, summarising this slightly historical, slightly technical discussion hence we may say, we may conclude that the Tibetan monks are in fact monks in the full technical sense of that term. But unfortunately this is not always understood by some at least of the Theravadin Buddhists of South East Asia.

But so far as Buddhists in the west are concerned, we have no reason not to be objective.

Now coming closer to the subject of the Tibetan Buddhist monks we may say that there are six grades, six grades of Tibetan monks. The 1st is what is called the grade of Genghya ­ Genghya corresponds to the Indian for parsica (?) or lay Buddhists. And in Tibetan buddhism, there are two kinds of Genghya one is simply a layman who observes the 5 silas that is the 5 moral precepts, and the other sense of the term is the probationer in a monastery who observes 10 silas. And when we speak of the Genghya as the first grade as it were of Tibetan monk then Genghya is to be understood in the second of these, in other words as a sort of probationer living in the monastery, serving the monks and observing 10 ethical precepts. So this is the first grade of Genghya.

The second becomes the Gitsu and this corresponds to the Indian shramanira (?) and according to the Tibetan tradition following the Sarvastivadins tradition the shramanira (?) is a novice monk one who is studying to become a fully ordained monk, a novice monk observing 36 silas or 36 moral precepts. This ordination, the ordination of a Gitsu, or shramanira (?) cannot be given before the age of 7 or 8. And incidentally, I should observe that Tibetans like most Buddhists, when they reckon your age they don't count your years from the date of your birth, they say quite rightly, quite logically that you begin your existence before birth. They count from conception, so whereas you would say ...

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