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Monks and Laymen in Buddhist Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

... perhaps that you were 25 as the case may be, the Tibetans would say that you are 26 because they add on an extra year or at least an extra 10 months to cover the prenatal period. So when you apply for ordination, they expect you to give your age according to the date, at least the rough date of your conception, rather than the date of your birth which would seem to me to be rather more logical. So this is the 2nd degree or 2nd grade of ordination or 2nd kind of Tibetan monk the Gitsu or the novice monk.

And thirdly we have the Gelong, the Gelong corresponds to the Indian bikkshu or parli Bikku and the Gelong is of course the fully ordained monk. One can't be ordained as a Gelong before ones 20th year and very often one waits until later. You may remember that the week before last we saw that Tsong Khapa (?) the great founder of ...........waited for his higher ordination until he was 25. Now the Tibetan Gelong observes 150 silas or 150 ethical precepts divided into 7 categories. And in addition to these 150 rules proper there are various rules of what we would regard as monastic etiquette. The first of the 7 categories of rules proper contains 4 precepts, and these are the most important. And these precepts prohibit for the fully ordained monk first of all marriage, secondly theft, thirdly taking of life deliberately and fourthly the making of false claims regarding ones own spiritual attainment and experience. So this is the Gelong ­ the fully ordained monk.

Fourthly there's the Geshe. The Geshe is usually translated or sometimes translated at least by some people as Doctor of Buddhist Divinity, but somehow I don't feel that that is quite suitable. And when I first saw it on the visiting card of an English Tibetan Geshe I was quite astonished he put his name then Doctor of Buddhist Divinity and then I think he put in brackets Lhasa or something like that. So the Geshe is the learned monk, you may say. And for the Geshe there a 5 chief subjects for which he devotes we shall say many many years of his life.

First of all he studies Vinaya or monastic discipline. There is a very great deal of literature, a very great deal of material under this heading some of it rather abstruse. A few simple monastic rules in the course of centuries have grown into a vast and complex and quasi-legal system. And sometimes in the monastic order, you have to have special monk lawyers as it were to unravel all the complexities of the monastic law so you can know and be quite sure whether you have committed an offence or not. So in this way it does become a little complicated. So the Geshe first of all has to study the Vinaya, the monastic law.

The 2nd subject of study is the Abhidharma, I don't know if many of you or any of you have encountered the Abhidharma before this is a rather abstruse and technical division of Buddhist literature. It embraces what we would call psychological ethics. It is descriptive psychology, analytical psychology in the sense of the analysis of mental states. So analysis of them into their constituent functions and so on and it does become very very complex indeed there is enormous literature in this field. In Sanskrit in Tibetan in Chinese and so on, it is in a sense Buddhist theology you may say provided you understand that there is no theos in Buddhism. So the Geshe has to study the Abhidharma and he has to study it in the Sarvastivadins version. The Tibetan translations of the Sanskrit translation of the Abhidharma. Thirdly he studies the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures ­ the Prajnaparamita sutras and the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures are the most important group of Mahayana sutras. There are about 35 of them all together ­ 35 Perfection of Wisdom scriptures, and luckily for us they are all available in English for us now thanks to the labors of Dr. Edward Conze who had translated them all. As I am sure most of you know ­ the Diamond Sutra ­ the Vajracchedika Sutra is particularly popular. As popular in Tibet as it is in Japan in the Zen school and it is recited on every possible occasion. The Tibetans call it the .........which means the Diamond Cutter Sutra. So the Geshe, your Doctor of Buddhist Divinity studies the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures ­ all 35 of them ideally commentaries and sub-commentaries. And fourthly he studies Madhymika philosophy, I put philosophy in single inverted commas because it isn't quite philosophy in our sense.

So the Madhymika, the teaching of the doctrine as the middle way, is a highly metaphysical even a highly dialectical teaching which was, or the tradition was founded by Nagarjuna, the great Indian Buddhist thinker early in the Christian ear and the Madhymika tradition is based on the Prajnaparamita or the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures and we may say that the Madhymika is a sort of dialectical, a logical version of the Perfection of Wisdom teaching a more intellectualised version if you like.

Fifthly, and lastly the Geshe studies logic. Indian Buddhism had a very rich tradition of logical studies and the Gelugpas especially attached very great importance to this.

.........himself placed very much importance to this but ..........himself was very much given to logical studies and his disciples tended to follow in his footsteps so the Geshe studied logic ­ Buddhist logic and the Gelugpas studied it more, the other schools tended to be less enthusiastic about it. There are many Indian Buddhist treaties about logic by the great Masters of Indian logic like ...........and............these have been translated into Tibetan and they are very very avidly studied by the Tibetan and Mongolian Geshe.

In fact we may say that Tibet has kept up the tradition of the study of Buddhist logic more than any other part of the Buddhist world. If you look at Chinese Buddhism you will find no logic. They just weren't interested in Indian Buddhist logic, same as Japan, they prefer the more direct, the more intuitive approach, but the Tibetans, especially the Gelugpas, they thrive on logic, they love these logical distinctions and they have worked out all sorts of theories of the.......very much along ........lines ...........and have come back even more complex than that so Indian Buddhist logic is possibly almost as advanced as the most recent Western logic in many respects. So some scholars are of the opinion that the Indian Buddhist, and the Tibetan Buddhist logicians got rather far away from the spiritual teachings of the Buddha, but the Indians and the Tibetans justify themselves and say well it's all part of the Bodhisattva ideal because what is the Bodhisattva supposed to be doing, he's supposed to be converting everybody, maturing everybody, spiritually bringing them onto the path, so it isn't so easy you've got to discuss, you've got to argue with people, so how can you argue with them unless you know logic, unless you can argue rationally. So therefore they say the Bodhisattva ought to study logic, or to study rhetoric or to study poetry even and some go as far as to say the Bodhisattva should know arts and crafts and should also be a good dancer. But you see the idea, so all this is equipment as it were to help and to lead beings on the path to enlightenment. So therefore the Geshe usually with great enthusiasm also studies logic as the fifth and last of these five subjects of his course. Now even with just these 5 subjects with Vinaya, or the monastic discipline, or with the Abhidharma or with the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures, with the Madhymika philosophy and with logic with just these 5 subject it takes not less usually than 12 years to complete the Geshe course and sometimes it takes 20. I have met several Geshe myself who didn't finish until well into their 40s and into their 50s.

One may say even that the system of study is largely tutorial, that is to say there are no lectures to large audiences you usually just go along and study the subject concerned the Vinaya, or Abhidharma or Perfection of Wisdom or Madhymika or logic with your own teacher, your own tutor, either just by yourself individually or just with two or three others. So it is either individual tuition or very very small classes. And examinations are held yearly. Every year there is an examination, and you'll be interested to hear that the examinations are entirely oral. There is no written work at all.

What happens is this. On the day of the examination, you, the individual candidate, all by yourself, you come into the examination hall and sitting around all around you there are hundreds of Geshe, those who have already passed out, that is passed the Geshe course, in a vast hall and they're sitting all around in a great circle and you are in the middle just sitting there all by yourself, there is no other candidate with you. And what do they do, they fire at you questions one after the other on any of these five subjects and the question may come from any part of the hall. So what will happen is, and I've had this described to me by people who have been through it you'll just be sitting there quaking and waiting for the first question and from the right will come a very technical question about Vinaya, you have to give the answer just like that, and when you have just given your answer then behind you comes a question about logic, a very technical question, you have to give your answer to that and before you've recovered from that a question about the Perfection of Wisdom and it gets more and more abstruse and they're trying to catch you out the whole the time and this goes on, this grueling sort of examination goes on for several hours together. Questions are fired as I say from all sides and even the Dalai Lama has to go through this, and some of my friends who were present gave me a description of the Dalai Lama's examination and they said the Dalai Lama at one crucial moment ...

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