Shedra: Monastic Colleges

In the Himalayan Buddhist world, shedra (བཤད་གྲྭ་) are commentarial monastic colleges. Although religious seminaries existed for many centuries for training priests and imparting Buddhist educations, the term shedra, literally ‘exposition centre’, seems to gained frequency only in the 19th century after the establishment of Dzokchen Śrī Siṃha Shedra in eastern Tibet. The use of shedra to impart organized scholastic education spread from Kham to other parts of the Himalayan world.

In Bhutan, the earliest shedra were opened in the beginning of the 20th century at Phajoding in Thimphu and Tharpaling in Bumthang. Emulating the shédra education structures in Tibet, the shedra in Bhutan used the zhungchen chusum (གཞུང་ཆེན་བཅུ་གསུམ་) or the thirteen great treatises of classical India as their core curriculum. They comprise the four classics on Madhyamaka (དབུ་མ་) or Middle Way, the five works of Maitreya (བྱམས་ཆོས་སྡེ་ལྔ་), two works on abidharma (མངོན་པ་གོང་འོག་) phenomenology and philosophy by the two brothers Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, and the two treatises on vinaya (འདུལ་བ་) or monastic discipline. To these are also added classical treatises on Buddhist logic and epistemology (ཚད་མ་), language and grammar, history and poetry, and tantric philosophy and practice.

In the second half of the 20th century with the exodus of Tibetan refugees following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, shedra culture saw a new chapter among the Tibetan refugee settlements in India. The shedra in India introduced a new system of routine, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment by learning from other traditions of higher educational practices, particularly modern universities and boarding schools. In the most famous shedra, a nine year programme was established with written and oral exams at the end of each year.

At the shedra in Namdroling, Mysore, among the most well-known modern shedra educational centres, a student has to undergo a nine year programme in higher Buddhist education to complete their studies. At the end of the first four years, the first degree called Exponent of the Middle Way (མཐའ་བྲལ་སྨྲ་བའི་དབང་ཕྱུག་), which is considered to be on par with a pre-University certificate, is earned. After two more years of education focused on the study of Buddhist practice and psychology, a degree called Master of Perfection (ཕར་ཕྱིན་རབ་འབྱམས་) is awarded. After three more years studying esoteric Buddhism and monastic discipline, the students complete the programme with a degree called the Holder of Esoteric and Definitive Doctrine (ངེས་གསང་ལེགས་བཤད་མཛོད་འཆང་).

The new Tibetan shedra attracted a great number of Bhutanese students towards the end of the 20th century which gradually led to the spread of the new shedra educational culture in Bhutan. Today, Bhutan has many new shedra, where monks go through a rigorous nine-year scholastic training in Buddhist philosophy, grammar and linguistics, history, and poetry. The emphasis of shedra education lies on exegesis and commentary (བཤད་པ་). After having done thorough preparation reading references and supporting literature, the master expounds a core text in a long lecture. The students then emulate the master to give a similar exposition either in private or in a class, purely as an exercise or as an exam.

Such a focus on commentary is supplemented by sessions in which the students hold debates in groups or pairs to discuss the topics of their lessons. Debate (རྩོད་པ་) is one of the main scholarly activities and is also used as a pedagogic technique. Written assignments and tests are carried out to help the student learn writing skills. As exegesis, debates and writing (འཆད་རྩོད་རྩོམ་གསུམ་) form the three primary activities of a scholar in the Himalayan Buddhist pedagogy, the ability to carry out all three are developed in shedra education. In a similar manner, shedra education is considered as an adoption of the first two phases of the tripartite Buddhist path of study (ཐོས་པ་), reflection (བསམ་པ་), and practice (སྒོམ་པ་). Thus, scholastic and academic study in a shedra is seen as an essential part and parcel of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

Such understanding is further reinforced by many classical works praising the scholastic learning of Buddhist system both for the sake of reaching enlightenment and helping other sentient beings. An oft-cited verse from Maitreya claims that without mastering the five sciences of linguistics (སྒྲ་), logic and epistemology (ཚད་མ་), arts and crafts (བཟོ་), medicine (གསོ་བ་) and inner sciences or soteriology (ནང་དོན་), even an exalted being cannot reach full enlightenment. Furthermore, Śāntideva, one of the most influential authors studied in the shedra, asserts that there is nothing an heir to the Buddha would not learn, for there is nothing which he or she cannot turn into an act of merit.

 

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.

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An introdcution to the origins of and curricula for Himalayan Buddhist institutes of higher education known as shedra.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users
Author Karma Phuntsho
Year published 2017
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Rights ཤེས་རིག་དང་ལམ་སྲོལ་གྱི་དོན་ལུ་ཕབ་བཟུང་ཞུས། ཤེས་རྒྱུན་ལས་སྡེ་ལས་གནང་བ་མེད་པར་བསྒྱུར་སྤེལ་འབད་མི་ཆོག། For educational and cultural use only. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from Shejun.
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