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Geshé Rabten: The Life of a Sera Monk
Geshé Rabten: The Life of a Sera Monk
by José Ignacio Cabezón
August 13, 2008
Geshé Rabten (from The Life and Teaching of Geshé Rabten).1

Geshé Rabten (dge bshes rab brtan, 1920-1987) was a renowned scholar-practitioner of the College of Sera Monastery. He was born in Kham, eastern Tibet, and for twenty years he made Sera his home. After completing most of his studies there, he fled Tibet in 1959. He did his final examinations in Buxador, India, and obtained the degree of geshé lharampa. Geshé Rabten became abbot of the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Switzerland in 1975, but he had already been teaching European and American students since 1969. In what follows, Dr. Alan Wallace, one of Geshé Rabten’s first Western students, interviews his teacher. The portion of the text excerpted here begins just after Geshé Rabten arrived at Sera from his home-region of Kham. This wonderful selection gives you a real sense of what it meant to be a Sera monk, and provides you with a glimpse of the zeal, dedication and warmth of an amazing contemporary Buddhist teacher.

From: Geshe Rabten, The Life and Teaching of Geshé Rabten: A Tibetan Lama’s Search for Truth, trans. and ed. B. Alan Wallace (London: Georges Allen and Unwin, 1980). With the permission of Dr. Wallace.

Initial Training in Sera

Disciple: Were you able to begin formal studies and to fully enter the monastic discipline as soon as you were admitted into the monastery?

Geshé: I was allowed to attend lectures by my guru; but I had to memorize some important scriptures before being allowed to take part in the debating sessions. I got up at four o’clock every morning, went out to the stone courtyard in front of the main assembly hall, took off my shoes, cap and upper cloak, and made many full prostrations until sunrise. To get rid of my delusions, my teacher instructed me to recite a short Sutra of confession, the Vajrasattva purificatory mantra, and the prayers of taking refuge, all while making prostrations. He told me it was necessary to eliminate obstacles for one’s spiritual studies and for the practice to be fruitful. I was persistent in doing these preliminary practices, even during the winter. In the biting cold on winter mornings, the skin on my hands and feet would split and bleed. But despite the physical hardship, I was not discouraged. In fact, I felt happy when I reflected that this was a means for purifying mental obscurations and the imprints of former harmful actions. I was not the only one carrying out such practices – the whole courtyard was filled with other monks doing the same thing, and this was very inspiring. Then at sunrise a conch shell would be blown, and all the monks would assemble in the main hall for the morning prayers and tea. Afterwards, all the new monks, including myself, returned to our quarters and swept and cleaned the halls, while the older monks were debating. We did not do this simply because we were forced to. Rather, we reflected that such work aids one’s Dharma practice in this life, and yields good results in future lives as well. After this we memorized the scriptures required for entering our college. There were three colleges in Sera - Sera Jhé, Sera Mé and Sera Ngagpa. Mine was Sera Jhé; in it alone there were over six thousand monks at that time. At the beginning, since I had never done such studies before, memorization came very slowly and reciting texts in the presence of my teacher was difficult. I was making all these efforts so that I would be allowed to begin studying the great treatises. Thus, I felt no hardship.

Just before noon, I attended an assembly in the hall of our college; then we took tea and barley meal. Afterwards I would return to my room to study. Whenever my teacher had some spare time, he would give me very basic teachings on philosophical analysis. In the evening, around six o’clock, all the monks would return from debating; those from my house would immediately hold a special gathering for prayers, which I attended. When this was over, all monks were required to go to their respective teachers for lessons on philosophical analysis. There was one old monk who was the disciplinarian for our house; he would then come around to all the cells to see that no one was sitting inside loafing. Every night I would have my lessons, along with other new monks. As the light was very dim, the teacher could not read; so he had to teach by heart, and the disciples had to try to remember all that he said. Geshé Jhampa Khedub had a very special way of teaching. For about three days he would instruct us in logic; then he would leave this for a day, and relate some accounts from the Jātaka scriptures describing previous lives of Lord Buddha. Or he might tell us the life stories of sages and realized meditators who had gained great spiritual attainments. It was so peaceful, so beneficial, to be in his presence that I never became bored or tired. The times with him were always too short. The class regularly lasted two hours; then all the other students returned to their rooms, but I would normally stay with him until about eleven o’clock. I would insist on making his bed, then take my leave, shutting the door quietly behind me. On my way back to my room, I was allowed to wear my shoes if there were monks sitting in the halls reciting scriptures; and if I was not tired, I would join them. But if they were practising meditation, I had to remove my shoes and walk very softly, in order not to disturb them.

Disciple: Were you ordained as soon as you entered the monastery?

Geshé: No, I waited a couple of months, thinking to follow whatever advice my teacher gave me. Then he told me it would be good for me to receive the novice vows from Phurchog Jhampa Rinpoché, who was recognized in Tibet as an emanation of Maitreya Buddha.

Disciple: What is involved in becoming a novice?

Geshé: Three transformations are needed. The first is to change one’s attitude. By the force of renunciation, one must change and elevate it from that of a householder to that of one who is earnestly concerned with the Dharma. The second is to alter one’s external appearance by donning monk’s robes and having one’s head formally shaved. And the third change is to take a religious name. In addition one must receive the novice ordination from a guru. I was given the name Jhampa Sherab, whereas previously I had been called Tadin Rabten. But now most people still use my former name. This is the procedure of becoming a novice; but more important is the actual keeping of the thirty-six primary commitments, and about two hundred and forty other ones.

Disciple: After you had entered Sera, how long was it before you were allowed to begin debating?

Geshé: About two months. During that time, as I said, I memorized the scriptures and prayers that were needed to pass the oral entrance examination. Then, together with many other monks, I was examined before the abbot and the disciplinarian. With many of the others, I was successful and was allowed to enter the central debating courtyard.

Disciple: After passing this examination, do all the monks follow the same course of study?

Geshé: Yes, all who study in Sera work up to the degree of ‘Geshé’; and to attain this, one has to pass through at least fourteen, and sometimes fifteen, classes. Listed in order, these are:

  1. Beginning Collected-Topics
  2. Intermediate Collected-Topics
  3. Advanced Collected-Topics
  4. Beginning Treatises
  5. Advanced Treatises
  6. Beginning Separate-Topics
  7. Advanced Separate-Topics
  8. Perfections
  9. Beginning Mādhyamika
  10. Advanced Mādhyamika
  11. Beginning Discipline
  12. Advanced Discipline
  13. Phenomenology (Abhidharma)
  14. Karam. A detailed review of discipline and phenomenology
  15. Lharam. A final review of the Five Treatises. Only two from each college can graduate from this class each year.

There is no way of skipping any of these classes. This is a well-developed system, beginning with basic logic and working up to the great scriptures of India, including both the Sutras and commentaries. Just as the alphabet and grammar are studied in primary school, to enable one to understand higher topics later, so logic is studied to train the mind in subtle reasoning, thus enabling one later to appreciate the great scriptures.After developing his intelligence and discriminatory powers in this way, a monk is able to apply as many as twenty or thirty logical approaches to each major point of teaching. Like monkeys that can swing freely through the trees in a dense forest, our minds must be very supple easily to comprehend the depth of the concepts presented in the scriptures. If our minds are rigid like the antlers of a deer, which are cumbersome when sitting or standing, we will never be able to reach this depth.

Disciple: What was the first subject you studied?

Geshé: We were first taught the easiest subject - the relationships between the four primary and eight secondary colours. They were explained carefully; and we learned how to apply simple logical reasoning to them. Debate sessions were held during the day. At noon all the monks would return to their rooms to eat. While the others were eating, I would go to my teacher and tell him what I had learned and what problems I had encountered in debate. Then he would give me private instruction and sometimes food as well. While the subject of colours and their relationships is very simple, it is the manner of phrasing the question in debate that trains the mind. This becomes very interesting and challenging. Once we had mastered it, our intelligence developed somewhat; and we were then taught about the five aggregates of a person, the six senses (including the mind) and their objects, and the eighteen kinds of phenomena: which are the six senses, the six objects and six consciousnesses. Then we really expanded our faculties to explore detailed classifications of all impermanent and permanent phenomena. We studied the two realities according to the Vaibhāṣika and Sautrantika philosophical schools, and the three types of objects of knowledge. These consist of the objects cognized by bare perception, those perceived by inference (e.g. emptiness, impermanence and the fact of rebirth), and extremely concealed objects, some of which can be cognized by scriptural inference, while others are known solely by a buddha’s mind. We dealt with cause and effect and contributing circumstances, the six divisions of causes, and the four types of effects. We made an extensive study of the two types of relationships and the four types of mutual exclusivity. We further studied the classifications of positive and negative entities. The former are those that are cognized by means of negation. An example of this is space, which is defined as ‘the absence of obstructing contact’. A positive entity is simply a phenomenon that is not understood through negation. We investigated the two types of negative entities: complex and simple, the former having four types. This is a very important subject. After this, we studied the different kinds of consequential reasonings. These are a dialectical means for dispelling mistaken views. In debate they are used to reveal contradictions in the successive assertions of a person holding incorrect views. Then he is led again, by means of consequential reasoning, to a correct understanding of the subject. There are also eight and sixteen ways of pervasion, in relation to consequential reasoning, and these too are studied. During the Collected-Topics classes, we covered a vast number of other subjects. Among these was the study of subject and object, of which there are many types. After sharpening one’s intelligence during the Collected-Topics classes, one studies the nature of the mind, which is of great importance. As there are many categories of mind, so too are there many types of perception. The mind is divided into the two categories of consciousness and mental factors, the latter having fifty-one divisions. These fifty-one are yet further classified. We studied all these divisions carefully. There are also different types of consciousness, such as mental, sensory, conceptual and non-conceptual perception. Mind is further categorized into ideal and non-ideal cognition. In the former category are the two sub-divisions of bare perception and inference, both of these having four divisions. There are also five types of non-ideal cognitions.After proficiently studying the mind, one explores a number of subtle concealed-entities, by training oneself in the three types of reasoning. Each of these also has many divisions, all of which we covered. By this training, one is able easily to understand very difficult topics in the great scriptures and treatises. In order to recognize a correct reason, one must study its three aspects. While studying the types of mind, one examines both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna discussions of this subject. Although this training is primarily given on the basis of the Sautrantika system, all the philosophical schools up to and including the Svātantrika are also discussed. All these subjects are examined by analysing their defining characteristics. I would get depressed sometimes, feeling I did not know and was not learning anything. When this happened, my teacher, again acting with great wisdom, would teach me some very difficult concepts, then make me debate with older monks who were studying higher subjects but who were not so learned. My depression would vanish when I asked them questions they could not answer.

Disciple: Would you describe how a debate is held?

Geshé: Perhaps the most obvious characteristic is the hand gestures. At the opening of a debate, you first say ‘dhīḥ’, the seed syllable of Mañjuśrī, as you clap your right hand on the left. Then you draw the right hand back, and at the same time put the left hand forward. This motion of the left hand symbolizes closing the doors of the three lower states of rebirth; drawing back the right hand symbolizes one’s wish to bring all sentient beings to liberation. But to fulfil this wish is not easy. You must have great knowledge and wisdom; and for this you recite ‘dhīḥ’, asking Mañjuśrī to pour down a torrent of wisdom upon you. In ordinary conversation, the only words that really affect others are those that are either very pleasing or bad to hear. In the same way, the seed syllable ‘dhīḥ’ has a very special effect upon Mañjuśrī; such that he, out of his great compassion, blesses us with wisdom and understanding. Debating involves two people. The answerer sits while the questioner stands, as if the latter had doubts and was respectfully approaching the other for answers.

Disciple: How did these Collected-Topics studies affect your level of intelligence?

Geshé: By the end of these classes, I felt that my power of reasoning had developed, though not completely. In my college there were seventeen or eighteen monastic residences, and mine was called Tehor House. In it alone there were 115 monks who started in the same year as I. There were roughly ten to fifteen teachers to instruct these students; I was honoured by being elected their leader. A class leader had many responsibilities, such as opening debate sessions in the morning and evening, deciding how long they would last and making sure that everyone attended. On the night that I was first to assume these responsibilities, I was sitting with my guru in his room. Around nine o’clock as I rose to go down to start the debating session, I suddenly fainted and fell to the floor. When I regained consciousness, my teacher sent someone to replace me that evening. Then he taught me ‘The Hundred Deities of Tuṣita’, a prayer to Jé Tsongkhapa, along with his mantra. He advised me to recite the latter 100,000 times as an antidote for my malady. Whenever this disorder manifested itself, it rose from the lower part of my body; and if it reached my heart, I would faint. But when I felt it rising, I would start reciting this mantra; after I had done so about twenty-five times, the symptoms would disappear. Eventually this took only eight repetitions. I recited it 100,000 times; then my teacher told me to do so again, after which this ailment never returned. Thus, I have seen from my own experience how powerful this practice can be if one has faith. Sometimes the Tsishar Geshé, the chief monk of our house, would come and recite a text that we were studying. Whenever this happened, I had to repeat what I had memorized in his presence without making any mistakes. Another of my responsibilities as leader was to invite learned monks of higher classes to debate with us, in order to sharpen our intelligence. I had to answer all their questions first, and I was also the main one to ask them questions. I further had to send monks from my class to debate with other classes.

Disciple: How long did it take you to complete all the Collected-Topics classes?

Geshé: Altogether two years, but it takes most monks in other monastic houses three years. Before being allowed to graduate, I had to pass an oral examination in front of all the monks in our house, a total of more than five hundred. As class leader, I had the special task of standing before them all and slowly and melodiously reciting the biography of Sakar Tulku, who was the chief monk of our house. This took more than an hour. Then I had to debate in front of all of them. This can be really nerve-wracking. It is not like examinations in other institutions, which you can do alone with plenty of time to think. In a debate answers must be given as soon as the question has been put. You stand before all those monks, some of them very learned; and all their attention is upon you. When we were in the last stage of the third of the Collected-Topics classes, our class debated for two weeks with the next higher class in our house. On alternate days, one of our better students was chosen by the Tsishar Geshé to answer questions in debate with monks of the higher class. Then on the other days, one of the latter would answer questions that we asked. This was very difficult, for they were much more learned than we.

Monastic Life and Education

Disciple: You mentioned that Geshé Jhampa Khedub eventually returned to his home province. When did this happen?

Geshé: Geshé Jhampa Khedub was my teacher throughout all the Collected-Topics classes; but soon after I had completed them, the monks of Dhargyé Monastery in Tehor, Kham, insistently requested him to come and be their abbot. Finally he agreed. By that time, I felt that he had opened my eyes, but not shown me what to look for. When he left, he kindly sent me to a very wise teacher, Chötsé Ngawang Dorjé. This was his oldest disciple, who was extraordinarily learned and compassionate like himself. As he was getting ready to leave for Kham, I was extremely ill with fever and could not sit up on my bed. When he came down to my room, I tried to rise but was so weak and dizzy that he told me to lie still. It was all I could do to reach one arm up and give him a scarf which I had ready. He earnestly prayed for my recovery and success; then after he left, I pulled the covers over my head and wept. It proved to be a great blessing for the territory of Kham when my guru returned to our home province. On the way, he relieved the hardships of the inhabitants of many districts, by means both of the Dharma and his supernormal powers. After arriving in Tehor, he turned the Wheel of Dharma in all the regions of this district and brought all their inhabitants, young and old, to the path of joy. Specifically, in Dhargyé Monastery he had a large number of new meditation huts constructed. He then urged many monks to practise meditational retreats for several months, during which they never went outside. While they thus devoted themselves single-pointedly to the path of the Sutras and Tantras, my teacher arranged for the monastery to supply their material needs. As soon as one group of monks had completed their retreat, he sent up another group. By such means he brought about great progress in terms of meditation. Furthermore, for philosophical training, he initiated many classes in the monastery in which the Sutras and their foremost commentaries were memorized, and others in which large numbers of students were trained in this philosophical discipline. He had all these as well as others gather in a special courtyard, and debate on the meaning of the scriptures; and he made the monastery support them and their teachers. By such means he greatly served the Dharma and the needs of living beings. Due to his influence, there were some students who could recite from memory thousands of pages of the scriptures; and many others progressed well in the philosophical training. To sum up, it was as if there was no one, man or woman, young or old, who did not enter the progressive path of Dharma. It even stirs my heart to remember my compassionate guru, who reached the ultimate degree of learnedness and meditative ability, not to speak of actually seeing him or hearing his voice. Thus, even to this day, my heart aches to meet him again.

Disciple: Did your father continue to send you food and money during these years of study?

Geshé: No, this was not very feasible as my family lived so far away. Although none of my relatives sent me anything, I did not borrow because I knew I would be unable to pay them back. As a result, I remained poor until after I had become a senior monk. But I continued my studies, and by remembering the purpose of my coming - to cultivate my mind - I did not become discouraged. Through all these years of poverty, I never had anything that was good. Since my shoes always had holes, I often walked barefoot on the cold stone floors. For several years I was so ill that on returning from a debate, I sometimes could not climb the stone steps leading to our house, but had to crawl up on all fours. Some of the ailments I have now can be traced to those times. I had only ragged clothes that other people had given me, and since I was not concerned with my appearance, instead of sewing the torn pieces together, I joined them with bits of wire. When I needed another piece of clothing, I would buy it from small merchants’ stalls that were set up just outside the monastery walls. They would sell at a low price the garments of monks who had died.As for food, I had so little money that I rarely drank real tea, but bought instead herbs that just turned the water dark. For kitchen utensils, I had only one clay pot; but then the cooking I had to do was very simple. I could not afford barley meal, the most common food in Tibet; but instead bought pea flour, which is much cheaper. Sometimes I could not even get that for five or six days in a row; for I lived solely on the charity of others. When I was given a few coins, I would buy a fist-sized piece of fat, dissolve it in boiling water and drink it. Then I would feel so nauseous that any desire for food would leave me. Sometimes when I was very hungry and had nothing to eat, I would go to the room of some of my friends, hoping they would share their meal with me. But on some occasions, they would be out, and I had to return with an empty stomach and a downcast mind. At other times when I went to their room, I would feel too embarrassed at the last moment to ask for food, and I had to return as hungry as before. I have never forgotten those who kindly helped me during my poverty. There was one incarnate lama, Gomo Rinpoché, now living at the Tibetan Homes Foundation in Mussoorie, who often gave me balls of barley meal, which made me very happy. I will also never forget one occasion when another monk made up a pot of nettle soup, drank it, then gave me the pot to clean. I managed to scrape off a little bit of soup that had stuck to the sides of the pot; I savoured it as if I had been given a full meal. During these years, I became very thin and weak, and my skin turned green. So, as a joke, my classmates nicknamed me ‘Milarepa’, but only because of my appearance, not my attainment of wisdom or insight. Throughout the year, there were a number of interims, during which there would be no monastic assemblies or classes. Then I would find it very hard to get enough to eat. During one of these periods, a monk came to my room with a fist-sized parcel covered with wax; he told me that it had come from the north. Even before he left, I hurriedly opened it and found two pieces of boiled meat and a slice of cheesecake. These lasted me several days. It turned out that a son of one of my neighbours in Kham had become a merchant’s assistant, and it was he who had sent it to me. I tell you all this not to show you how great I was, but simply to explain how I lived. I had only two choices - either to give up all my studies and religious practice, or to forget about earning a living. If I had gone out to find work, the purpose of leaving my comfortable home would have been forsaken. So I continued with my studies, regardless of how I lived - and was quite happy to do so. Why? Because each time I learned something new, I experienced great joy. I often ran into difficulties in understanding, but whenever this happened, I turned to my teachers, and they always brought me through. When I did become depressed about my poverty, I would read the biographies of Milarepa and Jé Tsongkhapa and this would console me.

Disciple: Could you not have earned a little money during the interims?

Geshé: No, these were not simply vacations. There were seven major periods of debate, each lasting one month and followed by an interim. The latter was the time for memorizing texts, which would be examined and analysed during the major periods of debate. During these interims, there would also be debating in our house from eight to eleven o’clock in the morning, and from four-thirty until six-thirty in the evening. This was true in other houses as well; but ours was especially strict. Sometimes learned monks from these would come and answer questions in debate with us, from evening until dawn. At other times, there would be no debates; and I would spend the day memorizing. Then I would recite these texts, from memory, from sunset until sunrise the next morning.

Disciple: What subjects did you study after graduating from the Collected-Topics classes?

Geshé: We first studied the perfections, primarily on the basis of the scripture The Ornament of Clear Realization, in which the subjects dealt with are very vast and profound. We studied its seventy most important points, the five progressive paths towards the liberation of the hearers (śrāvaka) and solitary realizers (pratyeka), as well as the five bodhisattva paths and ten spiritual levels. All the teachings of the Buddha are included in the three Wheels of Dharma. Among them, the middle or second Wheel is the most extensive and profound, and all of its teachings are included in The Ornament of Clear Realization. The methods for attaining the states of enlightenment of a hearer, solitary realizer and buddha are all included, starting from the practice of devotion to the guru, leading up to a description of a buddha’s body, speech and mind. This was my first formal study of the great Sutras spoken by the Buddha. My method for gaining insight into them when I encountered difficulties was to consult the commentaries on them written by Indian pandits. If the meaning was still unclear, I would look to the works of Jé Tsongkhapa and his disciples. This was because Jé Tsongkhapa, a manifestation of Mañjuśrī, never wrote with uncertainty or vagueness. He was never dogmatic; instead, after gaining insight into a subject, he would write from his own experience. This is what makes his works so convincing. He was so learned that it became a proverb among the pandits of Tibet: ‘If you cannot decide, ask (Tsongkhapa)’. This is as true today as it was then. Another old axiom is ‘If you cannot find the sources, look to the works of Bhu’, referring to Bhutön Thamché Khyenpa, who was a pre-Tsongkhapa master known for his extensive knowledge of the scriptures. It is never forgotten, however, that the source of all the scriptures is Buddha Śākyamuni. There can be no mistakes in his teaching. This is because errors arise from mental distortions and obscurations, and Buddha’s mind, having been purified of all distortions and obscurations, pervades all that exists. Thus, there can be no greater guide on the path to enlightenment. Because he taught out of compassion for all creatures, seeking only to serve others, with never a thought for fame or offerings, he is known as the Unsurpassable Teacher. His teachings were not collected from here and there, but arose from his experience gained by overcoming his obscurations. Methods of healing the ill are as numerous as the varieties of ailments. Likewise, since the dispositions, goals and capacities of sentient beings are limitless, so too are his methods of teaching.All the kinds of teaching he gave can be classified into the divisions of Sutra and Tantra. Everything in the Sutras is found in the teachings given during the three turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. When you fail to understand something taught in the Sutras, you refer to their commentaries; particularly to the Five Treatises, which deal with all the teachings of the three turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. Although these five are very concise, their meaning is vast. Their names are:

  1. Entering the Middle Way
  2. A Complete Commentary on Ideal Perception (pramāṇa)
  3. The Ornament of Clear Realization
  4. A Treasury of Phenomenology
  5. A Compendium of Discipline

There are about two hundred volumes in the collection of commentaries translated into Tibetan, which are keys to understanding all that is contained in the collected discourses of Lord Buddha. The Five Treatises are the basic source references, and the rest of the commentaries are elaborations on them. Other texts, such as the Thirteen Great Treatises and the Six Treatises of the Kadam Tradition, are all secondary to them.

Disciple: What kind of a daily routine did you follow during the fourth class?

Geshé: I can tell you what I and the other monks in my college did, but our routine was different from that of the other two colleges in Sera. Every morning, I rose at four o’clock and made prostrations until around five-thirty. Then together with all the other monks I would go to the general assembly hall where we would pray until seven o’clock or so. After this, we would go to our respective grounds and debate until ten o’clock. Sera Monastery lies at the foot of a mountain; when it rains, water runs down a ravine and flows along a normally dry riverbed running diagonally through the monastery walls. All of the monks in this college would debate in their classes at progressive points along the riverbed, the lowest class being the furthest down. From our house, there were 115 monks in the fourth class, but there were many others from the rest of the quarters in Sera Jhé. In these classes there were monks from all over Tibet, Ladakh, Mongolia and even from Japan. When we came to debate, we were never allowed to bring books or references; so any citations from the scriptures had to be given from memory.At ten o’clock, all the Sera Jhé monks would return to their assembly hall to drink tea and recite prayers, or to read passages from the Indian commentaries. Around eleven o’clock, we would return to the riverbed to debate for about half an hour; then all the monks of Sera Jhé would gather in the more formal debating ground by their own hall. There we would recite the Heart of Wisdom Sutra and read the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 Stanzas or works by Jé Tsongkhapa and his two chief disciples. This was again a means of study and not simply a recitation. At twelve o’clock, everyone would pair off and debate; but this time, since the classes were mixed, it was likely that a beginner would have a very advanced partner. After an hour or so, we would all return to the riverbed to leave our maroon capes in their proper places, then go to our respective houses for lunch. That was the time when I would dine on my herb tea. Around one-thirty, we would again gather on the riverbed and debate until five o’clock. Then we would go to the formal debating courtyard for prayer. At this time, we would always recite by heart the ‘Prayer to the Twenty-One Tārās’ and the Heart of Wisdom Sutra. The reason for reciting the Tārās prayer is that she is the embodiment of all the buddhas’ virtuous actions and was the meditational deity of most of the Indian Buddhist pandits. This is because she is very helpful in bringing swift progress and fulfillment in one’s spiritual practice. The Sutra is recited because it deals solely with emptiness, and reading it is most beneficial to one’s understanding. It is so short that one can read through it in three minutes. But when we chanted it in a manner conducive to meditation, we used such a slow, ponderous rhythm that it took longer than the time to go to Lhasa and back, or about two hours. Normally, an elder-monk acting as disciplinarian was there to see that the monastic discipline was upheld. But during this chanting, he would generally sit quietly in a corner so that he did not disturb anyone meditating. This period was extremely beneficial. It gave me time to organize things that I had learned from the day’s debating; the rhythm was so slow that it was possible to practise non-conceptual meditation on emptiness. Many other monks did the same. After this, a short mixed debating session would be held. During such sessions I would earnestly pray that all the hundreds of monks present would dispel the inner darkness of ignorance and gain great understanding. As soon as it got dark, we were allowed to stop whenever we liked; but sometimes two very intelligent, equally-matched monks would continue debating, because neither could defeat the other. When this happened, many others would gather round and listen with delight. Then after returning to our own houses for a short period of prayer, we would all leave our capes in our rooms and go to our respective teachers. This evening lesson took an hour, following which we would all go to the formal debating courtyard, divide into our classes and again debate. The special purpose of this session was to go over the lesson just given in order to fix it firmly in mind. Although most of the monks could do as they liked at the end of this session, those in the fourth class were required, on alternate nights, to remain all night in the college courtyard, debating without a break. On those nights when we did not debate, the monks in the Beginning Mādhyamika class would hold similar sessions. I found these all-night debates very difficult, especially in the winter, when the wind and snow were biting cold. My hands would become hard from the clapping, and would crack on both sides and then begin to bleed. This debating ground was roofless and lit by a few butter lamps, which always died out around the middle of the night.

Disciple: During the periods when there was so much time spent in debate, how did you manage to recite the texts you had memorized?

Geshé: We would recite on the nights when the Beginning Mādhyamika class was debating, but there was not much time to memorize fresh texts.

Disciple: Did all the monks in this class debate all night?

Geshé: No, everyone paired off for debating only during the mixed sessions. The rest of the time, there would be two answerers and one questioner, while the remainder would listen and add their own comments from time to time. Since my robes, unlike most of the others’, were very ragged, while listening I used to bury myself up to the waist in the sand, which was still warm from the day’s sun. But despite the hardships, I never felt any reluctance to attend; nor did I become bored or depressed.

Disciple: Were the interims during the Beginning Treatises class like the previous ones?

Geshé: Not exactly. There were still seven periods of debate per year, each lasting from roughly three to six weeks; but after graduating into the Perfections classes, which included the fourth to the eighth; we were allowed greater freedom during the interims. Whereas previously we had been confined to our own house at night, after graduating to the fourth class, I often used to go into retreat during the interims, as my house would be very crowded. I sometimes stayed in other houses that were quieter than mine, or stayed in caves on the mountain above Sera. This was very conducive to spending a lot of time memorizing; so I usually lived outside my own house during these periods.

Disciple: How did you spend your days during these interims?

Geshé: Sometimes I remained in strict meditational retreat for several weeks. During these times, I rose early in the morning, and meditated during four periods of each day. While practising the developing stage of Tantra, involving the meditational deities Yamāntaka or Vajradākinī, I read many related texts between meditation periods. These eventually helped to enrich my meditation. During other retreats, I practised the life-increasing meditations of White Tārā and Amītābha, and other meditations involving Vajrasattva, guru yoga, the stages of the path and so on. Many monks engaged in such retreats in groups, but I always did so in solitude. During other interims, I devoted myself primarily to memorizing texts. I would spend all morning at this; then after lunch I would go to receive instruction from my guru. During debating periods, such instruction was given only occasionally, for the emphasis was on investigating the material which had been memorized and explained by one’s teacher. After graduating into the higher classes, I gave daily instruction to a number of disciples during the interims, receiving less frequent teaching from my own guru. More time was given to memorization after these lessons; then when the sun set, I began reciting those texts I had just memorized. At first, I used to memorize one side of a page a day, then gradually I worked up to two, then four sides. Although it was difficult at first, I, like the other monks, gradually became accustomed to it, so that both memorization and recitation came with ease. In the Western academic tradition, note-taking plays a vital role, and much of one’s knowledge tends to be confined between the covers of one’s textbooks. Our corresponding stores of knowledge were held in our minds, through memorization. Sometimes I recited from sunset until sunrise. But on other occasions I spent only part of the night in recitation, then filled the remaining hours before dawn making mandala offerings and performing prostrations. Many people working in a factory have nothing to occupy their attention but their daily routine. Similarly in the monastery throughout the day and night, I had nothing to think of but the practice of Dharma. Because I could not get much food during the interims, I used to gather a kind of grass that was known to contain poison and make a stew out of it. This, though it deadened my mouth, filled my stomach; and it actually helped my digestive heat, which was generally poor from lack of food. Occasionally, other monks who realized how poor I was would give me a little food and tea. Sometimes during the breaks, there would be debating sessions in my house; these I would never miss, as I found them so helpful.

Disciple: What was the primary source of your enthusiasm and perseverance in the practice of Dharma?

Geshé: I was motivated by a great desire to increase my understanding of Dharma, which led me to work very hard at memorization and debate. And since such growth of understanding requires purification of harmful mental imprints and obscurations, I made many mandala offerings and prostrations towards this end. When such a desire is very strong, one pays little heed to physical hardships. Similar cases are found in the West. It often happens that people running a business become completely enraptured with the thought of how much money they can make. The hardships they undergo to realize such profits are amazing.

Disciple: When did you receive the full monastic ordination?

Geshé: When I was in the Beginning Treatises class, I received the vows of a fully ordained monk from Phurchog Jhampa Rinpoché, who had previously given me the novice ordination.

Disciple: Did you have to pass a special examination before being allowed to graduate from the Beginning Treatises class?

Geshé: No, the next examination was given during the Advanced Treatises class. At that time, we were examined on the extent of our understanding and memorization of the scriptures. To check our comprehension, the abbot and disciplinarian listened to us debate; then to show how much we had memorized, we recited the texts we knew by heart. Only the top-ranking students were given grades. The abbot gave them the honour of reciting and debating in a formal ceremony. The first and second students of the class were traditionally given the buddha nature as their topic. The top student must either compose or adopt a dissertation on this subject, then recite it in a specified rhythm; his debating partner is the student with second highest. I was given the third highest grade, and ‘the path of preparation’ as my dissertation topic. My debating partner, the fourth-grade student, and I then had to visit each of the nine higher classes, starting from the Beginning Separate-Topics class. We visited one of these each day and were tested by them on this topic. Those nine days were really difficult, as those in the higher classes were very learned and really put us through it. During the interims, I had to visit the eight major houses and was again tested on this. In each house I was questioned by monks, ranging from old Geshés to new students. These times were also very difficult, for not only did my examiners chew me up, but in summer there would be fleas on the seat, and they did their share of chewing, too. Some of my questioners kept me up only half the night, but others examined me until dawn. After all this, I had to attend the formal examination in the college assembly hall, where I sat before all the six thousand monks of the college to recite my dissertation. In this I had to explain how the path of preparation is discussed in the Buddha’s discourses, the commentaries by Indian pandits, and the works of Jé Tsongkhapa and his two chief disciples. On the basis of these I explained the nature, divisions and types of meditation involved on this path. Afterwards, I had to answer the questions put to me by my debating partner. This recitation and debate took about three hours.

Disciple: Was the daily routine of the rest of the Perfections classes about the same as that of the fourth?

Geshé: For one year, we studied the Cittamātra section of Jé Tsongkhapa’s great treatise The Essence of Good Instruction, on the interpretation of the Sutras; and then for another year the twelve links of dependent origination, the foundation consciousness, and the development of mental quiescence (śamatha). In the beginning, I made extensive studies of the seventy ways of understanding and attaining the various stages on the path to enlightenment, as well as the qualities of a buddha. These deal somewhat with emptiness, but mainly with the method aspect of the Dharma. Included in these seventy are:

  1. The ten ways of understanding and attaining a buddha’s wisdom.
  2. The eleven ways of understanding the wisdom gained from the Mahāyāna path of seeing, up to enlightenment.
  3. The nine ways of gaining the wisdom of identitylessness and impermanence.
  4. The eleven ways of understanding the wisdom of the bodhisattvas from the path of accumulation, up to and including the end of the continuum of existence as a sentient being (as opposed to a buddha).
  5. The eight ways of gaining the wisdom of the Mahāyāna path of preparation, up to and including the end of this continuum.
  6. The thirteen ways of gaining the wisdom of the Mahāyāna path of accumulation, up to the end of this continuum.
  7. The four ways of gaining the wisdom of the final stage of a bodhisattva.
  8. The four ways of gaining the wisdom of understanding the omniscient mind of a buddha.

Then I studied in detail the fundamental text of these seventy ways, which deals with the teachings of the second turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It is based on the tenets of the Svātantrika school and deals more with method than wisdom; or in other words, the extensive rather than the profound aspects of the teachings. For about a year, I also studied the two realities and the foundation consciousness, etc., according to the tenets of the Cittamātra school. During these five Perfections classes, a complete, broad and profound understanding of the stages of the path to enlightenment is gained. This gives one a limitless amount of material on which to meditate. One’s knowledge is then like a big department store - from it one can buy anything one wants, and as much as one likes. Upon completing these five classes, one is familiar with the systems of thought of all the philosophical schools of Buddhism.

Disciple: Does one not forget the subjects studied a few years earlier?

Geshé: No, old subjects are not forgotten, because they are debated again and again during the breaks; this gives one an even better understanding of them than before.

Training as an Elder Monk

Disciple: What did you study during the Mādhyamika classes?

Geshé: We investigated emptiness, as it is presented in the tenets of the Prāsaṇgikas. During the second turning of the Wheel of Dharma, method and wisdom were taught; and in these classes, we studied the wisdom teachings. The basic text we used was Candrakīrti’s Entering the Middle Way. Although there are many great texts by such pandits as Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva, this one is used and memorized because it gives such a fine, balanced discussion of the two realities. Each word has a commentary to it; so we were able to understand it thoroughly.

Disciple: Were there any changes in your daily pattern of study?

Geshé: During the two years spent in the Beginning Mādhyamika class, all our religious practices were the same as in earlier classes, except that all-night debate sessions were obligatory for those in my college. This was much more difficult than in the Beginning Treatises class, since the subject matter is longer and more difficult. At the same time, I was very happy because, as if looking down on a plain from a mountain peak, I could see how much deeper my understanding was than before. As we were dealing with emptiness, the very heart of the teachings, classes were held in a very special way. Next to the place where we held our night class was a small hut; in this was a stone; on it were thirteen naturally-formed Tibetan letters ‘A’. To make them plainly visible, they were painted over in gold. The hut was in fact built round them. It was in a nearby cave on the mountainside that Jé Tsongkhapa wrote his famous commentary to Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom, in which he discusses many ways of understanding emptiness. While he was writing it, there were innumerable ‘A’s in the sky above him. The letters gradually sank down and embedded themselves in the stone. ‘A’ symbolizes emptiness, because it is a negating particle. Although it is used to negate many things, it primarily denies the inherent identity of persons and phenomena. Thus, it is a symbol of emptiness. At that time, there had been no monastery, only a cave where Jé Tsongkhapa was writing. When the letters descended, he prophesied that a monastery would be founded there in which emptiness would be very extensively investigated. The complete account of this was inscribed above the door on the hut.

Disciple: During this class, you studied more texts written by pandits other than Candrakīrti, didn’t you?

Geshé: Yes, we also studied the Six Works of Nāgārjuna, texts by Āryadeva, Buddhapālita, and also others written by pandits of the Svātantrika school. Although we primarily worked at the tenets of the Prāsaṇgikas, we also reviewed those of the Svātantrikas and other schools, so as to be able to compare them. Through our thorough study of the texts relating to śūnyatā in the collection of commentaries translated from the original Sanskrit, we were, by the time we graduated from the Beginning Mādhyamika class, very familiar with the subject of emptiness.

Disciple: When I listen to you speaking of these all-night debates, which went on almost without a break for weeks a t a time, I wonder how you could stand it physically.

Geshé: Staying up all night like that was possible chiefly due to the monks’ enthusiasm for Dharma, but also to the fact that we became accustomed to it. We were able to devote ourselves to developing our understanding; this was the one aim which dominated our thoughts. Students of higher classes would also come to answer in debate during these night sessions of the Beginning class. However, they only came if they were well-versed in the subject, for our class was quite learned and skilled in debate by then. When they came, it also helped our studies.

Disciple: If such a thorough study of the relevant texts was made during the Beginning Mādhyamika class, what was the purpose of the Advanced Mādhyamika class?

Geshé: Two more years were spent in the Advanced Mādhyamika class in order to examine more carefully the texts already studied. It is said in the monastery that the first two years are the time for comprehending emptiness by means of inference, and the second two years for gaining direct realization.

Disciple: How was this possible if most of the day and night was taken up in debating?

Geshé: During the sessions, there would be monks who would listen to those debating, and others who would sit under the trees and practise non-conceptual meditation. Some actually would gain direct insight, when their minds merged into emptiness like water into water.

Disciple: Who instructed you during these classes?

Geshé: A master named Geshé Thutob. He lived in the same upstairs room as my former teachers; I made guru devotions to him when I visited him, often staying until eleven o’clock at night. Since the place to urinate was far away, he kept a pot in his room. Every morning I went up and insisted on taking out this pot to empty it. While doing so, I would place it on my head and offer a prayer. Then I would pour a little in my hand, drink it, and throw the rest away. This is not a Tibetan or a monkish custom. I was moved to do so by my deep faith in my guru, although there is not necessarily any relationship between drinking urine and receiving his blessing. There is one only if one has heartfelt faith in the guru.

Disciple: Such a practice would probably sound very strange to most Westerners.

Geshé: Yes, but this is of no great importance. Some will understand the reason behind it, and to others it will remain a mystery. Religious faith is known throughout the world; it simply has different ways of manifesting itself. Out of pure devotion, some disciples nurse their lama when he is sick, and by doing so gain great insights. There are a few instances of disciples washing their gurus when they were too ill to leave their bed to defecate; as they carried out the excrement, they experienced great clairvoyance, gaining awareness of the consciousnesses of other beings including even tiny insects. Such immediate, rather than gradual, insights are due to the disciple’s great faith in his guru combined with the guru’s blessing. To understand the profundity of this devotion, you need long experience in the Buddhadharma and a deep understanding of the stages of the path to enlightenment, as well as tantra. If you look to the past, you will find many instances of great sages and realized meditators attaining insights through the practice of guru devotion. For example, Nāropā stayed with his guru, Tilopā, for twelve years before the latter ever spoke to him. Sometimes he would do such things as to make a mudball out of dirt and urine and throw it in Nāropā’s face. Then Nāropā would tell of the insight he had gained from it. This does not mean that I had any special insights from drinking urine; but it does help to explain why I did it.

Disciple: Did you discontinue such practices as prostrations as you became more advanced?

Geshé: No, I never stopped doing my preliminary practices, neither prostrations nor mandala offerings. As I had no metal base, I went to a river-bed east of Sera, found a flat stone and offered the mandala on that. After I had used it for many years, I was given a silver base by one of my disciples; I gave my old one to another disciple, Geshé Phemba. Although I gained no great spiritual insights during this time, I did meditate whenever possible. There are people who think that no meditation is done while one is training to become a Geshé; but that is incorrect. From the time I began the studies on the perfections, I would meditate whenever there was opportunity to. And I was not the only one; there were many other monks who did the same. I concentrated on all the subjects involved on the stages of the path, after previously gaining a thorough understanding of the texts dealing with them. Even when I occasionally became very sick, when disciples came for teaching, I would sit up and teach them as usual and then return to bed. Even while I was staying in the other house, whenever there was a debate I would return to my own house and attend it. Sometimes these sessions would last until dawn; but if not, I could immediately return to the other house after I had had my turn at debate. Since the elder monks had their turns first, they did not have to stay up all night as did the younger ones. During some of the interims, especially the longer ones, I went off to some caves behind the monastery to memorize texts and contemplate the teachings I had received. I remember sitting among the boulders on a mountainside and reading aloud a text written by Kyabjé Phabhong Khapa, the guru of both the tutors of the present Dalai Lama, called A Distant Call to the Guru. In it are found many heartfelt prayers to one’s guru; I read this when I especially missed my own gurus who had returned to our homeland.

Disciple: Did you still have examinations in these higher classes?

Geshé: We elder monks were examined once a year; we had to recite all the texts we had memorized in the presence of the abbot. I was never marked higher than fourth.

Disciple: How were you trained in the Discipline classes?

Geshé: During the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma, Buddha taught theory and practice, and discipline is the latter. We studied this for four years, using Gunaprabhā’s Compendium of Discipline as the basic text, because of its special interpretation. In addition, we studied the thirteen volumes of discipline in the collected discourses of Lord Buddha, as well as many Indian and Tibetan commentaries. I did not memorize the entire basic text; but I did learn all the main points. I also memorized commentaries on it, one of which was written by the original Sherpa Rinpoché (the present one being the fourth incarnation). The basic study of discipline deals with the vows of individual liberation, but more generally with the law of cause and effect. As this is very profound, it needs much study. Discipline is a complete and very detailed instruction on how to avoid all unwholesome actions, such as while sitting, eating and moving, and explains how to transform these into wholesome actions. For example, in order to prevent harm coming to insects when monks took water, Buddha taught that they should strain it through a fine cloth, then check to see that there are no insects there before drinking it. Buddha laid down many other precepts dedicated mainly to prevent harm from coming to any living creature. During these four years, we studied too many things to be mentioned here. By the way, you remember that my classmates had nicknamed me ‘Milarepa’? Well, it was during the latter part of my Discipline studies that I was chosen to be both the tutor of Gonsar Rinpoché, who was then five years old, and a religious assistant to a highly respected lama who was an incarnation of the Indian pandit Āryadeva. As I was fed very well by both of them, I soon found myself renamed ‘Fat Rabten’. After completing the study of discipline, we began phenomenology. This is the theoretical part of the teachings given during the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. I studied it for two years during the Phenomenology class; but both discipline and phenomenology are studied again later on. The daily schedule for elder monks is just as tight as for young ones - it does not get more relaxed as one advances. In this class, the order of our studies went like this. First we learned of the realms in the cycle of existence through which sentient beings wander. Next we covered the different kinds of sentient beings and the cause of their wandering, which is tainted actions and their cause, mental distortions. Then we studied the path which is the opponent of tainted actions and mental distortions, and what type of being is needed to follow it. Finally, we studied the results of following this path - liberation, buddhahood and the qualities of a buddha’s body, speech and mind. These studies are mostly of Hīnayāna teachings, and we used as our basic text Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Phenomenology. I memorized this, and studied all the commentaries on it as well. Then during the next class, Karam, we made a detailed review of discipline and phenomenology. I find it very strange that both Westerners and Theravadins think that Tibetans are solely Mahayanists, when, in fact, we make extensive studies of all the eighty-four thousand collections of teachings of Lord Buddha, as recorded in both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna Sutras. For at least six or seven years we studied discipline and phenomenology, which are both included in the Hīnayāna canon. Furthermore, we did not merely examine them intellectually; we practised their teachings as well. For example, when Theravadins teach about the close application of mindfulness (satipaṭhana), they speak primarily of paying close attention to all one’s actions such as sitting, eating, walking and so forth. But this is covered in the smallest discussion of this subject in the Sutras. In Tibet three volumes on it are studied, which delve into all its deep aspects and implications.

Disciple: Have you discussed all the subjects that are studied in the process of becoming a Geshé?

Geshé: All except one - the study of ideal perception (pramāṇa) which, from the point of view of epistemology and logic, deals with the entire doctrine, and specifically with the teachings of the final turning of the Wheel of Dharma. The text emphasized is dharmakīrti’s A Complete Commentary on Ideal Perception. In it he gives many types of logical reasoning concerning what is to be done or avoided on the basis of the four realities of realized beings; there is also a very extensive discussion of what is and is not a conclusive reason. Because this treatise shows so many superb lines of reasoning Dharmakīrti is known as ‘The King of Logic’. Partly as a joke and partly to indicate his surety of understanding, he writes at one point:

Just as all the water of rivers and streams comes from the ocean, so must all logical reasonings in the world of human beings come from myself; and just as all the water of rivers and streams must return to the ocean, so will all reasonings return to me.

The main topics he deals with are:

  1. The manner in which sentient being wander in the round of existence.
  2. The cause of this wandering.
  3. The manner of attaining liberation from the round of existence.
  4. The path to this liberation.
  5. The manner of attaining buddhahood.
  6. The path to buddhahood.
  7. Logical proofs of former and future rebirths.
  8. Logical proofs of the beginninglessness of the round of existence.
  9. A presentation of the three types of objects of knowledge.
  10. A presentation of the mind with emphasis on bare perception and inference.
  11. The methods of serving the needs of all creatures.
  12. Lines of reasoning used to dispel the incorrect views of others.
  13. Logical proofs of the identitylessness of persons and phenomena according to the Cittamātra school.

In short, this treatise presents the means for fulfilling the needs of oneself and others. Other treatises cover these points too; but this text is distinctive in that it employs eight lines of reasoning to prove that buddha is complete in all positive qualities and is, thus, the ultimate refuge. It shows that buddha did not always have these supreme qualities, but attained them by gradually following the path to enlightenment. It also describes how we may do the same by devoting ourselves to the same path. I memorized the entire first two chapters, and all the main points in its last two, and studied the commentaries on it.

Disciple: Did you study this after completing the Karam class?

Geshé: The main place for studying ideal perception was not at Sera, but at another large monastery which is a little over a day’s walk to the west of Sera. All the monks from Ganden, Depung and Sera, the three largest monasteries in Central Tibet, and others from a large number of monasteries south of Lhasa, would gather there to study this subject. We studied and debated on it during November and December each year. We also prepared for this event for one-and-a-half months beforehand, receiving instruction on ideal perception and memorizing important texts on it. For example, if one is to participate in an athletic competition, it is first necessary to train and exercise the body. Likewise, we used the month and a half immediately before these periods of intensive debate to train our minds in this subject.Mañjuśrī once prophesied to Dignāga that this site would one day become a great place for the study of logic. Nowadays in Tibetan religious paintings Dignāga is depicted with his vision of Mañjuśrī above him, relating to the occasion when the prophesy was made. After writing on the stone wall of the cave where he was meditating the invocation of his famous text on logic A Compendium on Ideal Perception, Dignāga went to beg his daily alms. While he was away, a non-Buddhist came and erased what had been written. Upon returning and finding his work undone, he wrote the lines again. The same thing happened the next day. This time Dignāga wrote on the wall ‘Whoever has done this, either come out into the open and debate with me or leave my work alone!’When he returned from begging the next day, the man was waiting; the two of them debated, until eventually Dignāga defeated him. Then the non-Buddhist, who had supernormal powers, blew fire from his mouth and burned Dignāga’s robes. Dignāga felt compassion for him and reflected ‘I am writing for the benefit of all creatures, but this man is jealous of me. If many others feel the same, this will bring them harm. Perhaps it would be better if I did not write it.’ So he took a slate, and threw it up into the air - deciding that if it fell to earth, he would not write the text. But the slate did not fall. Looking up, he then saw Mañjuśrī in the sky above him holding the slate. Mañjuśrī said ‘Do not stop composing this treatise. If you write it, in the Land of Snow to the north it will become like the eyes of a great many beings who will study the scriptures.’ Mañjuśrī then threw the slate down; it landed on a mountainside facing the present site of the monastery where we debated. From morning until sunset, all the monks would debate on ideal perception. Then in the evening, there was a special session during which two very learned monks would respond in debate, while all the rest sat quietly on the ground and listened. These two would sit on a throne about six feet off the ground, so that all could hear their replies. As soon as they mounted it, they would offer prayers, facing towards the mountain where the slate had landed. It was said that any virtuous prayers made at that time would be fulfilled. Then one highly advanced monk after another would come up to debate with them. This would go on for about three hours; then all present would begin debating among themselves. During these winter sessions, we studied not only Buddhist tenets, but also the ancient Indian philosophies, such as those of the Sāṃkhyas, Jainas, Vedāntins, Vaiśeṣikas, Cārvākas, Brāhmaṇas, Vaiṣṇavas, Mīmāmsakas and Śaivas.

Disciple: Were you able to attend these sessions even when you were just beginning your studies?

Geshé: No, the first time I did so was when I was in the Advanced Treatises class. After that, I took part in them every winter for eight years. When I first took part, I was still poor. My skirt-like lower robe was so tattered and torn that my thighs showed; so to cover myself I always wore a special cloak which my teacher had lent me, but which most monks wear only at monastic assemblies. During these winter sessions, I became so involved in the subject of debate that I did not notice that other monks took breaks, throughout the day, to go to the assembly hall for prayers and tea. So I ended up spending the whole day on the debating ground. I tried very hard not to make even the slightest error in debate; there were many learned monks there, and they would laugh at any mistakes. There were also contests with monasteries other than our own. On these occasions, I often volunteered to be the answerer, for this helped my understanding a great deal. Sometimes, when the monks who questioned me were very learned and skilled, I would make a number of gross errors. While I sat answering questions, other monks from my own monastery would come to see how I was doing. When I made many mistakes, I would be very embarrassed; but on other occasions, I was able to answer so well that no one could find fault with my assertions.

Disciple: Aside from these contests between the monasteries, did you ever answer in debate before all the monks during the evening session?

Geshé: Yes. I did so after attending these winter debates for eight years; then, I answered in the great session in which the monks of all the great monasteries take part. I remember how frightened I was as I stood at the base of the throne waiting for them all to assemble. Then I mounted the throne and offered a short prayer written by the Indian bodhisattva Śāntideva in his text Venturing into the Bodhisattva Way of Life:

To fulfil the needs of all beings That reach unto the ends of space, May all my deeds resemble Those of Mañjuśrī.

During that debate, I did not make many errors, but neither did I gain much advantage over my opponent. It is not compulsory to answer in one of these evening sessions; but one may do so if one is highly advanced in learning. Otherwise one would never volunteer.

Disciple: You made only a brief mention of the Karam class. Wasn’t there some kind of an examination at the end of this?

Geshé: Yes. All the monks in this class must visit all the lower classes in pairs to be tested. After all those in my class had taken their turn at this, the abbot and disciplinarian graded us. I was graded as the top student, and was given the honour of being allowed to take the ceremonial examination. My subject for this was ideal perception. In preparation I visited all the classes from the first to the fourteenth, one each day, and answered in debate on this subject. Then I visited all the houses to answer on A Complete Commentary on Ideal Perception.This examination always takes place in the main assembly hall of Sera Monastery, and it was there that I debated with the top scholar of the year from Sera Mé College. This made for a very exciting debate, because the two colleges use different commentaries, and have slightly different views. Further, all the monks of Sera attend. The two top scholars alternate, each year, as to who asks the questions and who answers. That year I, as the Sera Jhé scholar, debated as the questioner. My examination went well; following it, I was allowed to enter the final class, ḷharam.

Disciple: What about the other Karam scholars? Did they also graduate into the ḷharam class?

Geshé: No, most of them are given the title of Karampa Geshé when they graduate from the Karam class, whereas only a select few are allowed into the ḷharam class. The discipline in this class is extremely strict. For example, if one is just five minutes late for a session, one must debate for an extra turn. This class was always in session. We never had any interims. We spent our time reviewing all the Five Treatises, with special emphasis on the discipline and phenomenology. We would not go to the assemblies when tea was served; for time was spent only in debate, study and meditation. We gradually memorized a great commentary on discipline, of about six hundred and forty pages, and another on phenomenology with four hundred and thirty pages. These we recited from memory during debate, as we discussed their meaning. Students from the lower classes were able to visit all the others up to Karam; but they were not allowed to enter the ḷharam debating ground. I spent almost two years in this class. More time should be spent there, if possible; but at the end of this period, I had to escape because of the Tibetan uprising in 1959. Had there been no invasion, I would have remained in this class for nine years before receiving the title of ḷharampa Geshé. Only two scholars from each college are awarded this title each year.


Note: The glossary is organized into sections according to the main language of each entry. The first section contains Tibetan words organized in Tibetan alphabetical order. To jump to the entries that begin with a particular Tibetan root letter, click on that letter below. Columns of information for all entries are listed in this order: THL Extended Wylie transliteration of the term, THL Phonetic rendering of the term, the Sanskrit equivalent, associated dates, and the type of term. To view the glossary sorted by any one of these rubrics, click on the corresponding label (such as “Phonetics”) at the top of its column.

Kha | Ga | Ba | Sa | Sanskrit
Extended WyliePhoneticsSanskritDateType
khams Kham Place
Extended WyliePhoneticsSanskritDateType
dge bshes geshé Term
dge bshes rab brtan Geshé Rabten 1920-1987 Person
dge bshes lha ram pa geshé lharampa Term
Extended WyliePhoneticsSanskritDateType
byes Monastery
Extended WyliePhoneticsSanskritDateType
se ra Sera Monastery
Extended WyliePhoneticsSanskritDateType
amītābha Buddhist deity
āryadeva Person
buddha Śākyamuni Buddhist deity
dignāga Person
gunaprabhā Person
maitreya buddha Buddhist deity
mañjuśrī Buddhist deity
nāgārjuna Person
śāntideva Person
tārā Buddhist deity
vajradākinī Buddhist deity
vajrasattva Buddhist deity
vasubandhu Person
yamāntaka Buddhist deity

[1] Geshe Rabten, The Life and Teaching of Geshé Rabten: A Tibetan Lama’s Search for Truth, trans. and ed. B. Alan Wallace (London: Georges Allen and Unwin, 1980), 1.