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Tibetan Buddhist monks strive to attain mastery

By DAQIONG and PALDEN NYIMA in Lhasa | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-09-28 09:25

From the Sera Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet autonomous region, in mid-autumn, one can see distant mountains kissed by clouds under a startlingly blue sky. Beneath a broad canopy of cloth-a shield against the sun's rays in the thin air-rows of monks clad in orange saffron robes sit patiently, waiting for a turn to defend their understanding of the dharma, the philosophy's foundation, against the challenges of a handful of top scholars.

The scholars, a board of master practitioners from the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, were examining candidates who sought the highest academic degree-the Geshe Lharampa-and had prepared to engage in preliminary debates over several days in the past week. All of them passed by Friday and will move to an advanced challenge in the spring at Lhasa's Jokhang Temple.

Attaining the Geshe Lharampa degree requires many years, or even a lifetime, engaged in a rigorous study of Buddhist philosophy and its scriptural sutras. The preliminary debates that began on Tuesday-examinations roughly akin to what a professor faces to defend a doctoral dissertation-take place between Sept 14 and 20 this year, at the Sera Monastery, one of the Gelukpa School's three spiritual centers in Lhasa.

Losingpa Trinley Chozang, vice-president of the Tibet branch of the China Buddhist Association, said that 13 monk scholars were taking part in the examinations.

Primary topics at this stage of examination for the Geshe Lharampa come from the five great volumes of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. The candidates are between 31 and 56 years old.

The academic debates are part of a grand annual exercise in Tibetan Buddhism. More than 700 monks attend, including examiners from the Sera, Drepung, Gandan monasteries and others, he said, adding that holding a spiritual event on such a big scale honors Buddhism and its followers.

The questions and answers during the event always unfold in the same way. During a sutra debatewhich can last for hours-the candidate is seated. The scholarly examiners stand and pace around in front of him. The debates turn fierce at times as the scholars challenge each aspirant. During the exchange, the monks often clap their hands or gesticulate.

When a candidate raises a point, members of the examining board will counter to keep the debate going. When a candidate prevails, he passes.

Jampal Dorje, a monk from the region's Champaling Monastery, received a Nyethang Ngakrampa degree over the summer-similar to a postgraduate degree-from the Tibet College of Buddhism.

He said the tradition of the Geshe Lharampa debate began with Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelukpa School. In modern times, the tradition has developed with the support of the government.

"Monk scholars undergoing Geshe Lharampa examinations also have to pass tests of cultural knowledge, grammar, poetry, current affairs and politics, to demonstrate their understanding of social affairs and ability to adapt to modern socialist society," Jampal Dorje said.

Obtaining the Geshe Lharampa degree is extremely difficult, but a successful candidate regards it as a great honor and a major achievement in his spiritual practice.

Champa Shipal, a monk scholar from the Champaling Monastery in Chamdo, is a candidate for the degree who participated in the debates this year. He said he has been studying the five great volumes of teachings in Tibet Buddhism for 31 years, including apprenticeships under several great Buddhist masters. Now he has the confidence to try for the Geshe Lharampa.

"Thanks to the good leadership and policies of the government, I have an opportunity to obtain an academic degree based on my knowledge. I will study hard for the final exam next year," Champa Shipal said.

"I want to express my sincere thanks to all the officials, dharma masters and my monk friends for their big support."

Randy Wright contributed to this story.

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