The term `lama', meaning `guru' or master in Tibetan, used to be
the tittle reserved solely for high-ranking or accomplished Tibetan
Buddhist monk, ordinary monks were merely `drapas'. Later, as `lama'
came to be used as a polite form od address for any `drapa', it
became a common misnomer for all Tibetan monks.
Tibetan Buddhism used to have private tutorships for monks. Ge-lug-pa
started a school system for monks. That is the `dratsang' (see below)
system. All sects, including Bonism, adopted this system. In a monastery,
monks are divided into four groups:
Monk students of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism. Called `bachogwa'
(scholars) in Tibetan, these monks, as discussed in the next
section, are prospective holders of the top degrees of monastic
study, and stand an excellent chance of becoming candidates
for the position of monk officials. They represent "the best
hope" of all monks but not all of them can hope to fulfill this
- Monks trained
in religious professions. These are monks who hire themselves
out to pray for the safety and the happiness of their clients;
to conduct religious ceremonies to release the dead from their
sins, or as oracle consultants. Sometimes they pray on the street.
and specialized practitioners. This category includes sculptors,
molders and casters of images, painters, wood-block carvers
and printers of Buddhist texts, and doctors.
- Monk laborers.
These ordinary monks who perform various chores and duties about
the monastery make up the majority of the clergy.
A praying hall of a dratsang.
- Monastery and
The government of a Tibetan Monastery may be described as a pyramid
organized into three levels. At the lowest level the general monk population
is divided into groups called `khangchens'(or `michens'). Monks are
organized into `khangchens' by their place of origin. Each `khangchen'
consists of about 100 monks, with the one topmost in seniority serving
as the `jigen' or leader. An executive committee within the `khangchen'
handles the day-to-day affairs. The level above the `khangchen' is the
`dratsang' or school (it is more fashionable to call it `University').
Usually formed by several `khangchens', each `dratsang' is run more
or less independently. Resembling a monastery within a monastery, each
has its own prayer hall, library and monks, and possesses its own land,
pastures and housing. However, `dratsangs' differ from each other in
size and wealth. Some of them are so small that they have no `khangchen'
under them. Some `dratsangs' are schools of exoteric Buddhism, and some
of esoteric or tantric Buddhism. One of the smallest `dratsangs' is
`Kala (time) Wheel' `dratsang' which offer courses in astronomy and
the making of the calendar. It usually takes students from tulku/living
Buddha and retired or acting `khenpos', and enjoys a much higher status
than any other `dratsang'.
Each `dratsang' is headed by a `khenpo'. Appointed by the local Tibetan
government or its `superior monastery' (see below), the `khenpo' must
be an eminent monk scholar holding the degree of `geshi'. A `khenpo'
serves three-year (or six year) term of office as the chief administrator
and the religious and financial officer of a `dratsang'. Under `khenpo',
the chief official is the `lhazang chanzod' who. with his assistants,
manages the `dratsang's' assets, liaison, and the reception of alms-givers.
A `gesko', commonly known as the iron-club lama, is responsible for
maintaining the monastic discipline, meting out punishment to offenders
and resolving disputes among monks. In Lhasa, the `geskos' from the
three great monasteries will take over the city during the `Great Prayer's
Festival (smom lam)'. These officers and the `budsad' who leads the
chanting of sutras, and the `shunglapa' who is in charge of monastic
study, debates, and degree-qualifying examinations form the hierarchy
of the `dratsang'.
At the top of the pyramid a group called the `laji' oversees the entire
monastery. This committee includes all `dratsang khenpos' and is presided
over by the Abbot. Under the `laji' are several monk officials who manage
the monastery's manors, property (for instance, Sera Monastery owns
three counties nearby, and the huge land of Mongolian 39 tribes in the
Northern Xizang (Tibet) which in 1914 after the collapse of Qing Dynasty are
conquered by the Xizang (Tibet) government with two brigade soldiers) and financial
affairs. At this level there are also several iron-club lamas in charge
of discipline throughout the monastery and another `budsad' who leads
sutra chanting at plenary assemblies.
- Monk Student
Usually, only adult males become students. However, sometimes, young
boys joint the monasteries. For the first year the novice supports himself
as he studies in a preparatory class at a `dratsang' of exoteric Buddhism.
Study begins with the Tibetan alphabet and moves on to the common prayers.
After passing examinations at the end of the first year he qualifies
as a regular student for the study of esoteric Buddhism. Still lying
before him is an extended period of studying lasting from ten to twenty
years, during which time he is expected to master in thirteen successive
stages five Buddhist scriptures: the Hetuvidya, the Prajna, the Pranyamula-sastra-tika,
the Sila and Vinaya and Abhidharma-kosa-sastra.
Upon completing these courses and with the recommendation of his tutor
and the approval of the monastery's authorities, the student monk may
apply to take qualifying tests, given either in the form of debate or
oral test, for `geshi' degree. Very few monks pass the tests. The degree
of `geshi' qualifies a holder for the position of `khenpo', and to continue
his study at a higher level in the `dratsang' of esoteric Buddism. As
a rule, the tulkus/living Buddhas hold the `geshi' degrees. The degree
system is similar to Han people's three levels degree system.
The long climb up the ladder of esoteric Buddism is an arduous process
lasting up to several decades. Not surprisingly many monks find it impossible
to complete the journey and have to drop out.
- Monastery Relation
and Tulku/Living Buddha
Monasteries in Xizang (Tibet) are separated into major monasteries and lesser
monasteries. Some major monasteries has hundreds lesser monasteries
affiliated with them. The lesser monasteries sometimes are built by
missionary monks from the major monasteries, they sometimes are monasteries
of a different branch originally, and are forced into subordination
after a religious warfare. Occasionally, the monks from the Abbot down
are willing to fight to the last one for their particular sect.
There are about 500 tulkus/living Buddhas in Xizang (Tibet). In some
monasteries, there are several tulkus. The lineage usually starts by
some legend or a decree of the Emperor or King. The reincarnation of
a tulku/living Buddha was originally determined by oracles, and later,
by a royal decree, determined by the Lottery System. Sometimes, the
Emperor or local Tibetan government prohibits the continuation of some
lineages. For instance, the lineage of tulku Radreng is a good example.
The monastery Radreng was built in 1056 as the Principal Monastery of
Ka-dams-pa (Old Yellow Hat sect). Late it became a monastery of Ge-lug
pa (Yellow Hat sect). In 1862, Radreng was the regent of Xizang (Tibet)
and was accused taking bribery by his political oponents. Losing the
struggle, he run to the central government in Beijing with the seal
of the regent. The central government judged him guilty, terminated
the lineage of tulku Radreng (i.e., prohibit him to reincarnate), and
gave the Radreng Monastery to Dalai Lama. After his passage in 1863,
the central government reversed herself in 1877, and proclaimed him
innocent, reestablished the lineage of Radreng, restored the Radreng
Monastery to the control of the reincarnation of that lineage. Later
the Tibetan government terminated Radreng lineage in 1947 after the
new Radreng was forced to resign from his regentship and after further