The Monastery as a Medium of Tibetan Culture

The Buddhist monastery has traditionally served as a primary locus for the generation and preservation of Tibetan culture, both material and intellectual. That function of the monastery has been gravely threatened by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent oppression and destruction during the periods of "liberation" and of the Cultural Revolution. After a brief period of modest revival, beginning in 1979, the monastery is again in jeopardy in the wake of the events of October 1987.

Tibetan Buddhism's Roots

In order to appreciate the gravity of the present desperate conditions that exist under Chinese colonial rule, it is important to have some understanding of the relationship between Tibetan culture and Buddhism. The eighth century closed with two events, the legendary accounts of which provide a useful introduction to Tibetan Buddhist culture. The first is the founding of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet at bSam-yas in 779 and the ordination of the first Tibetan monks. These events took place under the direction of two renowned Indian masters - the Madhyamika philosopher and abbot Santaraksita, and the tantric madasiddha Padmasambhava. The presence of these two figures at this momentous event in Tibetan history is noteworthy for many reasons, not least for the metaphor it provides for the dynamic between the scholastic and the tantric madasiddha Padmasambhava. The presence of these two figures at this momentous event in Tibetan history is noteworthy for many reasons, not least for the metaphor it provides for the dynamic between the scholastic and the tantric in the development of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice. But for our purposes, their presence signals the centrality of Indian Buddhism and the north Indian monastic model for the development of Tibetan culture: art, architecture, philosophy and practice. Some two decades later, bSam-yas formed the field for the second landmark event, the controversy that took place between Santaraksita's disciple, Kamalasila, and the Chinese Ch'an monk Ho-shang Mo-ho-yen on the question of sudden versus gradual enlightenment. Although the nature, format and context of the debate remains a subject of scholarly scrutiny, the tradition records that Kamalasila was pronounced the victor by the king and that thereafter the teachings of Nagarjuna would be held as orthodox. The precise philosophical implications of the proclamation are unclear, especially since Nagarjuna's works had yet to be translated into Tibetan. Yet the king's decision certainly meant that Tibet thereafter would look to India rather than China for its cultural model.

Thus began a period of cultural transmission, most visibly through the translation of the Buddhist canon, which continued until the establishment of Muslim hegemony in northern India. During this period, it can be argued that culture was for the Tibetans the Buddhism they brought from India, literature was the sutras and sastras and art was iconography. The religious and philosophical ethos of eleventh-century Buddhist India became the object the Tibetans sought to replicate in their snowy land. Hence, Tibetan Buddhism is essentially conservative, with its adherents seeking to put into practice the teachings of the Buddha as received from the Indian commentators, toward the eventual end of the duplication of his experience of enlightenment. Culture and religion in the case of Tibet are, thus, inseparable, if not synonymous.

The Tradition of the Monastery

Let us turn to the more recent past, to the Tibetan monastery of 1950. In a nation in which an estimated 25 percent of the male population were monks, the centrality of the monastery to Tibetan culture is difficult to overestimate. However, it is not easy to generalize accurately about monastic life across sectarian and regional lines. Therefore, I will confine my observations to the three great d-Ge-lugs-pa monasteries in the vicinity of Lhasa, all founded at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Drepung in 1950, with some 10,000 monks, was the largest Buddhist monastery in the world. Sera had a population of approximately 6,000 and Ganden, 4,000. Thus, living in the environs of the capital, which prior to the Chinese occupation had a population of 60,000 were some 20,000 monks, in addition to the students and faculty of the medical college, the tantric colleges and those who staffed the Potala, the Jokhang and the scores of smaller shrines and temples in the city.

The three great monasteries of Lhasa served in many respects as centers for the preservation of literate culture for the Inner Asian world, drawing students from all regions of Tibet, as well as Ladakh, Nepal, Inner and Outer Mongolia and the Mongol regions of the Soviet Union, such as Kalmuck and Buryat. Young men, often second sons of their families, would receive education in reading and writing at a local monastery before embarking for Lhasa, where they would enroll in one of the colleges of the monastic universities and live in communal houses with other monks from their home region.

Perhaps one-fourth of the monastic community of these centers was engaged in the philosophical program, a curriculum that took approximately 20 years to complete and was built around the study of five Indian texts. These texts, dealing with such subjects as logic, cosmology, epistemology, ethics and the structure of the paths of enlightenment, were approached from two directions. One was memorization. It was not uncommon for a scholar who had completed the curriculum to have committed several thousand pages of these texts and their commentaries to memory. The other approach was that of forensic debate in which two monks, following a strictly fixed format, would dispute technical points of Buddhist doctrine in a spirited exchange.

Central to both memorization and debate was the tradition of oral commentary. The best scholars often did not return to their native provinces after their education but stayed on to teach, providing an instruction that consisted primarily in the explication of terse and difficult textbooks, works that were not intended to be read without much oral supplementation. It was here that the richness of the subject was revealed and the positions that would serve as the catalyst for debate identified.

These teachers were the primary educators of male Tibetan society, representing the democratizing effect of Buddhism on Tibetan culture. It was the monks who completed this curriculum, who became lharampa geshes and who, with other revered teachers of other sects, were the intellectual virtuosi of Tibet. Theirs was a status gained through learning. Monks from the hinterlands of Tibetan society, the sons of farmers and nomads who were often unrefined in diction and demeanor, went on to become the savants of that society.

The monasteries, however, were not only centers of scholasticism (although that was certainly the hallmark of Drepung, Sera and Ganden). They were also centers for the study of painting, sculpture, embroidery, music, dance, chant and ritual. They were the repositories of the treasures of Tibetan art and the libraries of the vast Tibetan literature.

All of this has changed in the generation that has passed since the uprising of 10 March 1959. The Dalai Lama was followed in his flight from the Chinese by some 250,000 Tibetans, one-fourth of whom arrived safely in India, Nepal and Sikkim. Among that group were approximately 2,500 monks. They worked to reestablish monastic training in exile, first from a tuberculous British prison camp at Buxadour and later at relocated monasteries in southern India with the names of Drepung, Sera and Ganden. The traditional curriculum has been restored in an abbreviated form and the geshe degree in granted each year. The monasteries, lacking the patronage of a Buddhist government and a large lay community, must seek support through the cultivation of farmland, cleared and worked by the monks. The luxury of time enjoyed in the old Tibet is lost in India, but a facsimile of the old has been forged.

Religious Life in Tibet Today

The situation in Tibet today is far more ominous. Between 1959 and 197 all but a dozen of the approximately 6,000 monasteries, temples and shrines in Tibet were physically destroyed, often by dynamiting the ceilings, a grim attestation to the connection between religion and culture in Tibet. The Chinese apparently believed that traditional Tibetan culture could be obliterated by razing the material manifestations of Buddhism. Among the monasteries destroyed was Ganden; Drepung and Sera were left standing. Since 1979, when limited reforms were introduced prior to the Chinese opening of Tibet to Western tourists, Drepung and Sera have been reopened and young men allowed to apply to the government for admission to the monastery. Today Drepung and Sera each have approximately 300 monks, about 50 of whom in each case were monks prior to 1959; the rest are young men who have joined the monastery since 1979.

In the months after the 10 March 1959 uprising, the monks and nuns of Tibet were forced to give up their vows. Those who resisted were either killed, imprisoned or put on road gangs. Hence, some of the older monks at Sera and Drepung today have spent two decades in prison, often in solitary confinement. Today they are broken men, working silently as care-takers of the temples of the monasteries. Others are actively engaged in trying to rest ore a modicum of the scholastic curriculum; prior to the uprising of October 1, classes were held for those monks who were not engaged in construction work by the Chinese. Monastic debate was reinstated, and the young monks could be heard in vigorous disputation on the elementary topics of logic and epistemology. In the summer of 1987, the most advanced classes at Drepung monastery had begun to study the first of the five texts that serve as the basis of the traditional curriculum. At that time, there wee three teachers at Drepung, none of whom held the geshe degree. The system of monastic colleges and houses (Drepung had four colleges and 22 houses), which served as the organizational structure of the monastery, had been dismantled by the Chinese. The unfortunate condition of monastic education in Tibet since 1979 can be gauged in part by the fact that in the last three years 1,600 monks have escaped to India in order to pursue their studies at the refugee monasteries.

Sera and Drepung remained active pilgrimage sites, with trucks arriving on holidays filled with Tibetans who had come to make offerings of butter to the lamps that illuminate the hundreds of Buddha images of the monasteries. Thus, after 1979, the monasteries, even under the constraints of Chinese rule, provided a medium for the survival of Tibetan culture, housing the remains of their vast libraries as well as the relatively few art treasures that had not been looted or destroyed by the Chinese. Tibetans continued to come from afar in pilgrimage to the monasteries. The few scholars who remained were attempting to reclaim, at a modest level, their scholastic tradition. The young monks of the monastery who have joined the monasteries since they reopened are nationalists, in keeping with their forebears, many of whom took up arms against the Chinese in the 1950s. These young monks have been leaders of the demonstration, both violent and nonviolent, that occurred in the streets of Lhasa in October. The monasteries have remained both symbols of Tibetan national identity and centers of resistance.

Tibetan Buddhism's Future Prospects

The fate of the monks and their monasteries is difficult to predict. In the wake of the October incident Sera and Drepung were closed to visitors and patrolled by plainclothes police and the monks were subjected to political reeducation. In the month of December, one heard numerous reports coming out of Kathmandu concerning the punishments of Buddhist monks. In one incident, the entire debating class of Sera monastery was taken into the mountains where they were severely beaten and tortured with electric shock.

The future thus remains darkly obscure. If Tibetan Buddhism is to be a cultural relic for the diversion of the tourist, there seems to be little fear that the monasteries that remain will figure in the survival of Tibetan culture. But if cultures is a tradition, something that is passed on, the prospects are far more ambiguous. Tibetan Buddhism has mistakenly been called "Lamaism," often with the implication that it is not directly connected to the Buddhist tradition of India but is instead some strange hybrid of pure Indian Buddhism and primitive Tibetan demon worship. This view has long ago been proved to be unfounded. Yet one cannot underestimate the role in Tibetan Buddhism of the lama, the Tibetan word for the Sanskrit guru, the teacher. Like all Buddhist traditions in Asia, Tibetan Buddhism traces its roots back to India and the Buddha himself, but unlike other Buddhisms, that of Tibet had retained an unbroken lineage of teacher to student that could be traced back at least as far as eleventh-century India. That lineage was broken in Tibet in 1959. Over the next decades a generation of teachers was lost to death, imprisonment or exile.

The teachers who remain in Tibet today are aged men, many of whom spent 20 years in prison, where they had no opportunity to teach or study. The absence of the teacher, most notably the Dalai Lama himself, is acutely felt by the Tibetan people. On visits to Sera and Drepung in 1985 and 1986, I was asked repeatedly by the senior monks of the monastery to implore the Tibetan scholars living in exile to return to teach. And it is in anticipation of an eventual return to Tibet that the monks in exile have worked to preserve their tradition over the past three decades. Such a return, however, remains impossible under the current conditions of Chinese rule. It is in this return of the exiles to their snowy homeland that hope for the survival of Tibetan culture resides.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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