TIBETAN MONKS AND LAMAS
Debating monks Religious life in Tibet revolves around monks and monasteries. The Tibetan word for monk is "trapa," which means “student” or “scholar.” It is used to describe the three main categories of monastery residents: students (monks), and scholars and teachers (lamas). Monks and lamas don’t necessarily have to be celibate. The religious leaders of many villages are married lamas.
Lamas are spiritual guides and master teachers who orally pass on complex rituals and meditation techniques to disciples. They are sometimes regarded as "living gods" (the word lama means "teacher" or "superior one"). Lamas preside over important ceremonies and are believed to possess supernatural powers that can slay demons and bring good fortune, blessings, wealth and good health.
Tibetan Buddhism is sometimes called Lamanism, because of the reverence given lamas. Padmasambhava, a Buddhist monk from India, established the First Lamaic order about A.D. 770. Many lamas today are regarded as reincarnations of lamas who purportedly flew in from a mountaintop over a thousand years ago, when several lamaseries were built in one night.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources on Monks and Lamas: Monks and Nuns at Labrang China Vista ; Monk Daily Life tibetan-village.org ; Monk Life travelchinaguide.com ; Research on Tibetan Monks case.edu/affil/tibet ; New York Times article on monks studying science nytimes.com ; Monasteries and Pilgrims: Monasteries buddhist-tourism.com ; Monastery Preservation asianart.com ; Wikipedia list Wikipedia ; Book: Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage by Steve McCurry (Phaidon Press, 2003) Mt. Kailash Wikipedia Wikipedia Sacred Sites Sacred Sites Summit Post Summit Post
Tibetan Buddhism: ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; View on Buddhism (click Tibetan Buddhism stuff on left) viewonbuddhism.org ; Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center tbrc.org ; Tibetan Buddhist archives sacred-texts.com ; Buddha.net list of Tibetan Buddhism sources buddhanet.net ; Books on Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism kotan.org and wisdompubs.org ; Book: Tibetan Buddhism by L. Austine Waddell. On Buddhism: Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu ; Guide to Buddhism buddhanet.net Buddhist Studies Virtual Library on Buddhism ciolek.com/WWWVL ; Buddhism Library buddhism.lib.ntu.edu. ; Buddhism in China Buddhist Studies buddhanet.net ; Wikipedia article on Buddhism in China Wikipedia ; Bibliography hua.umf.maine.edu/
Links in this Website: BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM SECTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM TEXT, BELIEFS, GODS, SYMBOLS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHIST OBJECTS, RITUALS AND TEMPLES Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MONKS AND LAMAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MONASTERIES AND PILGRIMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; BON RELIGION, CATHOLICS AND ASTROLOGY IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; RELIGIOUS REPRESSION IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PRESENT DALAI LAMA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMA’S CURRENT LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMA AND POLITICS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PANCHEN LAMAS AND LAMA CONTROVERSIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; KARMAPA LAMA Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
Rinpoches and Tibetan Buddhist Saints
Guru Rinpoche Rinpoches (an honorary term meaning “precious ones”) are senior lamas or the head lamas at monasteries. They are generally regarded as reincarnations of the monastery’s first lama. They often enjoy a level of comfort and luxury not afforded other monks. As a symbol of their rank they sit on cushions higher than everyone else.
Rinpoches are lamas who are revered and honored as holy men who have progressed beyond the status of monk through reincarnation. If lamas are the equivalent of priests, rinpoches are like bishops. The Dalai Lama is a sort super Rinpoche.
Rinpoches are usually selected by their ability to pick out religious objects in a large group of things, and recognize certain people in a crowd. Certain auspicious signs usually indicate the birth of lama or rinpoche.
Greatly revered abbots are considered a tulku by Tibetans and called a living Buddha in Chinese — an especially revered figure who is believed to be the essence of a prominent religious leader. Some are regarded as saints. A Dolpo saint by the name of Tulka Tsewang reportedly meditated for 65 years inside a wooden crib. To gain an audience with him followers had to give him a votive offering that looked like a piece of chocolate and a shell suggesting the spinning of the universe. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993]
Tertons, or treasure seekers, are credited with finding important Buddhist texts and objects. They reportedly have the power to fly inside mountains and icy lakes to retrieve sacred objects.
It is believed that when a lama dies, his spirits move into a new body. After his death a search for the individual that possesses this body begins. In theory, the search for a new lama is supposed to be based on visions from oracles, divine messages and poems and messages left from the previous lama. In reality, the search process is often affected by politics, court intrigues and factional infighting.
Sometimes a method of divination is used to select lamas in which the names of the candidates are placed in balls of tsampa (barley meal) and the bowl is rotated until one of the balls "jumps out." Theoretically women and non-Tibetans can become lamas but in nearly all cases lamas are Tibetan males.
A reincarnation of a lama is called a "tukla." He is regarded as a sacred vessel of Tibetan Buddhism. Describing what they look for in a new lama one senior lama in Mongolia told National Geographic, "They are watched for certain qualities. They must, for example, have beautiful hands, because they must make certain hand movements."
Young men study for around five years to become lamas. They usually begin their training at monasteries at age six.
Shrines in homes are often decorated with pictures of lamas. If you meet a lama you should present him with a scarf. The scarfs can usually be purchased at the temples where the lamas reside. When face to face with a saint or revered lama Tibetans often try to lift up the robes and touch the feet of the lama as an act of reverence
Among the few possessions owned by a lama are a ceremonial bowl made from a human skull, silver charms to keep away biting dogs and disease, and a three-edged ritual dagger to keep away ignorance, passion and aggression.
Most Tibetan villages or towns have resident lamas. They, along with local lay priests and shaman, are called upon to heal the sick, settle disputes, preside over religious activities and predict the future and read omens for auspicious and inauspicious times.
Traditionally, lamas have presided over important events in a Tibetan person's life. Journalist Thomas Ambercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Much of what education he has comes from lamas, who also bless his birth, consecrate his wedding, interpret his future, cure his ills, and—when the trials of the present incarnation cease—cremate his remains. His social life is tuned to the lively festivals held at lamaseries."
Many lamas are married men not celibate monks. They believe they have inherited their places in society from the last Tibetan kings and this gives them spiritual and social authority. Some use their position to make money by blessing homes, livestock and people in return from money, goods or labor.
Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, Karmapa Lama
See Dalai Lama
See Panchen Lama,Other Lamas, Sects, Controversies
See Karmapa Lama, Other Lamas, Sects, Controversies
Tibetan Buddhist Oracles
Bodhisattva Manjushri Tibetan Buddhists believe that it is possible to communicate with spirits and deities through intermediaries and oracles. Selections for these positions are often based on certain signs or body marks. After a Tibetan child is born, his or her body is searched for omens and signs. Large ears like those on Buddha statues are considered a sign of wisdom. Moles with particular shapes found in significant places have special meanings.
Living with the Dalai Lama in India is the Oracle from Nechung Monetary in Tibet. Not unlike his ancient Greek counterpart at Delphi, the oracle mediates near the Oracle statue—a small doll-like figure with reaching arms, bulging eyes and an expression reminiscent of Edvar Munch's The Scream—in a chapel and goes into a trance, with an interpreter interpreting what he says.
Before 1959, the Dalai Lama used to meet with Nechung oracle on every New Year’s day. The oracle donned bracelets shaped like human eyes and wore an elaborate headdress made of feathers and went into a trance. Observers said his eyeballs rolled on his sockets, his face turned red, his mouth opened up and his tongue curled up inside his mouth. He answered questions in an anguished hissing voice while looking in a mirror. A clerk recorded and translated what he said. The session was over after he fainted.
Tibetan Buddhist Monks
Boy monks Traditionally large numbers of Tibetan males became monks and many families had at least one son who was a monk. In 1959, nearly a quarter of all Tibetan males were monks. The number of monks has been reduced from around 120,000 in 1950 to 14,000 in 1987 and has grown to around 467,000 today, a number fixed by the government since 1994. There are relatively few nuns; they have a reputation for political activism.
Monks join monasteries when they are a young as five years old. To gain admission they must be approved by a lama and later pass an entrance exam. Monks are expected to develop through meditation, research and training in logic.
Children are often recruited when they are very young to be monks. The practice has been criticized. A spokesman for the Dalai Lama told National Geographic, “We find that some of the best scholars began as children though I acknowledge that children don’t really know their own minds at that age.”
Novice monks gain admittance to Sera monastery at age 16 by memorizing 300 scriptures and passing an exam.
Deciding to Become a Tibetan Monk
William Dalrymple of the Paris Review talked with an elderly monk named Tashi Passang. The monk said, “I was born in 1936 in the Dagpo district of the Kham region. Like many in eastern Tibet, my family lived a seminomadic life. We were small landowners with a stone three-story house, and we had many yaks. In the summer the boys of the family had to help my grandparents and my uncles to take the herds up to the high summer pastures. “ [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]
“For my third summer in the mountains, my great-uncle came with us. He was a monk, though he no longer lived in a monastery. My mother had taught me to read and write a little Tibetan, and my uncle thought that I was a promising boy who might benefit from a monastic education. Every day he would sit with me and teach me to write on a slate, or on the bark of a tree, as there was no paper in the mountains. He also loved history, and was a good storyteller. As we tended the animals, he would tell me long stories about Songtsan Gampo and the kings and heroes of Tibet.” [Ibid]
“But his main love was the dharma, and he told me that if I continued to lead the life of a layman I might acquire many yaks, but would have nothing to take with me when I died. He also said that married life was a very complicated business, full of responsibilities, difficulties, and distractions, and that the life of a monk was much easier. He said that it gave you more time and opportunities to practice your religion.” [Ibid]
“By the end of the summer I had decided that I would like to try monastic life. I thought that if I really dedicated myself to religion I would have a better chance of a good rebirth in my next life and have the opportunity to gain nirvana. My uncle and I guessed that my parents would forbid me from becoming a monk, so we decided that I should join the monastery first, and only later inform the family. At the end of the summer, when we came down from the passes, my uncle and I went to Dagpo monastery, and he handed me over to the abbot.” [Ibid]
Tibetan Buddhist Monk Life
Monks live as simply as possible They follow the model of the Buddha who traded in his clothing for simple robes. Monks shave their heads and faces to discourage vanity.
Tibetan monks rise at 5:30am offer holy water and light yak butter lamps to honor Buddha and the Dalai Lama, and pray and meditate for five hours. Near midday, two monks climb a central temple and blow a horn, calling the senior monks to prayer. In the afternoon monks generally attend classes, participate in discussions on religious doctrine, say prayers for the dead “to help their soul reach heaven” and engage in debates with other monks. Prayers and study are stopped up to nine times a day for teas and simple meals. Many monks carry a bowl for eating tucked into a fold in their robes.
Monks sit cross-legged in rows when they chant prayers. Describing a group of chanting monks in Mongolia, Thomas Allen wrote in National Geographic, "Dozens of monks sat in the center of the temple, while the world of tourists and worshipers whirled around them. In a counterpoint of human and sacred sounds, babies cries sharply rose and fell against the undulating, ceaseless chanting. A gong throbbed unseen in a mist of incense...The monks sat in facing rows, eyes fixed on some inner eternity, hands gracefully moving as they hold their dark beads and tinkled tiny bells. Many of the monks in the back rows were young."
Many monks spend their time debating subtle points of Buddhist theology such as "whether or not a rabbit has a horn" or "whether form has shape and color." The abbots and teachers usually stand while the monks sit on the floor. In their free time monks play soccer, wrestle and goof around. In some monasteries monks participate in debates in the main assembly hall of the monastery, observed by local spectators and tourists. This is sometimes followed by ritual music played outside.
Monks have traditionally lived a cloistered existence. One Tibetan monk said, "When I was a child we Tibetans were like frogs in a well. We saw the walls of the well and the sky above. That was our world."
Passang said, “As it turned out, I was happier in the monastery than I had ever been. In my life as a herdsman, I had to worry about protecting my yaks from wolves, and I had to look after my grandparents. Life was full of anxieties. But as a monk you just have to practice your prayers and meditation, and to hope and work for enlightenment. Also, life in the mountains, for all its beauty, was quite lonely. In Dagpo there were nearly five hundred monks, and many boys of my own age. I made a lot of friends. I knew I had made the right decision. Before long even my parents became reconciled to what I had done.” [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]
“How you start your life as a monk can determine the rest of your life. One of our teachings is, Men who have not gained spiritual treasures in their youth perish like old herons in a lake without fish.The main struggle, especially when you are young, is to avoid four things: desire, greed, pride, and attachment. Of course no human being can do this completely. But there are techniques that the lamas taught us for diverting the mind. They stop you from thinking of yaks, or money, or beautiful women, and teach you to concentrate instead on gods and goddesses.” [Ibid]
Tibetan Monk Training
On his training Passang said, “ It was very rigorous. For three years we were given text after text of the scriptures to memorize. It was a slow process. First we had to master the Tibetan alphabets. Then we had to learn a few mantras, then slowly we were taught the shorter versions of the scriptures, or tantras. Finally we graduated to the long versions. At the end of this period we were each sent off to live in a cave for four months to practice praying in solitude. There were seven other boys nearby, in the same cliff face, but we were not allowed to speak to one another. “ [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]
“Initially I felt like a failure. I was lonely, and scared, and had a terrible pain in my knees from the number of prostrations we were expected to do thousands in a day but by the end of the first fortnight, I finally began to reflect deeply on things. I began to see the vanity of pleasures and ambitions. Until then I had not really sat and reflected. I had just done what I had been taught and followed the set rhythms of the monastery.” [Ibid]
“I felt that I had found myself in the cave. My mind became clear, and I felt my sins were being washed away with the austerity of the hermit life, that I was being purified. I was happy. It is not easy to reach the stage when you really remove the world from your heart. Ever since then I have always had a desire to go back and to spend more time as a hermit. But it was not meant to be. As soon as I returned from those four months of solitude, the Chinese came. ” [Ibid]
Tibetan Buddhist Monk Rules
Monks are not supposed to marry, quarrel, smoke, drink or eat meat. They wear maroon robes and carry prayer beads. Sometimes Tibetan monks carry staffs that signify their rank. Many monks are trained for specific duties such as administration, teaching or cooking. In the old days many monastery had “fighting monks” that were trained in the martial arts and expected to defend the monastery if attacked or even attack rival monasteries if there was some dispute.
Monks have not always been celibate.. In the old days it was customary for senior monks to keep young boys and girls as drombos (passive sexual partners) and marry noble women who bore them children.
William Dalrymple of the Paris Review talked with an elderly Tibetan monk named Tashi Passang. The monk said, “ The main struggle, especially when you are young, is to avoid four things: desire, greed, pride, and attachment. Of course no human being can do this completely. But there are techniques that the lamas taught us for diverting the mind. They stop you from thinking of yaks, or money, or beautiful women, and teach you to concentrate instead on gods and goddesses. “ [Source: William Dalrymple, Paris Review, Spring 2010]
When asked about the techniques to rid oneself of desire and attachment, a Tibetan monk said, “The lamas taught us to stare at a statue of the Lord Buddha and absorb the details of the object the color, the posture, and so on, reflecting back all we knew of their teachings. Slowly you go deeper; you visualize the hand, the leg, and thevajra in his hand, closing your eyes and trying to travel inward. The more you concentrate on a deity, the more you are diverted from worldly thoughts. It is difficult, of course, but it is also essential. In the Fire Sermon, the Lord Buddha said, The world is on fire and every solution short of nirvana is like trying to whitewash a burning house. Everything we have now is like a dream impermanent. This floor feels like stone, this cupboard feels like wood but really it is an illusion. When you die you can’t take any of this. You have to leave it all behind. We have to leave even this human body.” [Ibid]
Robes: See Endangered Animals.
Tibetan Buddhist Monk Tasks
Monk chores The life of a monk is not all just quiet meditation and study. New arrivals and junior monks especially perform chores like doing the laundry, sweeping floors and fetching water. Young monks are often running around with pots of tea in their hands, delivering them to senior monks. To earn merit on Buddha’s birthday some monks walk around and around their monasteries the entire day, carrying heavy wooden-bound prayer books. Many classrooms in monastery colleges are outfit with buckets. If a monk can't remember a text he was supposed to recite he has to wear a bucket of water around his neck until he gets it right.
Monks have traditionally subsisted off of food from their labors, donations from farmers and herders and contributions from their families. Buddhists believe that each monk’s spiritual quest helps the entire community. Sending sons to become monks earn merits for their parents.
Many monks spend their time laboriously duplicating sacred books by hand with intricate hand-carved printing blocks. The Buddhist scriptures are printed in three-foot-long books that are produced in sets consisting of 100 or more volumes.
Buddhist monks at the Baoguang monastery in southwest Sichuan formed China's first and only monk fire department in 1989. About 80 of the monastery's 130 monks are members of the department and newly-recruited monks are trained in fire fighting.
Catholic monks have come to Tibetan monasteries to learn meditation techniques and Tibet monks have been sent to Catholic missions to lean how to set up orphanages, homes for the elderly, schools and hospitals. In Tibet, villages and families traditionally took care of these things. With the Dalai Lama in exile in India the traditional structure has collapsed and the monasteries have had to take over.
Trouble Getting New Tibetan Monks
More monk chores A couple decades ago there were very few monks left as a result of Chinese repression and most of the monks were elderly. After China opened up after the Cultural Revolution many young men in Tibet became monks. Asked why he became a monk, one 22-year-old monk told the Washington Post, "I joined of my own free will. Every time I met a monk, I had a good feeling."
Monasteries have a hard time getting new recruits. In Nepal, few Sherpas become monks these days, and of those who try two thirds eventually quit. One monk told National Geographic, “No one wants to become a monk when they’ve already danced with girls.” "Some fall in love with girls," one trainee said, "Others can't take the responsibility." One man who was a monk for 16 years left for "chang and a good woman."
In Tibet, many monks are lured by money and run off and work as laborers or in restaurants. The number of senior priests is also declining.
Changing Tibetan Monks
The monks themselves are changing. These days monks sometimes wear blue running shoes under their maroon robes and suck on popsicles and smoke cigarettes after the meditation sessions are over. Many wear soft wool robes rather than ones made of coarse cloth and study Mandarin and English to keep up with the times.
There are monks that are always on their cell phones and love tinkering with electronics. Some talk on cell phones while they do the circuit at Jokhang.
Monks with flashy sunglasses, riding motorscooters, are becoming a common sight. Some are involved in the smuggling of precious antiques and selling statues and to German and Japanese tourists. Small bronze statues taken from monasteries have been sold by monks for between $5,000 and $50,000.
Chinese Rules and Tibetan Monks
The Chinese government bans monastic education before the age of 18. The government justifies this policy by arguing that monasteries only teach religion and the Tibetan language and students need a complete education with sciences, the Chinese language and math. Many parents ignore the law and quietly send their sons off to monasteries for religious training. Senior monks have said that after attending regular schools for nine years many young Tibetans don’t want to become monks.
In many monasteries monks are not allowed to watch DVDs, surf the Internet or use cell phones in accordance with Beijing rules. They are told that pictures of the Dalai Lama are banned and reminded not to listen to what people outside China say.
Monasteries have been ordered to stop holding public teachings and are required to allow the Chinese government to conduct classes. One monk in Shigatse told the Washington Post, “We have enough to eat and enough clothes, but our spirits are heavy. There are political education classes every Tuesday and Friday now, and everyone is scared. We can’t even trust our senior monks.”
Foreign tourists have described undercover monks at some of the monasteries they have visited. One American couple told Lonely Planet that they gave one monk at Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse some tapes of speeches by the Dalai Lama. Later the couple was picked up by police, with the “monk” on hand to identify them. They were interrogated at police station and had their hotel room searched. Possessions connected to the Dalai Lama were confiscated.
Re-education Classes for Tibetan Monks
A monk at the Dege printing factory told National Geographic, “Fifteen times a year, Chinese officials visit the monasteries and conduct ‘patriotic education’ Each class lasts two or three hours. Basically they tell the monks the Dalai Lama is evil and that he wants to split the motherland. The monks must pretend to listen, but most manage to block it out by chanting silently to themselves.”
In recent years regular re-education classes have been stepped up and have become part of monastic life in Tibet. Attendance is mandatory—unless a monk is sick and then a letter from a doctor is necessary be excused from the class.
The re-education classes used to take place once or twice a month then they were increased to once or twice a week. Now at some monasteries they occur almost daily. One monk told the Times of London that in the morning, “We gather in the main hall and Communist Party officials deliver a speech telling us to be patriotic and they give each monk a paper to read.” In the afternoon the monks return to answer questions related to the paper. “Usually, it’s pretty relaxed. If I can’t remember my answers, then I just repeat the same as the monks in front of me.”
“Sometimes it turns more serious. That is when the police arrive. They may stand beside each monk listening carefully to make sure each answer is correct. If the police come we have to lie. We have to say, ‘I love the motherland. I don’t love him.’ They don’t require you to explain who ‘him’ is, because we all know.”
Image Sources: Julie Chao http://juliechao.com/pix-china.html , Shunya.net, Purdue University
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011