Taking a new road to enlightenment
Buddhist monks learn skills from languages to computing, along with religious studies, to stay in step with the modern world. reports.
Tadrin Gyatso regards the task of learning the Tibetan Buddhism canon as a lifelong mission and he values the process of self-enlightenment as highly as his inherited title of Living Buddha.
The 28-year-old native of Dege, a county in Sichuan province, was enthroned as a Living Buddha (a monk revered by his peers as the reincarnation of a spiritual leader) when he was 10, but the ceremony only marked the beginning of his journey.
“To me, the learning process is eternal. It’s not just about this life, but also the next life,” said the monk, who is studying the Tho Ram Pa, equal to a university doctorate, at the Highlevel Tibetan Buddhism College of China in Beijing.
Tadrin Gyatso, who is also abbot of a monastery that is home to more than 60 monks, studied at the Dzongsar Buddhist Academy in Dege for more than a decade before he gained admission to the college last year. He is a follower of the Sakya school, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, along with the Nyingma, Kagyu and Gelug schools.
One of the big differences between the academies is that the college in Beijing offers non-religious courses, including Mandarin and computer studies, that will help him cope with secularissuesatthemonastery, hesaid.
Kalzang Yuknyin, the teacher in charge of student enrollment, said the college is set to welcome more students under a new five-year plan that will see student numbers rise from the current 90 to about 120 by 2017 and to 150 by 2020.
Liu Peng, vice-president of the college, said that in 2012 the central government launched a project to build new campuses for seven Tibetan Buddhist colleges across the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu, and also the Tibet autonomous region.
Four colleges in Qinghai, Gansu and Tibet have already moved into their newhomes, and two other campuses are still under construction, he said. Work has yet to start on the seventh campus.
“Before, the colleges had to rely on the monasteries in which they were based for classrooms and prospective students, which limited their scale and the number of students,” he said.
The move is part of a national plan to develop an academic ranking system that will provide valid certificates for monks and nuns and confirm their achievements in the study of Tibetan Buddhism. The system includes the three-year Tho Ram Pa program and the two-year program for Chi Ram Pa, which is equivalent to a master’s degree.
Liu said the college has explored a range ofways to awardacademicqualifications to monks and nuns, and the Tho Ram Pa program is offered to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, including theGelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya and the minority Jonang sect, as well as the Tibetan Bonpo religion. The program will be opened to monks of the Gelug school, the largest sect, every year. For the other sects, the program will be open for applications every two or three years.
In 1987, the State Council endorsed the foundation of the college after a proposal by the late 10th Panchen Lama. So far, nearly 1,000 lamas, including 93 Living Buddhas, have studied there.
Eventhoughthe college is located in the Xihuang Temple close to Beijing’s bustling Third Ring Road, Tadrin Gyatso has never succumbed to the temptations of city life. “All I need is a quiet corner of the campus where I can meditate and recite the scriptures,” he said.
To me, the learning process is eternal. It’s not just about this life, but also the next life.”
Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhist monks, including Living Buddhas, receive their education in monasteries.
“Tibetan Buddhism has its own tradition of awarding academic qualifications, but there is still a lack of national recognition for the academic achievements of revered masters,” Liu, the college vice-president, said.
One of the biggest problems is that many Living Buddhas who trained in monasteries gain no recognition for their deep knowledge of Buddhist teaching. “They can only say they have received a primary or high school education, despite the fact that they have studied Tibetan Buddhism for decades,” he said.
“It’s possible that their knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism is much deeper than that of a college professor, but there are no national-level certificates to prove it,” he said. Students who apply for the college’s ThoRamPa and Chi Ram Pa programs have to pass exams about the Tibetan Buddhist canon before they are allowed to enroll.
The four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism generally follow similar curricula and adhere to the same Indian root texts and commentaries, according to Kalzang Yuknyin. “Another criteria for enrollment is that the student must be determined to devote himself to the study of Buddhism,” he added.
Because the number of students is still low, the college aims to double the number of monasteries with which it has partnerships by 2020, from 24 to 48, and last year, it began compiling textbooks for the students.
The three-year Tho Ram Pa program is divided into two sections, with 60 percent of classes devoted to the study of Buddhist scriptures and 40 percent to general knowledge, including Mandarin, computing, legal studies, modern Chinese history and ethnic and religious policies.
Candidates must also complete studies of most of the five major Mahayana sutras, the classics of Tibetan Buddhism that every monk must study and understand. Traditionally, it takes several decades to study all five sutras and attain the rank of senior monk.
Kalzang Yuknyin said many of the students were highly respected as Living Buddhas in their home areas, so it will be a challenge for them to put their status to the backs of their minds and adopt the modest attitude expected of students.
“They need to realize that first and foremost they are students here. We keep reminding them that they need to keep studying to live up to their titles,” he said.
Despite the absence of distractions, some Chi Ram Pa candidates still find it difficult to complete the study of three of the five sutras within two years. “Typically, the study of the five sutras requires several decades, but the learning process is much more compact here,” said Sangnga Nyima, a monk from Tibet’s Nyingchi county who follows theNyingma school.
Nyima, whoalso studied at a Buddhist academy in Lhasa, the regional capital, said that compared with the education available at traditional temples, the Beijing college offers a diverse curriculum.
At the end of the three-year program, Tho Ram Pa candidates face the ultimate test: publicly debating the scriptures, a practice that continues the long tradition of Tibetan monks earning their diplomas through debate.
To prepare for the test, the students spend a couple of hours a day debating what they learned in class, but despite the daily practice, Nyima said the thought of debating with the masters still makes him nervous.
“It often seems that you are quite familiar with some parts of the sutras, but sometimes it only takes a few minutes of debate before you realize you still don’t get it,” he said.
It’s essential for colleges and monasteries to guarantee the quality of the education they provide, so the standards are high and at least one candidate every year fails the course. To complete the program, students also have to write a dissertation on a subject of their own choosing.
“Candidates are also tested on their computer skills, because writing academic or religious papers often requires lots of online searches,” Nyimasaid.
The students’ time isn’t exclusively devoted to study, though. Basketball courts and ping-pong tables are easily
Liu, the vice-president, said the courses are designed to ensure that the students will better serve the local population when they return to their home monasteries.
Although many students find the Mandarin classes difficult, they acknowledge that they will benefit from learning the language. Tadrin Gyatso plans to renovate his monastery when he returns home after obtaining his diploma, and the task will stretch his language skills.
“Onething for sure is that I willhave a lot of discussions with Han Chinese workers and business owners,” he said. “As the abbot, I have to be more than just an expert on Buddhist scriptures, I have to learn about the latest technology as well,” he added.
Nyima also believes that learning Mandarin will help him in the long term. “Right now, the number ofHan Chinese in my hometown is rising; someof them will requiremy services and I will require theirs from time to time. So, it will be beneficial to know Mandarin,” he said.
The college diploma will not signal the end of his studies— instead it will be the starting point for further study of the scriptures.
Like Tadrin Gyatso, he plans to return to his monastery after graduation and play a part in the ongoing renovation project.
“After that, I will start another study tour around the monasteries in Tibet for maybe another seven to eight years. Eventually, I will settle down inmy monastery and start giving lectures on Buddhism,” he said.
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