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.

China Daily (Canada) - - TIBET -

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.

Con­tact the writer at xuwei@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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