Tibetan Buddhist Monastic Studies

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche

Lama Zopa Rinpoche writes in response to a student’s question, giving information on the studies of Tibetan Buddhist monks in the monasteries and asking the student’s mother to discuss this on her radio show. 

In his response, Rinpoche includes an article on life in Sera Je Monastery written by Geshe Thubten Sherab, who currently lives at Kopan Monastery in Nepal. The article provides information about the monks’ study programs, the texts they use, and the attainment of the Geshe degree.

My very dear one,
The mantras that I recorded can be played at the beginning of each talk, then your mother can read the benefits in Chinese. You could also play them at the end of the talk.

I have already sent you the benefits of the mantras. The main thing to read out is the benefits, rather than the actual practice.

It is good to also start to give some introduction to the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. You can get this from these books:

  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama – The World of Tibetan Buddhism, pp. 9-13, pp. 15–30.
  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama – Essence of the Heart Sutra, pp. 41-48.

If you can translate these and read them out, that would be good. Also, there may be other parts in these books that give a very good general idea.

Also, here is some information about how much study the Tibetan geshes do. The point here is to explain to people how much extensive knowledge the Tibetan lamas have, so they know the extensive study the lamas and geshes do in the monasteries, study not only of sutras but also of tantra. They study the sutras for 16 years (see more details below). There are five major sutras studied and their commentaries. They are:

1) Abhidharmakosha by Vasubandhu,

2) Pramanavarttika by Dharmakirti,

3) Abhisamayalamkara by Maitreya Buddha,

4) Madhyamaka by Chandrakirti,

5) Vinaya (Root Sutra) by Buddha Shakyamuni,

and also commentaries by other Indian and Tibetan masters.

It is important to give a clear idea so people understand how much study the Tibetan lamas and geshes undergo, and how qualified they are to teach all of Buddha’s teachings. All the studies come from Buddha’s teachings, from the sutras, also the teachings of the great pandits and yogis, which are the commentaries. These commentaries support Buddha’s teachings. They help to explain the root texts and sutras.

The monasteries also put a lot of emphasis on understanding the teachings by doing debate. After the sutra studies are finished, then the lamas and geshes study the tantras. This includes study on the meanings behind art. You can see it is not just chanting mantras. There is a lot of study on the mantra paths and the extensive tantric teachings, taught by Buddha in deity form. Buddha manifested in different places to teach the tantras, for instance, the Kalachakra, Yamantaka, Heruka, and Guhyasamaja tantras. All the history is there, the details are in the tantras, where they were taught. It is incorrect to think that Tibetan Buddhism is just tantra and that tantra was not taught by Buddha.

This confusion can happen if people have not received teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and have not heard the extensive teachings on the origins of the tantras and the sutra teachings, if they have not received teachings from the great abbots, or if they have not researched the studies and looked at the texts. Then people can have wrong views. This is just a very brief explanation to help show how extensive the studies are.

Therefore, it is very, very important for people to have a clear idea. In the past, Tibetan Buddhism was mistakenly called “Lamaism”. This was translated by some Western people. This is totally wrong. Also, His Holiness the Dalai Lama often explains that all of Tibetan Buddhism came from Buddha, from the great pandits of India. His Holiness actually often refers to Tibetan Buddhism as the Nalanda tradition, coming from Nalanda Monastery in India.

If you can, introduce a little regarding Tibetan Buddhism (you can get this from Essence of the Heart Sutra, pp. 21-48). After that, give a little introduction to Lama Tsongkhapa. Lama Tsongkhapa himself is an enlightened being, meaning the embodiment of all Buddha’s wisdom. Lama Tsongkhapa took teachings directly from Manjrushri himself. Lama Tsongkhapa was always checking any questions or clarifying teachings with Manjrushri. He would check all the extremely difficult points with him. He received clarification from Manjrushri himself, directly, just like a guru and disciple. This was not in a vision or in meditation, not like an appearance, he saw Manjrushri directly with his eyes.

Lama Tsongkhapa gave the most profound and in-depth teachings on the tantras, making the teachings so clear and possible to understand, such as the teachings on the three kayas, and on the illusory body. Some of the most profound teachings and clarifications of tantra have been given by Lama Tsongkhapa. The tantras are extremely precious because by practicing them one is able achieve enlightenment in one brief lifetime of this degenerate time. If one only practices sutra, then it takes three countless eons to achieve enlightenment. You can see how incredibly precious the tantras are.

Lama Tsongkhapa composed 18 volumes in his lifetime. Some of these are:

  • The Lamrim Chenmo – the great commentary on the stages of the path to enlightenment. (This has been translated now into Chinese and English.)
  • Commentary on the 50 Stanzas of Guru Devotion
  • Commentary on Nagabodhi’s Means of Achieving Guhyasamaja
  • Great Exposition of Secret Mantra
  • Commentary to Fundamental Stanza on the Middle Way by Nagarjuna
  • Essence of the Eloquent Analysis of the Interpretive and Definitive Teachings (which differentiates between the interpretive and definitive teachings of the Buddha)
  • Commentary on a Guide Entering the Middle Way

Lama Tsongkhapa also composed a host of commentaries to the tantras, such as the Guhyasamaja and Heruka tantras, and so forth. So, it can be said that Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings actually come from Manjrushri. You can say they were taught by Manjrushri himself.

Also, Lama Tsongkhapa studied not only the extensive sutras and tantras, but also the three schools of Tibetan Buddhism: the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions. He analyzed all the tantras, checking all the root tantras and commentaries by the great pandits and yogis. In this way, he formed the most complete teachings on sutra and tantra.

The Lamrim Chenmo, composed by Lama Tsongkhapa, is one of the most important texts, which has the most essential and clear teachings in order to subdue one’s mind. Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings cover the whole path to enlightenment. He was not just a great scholar, but had all the realizations. Even the head of the Nyingma school, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, said that Lama Tsongkhapa gave the clearest teachings on emptiness. Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings on emptiness are very important. They give a very good explanation of the interpretive meaning. Also, his teachings on the Madhyamaka – middle way view – are excellent teachings, with an extremely clear view, as well his teachings on the middle lamrim. His teachings on the tantras and their commentaries give extremely detailed explanation on the five stages, as well as clarifying all the extremely subtle points.

Please find below more details regarding the specific studies that are done in the monasteries.

With much love and prayers,

Lama Zopa


Life in Sera Je Monastery

by Geshe Thubten Sherab

Monks in Sera range in age from 7 to 90. Anyone who wishes to join Sera Je Monastery is accepted only after investigating their background according to the Vinaya, such as whether they have their parents' permission to be ordained, have reached at least the age of seven, and so on. Having met those requirements, the monastery accepts anyone regardless of their race, or social or family background; nobody is turned away.

Therefore, it is easy to see why the number of monks is increasing by hundreds every year. Each year, at least a few hundred come from Tibet and others from all over the world. At the moment, Sera Je has slightly more than 3,000 monks.

Studies in the Monastery
Within Sera Je Monastery there are two divisions for study. Young monks of ages 7 to 18 attend the Sera Je School, which provides general modern education, with subjects such as English, Mathematics, Science, and Arts, in addition to Tibetan Grammar, Buddhist Philosophy, etc. At the moment, there are around 500 to 600 students in the school in Grades 1 to 12.

Once they have graduated from the school, they proceed to join the monastery's main university to study Buddhist philosophy in more detail. The system of study in Sera Je is similar to that of Nalanda Monastery in ancient India. Nalanda was the largest monastery and university in India for the study of Buddhism during its peak. The monastery produced many great masters and practitioners, such as Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and Dharmakirti, to mention just a few. This system involves debating in order to understand the texts correctly, to dispel any misconceptions or misunderstanding of the subject, and particularly to help to understand their essential points.

The Five Great Scriptures Studied in the Monastic University
Five great scriptures or texts are studied in the monastery. They are:

1) Abhidharmakosha by Vasubandhu

2) Pramanavarttika by Dharmakirti

3) Abhisamayalamkara by Maitreya Buddha

4) Madhyamaka by Chandrakirti

5) Vinaya (Root Sutra) by Buddha Shakyamuni

and also commentaries by other Indian and Tibetan masters.

The Abhidharmakosha has eight chapters. The first chapter explains about the elements; the second chapter is about the faculties; the third chapter is on the universe and sentient beings dwelling in it; the fourth chapter is on karma; the fifth is about afflictive emotions; the sixth is on the Buddhist paths and persons engaging in those paths; the seventh talks about exalted wisdom and Buddha's qualities; the final eighth chapter explains about the concentrations, and so on. All these explanations are according to the Vaibhashika system (one of the four main schools of Buddhist philosophy).

Pramanavarttika has four chapters. It explains mainly about mind and its functions, past and future lives, valid and invalid cognitions/persons, direct and inferential cognitions, the Four Noble Truths, love, compassion, and the basis, the path, and its results according to the Sautrantika (Sutra School) and Cittamatra (Mind Only School), but mainly according to the Cittamatra School.

Abhisamayalamkara has eight chapters. It explains about mind and its functions, valid and invalid cognitions, direct and inferential cognitions, the Four Noble Truths, love, compassion, bodhicitta, the six perfections, five paths, ten bhumis (grounds), and qualities of the buddhas and spiritual teachers, etc. In brief, it is about the basis, which is the two truths, the path, which is method and wisdom, and result, which is the two kayas, emphasizing more on the method side. This scripture explains mainly according to the Svatantrika Madhyamaka (Autonomous Middle Way School).

Madhyamaka has ten chapters. It explains about love, compassion, bodhicitta, the two and four truths, five paths, ten bhumis, six perfections, and the qualities of bodhisattavas and buddhas in great detail, particularly about emptiness and interdependence, as well as the wisdom realizing emptiness in every detail. In summary, it is about the basis, which is the two truths, the path, which is method and wisdom, and result, which is the two kayas, emphasizing more on the wisdom side. This scripture explains mainly according to the Prasangika Madhyamaka (Consequences Middle Way School).

Vinaya explains about all the eight Pratimoksha vows, Yarne (monk's summer retreat), Gaye (break after the retreat), and Sojong (restoring and purifying ceremony). It explains all the things that ordained people should avoid and things that they should practice.

Number of Years to Complete the Studies
It takes at least 16 years of intensive studies to complete these five great scriptures. There are 13 grades within the university. The first seven grades require a year of study in each grade: two to three years for the eighth grade, three to four years for the ninth grade, two to four years for the tenth and eleventh grades, and several years for the final twelfth and thirteenth grades.

During the first seven grades, the monks study various preparation texts for the major scriptures, such as the three collected topics: Lo-rig, Ta-rig, and parts of the Abhisamayalamkara and Pramanavarttika.

During the eighth grade, the monks study the complete Abhisamayalamkara in detail.

During the ninth grade, they study Madhyamaka. During the tenth grade, they study Vinaya. During the eleventh grade, they study Abhidharmakosha. During the twelfth and thirteenth grades, they review all the scriptures and particularly Vinaya and Abhidharmakosha again and again.

Studying the Pramanavarttika is from Grade 3 till 13 for two months every year.

Once the monks have completed their studies and passed the various examinations, they receive their geshe degree, which is the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist Philosophy.

Daily Schedule
A typical daily schedule of a monk in Sera Je:

5.00 am. Wake up and wash.
5.30 am. Morning prayers. Breakfast will be served during prayer session if there is a sponsor.
7.30 to 9.00 am. Memorizing prayers and scriptures.
9.00 to 10.00 am. Debating class.
10.00 to 10.30 am. Chanting sutras and reciting prayers as preliminary practices, as well as to eliminate obstacles to one's study and practices.
10.30 to 11.30 am. Debating class.
11.30 to 12.30 pm. Lunch with prayers and dedications for sponsors and all sentient beings.
12.30 to 1.00 pm. Break time.
1.00 to 2.00 pm. Receiving teachings from teachers.
2.00 to 4.00 pm. Homework. Reading, reflecting, and discussing the subjects, particularly covered by the teacher on that day.
4.00 to 5.00 pm. Receiving teachings from teachers.
5.00 to 5.30 pm. Dinner with prayers.
5.30 to 6.00 pm. Break time.
6.00 to 7.00 pm. Evening debating class.
7.00 to 8.30/9.00 pm. Prayers and meditation. Reciting the Heart Sutra and 21 Taras praises many times, and reciting many other prayers as preliminary practices and to eliminate obstacles to one's study and practices.
9.00 to 10/11.00 pm. Debating class (Some of the monks will continue until midnight or 1 am).
10/11.00 to 12.00 am. Reciting the prayers and scriptures which have been memorized so that one does not forget.
12.00 am. Bed time, but many monks will study till 1 or 2 am.

The schedule changes a little during different times of year. For example, in December, there will be a week of prayers and meditation, which start at 2.30 in the morning and go till 9.30 in the evening. There will be short debating classes within that period, and many monks will be studying after 9.30 pm. The schedule also changes during the Mon-lam chen-mo (the Great Prayers Festival) or during the geshe graduation ceremonies, etc.

The Geshes
Four levels of geshe degree are awarded after a monk has completed his studies in the monastery: Lharampa, Tsogrampa, Rigrampa, and Lingse. There are some monks who, even though they have the knowledge and qualifications to become a Lharampa Geshe (the highest level), choose to get one of the lower level geshe degrees, or even sometimes decide not to get a geshe degree for various reasons. After obtaining a geshe degree, a monk will be called a geshe.

Nowadays, Sera Je produces around ten Lharampas, six to eight Tsogrampas, Rigrampas, and Lingses, a total of around 34 geshes every year.

Most of the geshes will then join either the Gyume or Gyuto Tantric College for at least one year. At these tantric colleges, they study different texts on Vajrayana or tantra, such as the Tantric Grounds and Paths, commentaries on the generation and completion stages of various tantric Buddhist practices, focusing mainly on Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Yamantaka. They also learn about all the rituals, including the drawing of mandalas and so on. The schedule there is very tight and long; practices or pujas will sometimes last for 12 to 16 hours a day. Sometimes the pujas start around 2.30 in the early morning and last until 6 or 8 in the evening, with only half an hour’s break for lunch and dinner, and about 10 minutes’ break in between sessions.

After completing their studies in one of the tantric colleges, some geshes will return to Sera Monastery to become teachers there. The teachers teach the monks for five to eight hours a day, six days a week. No salary or pocket money is provided to these teachers. Occasionally, some students who get extra money make an offering to their teachers. But as most of the monks are poor, it is usually the teachers who help the students instead. Therefore, it is clear that the teachers teach purely out of compassion, without any expectations from their students.

A few years ago, Lama Zopa Rinpoche started a fund called the Lama Tsongkhapa Fund to support these kind teachers in the various monasteries of India and Nepal. The fund has been able to provide a small amount of money as an offering for their kindness in educating the young monks.

Many geshes are invited to teach in Buddhist organizations around the world. Currently, in FPMT centers alone, there are over 30 resident geshes and lamas. There are also geshes being requested to teach in monasteries, schools, or universities in Tibetan settlements in countries such as Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Tibet.

Some geshes may decide to remain in their monasteries, such as Sera Je, to offer their services in different departments, like the Health Care Committee, Education Committee, and Ritual Practice Committee, etc. A few of them will eventually be appointed as the abbot of their monasteries or another monastery.

Then there are also some geshes who do short or long retreats (such as the three-year retreat or even for the rest of their life) in the monastery or in the mountains.

Ganden Tripa
A qualified geshe may also eventually become the Ganden Tripa (Head of the Gelug lineage in Tibetan Buddhism). To become the Ganden Tripa, one needs to have obtained the highest lharampa geshe degree, then one must enter into one of the two tantric colleges. After studying the tantric texts for at least one year, one needs to take the exams. Having completed the exams, one will at a later stage be appointed as the disciplinarian of the college. During that time, the disciplinarian has to recite from memory the whole commentary of the root tantra text, and at times serve as the ritual master as well. Having completed his term as the disciplinarian, one then naturally becomes a candidate for the Lama Utzse – the head lama of ritual ceremonies. The post is appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama from a list of candidates provided by the monastery, which is the same procedure for the appointment of the abbots of Sera, Drepung, Ganden, and various monasteries. The appointed Lama Utse will serve his three-year term followed by three more years as the abbot of the tantric college.

Every ex-abbot of Gyume and Gyuto Tantric colleges becomes in line to be appointed as the Jangtse or Shartse Choje, respectively. The Jangtse and Shartse Choje alternate to finally become the Ganden Tripa. There is a saying in the monasteries, "If a mother's child has the knowledge/wisdom, then there is no ownership of the Ganden's throne," which means that any ordinary monk who has the intelligence and makes the effort could eventually become the Ganden Tripa. However, the need to have a great amount of merit is also emphasized in order to become a Ganden Tripa. Therefore, both merit and knowledge is required to accomplish this goal.

How the Lamrim (Graduated Path to Enlightenment) is Integrated in the Monastery
Integrating lamrim in the studies and practices at Sera Je Monastery is as follows:

Preliminary Practices
When a monk first joins the monastery, the rule is that one has to attend all the classes, pujas, and all other practices, without missing any of them, for at least three years for purification and accumulating merit. Also, the monks have to serve the Sangha (community of monks) by helping in the kitchen, the canteens, fields, etc to accumulate merit all year round while they are studying, particularly during the first three years.

When it’s their turn to serve the meals or tea to the Sangha, they practice doing them very respectfully, with the motivation that one is making these offerings to the monks oneself.

When they clean the prayer halls and the monastery's compounds, they do it with the motivation to purify and accumulate merit. The teachers, abbot, and disciplinarian always remind the monks about the importance of purification and accumulating merit through services to the monastery and Sangha, as well as the recitation of prayers, great scriptures, and sutras, etc. There is a saying, "for one handful of study or practice, one needs two handfuls of prayers and recitation of scriptures and sutra as purification and accumulation of merit." That is why there are so many long sessions of prayers, scriptures, and sutra recitations every day.

Each day, during the recitation sessions between the debating lessons, for about two hours, they recite the Heart Sutra more than seven times: the first time very slowly to meditate on the meaning, faster for the second and third times, and even faster for the last four times. The Praises to the Twenty-one Taras are recited more than 21 times for purification, White Umbrella mantra is recited, half a rosary of Snow Lion-face Dakini's mantra, and the Three Long-life Deity's mantras, as well as many other prayers and mantras for the accumulation of merit. The Kangyur and Tengyur texts are also read. In addition, there are prayers and pujas every morning, and many other pujas and prayers requested by sponsors. By the time the monks finish their studies, they would have recited the Heart Sutra more than 40,000 times, the Twenty-one Taras Praises more than 1,100,000 times, the Kangyur and Tengyur many times, plus a few hundred thousand of Snow Lion-face Dakini and the Three Long-life Deities' mantras, and thousands of other prayers and mantras, not to mention those recited individually at home or when requested by sponsors. Many monks also individually do the Vajrasattava retreat, 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mandala offerings, and many other preliminary practices.

Guru Devotion
When a new monk joins the monastery he would be under the care of one senior monk, who then recommends a list of teachers he thinks best for the new monk. However, it is up to the monk to decide who he wants to take as his teacher through thorough investigation before attending any teachings from the teacher. Once he has decided, he would request that teacher to accept him as his disciple and teach him. Even if it is only for a month, the disciple would practice seriously devoting to his teacher through thought and action, regardless of whether he has received any initiation from the teacher. The monks would investigate even more before they receive any initiations from any lamas or teachers.

Although there are many monks who do silent meditation in their own rooms, there is no silent group meditation with all the monks together. Instead, the whole system of the studies emphasizes analytical meditation. The monks receive teachings, read, memorize, reflect, discuss, and debate on whatever subject one is studying at that time, for example, analyzing a specific topic like Death and Impermanence through many different reasonings or logic. There are many stories about how many geshes, lamas, and monks developed realizations while they were debating or studying.

Small Scope
The monks study the precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, the three lower realms, and refuge in mainly the first and second chapters of Pramanavarttika, in the first chapter of Abhisamayalamkara, and much more detail about the lower realms in Abhidharmakosha.

Medium Scope
The monks study, debate, and meditate about the law of karma, the nature of samsara, nirvana, delusions and their antidotes, the second and fourth Noble Truths, and particularly the Truth of the Path in great detail in the first and second chapters of Pramanavarttika and in the first four chapters in Abhisamayalamkara. Karma and delusions and their antidotes are studied in more detail in Abhidharmakosha. The Three Higher Trainings are covered in Abhisamayalamkara and Madhyamaka, with greater detail on the Training of Higher Morality in Vinaya.

Great Scope
Topics within the great scope of the lamrim, such as love, compassion, bodhicitta, buddha nature, emptiness, and the six perfections are covered in detail in Abhisamayalamkara, Pramanavarttika, and Madhyamaka. The six perfections are covered in greater detail under the small and great Salam (grounds and paths) section in the Abhisamayalamkara and the first six chapters of Madhyamaka.

Lamrim Teachings
Many high lamas, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, also frequently give teachings on different lamrim texts at Sera, Drepung, Ganden, and other monasteries in South India, which most of the monks attend. Many monks also attend the lamrim and other teachings given by His Holiness during the annual Losar teachings in Dharamsala. In addition, many monks also receive lamrim teachings from their individual teachers in the monastery, so that they can read, reflect, discuss, and meditate on the various topics.

During Losar or summer vacations, many monks do retreats from a week to two months' long in their monastery. Recently, all the Sera Je monks have also been doing a group Hayagriva retreat together for about two weeks each year.

It is clear that studies at these great monasteries are not just intellectual, like any ordinary school, but rather are a combination of intellectual and experiential studies through various meditations, purification, and accumulation.

Sera Je Curriculum
The five principal treatises of the monastic academic course:

  • Tsel Ma Namdrel (Pramanavarttika) Commentaries of Logic
  • Pharchin (Paramita) – Perfection of Wisdom
  • Uma (Madhyamaka) – Avoidance of Extremes
  • Dul-Ba (Vinaya) – Canons on Monastic Discipline
  • Zod (Abhidharmakosha) – Treasure house of knowledge dwelling on metaphysics and cosmology  



 Dus-chen  Elementary Philosophy 1st Stage  1 year
 Dus-dring  Elementary Philosophy  2nd Stage   1 year
 Dus-chen  Elementary Philosophy 3rd Stage  1 year
 Shung-sar / Prajnaparamita  Perfection of Wisdom 1st Stage  1 year
 Shung-nying / Prajnaparamita  Perfection of Wisdom 2nd Stage  1 year
 Sur-sar / Prajnaparamita  Perfection of Wisdom 3rd Stage  1 year
 Sur-nying Lower/ Prajnaparamita  Perfection of Wisdom 4th Stage  1 year
 Sur-nying Upper/ Prajnaparamita  Perfection of Wisdom 5th Stage  1 year
 Pharchin / Prajnaparamita  Perfection of Wisdom Final Stage  2 years
 Uma sarpa / Madhyamaka  Avoidance of Extremes / Ume Chidhon 1st Stage  2 years
 Uma nyingpa / Madhyamaka  Avoidance of Extremes / Uma Gongpa rabsel 2nd Stage  2 years
 Dul-ba sarpa / Vinaya  Canons of Monastic Discipline 1st Stage  2 years
 Dul-ba nyingpa / Vinaya  Canons of Monastic Discipline 2nd Stage  2 years
 Zod / Abhidharmakhosha  Metaphysics / Treasure of Knowledge  2 years
 Karam  Preparatory Class  2 years
 Lharam Perfection of the entire above course, specifically on Dul-ba and Zod  4 years