The Sera, Gadan and Drepung Monasteries are known as the 3 great monasteries of Tibet. All belonging to the lineage of Gelugpa started by Je Tsong Khapa in early 15th century and all are within Lhasa, capital of Tibet. Contrary to common understanding, these great monasteries are not places of worship and rituals but are in reality monastic universities providing religious education to the monks from age 8 to up to 70 in some cases. Though Gadan monastery is the spiritual head quarter of the lineage, it was the Drepung monastery that has the highest number of monks in the past, before the political changes took place in Tibet. Drepung used to have 7,700 monks, Sera 5,500 and Gadan 3,300. These are the official numbers but the actual numbers of monks have often exceeded these numbers in the history. Drepung at its peak hosted over 10,000 monks. Sera-Je, just one of the 3 Colleges of Sera Monastery, hosted over 6,000 between the 1930's and 1950's.
Sera was established by Jamchen Choje Sakya Yeshe in 1419 on the request of his teacher Je Tsong Khapa. Sakya Yeshe was the close disciple of Tsong Khapa who was invited to become mentor of the Chinese emperor on behalf of Tsong Khapa and who taught extensively in China, particularly in the Imperial court, converting many royal members and in Wutaisan. He was one of Lama Tsong Khapa's 8 close disciples who were known as the eight flagpoles upholding the teachings. When he returned to Lhasa from China, he bought along gifts from the emperor, including a set of Tangyur (canons of teachings spoken by Buddha) commissioned by the emperor, a set of 16 arhats, a sandalwood statue of the Buddha. These became the treasures of Sera, along with a Hayagriva statue said to have once spoken and a Chenrezig statue which belonged to the famous nun, Gelongma Padma, lineage founder of the set of 11 faced Chenrezig practices including the Nyunglay practice, transmitted directly by Chenrezig to the nun in a vision.
There is a beautiful story related to the set of Tangyur texts. When Sakya Yeshe returned from China, there has been an accident and the texts granted by the emperor felt into a big river as he crossed it. He thought the texts were lost and carried on the journey. Before his return however, an old man with attendants came to Sera and presented the set to the monastery and said that he was delivering it for Sakya Yeshe. Upon being told the story later, Sakya Yeshe examined the texts and found that they were still not completely dried and it was believed that the old man was a Naga (water spirit) king. There is another story relating to another set of canons kept at Sera as monastic treasures. A monk once prayed very sincerely in front of a statue that one day he would be able to afford to commission the printing of a wood block set of texts. The next day he found a mysteriously appeared full set of ink, blocks and paper underneath the altar and printed this set of texts, which was presented to Sera. This set is known as 'the mysteriously appeared canon'. Most of the treasures listed above are still being preserved at Sera today.
Of the 3 great monasteries, Sera is the closest to the Potala Palace at Lhasa and is 3 kilometers away from it. The entire monastic complex occupied 2 square kilometers. The rock formations behind the monastery bear close resemblance of the 8 auspicious symbols. Behind Sera, there is the Choding hermitage where Je Tsong Khapa lived and retreated and composed many important texts. There is also a throne where he used to teach and next to it there is a small spring sacred to White Manjusri. It is believed that the spring water is good for healing stomach ulcers and for improving wisdom. Higher up the hill, there is a house where Marpa's handprint could be seen. A few kilometers away is the Pabongkha palace, which was a retreat used by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gonpo and his 2 wives. It was here that Thomi Sambhota invented Tibetan at the request of the king, using Sanskrit as the blueprint. As he came out of the retreat, people gathering at this house asked him to demonstrate his works and the newly invented written language. He wrote on the wall in Tibetan the mantra of the Buddha of Compassion, Om Mani Padme Hum, and it has become the first use of the Tibetan language. To this day, the mantra could be seen. At the foot of this house, there is a natural pattern of an eye on a rock. This is said to be one of the 3 Dakini eyes which could be seen around this area. The house was also made famous by its later resident, Pabongkha Rinpoche. Not far from the house is the Pabhongkha cave which is said to be a holy place of the Dakinis. A natural pattern of an eye (second of the 3 eyes) could be seen in the cave and on the roof there is a natural pattern of a triangular 'Dharma source'. Pabongkha Rinpoche spent most of his days in this cave retreating.
The monastery comprises two independently functioning colleges, Sera-Je and Sera-Mey. Sera Mey was first established in Tibet in 1421 by Kunkyen Jangchub Boompa, also a disciple of Je Tsong Khapa. Over the centuries the monastery has produced many great scholars. Until 1959 the college housed nearly 5,000 monks.
New student entering the monastery
It is common for Tibetan families to send one or more sons to monasteries to enter priesthood. Generally elders of high status would be asked to make observations when a son is born. If the observations show that the son has good potential in spirituality or that there are obstacles in the baby's life span, the family would most likely send the son to enter monastic life later on, often around the age of 10. In some cases, the decision to become monks comes from the children's side. And in the cases of the sons being recognized as tulkus, the families would generally give the sons to their related monasteries upon requests of the tulkus' past-life disciples.
The above is a general description for Tibet and Mongolia. There would naturally be exceptions. There has been early English literature on Tibet stating that only the eldest son would be expected to live a lay life and all other sons would be sent to become priests in Tibet. This is a mistaken belief.
Students enter Sera Monastery as either monks or lay people. In the former case, the students may have received their monk ordination (usually at novice level only) in the monasteries of their regions. For example, students from the Dhe-Tsang village of Gyalrong in Eastern Tibet may join the Dhe-Tsang Monastery and receive ordination there. Thus when they enter Sera Monastery later on, either out of their own motivation or being sent by the monastery for education, they would enter the monastery as monks. In such cases, monks would enter one of the 3 main monastic education institutions and be assigned to affiliated Dratsangs (College) and Khamtsens (Houses) according to the historic affiliation of their home monasteries. For Dhe-Tsang Monastery, the affiliation has been with Sera Monastery Mey College and thus the tulkus and monks from Dhe-Tsang Monastery would under most circumstances enter Sera-Mey Gyalrong Khamtsen (since Dhe-Tsang is within the Gyalrong region of Tibet) . Or the Dhe-Tsang villagers may choose to enter Sera Monastery at Lhasa without first entering other monasteries of their region, such as Dhe-Tsang Monastery and thus would enter Sera as lay people needing to be ordained.
In those rarer cases they could enter the other Dratsangs or even Gadan or Drepung Monasteries as they wish, but this kind of scenario rarely happens. Sera, as well as other major monasteries, is divided into Dratsangs (colleges) and further divided into Khamtsens (houses). The Dratsangs are responsible for the main education, forming the centers for students and Khamtsens, while also providing complimentary tutorship, form as smaller units. Students enter respective Dratsangs and Khamtsens in accordance to their country of origins. For examples, students from Guge region would enter Guge Khamtsen, those from Gyalrong and mainland China (the Chinese) enter Gyalrong Khamtsen, those from the Kham region would enter Minyag Khamtsen and Mongolians enter Kardong Khamtsen. As the Khamtsens are subsidiary units of Dratsangs, students entering their respective Khamtsens would automatically imply they belong to a certain Dratsang, such as the Gyalrong people entering the Gyalrong Khamtsen automatically belong to Sera-Mey Dratsang, as Gyalrong Khamtsen is a subsidiary unit of Mey Dratsang. There are many exceptions though. For example, a Chinese person entering Sera may have a master - disciple relationship with a teacher in Guge Khamtsen before his entering Sera and thus may ask to be assigned to Guge Khamtsen instead of Gyalrong Khamtsen which is generally the Khamtsen where Chinese enter. However, the assigning to Khamtsens and Dratsangs are not very fixed rules but only form a general rule to be followed. Sera has 3 Dratsangs, the Mey and Je Colleges and the Ngagpa College, which is the tantric college. Sera-Mey has 14 Khamtsens while Sera-Je has 22. Only graduates from either of these 2 colleges are allowed to enter the Ngagpa Dratsang for further studies and thus this college has no Khamtsens under it, the exception being that some monks apply to enter Ngagpa Dratsang without prior studies and become monks skilled in the rituals only. They are not allowed to enter the 2 Colleges later on. Some Khamtsens are very strong in numbers while some may only have a few members.
A person wishing to enter any of the monastic universities generally need to be introduced to the monasteries by a guarantor, who usually is an elder monk belonging to the monasteries concerned, such as an uncle who is a monk of the monastery the student wishing to enter. It would be natural for the fresher to enter the Khamtsen of his guarantor. In most cases, the guarantor would be an uncle or someone from the same region and thus the new students entering the same Khamtsen of his guarantor would also mean he is entering the Khamtsen appropriate to his region of origin, thus there is no contradiction in saying that a person would be assigned Khamtsen according to his region of origin and by the Khamtsen of his guarantor. In cases where it mean 2 different Khamtsens, he would be assigned one as the Abbot sees fit and most beneficial. As said before the percentage of exceptions is high and the rules are not that fixed.
A new student would be assigned 2 teachers at entering, one as a personal mentor and the other as a teacher. During his years in Sera, the student would present all his money and belonging to his personal mentor for safe keeping and the mentor is responsible in teaching him all the rules of the monastery and the way of monks, plus looking after the young monk in all aspects of life, such as food, clothes, medicine and extra tutoring in spirituality. Often the mentor would be the guarantor but in some cases where the guarantor does not have the necessary qualifications or time to be responsible, he would request another person, usually from the same Khamtsen, to do his job in looking after the new monk. The teacher is responsible for formal education and usually this post is held only by a higher Geshe.
When officially entering the monastery, the personal mentor would present a set of robes to an aspiring student and lead him to the Abbot's residence, taking a Khadak (ceremonial scarf) and a pot of newly brewed tea. The aspiring student makes 3 full prostrations to the Abbot upon entering the meeting room, both as respect and for the Abbot to observe whether he has any physical disabilities. After observations, the Abbot asks, 'Are you willing to enter religious life?' and the student answers. 'Yes Sir' while the Abbot cuts a few strands of his hair to symbolize the new monk's break with worldly life and family. The Khadak is now presented by the new student to the Abbot and an attendant serves tea (prepared by the student or his mentor) to both Abbot and the new student. After the Abbot and the new student sip the tea, the teacher - student relationship is symbolically established although the Abbot would not personally teach the students in most cases. For aspiring students who were ordained before entering Sera,the cutting of hair is omitted and the rest of ceremony would be the same.
After the meeting with Abbot, the student is taken to the Zhalngo of the monastery ( the head prefect of the monastery), the Geku of his Dratsang (head prefect of the Dratsang) and the Khamtsen Kyigan (house manager) for paying respect and introducing. The mentor would announce ,'I have taken him to meet with the Abbot for approval. Please allow him to attend the monastic rituals although he has not mastered the chanting.' This is a formality and would almost always be allowed. After that, the student is now an official member of the monastery. His mentor is responsible for the new comer's behavior and maintenance. In the next 3 years, the new student is to live in the same house as his mentor, learning the ways of monks while serving as a servant to his mentor. This service is not seen as a price to pay for the mentorship, but rather as an important and necessary part of learning. In this 3 years, the new monk are not allowed to wear shoes even in snow, has no personal time or space and would sleep in the kitchen floor to look after tea making or be called for service by the mentor anytime.
The above is a very general description of the life of a new monk. For recognized tulkus or people from eminent families, it would be very different. Tulkus would be expected to make generous offerings to the monastery, his Dratsang, his Khamtsen and lastly the class he is supposed to enter. The more eminent the tulku is, the bigger this grand offering is expected to be. Tulkus may have their own Lhabrangs (personal residences and management) established by their previous incarnations who also studied in the same monastery, or they may live in better rooms in the Khamtsen. The tulkus are exempted for labor but expected to spend more time in studies. They are also allowed to take exams as soon as they feel ready instead of having to progress along according to monastic rules. It is possible for tulkus to graduate within 10 years while ordinary monks would need over 20 years to study and virtually 30 years by the time they get to be examined and graduate. For people from eminent families or individuals who are great sponsors of the monastery, it is similar to the tulku cases.
The curriculum of Sera
After successfully memorizing the necessary chanting texts of his Khamtsen and Dratsang and learning the monastic rules, the new students is presented to the teacher and Abbot for a brief oral examination. If the Abbot and teacher are satisfied, the students could then start the formal learning. At Sera, the final goal for most students would be the Geshe degree (roughly equivalent to a Doctorate in Theology). The progress towards this final goal is divided into 14 or sometimes 15 stages or classes:
1.Basic education I
2.Basic education II
3.Basic education III
4.Perfection of Wisdom Jewel Ornaments basic studies I
5.Perfection of Wisdom Jewel Ornaments basic studies II
6.Perfection of Wisdom Jewel Ornaments detailed studies I
7.Perfection of Wisdom Jewel Ornaments detailed studies II
8.Perfection of Wisdom conclusive studies
9.Middle-view studies I
10.Middle-view studies II
11.Discipline studies I
12.Discipline studies II
14.Preliminary Geshe exam preparation I
15.Preliminary Geshe exam preparation II
Textbooks differ from Dratsang to Dratsang and from Monastery to Monastery. For example, studies on the Perfection of Wisdom in each Dratsang would be based heavily on, other than the commonly used Indian texts and compositions by Je Tsong Khapa, texts composed by the founder and eminent alumni of that Dratsang.
The days are divided into terms and period between terms. During school terms monks debate on teachings learnt and in between terms they listen to commentaries, study privately with tutors or work on memorizing texts. At around 4AM, a monk chosen for his loud voice would stand at the roof of the monastic grand prayer hall (This is the common hall for the entire monastery. Each Dratsang and each Khamtsen would also have their own halls for smaller gatherings on other times) and makes continuos loud yell as wake up calls. This monk is chosen to serve a 7-year term and does the same thing every morning. At each Khamtsen, prefect monks knock on Khamtsen rock gong to signal for rising. Monks wash and change into robes and then gather at the grand hall, which is still closed now. They make prostrations at the courtyard in front and enter the hall in order when the monk on the roof finishes his calling and the doors to the hall are opened,the most senior monks first. Senior monks who have no active service such as the returned abbots, and eminent tulkus sometimes do not attend these gatherings. Monks sit according to their seniority, filling up spaces of those who are senior to them but not present due to various reasons such as permitted holidays, sicknesses or other reasons. When all are seated, the doors are closed again and the Zhalngo announces the morning prayers start.
The Umdze (chant leader) leads the chanting. After some prayers, the rock gong of the hall is sounded and the junior monks, numbering about 100 to 100, rush out to bring in pots of butter tea to be served, starting from the most senior monks. Monks hand out their bring-your-own bowls to receive the tea but no one drinks it until the last monk has received his share. When all are served tea, the Umdze leads the offering prayer and monks were permitted to drink after first offering to the Buddhas. The tea is not completely consumed but a little is left. Monks bring out their own tsampa (roasted barley powder) to be kneaded into the tea and made into doughs as breakfast. After some more chanting, tea is served again and followed by barley porridge. The prayer session goes for an hour and is done every single day (the continuity was broken by the communist movements in the 1950's and only recently revived).
Prayers chanted include the Heart Sutra, Praises to Tara, Mantras of Chenrezig, Prayer to Maitreya, Sukhavati and Manjusri, long life prayers chanted for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and finally verses for Dharma to spread far. During tea breaks, the Zhalngo would recite a verse that is to remind the monks to remember the kindness of the sponsors and work hard in their studies as the repayment of such kindness. Announcements would be made during those breaks and severe punishments would be given for those who do not follow. On special days or when the sponsors are making offerings, the offerings would be given to the monks in shares and sponsors thanked and merits dedicated in those tea breaks. There usually are no afternoon or evening group prayers except for special days.
After the morning prayers, monks start their debate sessions or receive teachings depending on whether it is a day between school terms or during terms. Those new monks who have not memorized the monastic rules and prayers would retire to their houses for chores and preliminary learning and thus do not join the debates until they have mastered the basics in teachings and learnt all the prayers by heart.
For those who are not new comers, the Dratsang halls sound their own gongs after morning prayers to call the monks to the Dratsang debating courts (each Dratsang provides its own education while the morning prayer was done together), which are walled courtyards. Elders sit on raised rock thrones as supervisors and monks sit in the open air bare ground, in 13 circles arranged as a large circle corresponding to 13 levels of studies. No cushions are allowed in debating courts. New monks start with the first level circle which is at a specified corner of the courtyard. As they progress and join higher classes, they move along, sitting in different corners specified for different levels of studies and topics of debate.
Thus a new monk may first sit at a bottom left corner debating the basics, and after a few years his class would progress to the second level of debate and move a little forward. Towards the end of his studies, he would be next to the place where the first level of debaters sit, having almost completed the circuit of 13 classes.
Debate topics correspond with their level of studies. For example, in the studies of valid logic, one of the topics is that 'If all things are said to be composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire and wind as according to Buddhist presentation, then where is the fire in an ice cube? Where is the water in a flame?'. One monk would stand in the middle and yell a loud 'Dhih', the syllable of the Buddha of Wisdom. He clasps his right hand onto left palm and pulls the left hand backwards. These gestures have profound meanings. The right hand pushing down in the clapping motion signifies the suppression of wrong views and the left hand raising in the same clapping motion symbolizes the raising of correct views. The pulling back of right hand symbolizes leading beings out to liberation and the pushing forward of left hand symbolizes the closing of the doors of downfall to lower migrations. To accomplish all these, wisdom is needed and thus the mantric syllable of the Buddha of Wisdom is pronounced. Other monks would answer either individually or as a group. When the monk answering gives an inconsistent answer, the asking monk would make a noise as if to say ,'This is most illogical!' and when one side clearly loses a round, he would take off his hat until he wins another round later on.
At the end of the session, the most advance class makes prostrations and the elders give a brief talk on their topic for the day. Then the second most advanced class make prostrations and the elders briefly teach on some key points on the topic and debate skills in the same way. This is repeated until every class has been briefly taught and given guidelines on their debates for the day. The elders do not teach in depth in those debate sessions but mainly touch on debating skills and key points to be noted during debating of topics concerned.
The first debate happens in the morning during terms. After the debate, if the gong is sounded, this means a prayer session is called. Otherwise monks return to their houses for lunch, private studies or personal affairs. Some monks would be attending to monastic chores. In early and late afternoon, there will be another 2 debate sessions with extensive chanting of the Heart Sutra and Prayers to Tara to ensure successful studies and progress. Although there are a few breaks in between debates, monks usually use these periods to receive additional tutoring from their mentors.
Usually in Springs and Autumns, there would be oral examinations on text memorization. Monks gather at the debate courts to be tested by the Abbot. The texts supposed to be memorized by each monk according to his level would be presented to the Abbot, who would select certain pages at random and ask the monk to start reciting from memory from a certain paragraph. The monks who failed either by knowing what sections are asked for or not being able to recite correctly the sections selected would not be dispelled but would be punished by prostrating in public for a few hours a day. This is seen as a serious disgrace although is not physically demanding for monks who are reasonably healthy. Those who passed with excellent results would sometimes be awarded brocades in other meetings. Those who do not attend the exams would be dispelled from formal studies but would be permitted to remain in the monastery as managers, laborers or attend to other chores and spend their lives in those jobs.
Each year the quota for each Dratsang for applying to be examined is limited to 12 monks and only 2 for the highest honors degree (Geshe Lharampa degree), thus implying that even if one has completed the studies,he would need to wait for his turn to graduate. The studies would take at least 20 years to complete and the final graduation could be 30 years after entering the monastery. In those years, the monks only study sutric material and do not (strictly speaking not allowed) engage in tantric practices and rituals, meditation and other practices are cut to the minimum level to allow for intensive academic studies. Graduates would
1.Leave and return to their villages or home monasteries to teach there,
The Dratsangs are the main centers for learning, with classes at different levels. The mentor and teacher may offer personal tutoring to the monks as requested or as needed. The learning consists mainly of memorizing the texts, listening to the commentaries, debating and thinking on their meanings. Debate is a key method for learning and to ensure even the most subtle misunderstanding is noticed and the subtlest point clarified through the process.
The main hall of the entire monastery is used only in grand gatherings. Otherwise each Dratsang would hold their own rituals, offer its own education to its monks and run its administration more or less independent of other Dratsangs and the main administration.
The current status of the historic Sera Monastery
The material written above is a general description of life and education in Sera before the 1950's. There are differences between the 2 main Colleges of Sera but these are minor differences. If we do not consider those minor differences, the system for all the Dratsangs of Sera, Gadan and Drepung are pretty much identical. In the 1950's, Sera monastery has been totally destroyed and monks sent home, imprisoned or forced to disrobe. Since about 10 years ago, the religious regulations have been relaxed a little and the Chinese government has allowed some rebuilding and monastic activities, the remaining monks have been rebuilding the monastery and trying to revive the monastic education. New monks are joining the monastery and helping with the rebuilding. Despite the recent progress, Sera is still far from its former glory and the most important features of Sera, the education and the large population of monks, are both absent at Sera now. At present only around 700 monks as opposed to the 5,500 in the past, live at Sera, receiving very limited religious training from the few old monks who survived and remained as monks.
The re-established Sera Monastery of South India
However, the Tibetans in exile in India have, since 20 years ago, re-established Sera in South India after going through many hardships and under the leadership of the great lamas such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and ex-abbot of the Mey College of Sera Monastery, Khensur Rinpoche Ngawang Thekchok. Many monks died during the building and re-establishing of the new Sera in India, due to the changes in climate, food and the life in exile. The re-established Sera monastery in Mysore, South India follows pretty much the same as the system of the historic Sera in the 50's, with minor changes in rules and curriculum as adjustments to life in exile as refugees, to fit in the modern world and India's climate. There is a main difference in that the new Sera has only 2 Colleges and the Ngagpa Dratsang was not re-established. The re-established Sera now has over 4,500 monks living and studying there and has a great responsibility to preserve the culture and unique tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The present Mey College now has nearly 1500 monks studying the 5 Great texts and major disciplines of Logic, Tibetan Grammar, Buddhist studies, Medicine and creative arts, leading on to a Geshe degree. It includes its own Sera-Mey Primary School with around 200 students and 18 staff and a social environment center including a health dispensary with 6 permanent workers. Through this college the monks of Sera-Mey continue to teach and practice the religious customs and traditions of Tibet. Every year young novices arrive from Tibet. Consequently there is a great strain on resources as they try to accommodate the constant flow of new arrivals.
Helping the Sera Monastery Mey College
Dhe-Tsang Monastery Foundation works closely with both the historic Mey College of Sera Monastery and the re-established Mey College of Sera in India and is dedicated in helping both institutes in providing / restoring monastic education for young monks.
If you would like to sponsor
1.the monastic education of the Sera-Mey College of the re-established Sera Monastery in South India, or
2.the rebuilding and reviving of the historic Sera Monastery Mey College of Tibet,
please send an international draft by registered airmail to :
Dhe-Tsang Monastery Foundation,
Please kindly specify whether you would like your donation to be used for Sera-Mey India or Sera-Mey Tibet. The funds would be delivered direct to the monasteries by Dhe-Tsang Monastery Foundation, which is a non-profit organization registered with the government of Hong Kong. Official receipts would be sent to sponsors within 2 weeks.