Geshe Rabten: The Life of a Tibetan Monk
Review: A Singular Focus Towards Academia
Geshe Rabten’s account details the struggles and learning required for advancement within the monastic system. From the time he was a young boy, he was attracted to Buddhist theology. After entering Sera Monastery at a very young age, he chronicles his systematic progression through classes — a journey that would take nearly 20 years. These were turbulent times, and he was forced to evacuate to India after the Lhasa uprisings. Furthermore, although he found a life of silent meditation preferable, he was persuaded to instruct Westerners about Tibetan Buddhism. This was considered vital to the propagation of Tibetan religious culture. It should be noted that although autobiographical, the accounts are dictations copied by Rabten’s disciples. Furthermore, the work is a blend of materials: the first section autobiographical, the second a posthumous epilogue by Rabten’s servant. Overall, this gives unique insight into the intense scholarship necessary to master Tibetan Buddhist ideology.
Geshe Rabten’s account is descriptive of both the rigors and theological subjects included in monastic scholarship, going into detail about the myriad books, ideologies, and classes necessary to attain the rank of geshe. In order to complete the extensive study required, his days were filled with memorization, recitation, and debate, leaving little time for anything else. Life was difficult, however he was able to subsist off the support of others, “I had only ragged clothes that other people had given me … As for food, I had so little money that I rarely drank real tea, I lived solely on the charity of others” (Rabten 78).
Although written, “to show Western readers that the study and practice of the Dharma is a slow process, needing much patience and firm determination,” this account illustrates certain problems within Tibetan society (9). Education was inaccessible to all but a few, creating a large, uneducated peasantry. They were called on to support monks, an important element of Tibetan culture, but also an enormous burden. Pragmatic policy was frequently abandoned due to religious opposition and national wealth was drained in support of the monasteries. Geshe Rabten’s zealous pursuit of Buddhism is illuminating; however, it also highlights problems within Tibet’s theocratic system.
Geshe Rabten’s Education
Like a majority of Tibetans, Geshe Rabten was born into the predominant rural peasantry. As such, opportunities for education and advancement were rare. Barring some kind of miracle, class distinction was solidified, as Tashi Tsering alluded to “there were no schools, so reading and writing were skills possessed only by the rich and by government officials, and of course also monks” (Goldstein 9). Instruction was difficult to obtain, forcing Rabten to take advantage of whatever opportunities were available, “During this time I had no teacher or formal studies. There was no one who encouraged me to study; but for fun I often went to the homes of a few of my friends who had lessons, and I watched them at their work” (Rabten 20). Heartened by these initial encounters, Rabten realized a life of instruction and simplicity were the benefits of a select few. The monastery provided the means for achieving these goals.
At a young age, Rabten set off on the nearly three-month trek from Kham to Tibet. This was a significant journey, with few willing to undertake it more than once. Once in Lhasa, Rabten enrolled in Sera Jey College and began basic instruction into Buddhist Dharma. Study was intensive, “one has to pass through at least fourteen, and sometimes fifteen classes … there is no way of skipping any of these” (67). Daily routine was structured and efficient. During his fourth class: “Every morning, I rose at four o’clock and made prostrations until around five-thirty. Then together with all the other monks I would go to the assembly hall where we would pray until seven o’clock. After this, we would debate until ten … [this was follow by intermittent debates and meditations until eight]. Evening lesson took an hour, following which we would all go to the formal courtyard, divide into our classes and again debate … Although most of the monks could do as they liked at the end of this session, those in the fourth class were required, on alternate nights, to remain all night in the college courtyard, debating without a break.” (83-84) As Rabten saw it, his objective was to focus solely on a greater understanding of the Buddhist Dharma. Breaks were filled with study and debate, pilgrimages, or meditation. Overall, this kind of schooling lasted more than twenty years. It is amazing the amount of work and dedication Rabten demonstrated. It all culminated with the examination for Lharampa Geshe, a distinction handed out to only 2 scholars per year. To stand for geshe, the highest scholarly rank available: “[The examination] consisted of one full day of debating during which I was questioned by many scholars, including a special committee selected by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. This consisted of the six abbots of the six colleges of Sera, Gaden, and Drepung and one representative of His Holiness … I was then examined in debate before all the monks of Sera, Gaden and Drepung. From six o’clock in the morning until ten at night, I was questioned uninterruptedly by all the best scholars.” (161-162) Passing this interrogation was a testament to the guidance and tutelage Rabten received from his teachers. He frequently describes how connected he was to Geshe Jampa Khedrub and later Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. After receiving his new title, initially Geshe Rabten wanted to retire to a life of quiet meditation. However, he was soon called on by the Dalai Lama to help propagate Tibetan Buddhism through the education of Westerners. He was now the teacher, the guiding figure to many novices. First he simply gave lectures outside his private hermitage in India, “In 1969, His Holiness The Dalai Lama asked me to meet foreigners interested in the Dharma, and to be of service to them as much as possible” (172). This later blossomed into a concerted effort to establish Tibetan cultural centers outside Tibet’s immediate vicinity. Rabten went abroad to France and Switzerland, giving lectures, opening up monasteries, and gathering a number of disciples. He pioneered the first steps towards dispersion, bridging the gap between the West and the largely unknown sphere of Tibetan culture and religion. This autobiography is further evidence of his desire to help outsiders understand the world within the monasteries, a culture difficult to penetrate and exceedingly different than our own.
Monastic Influence on Society
The educational system in Tibet was thorough but limited. The basis of the curriculum was theoretical, producing a pragmatically ineffective intellectual class of monks. This was preferable, “In Western universities, both the subjects and the goals of study are concerned with this life alone “ (40). In contrast, study of the Dharma brought peace of mind, relieving it from the suffering of this world. If the monks were simply a religious body, disregarding the world would have been fine. But in Tibetan society, all aspects of life are bound to them. They are responsible for policy decisions, administrative appointments, and allocation of funds. Although prudence suggests political instruction would be advantageous, it was dismissed as an inferior subject. It is illustrative of these problems that when the Chinese were instituting reforms in the 1950s, the monks found the situation inconsequential. In response to inquiries whether “classes were disrupted by the presence of the Chinese,” Rabten responds “no, the discipline of the Lharam class was so strict that we had no thoughts for anything other than our studies and practice” (157).
Economic or political science programs could have been helpful, however this would have contradicted the basic tenets of Buddhism. The most practical ability learned was basic literacy, a skill largely uncommon within Tibet. To learn this skill, instruction could be sought from a tutor or a monastery. The former was expensive and outside the means of most peasants. The latter was open, however geared towards spiritual development, the attainment of which could take years. Basic classes could be completed within a few years, however most monks stayed for decades. The remoteness of academic institutions from the majority of the population, the length of study, and the subject material were all limiting factors in the successful development of a capable bureaucracy able to administer Tibet through the turmoil of the 20th century.
The basic structure of Rabten’s work is autobiographical, however it was dictated at the prompting of Geshe Rabten’s disciples. In self-reporting, there is always the problem of memory and selective representation. Relying on an interviewer prompts further questions. Why were certain questions asked? What is the motivation of the interviewer? This adds another layer to the possible distortion of facts. Attached to the main work there is also an epilogue written by Gonsar Rinpoche, an extremely devout follower, recording the time after Rabten’s initial questioning and his eventual death. The epilogue is substantial in comparison to the main body of the text, amounting to almost half its length. It is interesting how there are these two kinds of biographical styles, one first-person and the other third.
Overall, this is not an autobiography based on personal events, politics, or familial relations; the closest connection Rabten had to the world was the devotion he exhibited to his teachers, and the concern he showed to his disciples. This work focuses on scholarly pursuit. The sheer volume of work, multifarious nature of Buddhism, and seriousness of academia kept Rabten concentrated on a single goal: a better understanding of Dharma. It is hard to comprehend how dedicated these monks were, and the physical hardships and poverty they were forced to endure. Buddhism was worthy of such sacrifices however. Geshe Rabten was willing to do whatever necessary to learn its intricacies, pass them on to others, and hopefully attain enlightenment. This work does a fantastic job describing the process of education within Tibet’s monasteries, and can also be seen as inadvertently lending evidence to certain criticisms regarding this system.