Tibetan Monastic Colleges: Rationality Versus the Demands of Allegiance

P. Jeffrey Hopkins
Professor Emeritus of Tibetan Buddhist Studies
at the University of Virginia


In Europe and the Americas (I am purposely avoiding the seemingly dichotomous division of the world into “East” and “West”), Buddhism and, particularly, certain forms of Tibetan Buddhism are depicted as entirely reason-oriented cultures where allegiance and might do not make right. However, observation of Tibetan monastic colleges reveals that other forces are also at play—noncritical allegiance, disagreement for the sake of gaining economic and social advantage, pretension, opponent-bashing, intolerance of diversity, and so forth—much as in the educational institutions of Europe and the Americas. Nevertheless, a vital system of education is also sustained in these colleges such that they deserve to be called one of the notable achievements of the culture.

Many of us are deeply moved by the Chinese Communist government’s oppression and destruction of Tibetan culture and the violent effects on the ecology in an area that serves as the source of the great rivers of Asia. We are stirred by the dire situation of Tibet and its people to the point where we fail to exercise our critical faculties fully out of fear that fault-finding might sabotage the political, moral, and ecological objectives that many of us pursue. I myself have used the facade of speaking through “their own voice” rather than through what could too easily be interpreted as a “privileged” voice. Nevertheless, since the beginning of my five-year residence in a Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist monastery in New Jersey in 1963, I have felt that it is necessary to sift through what I have encountered.

Through exposure in my prep school and undergraduate education to Marxist analysis of social, political, and economic forces, I nurtured a skepticism and even cynicism about almost everything; an even more bitter cynicism was behind my earlier teen years as a juvenile rebel. During my college years I was convinced that everything was corrupt at the very root; I could spin a story of corrupt motive and practice with regard to any area of human activity—to the point of boredom. What has fascinated me since my senior year in college is the possibility of something else—of light cracking through the thick crust of selfishness and deceit. Thus I have usually written about the positive aspects of what I have seen, since the cynical is so well covered by others. Still, it has been imperative for me to keep sifting through the garbage of pretension and misrepresentation.

For, in order to recognize the possible contributions of Tibet to world culture, it is necessary to be aware of Tibetan attitudes and practice that do not accord with overblown images. If we are not aware, our fatuous pretensions—whether driven by calculation or by lack of close contact with the culture—will, at some point, be drowned by the force of reality. Then we may become unable to use what is truly helpful; we will be drowned by our own pride, wounded by our original gullible assessment or by our inability to achieve a more nuanced voice.

Still, I strongly feel that it is not sufficient to engage in destructive criticism, even if it is clothed in highfalutin terms like “deconstructionism,” and even if I recognize in that term the remnants of the Marxism that opened my eyes to perverse forces in society. I do not want to become satisfied with image blasting, as if the exercise of criticism—meaning here fault-finding—is sufficient. It is not.

Monastic Colleges

Around Lhasa there are three large Gelugpa¹ monastic universities: Gan-den,² Dre-bung,³ and Se-ra. Gan-den University, located about an hour and a half east of Lhasa by land cruiser (approximately forty km), was founded in 1409 by Tsongkhapa eight years before his death. Gan-den University is composed of two colleges, Shar-dzay and Jang-dzay, which were founded by two of Tsongkhapa’s disciples. The colleges are the primary functioning units of the university, and each has its own administration, its own faculty, and its own textbooks. It would be like having two departments of physics, philosophy, and so forth, with separate administrations, on opposite sides of the lawn at the University of Virginia. Instead of one rotunda at the end of the lawn, each college would have its own rotunda as an assembly hall; thus, there would be three rotundas. Everything else would be in duplicate, with the general University of Virginia being merely a further administrative unit, which, by nature, could not unite the two parts.

The colleges share a curriculum based on Five Great Books of Buddhist India—a program of study that begins around age eighteen and lasts for about twenty-five years—but they use different commentaries on those great books for textbooks. Given that the basic structure of the monasric university is to divide into camps that stimulate intellectual exchange, the main textbooks are subcommentaries written by prominent scholars; these textbooks present the commentaries in a clearer format and attempt to resolve issues unclear or confused in those texts. These commentaries, called the college’s “textbook literature,” are the main focus, elevated even to the point where they are the primary objects of concern and allegiance. (Perhaps due to Protestant emphasis on early Christianity, American academics often unwarrantedly assume that the focus of religious systems is on their founder and early history, whereas the focus in this system is actually on the thought of the author of the textbook literature.)

The endeavor at a monastic university is to rediscover (or create) the wholeness of Tsongkhapa’s system of meaning without the slightest internal contradiction. This is done with the pretense that the founder’s many works themselves are devoid of the slightest internal contradiction, that they fit together in all aspects in complete harmony. The cryptic nature of many of Tsongkhapa’s statements leaves room for considerable interpretive creativity that is bounded, to some extent, by his many clear pronouncements. I say “to some extent” because the game allows for positing the founder’s actual thought, despite his words, behind what otherwise may seem to be a clear statement. Nothing is left paradoxical; the assumption of consistency dictates the reformulation of the presumed thought behind seemingly incomplete or inconsistent statements.

The framework of the game is transmitted from generation to generation through a teacher’s remarking fairly early in a student’s training, “It is amazing how there is not the slightest internal contradiction in all of the works of the Foremost Precious One (Tsongkhapa)!” Shortly thereafter, the teacher confronts the student with an apparent inconsistency, as if the student were the origin both of the original proposition that there is no inconsistency and of the apparent self-contradiction. As I see it, a great deal of cultural transmission is accomplished through identification with one’s superiors, and, in this case, the identification is forced through the teacher’s operating within the presumption of a shared perspective. Sometimes the superior with whom one is identifying is also the aggressor—the teacher makes an outrageous demand that shocks the student and calls forth unacceptable counteraggression, which the student hastens to avoid recognizing by identifying with the teacher and then, when the chance arises, pressing the same outrageous demand on a more junior student. The student thereby becomes the inflicter of his teacher’s aggression!

A story from my childhood will suffice to illustrate the process. Out under the elm tree where my puppy was tied, my mother scolded me somewhat vehemently for reasons now not remembered; I immediately turned around and upbraided the little dog unmercifully. (I still remember my mother staring at me awestruck.) This sequence of denying one’s own anger and identifying with the hated aggressor, thereby deflecting the aggression away from oneself, creates a psychologically complex bond that is built on the dangerous foundation of anger and separation from oneself. This mechanism of cultural transmission serves to transmit the outrageous demands of many cultural forms with rigidity. As a result, when students of Tsongkhapa’s texts find what honestly seem to be inconsistencies and thus fail to find the presumed harmony, they feel guilt at questioning the basic assumption of coherence since it endangers the bond with the teacher. Or they decide that their intellect is inadequate to the task and adopt a superficial, often vehement repetition of the presumption of no inconsistency.

Other students (or even the same students at other times) successfully manage their way through this problem by developing an aesthetic delight in the game of ferreting out inconsistencies and attempting to explain them away. The game is not played individually, but is social, performed in the company of classmates and fellow scholars. The highly satisfying intellectual and aesthetic delight that is shared between students when an artful re-presentation of the founder’s thought is put together is the stuff that perpetuates the process; to my sight, it creates an adherence far stronger even than the violent effects of identification with the aggressor. Despite the obvious presence of rigid identification with hated aggressors, such moments of beauty, shared with other participants, are at the heart of the educational system in these monastic universities. As in any university these are the experiences on which teacher and student thrive. The intense nature of the Tibetan system—built on intimate contact with a teacher and on rigorous debate twice daily—provides many opportunities for such aesthetic epiphanies. Thus, the power of mutually supportive appreciation may explain, in part, the structure of Tibetan universities.

The students identify with the college units to the point where the general monastic university has little significance, (In the reconstructed Gan-den in south India, an alley between these two colleges serves not as a connecting passage but as an invisible wall keeping students from straying into the rival college.) Their members’ adherence to these units is so strong that the Chinese Communist government occupying Tibet, despite minor relaxation of religious suppression, has not allowed the colleges to reopen. Fearing the loyalty so successfully inculcated in these units, they have stifled the basic structure that promotes vigorous intellectual interchange.

The lack of easy communication in Tibet and the consequent highly parochial nature of the society are reflected in the monks intense adherence to these colleges. Factionalism is indeed encouraged, with far more occurring between the Gelugpa colleges than between it and other sects. The Gelugpa sect that formed among Tsongkhapa’s followers is, therefore, by no means monolithic in its views, for the basic adherence is to one’s college, which is in competition with the other colleges. Students are inculcated with the greatness of the authors of their textbook literature, the authors being viewed, like Tsongkhapa, as incarnations of Manjushri (the deity that is the physical manifestation of the wisdom of all buddhas) or as reincarnations of great figures of Indian Buddhism. One textbook author is considered an incarnation of the Indian scholar Buddhapalita who, in the distant future, will be the chief general of the troops from Shambhala when they come to relieve the world of the scourge of barbarism and inaugurate an age of such great devotion to Buddhism that there will be no other significant religions during that time. Young students are told story after story about the greatness of the author of their textbook literature such that, as one lama said about the years of his early studies, he considered the members of the other colleges as bad off as non-Buddhists!

It is clear that the many doctrinal differences expounded in each college’s textbooks are used both for intellectual stimulation and for sociological and economic advantage; they help to establish group identity and a sense of uniqueness that justifies promotion of that group for the receipt of donations. The loyalty generated by such dynamics often obscures straightforward pursuit of knowledge and creates an added tension for knowledge-oriented persons. Still, the situation is multi-sided, for although in a debate between two students the defendant must uphold the position of his college’s textbook author, the challenger—usually from the same college—must make this task as difficult as possible, and he easily becomes enamored of the sensibleness of his own attack. (I say “he” because in Tibet women, for the most part, were long excluded from the halls of intellectual pursuit.) Considerable emphasis is placed on winning and losing, and thus students develop elaborate arguments against their own textbook literature. The resolution of this conflict is, for many, a bifurcation of viewpoint—a more public posture that manifests as strong adherence to the textbook author’s positions and a more private, highly critical attitude.

The Tibetan scholars with whom I have studied over the last thirty-nine years all seem to have these two viewpoints to varying degrees. One lama, a fine scholar with penetrating insights into larger issues, was so oriented to the public side that on issues of intense disagreement between the monastic textbooks he acted as if there were no disagreement at all. It seemed he wanted me to think that his college’s viewpoint was the only one!

Another lama, however, would take me through the positions of three of the main textbook authors, though always within the context of showing the superiority of his own college’s view. The variety of opinion with which he was fluent was indeed impressive, often causing me to melt in admiration, but when mentioning the name of the opposing college in the same monastic university, he would suddenly turn his head to the side and spit on the floor! I never ceased to be horrified at this, my disgust magnified, no doubt, by the fact that the floor was covered with a rug. Never mind spit on the floor, but one should never spit on a rug! (My loyalty to my mother easily dominated my new­found loyalty to my lama.) Sitting in hateful conflict at his feet, I was appalled at these not infrequent displays of parochial partisanship directed, of course, at the rival college located just forty paces from his own. He would repeat that the textbook literature of the other, third college—not in his own monastic university—was indeed not so bad, even quite good, but that the textbooks of the rival home-group were pathetic. Pituey! Since we were renting the house, I cautioned him against spitting on the rug, and he got so that he only made the noise of spitting.

Still, he was a grand personality with an incredible capacity to convey the complicated architecture of a worldview, largely through repetition of key issues and positions. Sometimes the repetitions seemed boringly and excruciatingly unnecessary, but when I challenged myself to produce what he was about to say, I would find that I could not quite do it, and thus I would hang on his every word in order to do so. The kindness of his untiring repetitions was considerable. Indeed, one of his intentions was to indoctrinate me such that I would become a follower of his college’s textbook literature, but the benefits that I gained from his repetition of focal issues far outweigh the disadvantages.

Nevertheless, particularly insidious was the fact that, despite my wrenching hatred of his partisanship, when I finally began studying that other college’s texts I found that I uncontrollably viewed them to be pathetically inadequate even before I had read a word. During my study of their texts I was amazed, over and over again, that scholars of this college could make interesting distinctions. Despite being conscious of my hatred at his partisanship, my identification with my old friend was such that, contrary to my own heartfelt and repeated intentions in pained intensity, I came to be imbued with an attitude toward the other college that was a mental version of spitting on the floor.

That Tibetan scholars and administrators appreciate the power of such indoctrination explains, in part, the busy schedule of a monastic college. When I was in the Shar-dzay College in south India, I fell asleep in the midst of a voice shouting a memorized text, and I would awaken in darkness the next morning to the sound of a congregation of monks praying. With a full schedule of prayers interspersed with classes and debate sessions, the monks are kept busy all day and a good part of the night. Exposed to this unending scenario of activity for two months, my Marxist view of monastics as lazily living off the wealth of the populace was reduced to ash.

A final story will add to the picture. The monastic colleges are further broken down into “house units” associated with the regions from which students come and thus promote another level of parochialism. These, in turn, are broken down into “families.” These smaller units provide effective means of addressing the needs of particular students; they are sufficiently small so that students are cared for with concerned attention. Since these units are primarily social and do not have their own textbook literature, they are not the primary units of identification, and thus monks would find it unthinkable to name their house or family unit when asked where their identity lies. In 1972, at a time when I had studied with three scholars from the same house unit (called Ham-dong) of Go-mang College of Dre-bung Monastic University, I was staying in a bungalow on the hill above Dharamsala in north India for several months. One day, I was visited by a scholar who happened upon my place by mistake; after we talked for a while, he remembered having heard of me and, assuming that my allegiance was to Go-mang College, asked, “Are you Go-mang?” Now, although I am a Buddhist, I do not consider myself a Gelugpa, never mind any unit smaller than that. So, thinking of a pithy reply, I answered, “No, I am Ham-dong!” He was stunned, trying to make sense of my identifying with such an unsuitable unit; he did not see that this was exactly what I was suggesting he was doing.

Such cemrality of allegiance is reminiscent of a warrior’s oath of fealty to his chieftain in Anglo-Saxon England; the warrior’s identity was so totally bound to the tribe that if he outlasted his chieftain in battle, such as by being knocked unconscious and taken for dead by the enemy, he was left psychologically homeless, as is depicted in the poem “The Wanderer.” Loyalty to one’s chieftain was used by Christian missionaries as a model for loyalty to God, the eternal chieftain. The implication in “The Wanderer” is that secular loyalty is to be superseded by religious loyalty to a higher leader. What is so surprising in these Gelugpa universities is that the seemingly higher loyalties are replaced by lower ones—allegiance to Buddha is replaced by allegiance to a college. Indeed, the author of the textbook literature is seen as a buddha of this era, but the form that the allegiance takes, with its biased rejection of other colleges, does not allow it to serve as a valid rationalization. Parochial factionalism in Tibetan Buddhism is deeply at odds with its own professed cardinal doctrine of universal compassion and the call for assuming responsibility for the welfare of all sentient beings, certainly including the members of the neighboring college. No doubt, a good deal of my shock also comes from my own historical position of living at a time when national, ethnic, and religious parochialism is obviously driving the world to its own destruction and from my perception that such factionalism must be overcome for our very survival.

I do not wish to create the impression that such parochial bias completely taints the enterprise of scholarship and spiritual development in these universities, for it does not. Rather, I wish to point out the tension present in a multifaceted situation. Parochial bias is often consciously inculcated to establish a mode of operation, much like a stage facade, that sets a scene in which other activities take place. It brings an energy to study and to debate, a focus for students not yet moved in a universaliste way. The inculcated sense of the unique value of one’s college and the awesome responsibility of being a member of this club charges a course of study, during which profound understanding and spiritual progress that run counter to this parochialism may be made.

Thus, it seems to me, the intensity of the elaborate enterprise of Tibetan religious education is fueled in part by the tension created by the demands of biased allegiance that run counter to the core of the central doctrines—universal compassion, universal emptiness, and the experience of all phenomena as manifestations of the mind of clear light. The combative framework of biased allegiance—within which these universalistic attitudes are taught—creates a tension of unresolved energy. That energy, in turn, charges to an even greater height the insistence of the basically opposing postures of blind allegiance and rational inquiry. In a sense, balance is gained not through moderating these two but through intensifying each of them.

Throughout Tibetan culture, there is a dual relationship with and against authority—on the one hand using it to inculcate allegiance and obedience and, on the other hand, putting what seems to be full confidence in reasoning that runs counter to authority. Faced with such a discrepancy, the culture has opted not for one or the other, or a bland mixture of the two, but for a plenitude of both.

Little is done in Tibet in half measures—performing marathon debates in the freezing cold of January such that one’s hands crack open and bleed from slapping them together when making a point, drinking forty to sixty cups of tea a day, populating a single temple with literally hundreds of images, claiming an uncountable number of supernatural happenings (many, many speaking statues, images appearing spontaneously out of rock, etc.), and finding not just a few, but scores of reincarnated special beings throughout the country. The immediate ascription of divinity to almost anyone who makes a mark on the culture—ranging from political figures to spiritual geniuses who founded sects or became authors of college textbooks—undermines their own life stories of hard effort over decades of devotion, study, and meditation. The successful are separated from human endeavor. This produces the strange result of denying the efficacy of effort in a religion that by its own description is oriented toward self-development based on inner potential. Claiming divine descent becomes even in this Buddhist society a favored means of attracting attention in order to gain sociological, economic, and political benefits. Separating off the truly holy also excuses ordinary beings from making effort; the culture thereby protects itself from high expectations regarding practice.

The obvious exaggeration involved in many of these claims of divine descent has led to the development of a counterforce, evidenced in monks, nuns, and lay persons who put little stock in the so-called recognized reincarnations, no matter who or what monastic or political institution has put forth the claim. The excessive inflation into divinity conflicts with the internal demands of the religion (1) to assess accurately one’s position in an uncontrolled process of cyclic rebirth into pain and (2) to examine carefully the psychological processes that produce one’s entrapment. The disparity between inflation and the need for realistic appraisal yields tension, which, in turn, feeds even more energy into the process. Activities with which one has become involved out of uncontrolled identification with the hated can become even more intense.

Within this framework it is very difficult to appreciate the significance of what individual religious figures have accomplished through their scholarship and training. After all, they are incarnations of deities! Would we expect less?! Particularly damaging is the claim that scholars’ works are utterly accurate to and thus repetitious of their Indian sources. This perspective prevents noticing the unusual developments that their insights and efforts have wrought for generations of followers throughout the vast realm of the Tibetan cultural region. The claim that the Buddhism of one’s own sect is the final word, when put together with the hosts of controversy in the colleges of that very sect would seem to have warranted being drowned out in ridiculous laughter long ago. However, again, both sides of the matter are preserved; on the other hand, intellectual controversies are encouraged to the point where they are almost without limit. Such disavowal of consistency, however disconcerting and exasperating to both insiders and outsiders, has allowed for the flowering of a multitude of aspects in the culture. It also may represent a wise assessment—not explicitly, but through the culture’s own dynamics—that life is not so straightforward and simple as to allow for a coherent perspective. The suggestion is that richness is lost when one insists on the drabness of consistency.

One reason why so many persons entered the monastic universities from the seventeenth century onward was to escape the stultifying work and the social rigidity on the estates of noble families. Despite a hierarchy of governmentally recognized lamas privileged from birth, the monastic universities provided opportunities for social and intellectual advancement for persons from the lower classes. Several of my Tibetan teachers testify to the fact that a person from any class could ascend to the top of the intellectual hierarchy through winning debate runoffs—first on the college level, then on the university level, and finally in the interuniversity national competition, emerging as cultural heroes.  ■


Parts of this paper are drawn from my forthcoming Reflections on Reality (2002).

¹ dge lugs pa. On the transliteration of Tibetan words in these notes, see Wylie, 1959:261-67.

² dga' Idam (joyous). In Sanskrit, tushita, which means “sated.”

³ 'bras spungs (rice mound).

se rva (wild rose).

tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419.

yig cha.

My translation is available in “The Wanderer,” Virginia Quarterly, April 1977. Ezra Pound translated the companion poem “The Seafarer.”

The Tibetan cultural region goes far beyond Tibet; it stretches from Kalmuck Mongolian areas near the Volga River in Europe where the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea, Outer and Inner Mongolia, the Buriat Republic of Siberia, as well as Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, and parts of Nepal. In all of these areas, Buddhist ritual and scholastic studies are conducted in Tibetan. Until the Communist takeovers, youths came from throughout these vast regions to study in Lhasa, usually returning to their lands of origin after completing their studies.


Header image: © Michael A. | Lachi (main) temple in Drepung monastery, India, Mundgod, 2006.

JEFFREY HOPKINS is Professor Emeritus of Tibetan Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia where he taught Tibetan Buddhist Studies and Tibetan language for thirty-two years from 1973.

He received a B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1963, trained for five years at the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America in Freewood Acres, New Jersey, USA (now the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, New Jersey), and received a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wisconsin in 1973.

He served as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s chief interpreter into English on lecture tours for ten years, 1979-1989.

At the University of Virginia he founded programs in Buddhist Studies and Tibetan Studies and served as Director of the Center for South Asian Studies for twelve years. He has published thirty-nine books in a total of twenty-two languages, as well as twenty-three articles.

© Jeffrey Hopkins, Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, Wisdom Publications

This paper was published in Thierry Dodin and Heinz Raether (eds.), Imagining Tibet – Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001, pp. 257-268.

Most of the essays in this book are based on papers presented at the International Symposium Mythos Tibet held in Bonn, Germany, in May 1996. This symposium was organized by the editors of the book in collaboration with the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn.

Offered with kind permission from the publisher, author, and Thierry Dodin.

  1. Website for UMA Institute for Tibetan Studies (Union of the Modern and the Ancient: gsar rnying zung 'jug khang): www.uma-tibet.org
  2. Website for Hopkins Multimedia Tibetan Research Archive: haa.ddbc.edu.tw; NOT www.haa.ddbc.edu.tw
  3. Website for Nobel Peace Laureates Conference: www.virginia.edu/nobel
  4. Website for J. Hopkin’s views on Peace Activism: www.uma-tibet.org