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Monk & Monastery in Tibet

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Monasteries & Monks

For 1,000 years Tibet was run by its monasteries or gonpas, which overlooked every town and settlement. A handful were great monastic cities, such as Drepung and Sera, with thousands of monks. Several score, like Samye, housed about 500. Most were small, without land holdings, supported by the monks' relatives. Monasteries were the pillars of Tibet.

Under the rule of the dalai lamas, monasteries were free from taxation and they formed independent economic units. If they owned land, they held the local people as serfs. Trade and commerce were an integral part of their existence. The bigger ones accumulated vast wealth.

Every family in Tibet was expected to give at least one son to the monkhood. It is estimated that about one-fifth of Tibet's male population was celibate monks. The religious life, open to all, was the only avenue of education, improved social status or power. A monk brought honor and merit to his family and might, after long study, become a lama. The monasteries were the only centers of learning, art, literature and medicine in Tibet. They embodied every formal aspect of culture.

The structure of authority throughout Tibet depended on ' incarnate lamas' - monks, discovered as small children, who were thought to be the reincarnations of previous abbots or lamas and were not infrequently found in the families of powerful nobles. About 2,000 of these tulkus existed at any one times. At the pinnacle stood the dalai and Panchen lamas, who were acclaimed as incarnations of a bodhisattva a Buddha. Tibet was governed by the dalai lama, along with his regent, cabinet and a council made up of the abbots of principal monasteries and lay noblemen, who owned much of Tibet's land and were rich and influential in their own right.

Boys generally became monks at the age of seven; girls- far fewer in number- became nuns at ten. Only the brightest entered a scholarly life within the monastery schools. Many more became clerks, craftsmen, builders, artists, cooks, housekeepers or monk-soldiers feared for their ferocity.

Those who became educated followed a long course of study, examinations and initiations that lasted for 20 to 25 years. Examinations took the form of debates between the student monk and more-learned lamas. Only after mastering logic, rhetoric, theology and close analysis of the Buddhist sutras could he become a lama himself. When he reached and advanced state of learning, he was considered eligible to follow the path of esoteric or occult doctrines and could develop paranormal powers.

Life for a monk, regardless of his status in the monastery, was rigorous. He rose before dawn and was occupied all day with religious services, administrative tasks, study, vigils, sutra-chanting, recitation, memory work, and the never-ending chores of communal life.


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