On the morning of July 28, the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibetan Autonomous Region, is alive with maroon robed monks and a cloud of expectancy hangs thick in the air. Monks greet each other in traditional two handed, bowed salutations and murmur in low voices. Several of the younger monks are clearly excited at seeing lamas who are revered as teachers.
It is a day of celebration for all sects of Tibetan Buddhism, as the Lharampa Geshe summer preliminary examination, which had been suspended for 16 years after a separatist group headed by the Dalai Lama took advantage of this religious event to start a riot in 1988, resumed at the Jokhang Monastery, the holiest of all Tibetan monasteries. "It is a great event for Buddhism, realizing a long held dream for us," said Zhulkang Tubdain Kaizhub, President of the Tibet Branch of the Buddhist Association of China (BAC).
The Geshe examination system is a way of acknowledging the academic level of lamas who have been engaged in studies of Tibetan Buddhism for many years. There are four rounds of exams, the first of which is Lharampa Geshe, the highest academic degree for the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is equivalent to a Doctor of Divinity and takes decades of study. The last round of examinations take place in the courtyard of the Jokhang Monastery. It comprises a large debate involving monks, geshes and abbots from the three major Gelug monasteries of Gandain, Sera and Zhaibung. The Lharampa Geshe candidates are subjected to questions from all sides. They must demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of Buddhist scriptures and debate. Only a few can manage to complete this and obtain their degrees, recognizing the monk's superior scholarship and debating mastery. The final ceremony is held at the Grand Summons Ceremony during the Tibetan New Year, which normally falls in February.
"Tibetan Buddhism is a philosophy with a long history, rich cultural contents and strict rituals. This new exam, while preserving traditional customs and practices of the past, is highly improved in form and procedure to keep pace with development, such as the abolishment of rituals reflecting religious feudal privileges. It has also gained extensive support from the Tibetan people from all walks of life."
-Zhulkang Tubdain Kaizhub
According to current stipulations, the whole exam is separated into two parts: a summer preliminary and a winter final. The monks who are lucky enough to pass the summer preliminary take a final formal test on dissertation at the prayer meeting in celebration of the next Tibetan New Year.
According to Tubdain, an official with the Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs, six eminent monks with an average age of 70, from Zhaipung, Sera and Gandain monasteries, are participating in this year's exam.
A committee made up of 15 Living Buddhas, eminent monks, Tibetologists and professors has been set up to supervise the exam. Besides all the members of the committee, some 20 senior sutra or scripture teachers are also present. The test focuses on the classical works of Buddhism.
At exactly 10 a.m. the exam officially begins. The first ritual is the simultaneous recitation of sutra in the examination room to call for the success of the examination. A 10-minute period of soft chanting brings a seriousness to the job at hand. The sutra recitation is followed by BAC Tibet Branch offering buttered tea and traditional Tibetan food to the monks present.
After BAC Tibet Branch Vice President Lobsangba Chilai Qoisang gives his blessings to the exam, the ritual moves to the stage of dissertation on sutras.
The first two candidates wearing the yellow hats of the Gelug Sect are sitting in the center of the room smiling but quiet, seemingly not nervous. The sutra teachers question the examinees one by one. The atmosphere is relaxed. During the question and answer stage, which lasts for about half an hour, ripples of laughter are heard coming from candidates.
At the end of the whole exam procedure, BAC Tibetan Branch President Zhulkang Tubdain Kaizhub announced, "The exam has strictly followed the standards of high quality, and has proceeded smoothly in an open, fair and equal manner. The examinees were smart in their answers, quick in thought and profound in knowledge."
Zhulkang Tubdain Kaizhub explains, "Tibetan Buddhism is a philosophy with a long history, rich cultural contents and strict rituals. This new exam, while preserving traditional customs and practices of the past, is highly improved in form and procedure to keep pace with social development, such as the abolishment of rituals reflecting religious feudal privileges. It has also gained extensive support from the Tibetan people from all walks of life."
This exam is held to encourage Buddhist monks to enhance their knowledge, carry on Buddhist traditions and fulfill the demands of Buddhists, which fully reflected China's policy on freedom of religious belief, said the president.