Saṃgha: Saṃgha and Society in Tibet

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In general, monasticism is based on the creation of a form of life separate from the confusion of the world to allow for the full expression of the religious vocation. In the Indian context, this monastic separation finds its standard expression in the phenomenon of world renunciation (sanyāsa ). However, this analysis of monasticism as based on an ideal of world transcendence intended for virtuosi does not come close to capturing the historical reality of Buddhist monasticism. Even ideal-typically, Buddhist monks and nuns are not just virtuosi renouncers who live the homeless life prescribed by the Vinaya. They also play the role of priests, operating as the functionaries of the cult for the service of lay people to whom they provide ritual services in exchange for support. It is difficult to say when this priestly function developed, but it is clear that it started very early on, perhaps even earlier than the reign of Aśoka (c. 270230 bce). This transformation of the monastic ideal has affected all Buddhist traditions, and in this respect Tibet is not very different. This is not to say, however, that Tibetan monasticism does not have particularities of its own. In order to understand those, it may be helpful to start with a brief historical overview of the development of monasticism in Tibet and its relation to society before examining its institutional structures.

The History of the Tibetan Sagha

Traditional Tibetan and modern scholars agree that the first Tibetan sagha was established during the second half of the eighth century. Prior to that period, there had been Buddhist monks in Tibet, mostly from Central Asia, but no indigenous sagha. This changed when the great Indian thinker Śāntarakita (c. 725790) was invited to Tibet by the emperor Tri Song Detsen (740798) to establish the first monastery at Bsam yas (Samye). Since at first it was not clear whether Tibetans would take to the monastic life, Śāntarakita ordained a trial group of seven Tibetans representing some of the prominent families. The trial was successful and other ordinations followed. Thus the sagha developed rapidly during the late period of the Tibetan empire, receiving the backing of some of the more important families and gaining the ability to exercise political influence over the court. During Tri Ralpacen's (817838) reign, monks seem to have received further marks of favor from the ruler and to have increased their power, assuming even ministerial functions. It is also during this time that the first system of taxation was set up to support monks and monasteries. It is this situation that seems to have created a strong opposition leading to Ralpacen's assassination and his replacement by his brother, Lang Darma, the (in)famous last emperor. Traditional historians describe him as a persecutor of Buddhism, but modern scholars have argued that his target was less Buddhism than the sociopolitical influence of the sagha. Regardless, it is clear that his reign, and the events that followed his assassination by a Buddhist monk in 842, created a very confused situation that ultimately led to the disintegration of the empire.

As is often the case in Buddhist history, the demise of central power created considerable difficulties for the sagha, which seems to have disappeared from Central Tibet. A handful of monks found refuge in Kham in Eastern Tibet. There a young man, later known as Lhacen Gompa Rabsel, asked for ordination, but the five fully-ordained monks required for the ordination ritual could not be found until two Chinese monks agreed to participate. Several people were then ordained, and this allowed this lineage of ordination, which traces its source to Śāntarakita, to survive and later reestablish itself in Central Tibet, particularly among some of the Bka' gdams (Kadam) monasteries, such as Snar thang (Narthang).

This reestablishment of monasticism in Central Tibet took place during the second diffusion of Buddhism, particularly between the end of the tenth century and the beginning of the thirteenth century. It is during this period that the new schools (gsar ma ), which take the second diffusion as their point of reference, emerged in opposition to the old school (rnying ma ), which focuses on the earlier transmission. During this period, two other lineages of ordination came to Tibet, the first from Western Tibet, initiated by the king of Purang, Lha Lama Yeshe Öd, who, after ordaining himself, decided to seek a more proper ordination lineage from two Indians, Dharmapāla (9631058) and Prajñāpāla. This line of ordination later spread to some Bka' gdams and Sa skya (Sakya) monasteries and included Rendawa and Gyeltsap. The last line of ordination to come to Tibet was brought by the famous scholar Śākya Śrībhadra (c. 11271225), who ordained his student, Sa skya Paita (11821251). This lineage became popular, and it came to include the great scholar Tsong kha pa (13571419) and most of his disciples. All three lineages derive from the Mūlasarvāstivāda and have been considered equally valid by Tibetan Vinaya masters. Belonging to a different school of ordination (Mahā-saghika), Atīśa (9821054), the great Indian teacher whose synthesis of exoteric and esoteric traditions provides the basic structure of Tibetan Buddhism, decided not to participate in any ordination to avoid splitting the sagha in Tibet.

The monasticism of this later period, however, developed differently from that of the earlier period, in large part due to the historical circumstances. Whereas during the earlier period the authority of the state had been strong and relatively stable, the later period was marked by the collapse of such authority and the proliferation of local hegemonies. This political vacuum contributed to many of the characteristics of Tibetan monasticism, particularly the large intra- and intersectarian differences between monasteries and the role of non-ordained practitioners. It also partly explains the large political role that monastic groups have played in Tibetan history.

It is mostly among the new traditions that monasticism first redeveloped. The first school was the Bka' gdams school, which was established by Atīśa's disciple Drom dön ba (10051064), who, though himself a lay person, emphasized monasticism and the practice of the exoteric aspects of Buddhism. This emphasis on monasticism was imitated by other groups, such as the Sa skya and several Bka' brgyud (Kagyu) traditions, which were then forming. These schools followed some of the Bka' gdams ideas but also emphasized the importance of esoteric Buddhism. It was also during this period that Tibetan monasteries started to create their own indigenous scholastic culture. During the earlier period, Bsam yas had been a scholastic center, but it had fallen apart with the disintegration of the empire. From the end of the eleventh century, new centers started to emerge, the most famous being Sangpu, created in 1073 and further developed by Ngok Lotsawa and Chaba Chöki Sengge during the next hundred years. Many others, such as Sagya, Snar thang and Kathog, followed, introducing an important intellectual component within Tibetan monasticism.

Monasticism received a spectacular boost from Tsong kha pa, who after training in the monastic centers of his time, proposed his own synthesis. His approach strongly stressed the role of monasticism and emphasized the value of scholastic training. In 1409, Tsong kha pa founded the monastery of Dga' ldan (Gaden), followed by two powerful monastic centers, 'Bras pung (Drepung) and Se ra. Together they constitute the three monastic seats (gdan sa ) and have come to play a central role in Tibetan monasticism, particularly in the last three centuries.

Sagha and Sectarian Developments

The rise to prominence of these three monastic seats was the result of the spectacular growth among Tsong kha pa's followers. Although this group was initially well accepted as one among many, the situation quickly changed. Tsong kha pa's views became the target of numerous criticisms, and his followers gradually came to see themselves as forming a separate tradition, the Dge lugs (Geluk). The sectarian process was further strengthened by the political climate of the time, particularly the power struggle between the forces of Gtsang (Tsang) supported by the Sa skya and Bka' brgyud, and the forces from Central Tibet supported by the Dge lugs. This struggle lasted until the forces of Central Tibet, with Mongol support, won and established their hegemony in 1642, imposing their leader, the fifth Dalai Lama, as the supreme authority in Tibet. Under the protection of his government, the Dge lugs school became the most powerful, and its monasteries grew exponentially, particularly 'Bras pung, Dga' ldan, and Se ra. At the same time, restrictions were imposed on other schools. Some monasteries were converted, while others were limited in their scholarly activities and the range of material that monks could study. Not all non-Dge lugs schools, however, were equally affected. The Rnying ma (Nyingma), which remained separate, flourished during this period, creating monasteries and thus starting a move toward monasticism. This move gained impetus during the second half of the nineteenth century, when under the guidance of several nonsectarian teachers, all three non-Dge lugs schools started a revival, revitalizing their monastic centers and recreating their scholarly culture.

It is during this period of intense sectarian confrontation that two features of Tibetan monasticism became well established. The first is the role of reincarnated lamas, or tulkus, as leaders of monastic communities. The first example of such a unique Tibetan institution seems to have been the third Karma pa, Rang byung rdo rje (Rangjung Dorje, 12841339), who presented himself as the reincarnation of his illustrious predecessor, Karma pakshi (12041283). But prior to the fifteenth century, this mode of transmission of authority remained limited to a few lamas. The number and role of tulkus started to grow during the fifteenth century, a time of intense sectarian confrontation. This phenomenon is clear in the Dge lugs school, where authority over the tradition was at first transmitted following monastic lines of succession. But the effective leadership of the school gradually shifted to tulkus, particularly to the Dalai Lamas, who emerged during the sixteenth century as the de facto leaders of this tradition. This preeminent role was reinforced by the victory of 1642, which propelled the Dalai Lama to the rulership of the country. Henceforth, Tibet was going to be ruled, at least nominally, by a Buddhist monk, a unique occurrence in the history of Buddhist monasticism.

The rule of the Dalai Lama did not mean that monks held all the power, but it did imply that monasteries had a preeminent place and that their support became a governmental priority. As a result, starting from the seventeenth century, the number of monks and nuns grew, leading to what Melvyn Goldstein has aptly described as mass monasticism the inclusion of a significant proportion of the population in the monastic order. Some estimate that before the invasion of Tibet by the People's Republic of China in 1950, up to 20 percent of the population may have been ordained, a proportion that appears to be without historical precedent. The consequence of this increase was the lowering of monastic standards. Monasteries placed few severe restrictions on comportment and allowed their monks extensive freedom to chose their lifestyle. This was particularly true of larger monasteries, where one could find a variety of monastic vocations, from that of great scholars and meditators to that of monks involved in trade and politics, or even that of punk monks (ldab ldob ), who maintained order, collected taxes from recalcitrant payers, and defended monastic officials during their travels.

The Tibetan Monastic Institution

It would be wrong, however, to exaggerate the consequences of mass monasticism, for the lowering of standards did not affect all monasteries equally. In fact, when one surveys pre-1950 Tibetan monasticism, one fact dominates: the enormous diversity of organizational forms, disciplinary strictness, and institutional structures.

One of the intriguing aspects of this diversity is that monasticism in Tibet is not the only form of renunciate religiosity. Since the early period, there have been many non-ordained tantrikas (lngags pa ), often forming smaller communities that could compete with monasteries for resources. During the early stages of the second diffusion, these wandering or home-based practitioners often came into conflict with monks, who advocated a more established and exoteric form of Buddhism. A solution to this conflict developed gradually, starting with Atīśa's synthesis of Mahāyāna ideals and Tantric practices. This synthesis received further institutional implementation with the development of the Sa skya and Bka' brgyud schools, where Tantric rituals became integrated within monasticism. In this by now prevalent model, the community abides by the monastic discipline but practices Tantric rituals. It is often led by a lama, reincarnated or hereditary, who acts as the Tantric master and guides the community. This formula has allowed monasteries to provide the kind of rituals requested by the laity and thus successfully compete with non-ordained practitioners.

There were also major differences in disciplinary strictness among monasteries. Some monasteries were extremely lax in the enforcement of discipline, with monks often staying only occasionally in the monastery and spending most of their time working with their families. But other monasteries maintained very strict discipline. In the Tantric Monastery of Higher (Lhasa), for example, monks had to follow fairly strict Vinaya rules. They also had to spend the first three years of their careers in difficult conditions under close supervision. Even within a single monastery, variations existed. In general, the large central monasteries tended to be much stricter than the smaller local monasteries. Among those, there were also significant differences according to location. Monasteries in central areas tended to be stricter than those in more marginal areas. This diversity in monastic discipline is typical of a traditional society where the normalizing power of the state is limited. But such diversity seems to have been more accentuated in Tibet, in part due to the geography of the country, which makes communication difficult, but mostly because of the persistent weakness of the state throughout the formative period of Tibetan monasticism.

This diversity is enshrined in the local monastic constitution (bca' yig ) of each monastery. This is, in fact, the central normative document of Tibetan monasteries, where life is less regulated by the canonical Vinaya than by the local constitution. Each monastery has its own (written or oral) constitution, a condensed body of customs, oral lore, and traditional documentation woven together with aspects of the Vinaya. This constitution addresses the governance of the monastery; the duties, responsibilities, and dress of monastic officers; the order of priority among members; the judicial procedures through which decisions are made; and the calendar for ritual observances. Thus, the role of the Vinaya became greatly reduced. Instead of providing the socio-juridical basis of monasticism, it became reduced to the definition of the monastic ethical code.

The monastic constitution also defines the monastery as a corporate entity, an association of the individual monks (or nuns) who are parts of the monastery, and who own and govern it in accordance with the rules prescribed by the constitution. Hence, a Tibetan monastery is not just a residence for monks or nuns, but a corporate body whose identity is maintained across generations and is enmeshed in politico-economical relations that can involve complex bureaucratic structures, mandatory activities, and onerous duties. As such, a monastery in pre-1950 Tibet often had considerable land holdings with a significant number of tenants. It was to manage this socio-economical involvement that monasteries were set up as associations.

Since a monastery is typically an association, to reside in that monastery as an ordained person is not enough to qualify as a member. A monk must be formally accepted by the monastic authorities after fulfilling the criteria for admission, which varies from monastery to monastery, the basic requirement being the ability to read and memorize the monastery's rituals. After being admitted, a member acquires certain rights and privileges. He has, for instance, the right to partake in the resources distributed by the monastery and to participate in the decisions governing the life of the community. Together with these rights come certain duties. He must attend the rituals of the monastery, and he may be appointed by the association to any of the monastic offices, tasks that can be at times extremely demanding.

One of the central activities of such an association is the practice of rituals. It is not an exaggeration to say that Tibetan monasteries are first and foremost ritual communities, which reflect the priestly role that monks have assumed throughout the history of the tradition. Even in large monasteries that have fostered the growth of a scholastic culture, life revolves around the practice of rituals, which take precedence over any other activity, studies included. Moreover, each monastery is identified by its own ritual material, which differentiates it from other monasteries. The monastic rituals of most monasteries are, however, similar, ranging from the ceremonies prescribed by the Vinaya to elaborate Tantric practices, often done at the request of sponsors.

Institutional Structures and Economic Life

The diversity of Tibetan monasticism is also evident in its institutional structures. Some monasteries are very small, with perhaps as few as the four monks necessary to form a sagha, often staffed by monks who live at home. Others are large institutions with thousands of permanent residents and hundreds of highly trained scholars. To make sense of this variety it may be helpful to distinguish heuristically between local and central monasteries. Local monasteries are devoted almost exclusively to the practice of ritual and provide little training to their members. Or at least they do not function as training centers for monks from other monasteries. This is the role of central monasteries, where monks of a particular tradition can receive scholastic training.

Each school of Tibetan Buddhism has its own central monasteries, which also function as political, social, and economical centers. Each central monastery is at the heart of an extended network of affiliated local monasteries, which may be regional or may cover all of Tibet. This network brings the central monastery considerable resources, extending its pool of supporters and sponsors, and ensuring considerable influence. Although the difference between local and central monasteries is not always clear and has changed historically, it is usually accepted that there are six central monasteries in the Dge lugs tradition: the three seats (Dga' ldan, 'Bras pung, and Se ra), Tashi Lhunpo (bkra shis lhun po) in Shigatse, and Tashi Gomang (bkra shis sgo mang) and Kumbrum (sku 'bum) in Amdo. In the Rnying ma six monasteries function as centers: Mingdröling (smin grol gling) and Dorje Drak (rdo rje brag) in Central Tibet, plus Ka-thok (ka thog), Dzokchen (rdzogs chen), Payül (dpal yul), and Zhechen in Kham. Each of these large central monasteries has its own institutional structure. Since Dga' ldan, 'Bras pung, and Se ra are the largest monasteries ('Bras pung is said to have had more than ten thousand monks), a glimpse at their complex structures gives us some idea of the Tibetan premodern monastic institution.

First, the three seats each consisted of several monasteries, sometimes mislabeled in the secondary literature as "colleges." For example, 'Bras pung had four monasteries: Loseling, Gomang, Ngakpa (i.e., Tantric Monastery), and Deyang. Each of these entities was a monastery (gwra tshang ), with its own assembly hall, administrative and disciplinary structures, economic basis, monastic constitution, scholastic manuals, and internal subdivisions into regional houses. The monastic seat was administered by a council composed of the representatives of the monasteries and regional houses, the present and former abbots of each monastery (the seat did not have an abbot), and important monastic officials. The council was in charge of deciding questions of discipline, arbitrating conflicts between monasteries, and relating to the outside world. Its decisions were implemented by two head disciplinarians whose authority was backed up by considerable disciplinary resources. The council and the head disciplinarians had no say, however, in the religious activities of each monastery.

Each monastery had its own administrative, disciplinary, and religious structure. It was administered by a council composed of the abbot, the representatives of each of the regional houses of the monastery, and important monastic officials. The religious activity of the monastery was directed by the abbot, who headed the monastery. Discipline was enforced by the disciplinarian, who had considerable authority, though less than the seat's head disciplinarians. A prayer leader led the monastic assembly in its ritual performances, and the director of studies oversaw aspects of the scholastic routine.

At the lowest level were the regional houses (khang tshan ), where monks from the different regions were grouped. Each monastery had several regional houses. For example, in 'Bras pung, Gomang had sixteen regional houses, and Loseling had twenty-three. The regional houses were ruled by a council, which appointed a house teacher to administer the house. He was in charge of the discipline of the house, and of making sure that the schedule was respected, that young monks memorized their texts, that scholars went to debates, and so on. The house administrator also ensured that monks did not keep knives in their rooms, a reminder of the heteroclite nature of the monasteries, where the best scholar could lived side by side with the worst punk. As with the other monks in charge of monastic discipline, the house administrator could not be criticized while in office, even by the house's council. However, once he had stepped down after a fixed term (often a year), he could be criticized, and even penalized, by the council for his actions as house teacher. This system allowed officers to have sufficient authority over a large group of people who were often rowdy and difficult to control. It also provided checks and balances, since the officers were retroactively accountable for their actions and had to be mindful not to overstep their authority.

This description of the monastic chain of command does not even begin to communicate the complexity of the bureaucracies involved in the administration of the three seats. Each corporate entity (i.e., the seat, the monasteries, and the regional houses) was managed financially by a complex administration headed by several stewards. Even a single regional house had at least one steward and several grain-keepers and treasurers in charge of commercial transactions. Each corporate entity also had large estates where its subjects (mi gser ) lived, bound to the land. The stewards and their administration would collect taxes (paid in the form of grain or butter rather than money) from these tenants. 'Bras pung (the seat, not the monasteries) is said to have had 185 estates with twenty thousand subjects, three hundred pastures, and sixteen thousand nomads. These resources would then be used by monastic officials to engage in a variety of trade and lending operations. For instance, grain might be lent to the peasants and collected back with a yearly interest as high as 20 percent. Butter would be sold, either on the market or as barter against other goods.

The administration of these monastic entities in Tibet required real political, administrative, and financial skill in the hands of monks who devoted their lives to these tasks. There was a kind of cursus honorum for those interested in the politico-administrative side of monastic life. Monks moved from lower to higher echelons, reaching important jobs that were a source of honor and considerable power. Often, but not always, the important jobs were monopolized by monks from aristocratic backgrounds, or by those belonging to one of the large households (shag tshang chen mo ) of the monastery, which functioned like small dynasties of monastic administrators.

This administrative system illustrates the evolution of monasticism in Tibet, exemplifying the corporate nature of monasteries and their socioeconomic involvement. But it should be remembered that this system is not only a Tibetan development, but is also the result of an evolution within the overall trajectory of Buddhist monasticism. The existence of large monastic centers was made possible by the transformation of the role of monks, who were not just renouncers, but also performed priestly duties. It is this basic transformation that is reflected in the very structure of Tibetan monasteries, which are corporate entities organized in large part around the performance of this priestly function.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Canon and CanonizationVinaya; Dalai Lama; Karma pas; Rnying ma pa (Nyingmapa) School; Tsong kha pa.


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