Chapter 8

Lamas and Life in the Monastery

The supreme position that Lamas held in society both as spiritual and temporal advisers, and the privileges that they enjoyed, made being in the monastic order extremely popular. As the Tibetan government put a tax on children, to be paid to the local monastery or severe punishment would ensue, every family that could, would give at least one of its sons to the priesthood. The firstborn son was usually given, while the younger boys retained the family name and inheritance and stayed at home to work and sustain the family fortunes. At one time in Tibet it was reckoned that one in every sixth person was a lama.

They are graded into the scholars, the ordained and the abbots. The scholar who studies, takes vows to avoid sins and promises to keep precepts that will enable him to advance through the various levels. The level above the young scholar is the underpriest, a monk not fully ordained who has to take vows that guarantee the thirty six rules of advanced discipline. The Lama who has been ordained, must be over twenty-five years of age and have taken the two hundred and fifty-three rules of disciplines and observance.

The Abbot is the most senior of all in the monastery. Under him are the young scholars and the ordained lamas. Although, spiritually reincarnated monks are spiritually senior to the Abbot, unless there is a good reason to overrule him, the Abbot will have the final say in the running of the monastery. There is a higher rank called a Kanpo. A Kanpo is so wise and revered that his main responsibility - like that of a Catholic Bishop - is to supervise and oversee the monasteries under his jurisdiction.

The young child who is destined to join the monastery stays at home with his family until he is about eight years old. He joins the monastery much as a boarder would join a private school in England and advances through the various stages of probation until he graduates with a particular qualification in his subject.

The entrance examinations are rigid and formal and it helps to come from a prestigious background (especially wealthy). Rejections are automatic for boys with physical or mental disabilities and whoever is left is subjected to an in depth analysis of his horoscope to decide what his future holds and whether there will be merit for the monastery by having him there as a student.

The father of the boy makes as generous as possible a donation to the monastery, and then the child is taken to the great hall where the senior lamas are gathered. The child is presented with his past history, and a ruling is made there and then as to whether he is a suitable candidate for immediate acceptance as a probationer.

After being accepted the boy's hair is completely cropped, he is assigned a tutor and is given duties of a menial nature, such as sweeping, cleaning, or duties even more humiliating, such as working in the latrines. His tutor teaches him to read and recite texts and to learn the many morals of personal honour and behaviour. When the boy has successfully learned his teachings (about three to four years) he is ready to be accepted as a novice. If he is accepted into the noviciate he is given a religious name by which he will be known. He is presented with ten silver coins and a white silk scarf and he announces in a clear voice "I take refuge in the Buddha, in the law, and in the community." He says this three times and is then recognised as being married to the monastery.

For the next three years the novice earns most of the privileges of a lowly monk, graduating eventually to having his own room and being regarded as a monk. The novice is instructed in the dogma and ritual of Buddhist studies. He is taught art such as painting and sculpture and if he shows any particular talent as an artist he is automatically put under the aegis of an accomplished artist so that the craft traditions can continue.

The novice is examined regularly by his superiors and advances accordingly to his results. If a boy fails an examination the teacher has to accept a great deal of the blame from his superiors and his colleagues, so an enormous amount of pressure on the teachers exacerbates a great deal of corporal punishment in the residences that are sometimes quite brutal and wicked.

Should a student repeatedly fail examinations he will unceremoniously be kicked out of the monastery and be forced to take on menial duties in a village temple or even become an unqualified lama to conduct the very minor rituals of birth, marriage and death.

The most successful of students can rise through the ranks of the education system until the dizzying heights of academic achievements are reached. These high achievers are recognised as valuable assets to the monastery and are eligible to become the bearers of august titles and the holders of awesome responsibilities within the community. Some monasteries are able to present doctorates to the most successful, who then often go on to become heads of monasteries and colleges.

Rigid standards of personal behaviour are enforced by fear of severe punishment or even banishment, so that the social disgrace experienced by the wrongdoer is traumatic and permanent and will follow him around for the rest of his life. The celibacy rule is the rule that is broken most often and because of this, and because this is a male dominated society this is a rule that is regarded as not terribly important. Many of the monks are openly married and some are secretly involved with ladies in the local villages. The rules of the monastery are supervised by the Provost or lama-censor. His duties are to judge and sentence rule-breakers, and sometimes he and his vicious henchmen will beat the living daylights out of monks caught in gambling and drinking dens or sexually interfering with young monks. His term of office is for three years and each new Provost tries to create an atmosphere of terror to the wrongdoer, so that the monastery is a safe place to study and worship.

It is also worthwhile mentioning that some of the monasteries are extremely rich, not only through bequests from wealthy patrons but from astute business dealings such as banking, lending and investing, and the most talented mathematicians in the education system are prized individuals indeed, securing curious positions of enormous power of holy orders.