The Geshe Degree

Origin of the Geshe Degree

The first Tibetan Buddhist tradition to award a degree at the conclusion of the course of studies were the Sakyas and like the geshe degree, it was granted on the basis of proficiency in dialectical debate. It was called Ka-shi - four subjects, or Ka-chu - ten subjects. The subjects were examined together, so one exhibitory debate could prove a candidate's proficiency in all the subjects. Several of these were held. In Tsongkhapa's time this degree was awarded at Samphu, Kyormolung and Dewachen (later Ratö) monasteries.


The Geshe Degree

A monk's curriculum is divided into six principal subjects organized into fifteen classes. These subjects were;

Collected Topics (bsdus-gra) which were preliminary to the syllabus proper.

Perfection of Wisdom (Prajraparamita, Par-phyin)
Middle View (Madhyamika, dbuma)
Valid Cognition (Pramana, tshadma)
Discipline (Vinaya, 'Dul-ba)
Knowledge (Abhidharma, mDzod)

The number of years spent on each subject varied from college to college but typically it was as follows;

Collected Topics - one year
Perfection of Wisdom - five years
Middle View - two years
Discipline - one year
Knowledge -two years
Valid Cognition being studied intermittently throughout the course.


Colleges such as Gomang in Drepung, spent as long as eight years on Collected Topics alone, though this period could be abbreviated by special permission for monks coming from afar. Monks who had completed their studies, but were waiting to take their geshe examination, spent the time perfecting their debating skills and studying the last two subjects. Tulkus (recog-nised reincarnate lamas) were allowed to take their exams as soon as they had completed the cur-riculum and most returned to teach in their own monasteries in other parts of Tibet.

Each year the monks rose one class and an annual examination was held for those who had completed their studies, in which their performance was evaluated by the abbot of the particular college. The topics for their dialectical examination were drawn from the whole course of study, but students were unable to do any specific preparation because the topic to be debated was

selected by the abbot on the spot. Thus, it was a real test of a student's abilities and the depth of his study. At the conclusion the abbot assigned each candidate to a category of geshe according to his ability. There were four such categories, Dorampa, Lingtse, Tsorampa and Lharampa, Lharampa being the highest. Prizes were awarded to the most successful candidates, which the abbot pro-vided out of his personal funds, and an announcement of the results was made in the monastic assembly, where the candidates received scarves. After this, the geshe candidates were not allowed to miss even one of the three daily debate sessions during the subsequent eight months.

In the fifth month the Lharampa and Tsorampa candidates received a notice from the Dalai Lama's Debating Assistants (Tsen-shabs) to present themselves for examinations at the Nor-bulinka. These debates began at day break and were interrupted for the daily assembly, at which all the government officials gathered for tea and tsampa and those who had requested an audience with the Dalai Lama would be informed of the time of their appointment. The examinations were then resumed, and continued until sunset.

Ballots were drawn to determine the order in which the candidates would be challenged. The first candidate was then challenged by the second, he by the third and so on in succession. The same procedure was followed for each of the five subjects, the whole examination lasting six to seven days. The order of the debaters was regularly rearranged to ensure that each monk did not always face the same challenger.

At the conclusion, the Debating Assistants discussed the candidates' performances amongst themselves and assigned them ranks from one to seven, which were kept secret. On the third day of the New Year, the geshes who had been assigned to the first two ranks were generally required to debate before the Dalai Lama, leaving little doubt as to who would receive the highest honour at the formal conferrment of the degree during the Great Prayer Festival (Mon-lam Chen-mo). Though the examination at the Norbulinka was important, because as a result the geshe was as-signed a rank, the final decision was made at the Great Prayer Festival by the Debating Assistants. They would observe the evening exhibitory debates of the geshes they considered most promising and relied on reports of the candidates from the two abbots to draw their final conclusions. Every stage of the geshe's examination was important and the Lharampa geshe degree he was finally awarded had been very well earned. The actual day during the Great Prayer Festival on which the geshe was to give his exhibitory debate was decided during the preceeding twelfth month. The candidates went to Drepung where one of the two abbots collected their strings of beads, shuffled them together and picked them up again one by one. As each of their owners rose to collect them, he was requested to take a slip of paper from a ballot box, on which was written the date of his exhibitory debate. Although this custom was followed, rearrangement was often required since it was necessary that the best geshes gave their exhibitory debates before the fifteenth. This was done by the Debating Assistants who received the lists from Drepung.


The College Feast

In the eleventh month, at great personal expense, the candidate offered a meal to the rest of his college to mark what was to be the most momentous event of his academic career. Immediately prior to the meal, led by the head of his hostel, he circled the assembly of monks, holding a stick of incense and a banner inscribed with verses. Originally these verses were composed by the monk himself to demonstrate his erudition, but later became a mere formality for which any auspicious verse was acceptable.


The College Exhibitory Debate

The college exhibitory debates took place during the eleventh month. There were two, an exten-sive and a brief debate. One candidate was examined each day and the brief debate lasted from about 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. When all the candidates had completed the brief exhibitory debates the longer ones began. They started at the same time, but could go on as late as 10 p.m. The length of this college examination varied according to the categories of Lharampa, Tsorampa and Lingtse. Since each college had four or five Lharampa candidates per year and as many of the other two combined, these exhibitory debates lasted about eight days.

At some point before his exhibitory debate the geshe visited his Lama Shung-leg-pa (Hostel study supervisor) to ask him to recommend a subject to comment on at his exhibitory debate. On the crucial day the candidate invited the Lama Shung-leg-pa and all the other geshe candidates to his room. The Lama Shung-leg-pa took his place on a throne and the candidate prostrated before him.

All were then offered a substantial meal. Immediately after this the candidate lead the Lama Shung-leg-pa into the assembly. All the geshe candidates sat in a row, with the candidate of the day seated on the end to the right. Holding his fringed hat to his forehead, he recited praises to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and retold the story of the Buddha's life, Next, he commented on the verses given to him by the Lama Shung-leg-pa and continued to do so until the abbot interrupted him, when he began to recite subjects of debate. In the past, these were the ones from which the other debaters picked their topics on which to challenge him. Later, it became a formality and only auspicious subjects were recited. The geshe candidate concluded his recitation with an abbreviated recapitulation of the subdivisions of the five principal topics. Dried fruit was formally offered to the abbot and tulkus and thrown to the rest of the assembly.

A challenger then rose and choosing an auspicious topic, such as the mind of enlightenment, began to debate with the candidate. In the longer exhibitory debates the challengers were experienced geshes, who no longer attended the ordinary debate sessions. They were followed by the Tsogchen Tulkus, high ranking reincarnate lamas. The abbot determined the length of each de-bate. In the shorter ones the monks who were not yet geshes or geshe candidates and all the tulkus, even the youngest ones are expected to participate. The topics were Knowledge and Discipline, followed by Middle View. When the debates were over the Lama Shung-leg-pa rose and, praising the events of the day, dedicated all the merit to the spread of Dharma.

One more debate session was required of the Lharampa geshe candidate. This was an all night debate on the topic of Valid Cognition and took place at the winter congregation at Jang. The challengers were all advanced debaters and the event was eagerly watched by all the monks participating in the congregation.

The geshes were awarded their degrees on the twenty-fourth of the first month, at the end of the Great Prayer Festival. If the Dalai Lama was in Lhasa, he presided over the event which took place in the upper storey of the Jokhang. The geshe candidates waited outside the assembly hall, entering when their names and ranks were read out by a government official. They received gifts of robes and dried fruit and took their places in the assembly. Anxious crowds of supporters from the candidates' colleges waited outside trying to see who had attained the highest ranks.

If the Dalai Lama was not in Lhasa for the Great Prayer Festival, the conferrment of the Geshe degree took place in the Potala.

The geshe degree was formally established at the time of the fifth Dalai Lama in the seven-teenth century, but by the twentieth century, like other long standing institutions its conferrment had began to be regarded as a merely customary event. This came to the attention of the thirteenth Dalai Lama during a visit to Mongolia, where he was greatly impressed by the performance of local scholars. He returned to Tibet determined to reform the geshe system and raise the standard of scholarship. Until these reforms, Lharampa and Tsorampa geshe degrees were awarded entirely at the discretion of the abbots of the respective colleges. Sometimes elderly monks were awarded the degree merely on the basis of their seniority. In the year preceding the reforms, the Dalai Lama remarked that several Lharampa geshe candidates were not sufficiently qualified and warned that in future only worthy candidates should present themselves. The following year, the abbots were obliged to consult the Debating Assistants and the Norbulinka examinations were estab-lished. Several candidates were judged unsuitable, were disqualified and fined. The thirteenth Dalai Lama also made it compulsory for geshes awarded ranks to enter one of the two Tantric Colleges, Gyutöor Gyumey, in order to raise the standard of education in the Tantric Colleges and to oblige the geshes to complete their education with a thorough study of the Tantras.

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Last updated: 10-Nov-97