Views from Tibet on Reforming the Monastic Management System

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a speech by a Tibetan called Byangkar held at a conference of Tibetan scholars in late 2012 and posted online. The conference was also attended by well-known Tibetan intellectual Jamyang Kyi, the only female speaker. The speech has been online on blog-hosting site Sangdhor.Com since November 4, 2012 and has stirred up a lot of heated debate.
Although news these days from Tibet is largely focused on self-immolations and the problems in the monasteries, there are voices in Tibet who are calling for reform of the monastic system. The speech is unusual in tackling a topic related to Tibetan Buddhism in a blunt and straightforward manner, making concrete suggestions for reform. The speech uses the Tibetan terms Geshe, a monk who has passed the Geshe degree and Khenpo, the title for an abbot of a monastery.

2013 05 24 Monastic Reform
Screenshot of the Speech as Posted Online


Reform of the Monastic Management System – Improving the Function of the Monastic Community and Leading Secular Society Toward a Better Road

This is the current condition of Tibet. Tibet is used to being ruled by reincarnate Lamas who have no proper knowledge. Most monasteries are managed with irrational regulations. It is a pity that many learned and capable Geshes and Khenpos are neglected and their knowledge is wasted by society. Now it is the time to change this situation. If this situation remain unchanged, it is without question that our condition will deteriorate and become worse.
In order to make the change, first of all, we should understand the real situation of the monastic institutions. In my view, to a certain degree, our monastic system is old which is not constructed in the sense of the strict basis of the Buddhist teachings. For example, there is a one-hundred-year old monastery in my hometown and I had a chance to talk to the abbot of the monastery some years ago. In our conversation, I told the abbot that he is the owner of the monastery and it would very be beneficial for the institution if he can build a training course on Buddhist Logic. He said that he had prepared such a course and it was not successful in the end because of opposition from the senior monks of the monastery. This kind of event of opposing new changes inside the monastery is taking place in other parts of the Tibetan plateau as well.
As we all know, monks are those who have renounced the secular world. Therefore, the monastic community is supposed to be very different from our secular society. It is totally understandable that it has its own system. In order for the monastery to function in a proper way, it needs fixed regulations, which is a part of the Vinaya Sutra of the monastery. These regulations should be a subject to be respected by all the monks, Lamas and reincarnate Lamas. Here I want to suggest that an organization such as “Geshe Committee” or “Khenpo Association” should be created at the monastery and this organisation is responsible to regulate the management system, based on the Buddhist teachings and the principles of modern democracy.
What benefit and advantage will these regulations bring about? I will answer this question in the context of historical facts and experience. In the early part of the history of Great Britain, prisoners were sent to Australia. When they were shipping the prisoners across the ocean, the British Government paid the ship owner transporting fees according to the number of the prisoners. In order to make more profits from this business, the ship owners overloaded the ships with prisoners and many prisoners died in the internal fighting on the boat. In the meantime, to reduce the expense spent on food for the prisoner, the ship owner provided less food and did not give medical treatment which included the fees when they were sick. Some of the greedy businessmen even threw prisoners into the ocean. Therefore, the number of prisoners who managed to arrive at their fixed destination each time was very small. One time, there were only two prisoners who survived until the end of the trip. According to sources, in order to transport all the prisoners safely, the British Government paid medical expenses to the ship owners, but all the fees went to the pockets of the greedy ship owners. After an investigation of the problem, the British government changed the regulations of transporting the prisoners. Instead of giving the fees according to the number of prisoners sent from England, they paid the fees based on the number of prisoners who arrived in safely at the end. This made the business people transport all the prisoners with better conditions and thus only a few prisoners died on the way. Look at this case, this is the result of making a good system. If monasteries are able to make good regulations and the monks follow it, this not only can solve the obstacles and problems of the monastery but also lead the local people with proper meaning and a better future.
These regulations should cover three main principles. Firstly, all members including the reincarnate Lama of the monastery should be treated equally. This allows and guarantees all the reincarnated Lamas, senior monks and the ordinary monks to participate in the matters of the monastery and speak for the welfare of their community. Here, one thing your audience should keep in mind is that respecting the senior monks is something which belongs to morals and courtesy and this should be done along the principle of the Buddhist discipline.
Secondly, the education and training the reincarnated Lamas should be the responsibility of the Geshe Association and prevent the family of the reincarnated Lama from interfering with the issues of the monastery. I think there are two reasons to emphasise this matter. There are some reincarnated lamas who are controlled by their families and did not get proper monastic education and thus they finally ended up becoming the instrument of making economic profits for the family. Their behaviour is very harmful both for the reputation of the Tibetan society and for Buddhism as a whole. New regulations can prevent such actions.
Thirdly, a financial system in which the collecting and managing of the donations to the reincarnate Lamas and the monastery from the patrons should be set up at the monastery. This prevents the family of the reincarnate Lamas from being involved with the financial affairs of the monastery.
Generally speaking, nowadays, one hardly finds a reincarnated lama who does not get involved with worldly desires and attention. Therefore, it is practical and important to put them under the rules as well and act according to the regulations of the monastery. The reason for suggesting the creation of such a financial management system for the reincarnated Lama is obvious. One British scholar stated, “The absolute power one possessed, the absolute corruption it created.” Therefore, it is crucial to not provide any privilege for the monastic members including the high-ranking Lama and Khenpos.
On the question of reform on the reincarnation system, according to the current situation of Tibetan society, I think the reincarnated Lamas are dependent on the firm religious beliefs of the ordinary people, so it can be changed merely by the good intentions of the Geshe, Khenpo and other scholarly monks. Even supposedly this good intention of the high ranking lamas and Geshes solved this problem, but there are others who are neither Lamas nor Geshes holding the power of the monastery. Therefore, so far, I have not seen any adequate model of reform for the reincarnation system.
What should be done regarding the reform of the reincarnation system? As I mentioned above, all the reincarnations and those who have the similar position should act according to the regulations of the monastery. In the meantime, it is equally essential to educate the reincarnations and they should be at least trained as someone who bears the characters of learned, discipline and goodness. This work should be done by the guidance of the Geshe Association and the Committee of Khenpos.
The morals of the people in the three provinces of Tibet has deteriorated and this is to a certain degree related to the inappropriate behaviour of the reincarnated Lamas that lack the three qualities, learned, discipline and goodness. Some of the reincarnations even set up a bad example. Due to the lack of a proper system in which some of the Geshes and Khenpos can make their contributions, their wisdom and skills end up useless for the concerned sphere, not to mention to the society at large.
Here I want to provide some of my ideas on how to solve above-mentioned issues. It is crucial to design regulations which are not influenced by negative traditional ideas and do not contradict the fundamental principles of Buddhism. The content of the regulations should cover a wide range of values and be supported by all members of the community. This can guarantee the Geshe and Khenpo can fully contribute their skills and all the reincarnations worshipped by the masses and other monks who hold a certain position at the monastery can act under the principles of the regulations. The regulations also garrantee that the Geshe Association can educate and train the reincarnation with the necessary characters and qualifications. With this effort, the learned monks can finally restore the good moral image of the Tibetan people.
If we succeed in this field, we, in my view, can build a healthy society. It is necessary to remind you here that the suggestions I made above are preliminary and they can be premature and there are shortcomings in this proposal. In a word, making the regulations more workable, rational and complete is dependent on the efforts of all of us. Therefore, here I am appealing to all of you to contribute your insightful thoughts and ideas. Thank you.


2013 05 24 Monastic Reform Comment 12
#12 What is being said is pointed right to the target… By Pechawa

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#10 I read it carefully and it is a matter of how to implement it. In a time of chaos and suffering, it is important to have a leading figure who can organise and make the proposal work in the end. This Lama can start the work at his monastery first. This reform involves the personal power of the Lama and the interest of his family, so this lama should be someone who has a broader vision. If the reincarnated Lama is not open and a far-sighted person, it is useless no matter how strong the Geshe Association and Khenpo Committee would be. The Geshe and Khenpo should command the knowledge, which supports their reform of the monastic system. Even though we may overcome the internal challenges, but the obstacles from outside are still huge. Whether the monastery prevails or not is directly related to the fate of the people of Tibet. This is just the feedback of reading this blog and I am not qualified to participate in such an enterprise. By Thadrol from Chengdu, China.

2013 05 24 Monastic Reform Comment 9

#9 This man has made insightful and valid statements. A monastery is a school of religion so it is important to build up Buddhist philosophical debate programmes. It is also the time to have a proper understanding on the ongoing system of reincarnation. Human life is meaningless without religious belief, so it is crucial that the quality of the monks needs to be improved. By Mikarpo.

2013 05 24 Monastic Reform Comment 8

#8 Hahaha, try to tame your own wife first. You should not worry about the business of the monastery. The best thing you can do is to leave the monastery alone.

2013 05 24 Monastic Reform Comment 7

#7 To Mawepo, it is true that high-ranking Lamas have privilege, but it laughable to say religious belief is superstition. It is better to keep quiet if you do not have proper knowledge of religion. Buddhism is the root of the soul of Tibet and it is not right to forsake it in the name of superstition. The Great Protector once said we should become a Buddhist follower of the 21st Century. Buddhism is not religion, not a saviour; one’s emancipator is oneself.

2013 05 24 Monastic Reform Comment 6

#6 This resembles the speeches made by officials of the County Religion Department. How can someone who has no knowledge of Buddhism and the monastic system, has even never even stayed a day at the monastery, comment on the matter of reincarnations and affairs of the monastery? Isn’t it a shame? This is the reflection of the mentality of the people who was educated under the thoughts of Mao Zedong. I laugh at those who listen to this speech. By Bongzi


  1. The entire Buddhist System is Based on Incarnation Relative Dependence Previous cause to try to refute this or change it is no longer Buddha dharma
    Please See Tsongkhapas Dependent Relativity , also Katthavatu

    • Buddha never did talk about re-incarnation. We Tibetans incorporated it into our Buddhism. With good intention, no doubt. However, this misuse and abuse of re-incarnation system by sections of our lama body has turned this once genuine system of service to sentient beings into a joke to serve themselves. It is time to reform and put some checks and balances. How many truly believe that the Tulkus and Rimpoches of today are actual re-incarnations of their predecessor?

  2. The system of reincarnation is more to do with the way of holding the center of monastic power intact like monarchy in secular affairs than the Buddhist philosophically sanctioned concept.
    I know the Buddha talked about rebirth and levels of it according to various factors.But I don’t really know if Buddha talked about “duplicate rebirth”
    It is more of a Tibetan invention than anything else.
    It might have served its purpose in old Tibet when better ways of holding the power and structure of monasteries together were absent.
    Now the situation is different.therefore it’s high time to scrap this archaic system so that the monasteries and Tibetan society as a whole becomes more democratic and reason-oriented as both Buddha and human intelligence put more emphasis on reason than blind faith and outdated customs.

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