Buddhism has played a significant role in Tibetan culture since its arrival in the 7th century a.d. While there are disputes about its arrival, Buddhism has remained a stable influence in Tibetan society. One aspect that makes this faith unique is its monastic community. Monks are a fundamental part of daily Tibetan life, and the country has one of the largest monk populations in the world. However, many people are unaware of the various specific titles bestowed upon Tibetan monks.
What is a Monk?
Buddhist monks commit to a life of celibacy and detachment in order to attain enlightenment. As a result, monks are stripped of all their material possessions, and they instead lead humble lifestyles focused on spiritual advancement. While each tradition has its own particular rules, they all require its members to dedicate themselves to Buddhism and its teachings.
Origins of Tibetan Monkhood
Tibetan monks can trace their history all the way back to the early days of Buddhism. The first monks established themselves as Mendicants, wandering from place to place and begging for alms. They soon gained a reputation for being knowledgeable in the ways of Buddhism and became respected spiritual leaders in Tibetan society.
Degrees of Monkhood
In Tibetan society, the path towards becoming a monk typically involves seven steps. This seven-step process is exhaustive and requires years of studying, meditation, and devotion to the Buddhist faith.
The First Step: Samanera
The first stage towards monkhood involves ordination as a Samanera, or novice monk. Novice monks must be at least eight years old and are required to follow the precepts set forth by the Buddhist community.
Novice Monk Training
Training for Samanera involves learning various Buddhist teachings and texts, as well as basic monastic etiquette. Samaneras must also complete daily chores, including cooking and cleaning, in addition to their spiritual training.
The Second Step: Bhikshu
The second stage is the ordination as a Bhikshu, or shaven-headed monk. Bhikshus are far more advanced on the path towards enlightenment than Samaneras and are granted far more liberties, which include being able to own a small number of possessions such as a begging bowl, robe, and bed.
Bhikshu Rituals and Training
Before being ordained, aspirants must complete a 1-2 week retreat in which they focus on meditation, reading, and practicing their chosen Buddhist tradition. The ceremony itself is long and ritualistic and symbolizes the novice’s commitment to the Buddhist faith.
The Third Stage: Gelong
The third stage, Gelong, marks a monk’s total commitment to a lifetime of monastic devotion. Gelong is the highest rank of ordination and represents the final step on the road towards enlightenment. Monks who reach this stage make an irrevocable commitment to serve the Buddhist community for life, renouncing all secular pursuits.
Gelong Ordination Requirements
Becoming a Gelong is an extensive process, and it entails many requirements. Monks must have been practicing Buddhism for at least ten years, be fluent in Tibetan or Sanskrit, and have an in-depth understanding of Buddhist teachings.
Main Monastic Titles
Tibetan monasticism has many different pathways, and monks can possess various titles depending on their lineage and teacher. The most common labels include:
Rimé is not a formal monastic order and does not adhere to one particular set of teachings. They instead focus on educating and searching for all of the various meanings and interpretations of Buddhist philosophy.
The Gelug school is one of the oldest and most well-regarded in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It centers around their founder, Tsongkhapa, who emphasized monastic practice and philosophical study.
The Kagyu lineage values the importance of developing a close relationship between a student and their teacher. They also place special emphasis on meditation practice and mantra recollection as a means of achieving enlightenment.
The Sakya tradition places a strong emphasis on Tibetan culture and history. They believe that the best way to understand these traditions is to study them alongside the Buddhist principles that have shaped them.
The Nyingma lineage is the oldest and most extensive of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. They are quite varied in their practices, with meditation and sādhana playing a significant role in their teachings.
Tibetan Shamanism and Monkhood
The majority of Tibetan monks hold strong beliefs in shamanism and other indigenous spiritual practices. They blend studies of these practices alongside their traditional Buddhist studies to uphold and maintain Tibetan culture and heritage.
Overall, Tibetan monks come in many different shapes and sizes, and their roles in Tibetan society go far beyond mere religious practices. They are key figures in creating and maintaining a connection between Tibetan culture and its spiritual history. Their devotion to a monastic lifestyle enables them to lead an austere life focused on the attainment of spiritual enlightenment.
- What is a monk?
- What is the origin of the Tibetan Monkhood?
- How many stages of monkhood are there in Tibetan culture?
- What is Samanera training like?
- What is a Bhikshu ritual?
- What does Gelong represent?
“Monkhood.” Monastic Organisations. Web. 5 September 2021.
“The Tibetan Monkhood.” Tibetan Buddhism. Web. 5 September 2021.
“What is a Monk?” Buddhanet. Web. 5 September 2021.