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The Greatest Honor: Becoming a Rik Chung
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
By Ven. Tenzin Gache
In August 2013, Ven. Tenzin Gache (Brian Roiter) became one of the very few Westerners to participate in the rik chung debate held at Sera Je Monastic University in South India, a tradition instituted in the 17th century by Desi Sangye Gyatso, the regent to the Fifth Dalai Lama. Ven. Gache, an American monk in his sixth year of study in Sera Je’s geshe program, is a top memorizer and debater and one of 16 from his class of 118 chosen to participate in this year’s debate. For this issue of Mandala, Ven. Gache describes life as a monk in the geshe program and how he came to be a rik chung. .
Ge wai she nyen chen po ten zin ga che dang ge wai she nyen chen po thub ten nam dak nyi gel tag su dren par zhu!
Geshe Tenzin Gache and Geshe Thubten Namdak, please come forth to debate!
Standing upright on a woodblock throne, before an assembly of several thousand monks, the Sera Je abbot invited my partner and me to rise. After prostrating, we donned our da gams (heavy wool capes) and gently paced up the central aisle towards the throne. After touching heads with the abbot, we returned to the center of the assembly, my partner in the second aisle and me in the central one. Slowly I began to chant my thesis [in Tibetan] for the debate: “Bodhichitta is the wish, for the benefit of others, to achieve perfect and complete enlightenment ….” After paying homage to the past Indian and Tibetan masters, I gave a basic description of bodhichitta – its source in the Buddha’s sutras, the way it was explicated by the Indian masters Nagarjuna and Asanga, its defining features, divisions, and benefits, supplementing each topic with citations from Indian treatises. Closing with a short summary, I intoned a verse from Chandrakirti’s 7th-century Supplement to the Middle Way:
Two months prior, a panel of 10 judges had chosen my partner and me as rik chungs, a special title awarded to the top 16 debaters in the sixth year of Sera Je’s geshe program. Rik chung literally means “small reasoning,” not as a slight to the participants but rather to distinguish it from rik chen, “great reasoning,” a similar title conferred in the final, twenty-fifth year of the program. While rik chen is a higher honor, there is a lot more excitement around the rik chung debate, perhaps because it is a coming of age for a young class, and a time when it can show off its best debaters to the entire monastery. The rik chung is also the first glimpse of completing the very long road to becoming a lharampa geshe, and as a symbol of that step, the debaters wear the yellow donka (shirt) of a geshe, as well as a traditional curved debating hat and da gam. Being named a rik chung was the greatest honor I have had so far in my life, and was the culmination of a long process I could not have imagined when I began.
As the late August sun finally reappeared after a three-month wane behind the Indian monsoon, the Rajdhani Express lurched into Yeswantpur Junction in the east of Bangalore. Three days earlier, I had slipped out of Dharamsala on a showery evening, unsure if my decision to fulfill my teacher’s advice and travel south was not coming too early. Choden Rinpoche had advised me to study Tibetan for two years before entering the monastery, but only six months after ordaining in McLeod Ganj, I could feel a tug, like a cord in my heart, inexorably calling me towards the Sangha community. With the murmur of doubt still chattering in my brain, I descended from the top bunk as the passengers shuffled out into the tropical pandemonium of an Indian station. It was 2006.
Despite the inexplicable force that had called me and that convinced me to stay, the first years at Sera were far from straightforward. Specifically, I had significant doubts about the entire monastic system in the Tibetan tradition. In many Buddhist traditions, study is considered a beneficial but potentially misleading approach to the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha himself warned a follower intent on philosophical inquiry that he was like a man shot with an arrow who would not treat his wound until he knew the craftsman of the arrow. For me, the original decision to become a monk had come during a retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in France. Thich [Nhat Hanh] warns: “Perfect understanding is awakened mind. It is not knowledge you can get from a university or even an institute of Buddhist studies. At some institutes of Buddhist studies, the monks and nuns squeeze so much knowledge into their heads. The teachers say a lot, the students take many notes, but the teaching has little to do with everyday sufferings and difficulties. When I see a novice working hard at university studies, I know that he or she will have regrets and difficulties in the future.”1
In apparent contrast, the Tibetan (and especially the Gelug) tradition compares meditation without study to climbing a bare rock face with crippled hands. The monastery reflects this perspective: study and debate drive the regime, and the loud clapping of hands and shouting of logical consequences juxtaposes sharply to the tranquility of, for instance, a Thai forest monastery. My misgivings were not just a simple adjustment struggle, and I presented my concern to Choden Rinpoche, as his counsel had been the catalyst for my choosing Sera in the first place. Rinpoche approved of my strong wish to do retreat, but emphasized that if I went through Sera’s study program first, my retreat would be much more meaningful. He advised not to enter the program immediately, but to continue with Tibetan studies and to decide for myself when I was ready.
A little over a year later, still sorely suspended in ambivalence, I borrowed from a friend a recording of a class with Geshe Ngawang Sangye, one of Sera Je’s most popular teachers. Listening to his enlivened presentation, I could again feel a tug at my heart, and to the protest of my intellect, I soon made the decision to attend his class, meaning I would have to enter the debate program. To appease my doubt, I kept three points in mind: 1) if Milarepa faithfully followed the seemingly incomprehensible advice of his guru, Marpa, and achieved a great purpose, surely I could follow the more intelligible advice to enter a study program, 2) if the Tibetans really do possess a path to enlightenment, somebody needs to go through the experience of their monastic system to be able understand and bring this treasure to others, and 3) the Sera Je discipline reads: “Even if one’s mind is equipoised in the non-conceptual samadhi of bliss and clear [light], one must arise from that samadhi and listen. This is not because profound tantric recitations and the non-conceptual samadhi of bliss and clear light are not important, but because these very rules of the monastery and college are even more important”.2
After I had completed one year of study, Choden Rinpoche suggested that I memorize Jetsün Chokyi Gyaltsen’s General Meaning of the First Chapter [of the Ornament for Clear Realization], the 350-page textbook that would be our basis for debate over the fourth and fifth years of study. Rinpoche’s level of expectation for my dedication to the study program was more than I had imagined. Flipping through the pages with my mentor later that day, I realized that thinking about the task would make it seem impossible, so I resolved just to begin on an auspicious day. I was encouraged knowing that Rinpoche himself had, in his youth, memorized Tsongkhapa’s Golden Garland (1,200 pages). In comparison, The General Meaning seemed conceivable. One morning I began reciting the praise to lineage masters at the beginning of the book, and every subsequent day, added a little more. After 18 months, one day I was finished. Rinpoche’s advice proved a tremendous boon. The terse passages whose meaning was only a faint glimmer when memorized gradually unfolded their meaning over the coming years of debate, and the strong habit of uninterrupted dedication to daily memorization became ingrained.
The first three years of the study program, called dura (“Collected Topics”), present often seemingly irrelevant material that is meant to stimulate debate and train the intellect. Slowly I came to see the value of the process, but initially my main motivation was simply to survive. Early on I had a dream of myself as a high school student when I had been a wrestler. The endurance and competitive mindset I needed then were something I had not considered to integrate into Buddhist practice. Now I found that the stoicism with which I had faced intimidating opponents was the only force that could drag me to debate night after night. Letting go of the boundaries I had fastidiously set over the years to create space for a meditation practice, I surrendered myself to the monastery schedule. A typical day might include:
4:30 Wake up, light exercise, a few prayers, and go to puja
5:30 All monastery puja
7:00 Memorize texts (recite out loud)
9:00 Morning debate
3:00 Short meditation
4:00 Class with Geshe Ngawang Sangye
5:20 Recite texts
6:00 Evening debate (45 minutes one-on-one, 45 minutes group debate, 1.5 hours prayer, 30 minutes one-on-one debate)
10:00 Puja in khangtsen (monastic house of about 200 monks)
For those who wished to succeed in the demanding study program, little, if any, time was left for a personal life. Debate was a competitive atmosphere, though I should note that the competition is rarely, if ever, taken off of the debate courtyard. Never in six years in this program have I seen anybody become genuinely angry or hold a grudge against an opponent. Without the competitive aspect, I don’t think I would ever have been able to motivate myself to study as single-pointedly as I learned to do. When emotions – embarrassment, pride, frustration – are involved in the debate, it is difficult to forget the points that one learns. The humble energy of the community keeps these emotions from being carried too far. Nevertheless, I often found myself nearly overwhelmed in the first years, and a constructive escape was to participate as much as possible in service – mainly serving food at meals and monthly kitchen duty, but also occasional work and cleaning details. As a Westerner I could be exempt from these responsibilities, but for me it was a reprieve from the heady life of study and debate, and also an opportunity to bond with my classmates. One night while racing across the courtyard in the dark, carrying a full kettle of Tibetan tea, I paused to catch my breath and a voice in my head asked, “Is this how the Buddha intended his monks to strive?” Soon a more forceful influence responded, “I always knew that whatever path I took in life, I would approach it fully and without reservation. This monastery exists here, now, and is not just a fantasized picture of how it should be.”
Sometime during these early years, while visiting a senior monk, I noticed a thangka on his wall, towards which was facing a prostration board. These two objects dominated his otherwise simple monastic room. The thangka commemorated his rik chung ceremony. As I gazed at this painting, two strong emotions arose: great admiration, as I could feel that this ceremony had been a moving experience for him, and also sadness, as I knew I would be unlikely to achieve the same. I had been generally succeeding in the study program, but my awkward Tibetan language created an obstacle to performing well on the annual debate exam. Although Choden Rinpoche had advised me, “Do not worry about your exam. The main point is your personal practice,” I couldn’t help but feel that I had a potential that’s full application could not be realized if I did not adopt a vigorous mindset. Later, I questioned Rinpoche about this point and he clarified, “If you debate timidly,” Rinpoche demonstrated by clapping his hands softly, “nobody benefits. Before you enter the debate courtyard, set a strong motivation to be of benefit to others, and then debate as fiercely as you can.”
Three years of dura study is followed by seven years of par chin (“Perfection of Wisdom”). The par chin years are the heart of the study program, and I entered the fourth year of a study with a strong sense of hope and inspiration. I had passed through the initial trial, and now was ready to see if the claims this tradition makes about the value of prolonged study could really hold weight. An important step about two months into the fourth year was the shing tai sol chai damcha, or “trailblazer answering debate,” a tradition that our khangtsen (monastic house) holds for those in the first year of par chin studies. Late one night, for two and a half hours, I and a partner sat in front of 200 monks as they tested our understanding. Many senior monks and geshes, including Geshe Gelek (now resident teacher at FPMT’s Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa) presented us with difficult questions about the material we had studied.
I had been preparing for over a month, and was nervous as I approached the throne, but once I sat and began answering, I found myself experiencing a glowing joy. Before us these experienced debaters, one by one, clapped their hands and stomped their feet in the spotlight, as though they were dancing under the gentle evening rain. I was sad when the debate finally finished. The next morning, an elderly geshe, who had clearly seen many people come and go over the years, gave me an unexpected praise in front of the whole khangtsen: “That Inji (Westerner) answered very well last night. You see, it just goes to show that it’s a myth that if you accumulate merit by following the discipline and going to pujas, that you won’t have time to study. To the contrary, if you follow the community and make prayers, the material will become more habitual and solidified in your mind.” His advice came at just the right time, as I had been considering, due to the increased pressure of the program, to reduce my attendance at pujas in order to make more time for study. That consideration has not arisen since then.
After that night, people in our khangtsen, and gradually others in the monastery, began to take me more seriously as a debater, and some started questioning whether I would be elected rik chung in two years’ time. Another boost came at the end of the fourth year, when I participated in the annual all-monastery memorization competition. I had been slowly accumulating memorized material over four years, but did not in any way expect that I would place second overall in the monastery with over 800 pages of memorized material. After the study deans presented an award to me in front of the whole community, even more people began asking me if I wanted to get rik chung. My struggle with the language still lingered like a chronic illness, and I worried I would not live up the expectation that was building.
Dura is called the “magical key” to the study of the great texts, and when we began the study of par chin in the fourth year, a door opened and something magical really did begin to happen. On the one hand, the material became much more engaging and relevant to one’s practice – bodhichitta, the Three Jewels of Refuge, the four noble truths, and many other broad topics. During our study of “reality limit,” a central passage of advice by the Buddha stood out: “A bodhisattva must know all paths, and must actualize all paths. Before he has completed all prayers, ripened all beings, and fully purified his buddha field, he must not actualize the reality limit [nirvana].” The logic behind Sera’s training program slowly revealed itself: Mahayana practices differ in that one does not immediately enter into blissful meditative states for the danger of losing the resolve to actualize a higher goal for others’ benefit. The study program is an immersion in Mahayana practice, ripening one’s mind for a realization that the mere words of the texts cannot adequately convey.
Starting on the anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching, our class debated all night, and subsequently for every second night over the next year, debated until midnight in the tsen phi damcha (“throw away the night debate”). With only our class alone in the dark, empty courtyard, our hand clapping and shouting echoed into the cool air. Those of us who made it to the 5:30 puja that morning entered with a certain pride, glancing around to see who else had dragged themselves in. Our surrender to the process deepened and any thoughts beyond prayer and study had little room to arise.
My mentor, his hopes high for my rik chung, began to pressure me to live in a Tibetan dormitory instead of the Sera IMI House for Westerners. At first I resisted, but he would not relent, and his reasoning – that I sorely needed to improve my language – was sound. For one year I lived in a small room with a very talkative older monk (he would continue chatting as I tried to go to sleep at night), who became a good friend and helped my language to improve. I enjoyed the experience of living in the khangtsen much more than I expected, and would have continued, but somehow my body did not acquiesce and the experience was marked by continuous sickness. After a third bout of pneumonia, I wrote to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who strongly advised me to return to the Sera IMI House. I could see some improvement in my pronunciation after one year, but was still apprehensive about the upcoming exam.
As this year began, the rik chung loomed ahead. Of the 118 students in our class, the rinpoche and kyor pon (class head) were both assured a slot, leaving 14 slots for the remaining 116 of us. Aware that the language barrier would be a substantial one, but knowing that my chances would be even slimmer if I didn’t prepare, I set out to review the material. For several hours a day I recited the texts and various quotes, met with a classmate to practice debate, and attended tutoring sessions in our khangtsen. (Rik chung is a great source of pride for a khangtsen, so they have a vested interest in training us.) The exam would consist of 200 questions, of which we were to draw two at random, and of those two, choose one to debate. In addition to having memorized the 350-page textbook, I also memorized two notebooks full of quotes from various sources, to be able to support my argument for any of the 200 questions. On the morning of the exam, I recited the Praise to Manjushri and the Prayer to Achieve Inner Kalarupa, then prayed to Choden Rinpoche that “if there is any benefit in my achieving rik chung, then please bless me to debate well today.”
The abbot, gekyö (disciplinarian, who this year is my own teacher, Geshe Ngawang Sanyge) and umdze (chant master) all sat, like Tsongkhapa and his two sons, behind the judges to preside over the exam, which took place in the center of the Sera Je temple. Miraculously the temple caretaker had set up a microphone for the debaters, and seeing this, I felt I would have a chance. When they called my name, my abdomen tightened and my heart quivered as I came to draw the question. I chose a question regarding the bodhisattva’s path of preparation, and whether it newly realizes its object, emptiness. I began by citing the source for the quote, and giving the chapter heading and outline in the appropriate section in the text.
Then I asked, “Does a path [consciousness] need to realize its object?”
The answerer replied that it does.
“Well then, does bodhichitta observing the essence body of a buddha realize that?”
He said it does not need to.
“But then if objectless great compassion were to observe objectlessness, would it not need to realize that?”
He said it that it would, implicitly contradicting his previous assertion.
I asked him why the two examples were not similar and he failed to respond. Knowing that he was stuck, he began to avoid answering my questions, at which point I started yelling at him and clapping very loudly, partly out of frustration that I would also look bad if he didn’t answer. For five minutes, he wavered back and forth and refused to take a definite position. Finally, the judge rang the ending bell, and I sat to answer.
The debater started with a quote from sutra, whose source I correctly identified. The quote related to the nature of the mind, and he then asked me to posit the nature of the mind and the meaning of “adventitious” in both the Chittamatra and Madhayamaka schools. Knowing that he was trying to trap me, I gave an answer that he could not refute, so he moved on to debating about the Chittamatra position that some sentient beings are incapable of achieving buddhahood and whether this position contradicts their position that all mental obscurations are suitable to be abandoned. Though I disagree with the Chittamatra position, I was able to defend it against his various reasonings and textual citations, and the debate ended with my boldly stating “doooooe,I accept” to his final assertion.
One and a half weeks later, the whole monastic community assembled in the debate courtyard, with the majority of monks – and the abbot and gekyö seated on high thrones – on one side of the courtyard facing towards us, and our class seated on the other side facing back toward them. One person at a time, the gekyö sent our kyor pon as a messenger, who would inform the next rik chung candidate and escort him back across the courtyard, where he would kneel down in front of the gekyö’s throne. The gekyö then handed down a card with the debate topic. As the kyor pon came to announce the fifth candidate, he could not suppress his grin. “Lho, Tenzin Gache!” he called out. I rose up and for a minute struggled to affix my sandals as my hands were shaking. As I crossed to the gekyö, murmurs rustled through the crowd. Geshe Ngawang Sangye handed me a card reading “sem kye nga go, bodhichitta answerer.”
Under the midmorning sun our class assembled in a circle. The abbot walked around the circle with a very stern look on his face. Then the 16 of us got up from the assembly and walked out the main gate of the courtyard. After returning to our individual khangtsens where friends provided us with requisite materials, we again met up and went to meet the abbot, who gave us an encouraging talk, congratulating us for taking the first step to completing the long program. Then in the afternoon, my mentor held a celebration in his house, where I sat for over six hours as hundreds of people came to offer khatas (white scarves) and congratulations. Many people I had never met came, including some older and even elderly monks who requested me to please become a lharampa geshe and uphold the tradition.
After being named a rik chung, I had two months to prepare for the actual ceremony, when my partner, who was sixth place, and I would have to debate in front of the whole monastery. During that time he and I went around to different classes and khangtsens to sit damcha and improve our understanding of the debate topic. As answerer, I had to train in the chant style with which I would state my main thesis. During the final weeks leading up to the debate, we were excused from normal monastery activities. In the mornings, I went with the other answerers into the surrounding fields to practice chanting, and in the evenings practiced answering with a friend who was one of the debaters.
Mid-morning on August 4, the day of the debate, an older monk from my khangtsen arrived to escort me to the ceremony. “For one day,” he said “I am your yokpo, servant, and you are a geshe.” I donned my yellow donka, as well as a brand new shamtab (lower robe), long zen (upper robe), chu luk (a ceremonial water pouch) and new shoes. He carried my da gam and hat over his shoulder, and we made our way towards the temple. The sun had made a surprise appearance that day amidst the summer monsoon. Monks cleared the road as we passed, and two elderly Tibetan ladies, who probably had never seen a Westerner dressed as I was, stared confusedly. When we arrived at the temple, my partner was already seated inside, waiting for me. Soon monks began filing in, and the puja began.
After the prayers had finished, the abbot called us forth. Though nervous on the day of the exam and the day of the awarding of the name, this day I felt peaceful, even jubilant. With two months of twice-daily practice behind me, chanting my thesis was as though singing a lullaby to a child. As my partner began his debate, we paced up the aisle toward the abbot, then again back towards the gekyö. Unlike a regular debate, in which the answerer can give an explanation, today I was only allowed to respond with yes or no. My partner began by asking whether calm abiding was necessary for the attainment of bodhichitta, to which I responded it was. Then he asked whether the same was true for great compassion, to which I said no. Then he started asking about the nature of compassion, and of renunciation, and whether they depend upon each other. Periodically he would give citations from various texts. I had a hard time hearing his quotes, but was able to follow his general outline.
Next he debated about the two kinds of bodhichitta – wishing and engaging – how they are distinguished, and how they relate to the 22 stages of bodhichitta. A couple of times I was caught by his tricky wording, but for the most part was able to hold out against his debate. He seemed to tire, and his pacing, which I was meant to follow, became erratic and hesitant. Finally, the gekyö called us to close the debate. After each offering verses of dedication, we sat down and the umdze finished the puja chanting verses of auspiciousness. Row by row, the monks filed out, leaving me alone with my partner, who smiled in relief.
On the way home, my helper stopped for a minute in our khangtsen, leaving me alone on the road in my ceremonial attire. A small boy stood in a puddle, perplexed.
“Drokpo, ka re che gi yo, friend, what are you doing? ” I asked.
“Khye rang ka re yin, what are you? ” he responded.
“Nga rik chung yin. Khyo ka re yin? I am a rik chung. What are you?”
The response failed to dispel his bewilderment, and he remained in the puddle, watching as we continued down the road. At the Sera IMI House, we had a celebration in the afternoon, where I sat for several hours as visitors streamed in, and finally by early evening the excitement had died down, and I could relax again as a normal monk. Before going to bed, I said a short prayer and removed my yellow donka, storing it away for safekeeping. I hope that in 20 years’ time, I will be here to retrieve it, and more importantly, will be able to embody the maturity that it represents.
To learn more about the life of a monk at Sera Je, see “Sera Je Food Fund’s Dramatic Impact on the Monks of Sera Je Monastery”
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- His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Zealand
- The Exemplary Life and Death of Geshe Yeshe Tobden
- The Sera Connection: An Interview with José Cabezón
- The Greatest Honor: Becoming a Rik Chung
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