Quasi-generalized, mostly temporary, monasticism among boys: An uncommon form of Tibetan “mass monasticism”

The phrase “mass monasticism” coined by Melvyn Goldstein1 is by now commonly used by specialists of Tibetan religion. As recently reformulated by Goldstein, it designates a monastic system characterized by “an emphasis on recruiting and sustaining very large numbers of celibate monks for their entire lives”.2 Such a monastic system has existed in Tibetan societies for several centuries; in the areas within the People’s Republic of China, it has partially reconstituted itself since the post-Mao religious liberalization, even if it remains strongly impeded by Chinese state regulations.3 The “very large numbers” referred to here seem to have been extremely impressive indeed: according to the areas (and periods) under consideration, one finds figures ranging between 2.5% (in Shorung) and 25% (in Spiti) of the male population.4 Goldstein has suggested a useful contrast: “in Thailand, another prominent Buddhist society, only about 1-2 percent of the total number of males were monks and most of these were not life-long permanent monks.”5 The synchronic count in this formulation however obscures the fact that a much greater proportion of Thai males were monks at some point in their lives. In many parts of South-East Asia, monkhood, often undertaken for a short period during adolescence, has been virtually a rite of passage into male adulthood.6 [For an interesting comparative perspective also on the Mongolian case, see Isabelle Charleux’s input in the comments section, below.]

In Tibetan societies, although returning one’s monastic vows and leaving the order is not rare, lifelong monkhood (starting often at a very young age) remains the norm – so much so that scholarly accounts of (at least pre-1950) Tibetan monasticism generally omit to go into possible generational differences.7 I would like to present here a northeast Tibetan case in which, prior to 1958, a) lifelong monasticism was statistically very far from the norm, and b) monasticism was virtually generalized across the local male child population, the most strikingly so in the village closest to the monastic center. The present case is no way minor: we are talking of Rongwo Gönchen [Rong-bo dgon-chen], the third largest monastery in Amdo (northeast Tibet), which prior to 1958 housed 1700 monks or more.8

Rongwo Gönchen (center), the Teachers’ college (left), the mosque (bottom left) and the temple of the place gods (top right), 2003 (click to enlarge)

Rongwo Gönchen, or simply Rongwo, which belongs to the dominant Geluk [dGe-lugs] order, is situated in the Repkong [Reb-kong] (Chin. Tongren) county, in eastern Amdo. My main informants are mostly elderly men, born in the 1930s and 1940s, from Sakyi [Sa-dkyil], a large village situated immediately to the north of Rongwo monastery. Prior to 1958, like almost all boys of Sakyi, they became monks at Rongwo, typically around the age of four, but sometimes later. They were simply brought one day to the monastery, for instance in the arms of their mother. The only requirement for acceptance mentioned by them was that they be already able to walk. Most of them never received any religious education: they learned neither to read, nor even to recite basic prayers. They wore monastic robes and their heads were shaven, but they spent more time outside than inside the monastery. During the three one-month-long dharma sessions (chit’ok [chos-thog]) of the year, as well as on the days of religious assembly in the other months, the call for assembly would be heard early in the morning. Immediately the families made their boys run to the monastery, and they would take place in the assembly hall. They sat throughout the long religious offices, under the watchful eyes of the disciplinarian (gepke [dge-bskos]), and received food like all other monks: one eighth of a pound of butter, and one bowl of roasted barley flour. At the end of the day they returned home. In the case of young monks from somewhat more distant villages, their families had “paying guest” arrangements with families of Sakyi, who allowed the boys to sleep in their homes during the one-month-long dharma sessions. Then, around the age of 18, when the young men’s full participation in household economic activities became necessary, they asked the “golden throne [holder]” (sertr’ə [gser-khri]), a senior incarnate lama and high monastic official of the monastery,9 for the permission to return to lay life. Their monastic life was over, and in due time they would generally marry.

Debate session at Rongwo Gönchen, 2009

At first glance, some features of this form of monasticism show striking similarities with the Southeast Asian cases described by Tambiah and others: we are dealing here with very widespread, male, temporary monkhood prior to reaching the adult age. But the differences are considerable too. Most of the pre-1958 young monks of Rongwo monastery never derived any literacy or even the most basic religious skills from their period of temporary monkhood. In addition, none of my informants mentioned the production or transfer of merit as a key concern.10 So what was this institution of mass, mostly temporary monasticism all about?

In my elderly informants’ accounts, what lay at the core of this institution was the daily distribution of food at religious assemblies, in a context of widespread relative poverty. (Boys of more affluent houses might or might not be sent to become monks.) This situation was not specific to the generation of those informants; many of their fathers and grandfathers had been monks too. But who offered the food? This role was taken up, for periods of three years, either by the “golden throne [holder]”, or by another incarnate lama, who would be called “throne-holder” (tr’əwa [khri-ba]). This one was selected from among the richer and more capable heads of incarnation line estates (nangchen [nang-chen]), of which there were eighteen attached to Rongwo monastery. As the incarnate lamas at the head of estates channeled considerable amounts of offerings and taxes, in effect we thus had a system of redistribution. But what was the interest of the monastic institution in having these very large cohorts of young, generally uneducated boys (who outnumbered the adult monks) with them in the religious assemblies? The most plausible answer that I have was articulated most clearly by other informants, educated men in their 30s or 40s, who happen to have rather strong (albeit not exclusive) associations with the Nyingma [rNying-ma] tradition. In a context of Geluk hegemony (I will return to this in other posts) and relative Geluk-Nyingma-Bönpo triangular polarization of the overall religious field in Repkong, the Rongwo institution of mass monasticism and distribution of food most probably contributed substantially to instilling a sense of Geluk affiliation among the boys and young men who joined the ranks of the Rongwo monks. The majority of them left the monastery upon reaching the adult age, but they would become, as householders, faithful patrons of the monks and lamas of Rongwo. This institution can thus be seen, in part, as a means for expanding and reinforcing the hold of the local Geluk establishment over the nearby villages affiliated with it, the “Seven Communities of Rongwo” (Rongwo Depdün [sde-bdun]).

Rongwo from the north side, with the new monks’ quarters, 2011

How widespread was this locally quasi-generalized, but mostly temporary, and thus rather atypical (or at least so far unmentioned) form of Tibetan “mass monasticism”? At this initial stage of the investigation, it seems that the closest village, Sakyi, was characterized by the highest degree of enrollment of entire generations of boys, as compared to other villages among the “Seven Communities.” On questions of historical depth, or geographic scope, of this institution, I still have extremely little to say. On the logics of this institution in itself, the picture drawn here is surely still tentative. All comments, pointers and critical remarks would be most gratefully received.

  1. Goldstein, M.C. 1998, The Revival of Monastic Life in Drepung Monastery, in Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity, M. C. Goldstein & M. T. Kapstein (eds.), University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 15-52 (p. 15). []
  2. Goldstein, M.C. 2009, Bouddhisme tibétain et monachisme de masse, in Moines et moniales de par le monde : La vie monastique au miroir de la parenté, A. Herrou & G. Krauskopff (eds.), L’Harmattan, Paris (p. 409). (For the English version of Goldstein’s chapter, see here.) []
  3. See Cabezón, J.I. 2008, State Control of Tibetan Buddhist Monasticism in the People’s Republic of China, in Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation, M. M. Yang (ed.), University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 261-291 (p. 277-280), and Makley, C., 2007, The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China, University of California Press, Berkeley (p. 225-284). []
  4. Geoffrey Samuel has compiled here some useful data: Samuel, G., 1993, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC (p. 329-330, 578-582). []
  5. Goldstein, M.C. 2009, Bouddhisme tibétain et monachisme de masse (p. 411). []
  6. In a village surveyed by Tambiah, “[o]ver half of the family heads had served as monks,” and yet others only as novices: Tambiah, S.J., 1970, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (p. 100-102; quote on p. 102). See also Swearer, D.K., 2010, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. State University of New York Press, Albany (p. 52-53). []
  7. Socio-economic and religious dynamics may however very much affect the generational composition of the monk body, as the Sherpa data for the 20th century shows: see Fürer-Haimendorf, C., 1984, The Sherpas Transformed: Social Change in a Buddhist Society of Nepal, Sterling, New Delhi (p. 86, 91, 184), and Fisher, J.F., 1990, Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal, University of California Press, Berkeley (p. 149, 151). []
  8. Caple, J., 2010, Monastic Economic Reform at Rong-bo Monastery: Towards an Understanding of Contemporary Tibetan Monastic Revival and Development in A-mdo, Buddhist Studies Review, 27(2), pp. 197-219 (p. 4). []
  9. On the Rongwo sertr’ə, see Caple, Monastic Economic Reform at Rong-bo Monastery (p. 5). []
  10. For the northeast Thai/Lao case, see Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults (p. 102-103, 128-131). []

Nicolas Sihlé

Nicolas Sihlé, a sociocultural anthropologist, is researcher at the Center for Himalayan Studies, a research unit of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) based in Villejuif (France). He specializes on Tibetan religion and society, and is the author of Rituels bouddhiques de pouvoir et de violence : La figure du tantriste tibétain [Buddhist rituals of power and violence : The figure of the Tibetan tantrist] (Brepols, 2013). His current work focuses on post-Mao socioreligious transitions in and around the famous communities of non-monastic specialists of tantric Buddhism in northeast Tibet (Amdo), and more generally on the comparative anthropology of Buddhism.

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14 Responses

  1. Philippe Ramirez says:

    As a non-specialist of the monastic tradition I wonder if non-permanent child monkhood in Tibet and Southeast Asia has a genealogical relationship with the brahmacarya, which is said to have been a stage of life dedicated to vedic studies in ancient times, and which is now mostly reduced to a rite of passage among the upper castes Hindus (nep. bratabandha, skt. upanayanam). I suppose historians of Buddhism have explored this relationship, and maybe you could evoke them, but I just wanted to underline the possibility that mass monasticism, despite its lack of economic “interest” as you say, has persisted for other reasons beside the mere Gelug politics.

  2. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Many thanks for the comment, Philippe. To start with Indic Buddhism, as a first comment one might mention that the term brahmacarya was used in Buddhist texts, but in the sense of (in particular sexual) “proper conduct”, and of “religious law” more generally. However, closer to the spirit of your suggestion, we find indications that the Buddhist rite of ordination (Skt. pravrajyā) was influenced by the major Hindu rite of passage, the upanayana, including in particular the upanayana’s ritual enactment of the stage of brahmacarya followed by the return from that stage.[1]
    As an aside: in the Newar case, in the Kathmandu valley, Buddhist monasticism evolved over time into a system more fully integrated within the larger caste structure; celibacy was abandoned in the process, and Buddhist “monastic” identity became attached to, and transmitted hereditarily within, one caste. In this caste (made up of two subgroups, the Vajrācārya and Śākya), the boys undergo a rite of passage equivalent to a caste initiation ritual, which in its name (bare chuyegu, “becoming a monk”) and features strongly recalls the Buddhist ordination rite,[2] and in which the links to the Hindu upanayana are even more pronounced.[3]
    But what about temporary Buddhist monastic ordination, as you suggest? With regard to Southeast Asian forms of Buddhism, I am not aware of any study of a possible genealogical link between the Hindu notion of the brahmacarya stage of life and practices of temporary ordination per se. In his above-mentioned study, Tambiah refers to the Hindu model of the four stages of life as “[t]he obvious basis for comparison” (Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults, p. 91). He suggests that (in a rather loose way) the brahmacarya stage can be compared with Buddhist novicehood, and the sannyāsa stage with the Buddhist fully ordained monk status. However, the analogy is only partial, and Tambiah’s point is made here in purely structural terms; the historical question you raise is not addressed. Swearer has a brief and somewhat vague formulation, according to which the Southeast Asian case “reflects [I assume, again, from a structural perspective] the Hindu brahmacari stage of life” (Swearer, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, n. 84 p. 220).
    If we now turn to Tibetan societies, the northeast Tibetan, Repkong case presented above is clearly, as far as we can tell, a rather special (and possibly rare) modality within the general Tibetan context of predominantly lifelong mass monasticism. As we have seen, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, this institution involved most often no form of religious education, and nothing in my data suggests that this passage through monkhood was perceived as akin to a rite of passage. There is here probably very little hope of establishing any kind of genealogy with the Hindu brahmacarya stage.
    Your final point remains however absolutely valid. In this tentative exploration of a seemingly uncommon form of Tibetan mass monasticism, I have highlighted the themes that appeared at the centre of my informants’ accounts. However, the institution in itself can of course in no way be reduced to pure Geluk politics and economic need. It would be surprising if it were devoid of ideological significance. Authors writing on Tibetan mass monasticism in general, whether pre-1958/59 (such as Goldstein) or in the post-Mao period (such as Makley), have stressed the great ideological importance of this phenomenon, be it for ordinary Tibetans, for the monastic institutions, or for the (pre-1958/59) Tibetan polities of central Tibet and elsewhere. Thus even if for instance ideas of merit and karma were not voiced, at this preliminary stage of the research, by my Repkong informants, further research may well show that such ideas were not absent.

    1 von Rospatt, A. 2005, The Transformation of the Monastic Ordination (pravrajyā) into a Rite of Passage in Newar Buddhism, in Words and Deeds: Hindu and Buddhist Rituals in South Asia, J. Gengnagel, U. Hüsken & S. Raman (eds.), Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, pp. 199-234.
    2 Gellner, D.N. 1988, Monastic Initiation in Newar Buddhism, in Indian Ritual and its Exegesis, R. F. Gombrich (ed.), Oxford University Press, Delhi, pp. 42-112 (p. 43).
    3 von Rospatt, The Transformation of the Monastic Ordination (p. 211 ff.).

  3. Paul Nietupski says:

    This interesting description of the monks at Rongbo is thought provoking. I write a response with some general reflections.

    It appears that in Amdo monasteries education was valued as a far-off, but respected quality, if for a minority of gifted individuals. I see that the monks interviewed in this blog post reported that in the pre-1958 years education was not at all a priority, but this statement is formatted in the blog next to a group of Rongbo monks engaged in debate, if in 2009. This is clearly an educational exercise, even if memorized by rote. I assume that this went on in pre-1958 Rongbo.

    Still, at any point in time it seems likely that monkhood provided a secure life choice for young boys, and took pressure off families with limited resources. “Mass monasticism” was a social service that provided food, shelter and even if not a high priority, an ethically positive, socially responsible solution for families. Many monks doubtless left it at that, their time at the monastery was often not productive, and many if not most were not educated. Mel Goldstein’s descriptions of life in central Tibetan monasteries (Demise of a Lamaist State), and the description of monastic life in this blog are doubtless based on facts. (My colleagues in Christian history note that with regard to education much the same was true in Christian monasteries.)

    However, mass monasticism, in addition to being a social welfare institution, did arguably provide for its own continuity and it did often provide community services. The monks insured the continuity of their system with infrastructures and divisions of labor. At least some Amdo monks provided religious services, funerary rituals, and community bonds via calendrical and other rituals. Some pre-modern Amdo monks mediated disputes. I wonder if—keeping the multiple varieties of regional monasteries in mind—we should understand mass monasticism more as a social institution that included social welfare, ritual support for a broad sense of community, many illiterate monks, and in some key places the location for the study of arts and literature at the highest levels.

  4. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Thanks for the comments, Paul. It is true that I emphasized in my post one rather atypical variant of Tibetan mass monasticism, and that I did not take time to provide a larger context, as you do here. One thing that definitely needs to be made clear is that, besides the particular mode of temporary monasticism which I describe here, there was also the usual “Tibetan mass monasticism” as we know it at Rongwo Gönchen: namely, a substantial number of monks who ended up possibly getting some basic (or even advanced) religious education, who were considering to be monks for their entire lives, and a number of whom were providing ritual services as you say. Of course, in 1958 the monastery stopped functioning, but a number of these more committed monks (like one of my Sakyi informants) became a monk again in the early 1980s. In that sense, Rongwo Gönchen was definitely also aligned with more widespread Tibetan patterns.
    You raise however an interesting issue with your formulations, regarding Tibetan monasticism bringing a sort of “social service” or “social welfare”. Do we actually have evidence that these institutions were seen by (pre-1958) monastic and/or lay actors in such, or similar, terms? A first important distinction is probably that between the monastic institution (with its various sources of revenue) on the one hand and the incarnate lamas (with their own estates and donors) on the other hand. The two were linked in complex ways, but the distinction needs, it would seem, to be kept in mind here; as for instance Stein states:

    We must (…) reckon with a certain difference between the ecclesiastic community and the individual prelate. The former tended to hoard and accumulate wealth and political power. The latter was often a factor in [the circulation of wealth] (I amend here slightly Driver’s translation), in both a centripetal and centrifugal sense. (…) Even in the modern period, (…) we are informed that the ‘living buddhas’ (…), as opposed to the monasteries, regularly made distributions of alms, (…) and contributed to the costs of the religious ceremonies of their monastery and the state.[1]

    As we have seen in the pre-1958 Rongwo case, the providers of food for the religious assemblies seem to have been, here too, incarnate lamas.
    Now, was this mode of circulation of wealth informed by something we could call an ideology of “social service” or “social welfare”? On the surface of things, the particular Rongwo case may seem to come rather close, as most of my informants stressed the relative poverty of the families who were bringing their sons to the monastery. However, as opposed to the Western, modern, secular ideologies that the notion of “social welfare” might evoke, could the Rongwo case not be interpreted, at least partly, in terms of Buddhists logics of the gift? In Buddhist contexts, it is striking that the giving to the (lay) poor has never been highly valued;[2] the meritorious gift par excellence remains the gift to the sangha. So, for instance, one could ask: does the gift of the incarnate lama become more valued – or, maybe more accurately, take a culturally more validated and established form – if poor boys are made into (at least nominal) “monks”? Could this admittedly tentative hypothesis (beside the comments offered by my Nyingma informants) provide an additional clue to understanding the atypical, temporary monasticism we saw in pre-1958 Repkong?

    [A last note on the giving to the (lay) poor, and monasticism among the rural poor (1/4/2012):]
    Actually, generally speaking, in assessing the question of Buddhist values in matters of giving to the poor, one should beware of a possible Buddhist doctrinal bias in scholarly accounts, as we are reminded by Katherine Bowie’s essay on charity in rural areas of Northern Thailand. Also of interest for the present discussion, that essay provides some historical data on the class dimension of monastic recruitment in that area.[3]

    1 Stein, R.A., 1972, Tibetan civilization, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA (p. 148). For the original version, see: Stein, R.A., 1981, La civilisation tibétaine, 2nd ed. Le Sycomore / l’Asiathèque, Paris (p. 93-94).
    2 Ohnuma, R. 2005, Gift, in Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, Donald S. Lopez Jr. (ed.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 103-123 (p. 114-115).
    3 Bowie, K.A., 1998, The Alchemy of Charity: Of Class and Buddhism in Northern Thailand, American Anthropologist, N. S., 100(2), pp. 469-81

  5. Brenton Sullivan says:

    Numerous interesting points and questions have been raised in this post and the ensuing discussion!

    One comment on the last response made by Nicolas: I would not presume such a dichotomy as that suggested by Stein in the above citation–that the monastic community “hoards” wealth while the lamas and other prelates were the ones who distributed and circulated wealth. Although it appears to be the case that hagiographical literature of important lamas and saints emphasizes their grandiose generosity, and we certainly do read in historical literature regular accounts of such figures creating an ‘endowment’ (gtong theb) on behalf of a monastery, it is the monastery itself that provides the ‘regular tea service’ (rgyun ja), the ‘monks tea’ (grwa ja; this I understand to be the distribution of tea to those monks actually present at assembly), ‘cash allowances’ (grwa ‘gyed), ‘communal tea’ (mang ja; this I understand to be the distribution of tea for all registered monks in the monastery, regardless of their presence at assembly), etc. The monastic customaries (bca’ yig) that I have read do note occasions during which the lamas’ estates (bla brang, or nang chen) are responsible for feeding the assembled monks. However, it appears that it is typically the monastery itself that provides such services from its own supplies (which, of course, derive from other sources, such as donations from lamas and laity alike).

    To return to the original post for a moment: I think this phenomenon of temporary renunciation is fascinating. I wonder if there might be more cases of this elsewhere than we now realize. Researching this sort of phenomenon is rather difficult: For starers, I think I’ve often unwisely assumed that “once a monk always a monk.” This mentality is reinforced by what monks themselves tell me and by the stigma attached to giving up one’s vows. Also, it’s getting harder to do any sort of oral history of what these institutions were like prior to ’49 / ’58, at which time so many monk were forceably laicized. (And, of course, today it appears that modernization and urbanization are taking their own toll on “mass monasticism.”)

    On a final note, I want to ask a question related to another issue that pertains to monasticism: ordination. I’ve recently had some conversations with others on this issue, and I realized that I knew of no good ethnographic account and explanation of ordination in the Tibetan context, whereas I do know of some good sources for Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.

    Also, I was wondering if anyone has witnessed an ordination? Are they particularly secretive rites? In Chinese Buddhism one finds mass ordination platforms that are certified by the state and at which hundreds of monks are ordained simultaneously once a year (or once every few years, depending on the state dispensation). Are there similar “mass ordinations” in Tibet? Surely something of this kind occurs when a famous lama visits a monastery and parent rush to have their young sons renounce under said lama?

  6. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Thanks for the comments, Brenton! And thanks for your probably very appropriate suggestion that we exercise caution with regard to the strongly polarized duality evoked by Stein. May I ask you: when you write “it is the monastery itself…”, which monasteries is this referring to? And is your data based on monastic customaries alone, or on other sources such as elderly informants’ accounts? (In the Repkong case described above, I’ll definitely ask again, but my informants did mention repeatedly the incarnation line estates as the sponsors of the dharma sessions…)
    Thanks also for the useful terminology you provide. (I recently came across Namri Dagyab’s dissertation, which is also useful in this respect.[1]) I was just intrigued by your choice of the term “allowance” for ‘gyed: in my experience, ‘gyed is used for distributions of gifts (nowadays typically of money) that do not have the regularity and both hierarchical and contractual nature that the term “allowance” would suggest: the amounts given and their frequency depend generally on the individual donors’ decisions.
    With regard to Tibetan ordinations, the most substantial sources that I can think of are the following: Mills (2003: 41-45) brings here just a very few elements[2]; Schneider (2010: 256-265) offers a much longer account, albeit of a rather normative nature perhaps (the description is complemented by only limited more ethnographic data following it)[3], and Gutschow (2004: chap. 5) brings possibly the fullest, ethnographically most satisfactory account that we have for the moment[4]… as far as I can tell (please do correct me if I’m omitting anything). The irony here is of course that it is only in the context of female monasticism (for which the full ordination is not preserved in the Tibetan tradition) that we seem to find detailed scholarly attention and descriptions! Finally, we also catch (very brief) glimpses of an ordination ceremony at Dza Sershül Gön [rDza Ser-shul dgon] in Ma Li’s Mirror of Emptiness (2011)… but she might have more footage than what we see in the documentary?
    [A last note (30/11/2011):]
    Regarding your question about secrecy, Kim Gutschow provides the answer:

    Since lay observers are excluded from ordination rites in Tibetan Buddhism, there are no first-hand accounts of these rites.[5]

    1. Dagyab, N., 2009, Vergleich von Verwaltungsstrukturen und wirtschaftlichen Entscheidungsprozessen tibetisch-buddhistischer Klöster in der Autonomen Region Tibet, China und Indien, doctoral dissertation, Philosophische Fakultät der Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, Bonn.
    2. Mills, M.A., 2003, Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism, RoutledgeCurzon, London ; New York.
    3. Schneider, N., 2010, Le renoncement au féminin : Couvents et nonnes dans le bouddhisme tibétain, doctoral dissertation, Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense.
    4. Gutschow, K., 2004, Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
    5. Gutschow, K., 2004, Being a Buddhist Nun, p. 180. See also Schneider, N., 2010, Le renoncement au féminin, n. 496 p. 257.

  7. Dawa Chotso Lodro Garma says:

    If they are not learning and practicing the dharma, in what sense can they be considered monks? Sounds more like a Tibetan tradition that provides local families with free child care.

  8. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Hi, thanks for visiting and commenting.
    I think that the discussion above clearly suggests that what we see here is not really about “provid[ing] local families with free child care”; rather, we have here a complex institution that was informed by Buddhist logics of the gift and Tibetan Buddhist institutionalized social patterns of giving, possibly by Geluk institutional concerns for strengthening the local patronage base, as well as by general Tibetan ideologies of mass monasticism, according to which almost any candidate would be accepted into the monastic order. “Free child care” was simply not an existing concept in pre-1958 Repkong.
    However, your question regarding the “monk” status of these boys is quite relevant, and definitely intriguing. Of course, it is well known that in (pre-1950s) Tibetan mass monasticism in general, many monks remained illiterate or virtually so, and were not “practitioners” of the dharma in any but the loosest of senses. But to what extent were the Repkong boys described above actually considered to be “real” monks? The data I have seems to indicate that they were called “child monks” (wentr’ik [ban-phrug]), a general Amdo term for young novices and monks; I could not discover any other, special designation. One distinction mentioned by an elderly Sakyi monk, however, was that an aspiring novice intending to remain a monk would find an older monk to stay with, within the monastery itself, and would be made to take lay follower / novice (genyen [dge-bsnyen]) vows, whereas the other boys, who were living in the village and just being present at dharma sessions, would not take such vows. Beyond this indication that apparently not all boys in the monastery were understood to be on the same trajectory, or subjected to the same ethical requirements, I simply don’t know at this point what the local perspectives on the latter boys’ “monk” status were: a finer inquiry is called for.
    [A last note, simply of terminology (30/11/2011):]
    Schneider (2010: 261) argues that the term “novice” should be kept for the initial renunciation stage (marked by genyen vows), rather than for the semi-ordained status that follows (marked by gets’ül [dge-tshul] vows), as the transitoriness and revocability of the former are much closer to the associations of the Western term “novice”. It is in this sense that I use “novice” here.

  9. Brenton Sullivan says:

    Dear Nicolas,

    Sorry for not responding sooner. When I say it’s “the monasteries themselves” that provide most of the food, tea, cash, and other gifts to the monks, I’m referring mostly to monasteries I have visited in Dpa ris, such as Dgon lung byams pa gling and Mchod rten thang, and I’m also referring to monasteries for which countless ‘customaries’ (bca’ yig) have been written. Most of the customaries I have read describe how wealth is to be distributed, and speak more often of the financial obligations of the monastery than of those of the lama palaces. Just to give one example, the renowned Thu’u bkwan Blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma composed a customary for one of his monasteries, Chos bzang ri khrod, aka Bde chen chos gling. When talking about treating the ill, the customary of the monastery says that “for those patients with absolutely no wealth, they are to be given an examine [paid for] by the ‘communal property’ (spyi rdzas)”. This is an explicit reference to what the monastery is to pay for. Usually, it is merely implied that one of the monastery’s funds (e.g. spyi (b)so) is responsible for the regularly distribution of wealth. (Incidentally, this makes me think of another topic: one of the “entities” at the monastery about which I would love to learn more is the ‘community of monks’ (dgon pa spyi; dgon pa gzhung).)

    You’re correct about ‘gyed being used to refer to the distribution of cash to the chanting monks. That was an error I made in haste. ‘Allowance,’ I think, is best reserved for “phog(s).”

    Thank you very much for the references!

    Best wishes,

  10. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Thanks, Brenton. I think you definitely have a point regarding the need to look more in detail at the various economic responsibilities of the monastery on the one hand and of the incarnate estates on the other. One way to reconcile the information that I was given with what you have examined would be to conclude that there was probably also some degree of variation in such matters, even among large Geluk monasteries in Amdo; but I simply also would need to inquire further in and around Repkong.
    Regarding questions of monastic organization such as those that you raise, I would recommend having a look at Namri Dagyab’s above-mentioned Ph.D., with the help of a German speaker if need be. For dgon pa gzhung he mentions its use also (p. 56-57) as a designation, before 1959, for the monastic administration committee (composed of the abbot, any retired abbots, the chant master, the treasurers [spyi so] and the main disciplinarian).
    I look forward to reading more about Gönlung from you…
    All best for now.

  11. Isabelle Charleux says:

    To compare with the situation in 19th and early 20th century Mongolia: in Mongolia the monks represented about 30% to 50% of the total male population of the banners. Almost all of them were Gelugpa monks attached to a monastery (there were no nuns in Mongolia, though some old women shaved their head and took Buddhist vows, but continued to live with their family).

    Many observers noted these high figures which were confirmed by a census in the 1930s made by the young communist Republic (a census naturally aiming at highlighting the Church’s power over the Mongolian population and economy).

    But the great majority of these “lamas” were actually novices who had not taken the gelüng (dge slong) ordination. They were called “steppe lamas” because they lived as herders, were often married, and came to the monastery only twice a month to participate in rituals and receive free tea and their share of offerings. They wore the monastic robe and enjoyed the respect of the population, who asked them to perform rituals for laymen.

    Nowadays many monks (novices and fully ordained monks) are married in the countryside (the oldest had to disrobe in the late 1930s and became lamas again in the 1990s).

    In Mongolia, like in other Buddhist countries, there was no complete segregation between monks/novices and laymen. Many laymen were educated in monasteries and then broke their vows, and many “monks” lived as laymen and among laymen.

  12. Isabelle Charleux says:

    Just in case this might be of use, the best study on this topic is:

    A.M. Pozdneev, Religion and Ritual in Society: Lamaist Buddhism in Late 19th-Century Mongolia, transl. from Russian by Alo Raun and Linda Raun, ed. by John R. Krueger, Bloomington : The Mongolia Society, 1978 [Saint Petersburg, 1887]
    He provides information, among others, on the bi-monthly religious gatherings that these “steppe lamas” joined.

    On contemporary practices:

    – Elverskog, Johan, “Two Buddhisms in Contemporary Mongolia,” Contemporary Buddhism Volume 7, Number 1, May 2006, 29-46.
    – Majer, Zsuzsa, “Continuation or disjunction with the past and the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition”, The Silk Road 7 (2009), 52-63
    – Havnevik, Hanna, Byambaa Ragchaa, & Agata Bareja-Starzynska, “Some practices of the Buddhist Red tradition in contemporary Mongolia”, p. 223-238 in Bulag, Uradyn E. & Hildegard G.M. Diemberger (eds), The Mongolia-Tibet Interface: Opening New Research Terrains in Inner Asia. Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, 2003, Leiden ; Boston : Brill, Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library, vol. 9, 2007

    The issue of the interpenetration of lay and monastic worlds (as we see in the case discussed here) is interesting throughout Buddhist societies. In Mongolia, traditionally, families gave their 3rd or 4th son to the monastery. So when Mongols went to the monastery, they would visit their sons or relatives, and bring food for them (monks depended on their families for food), and they could stay at their place.
    Another interesting figure was that of the badarch lamas (badarch: from patra, the alms bowl in Sanskrit): these were itinerant monks (on pilgrimage, or traveling to receive teachings, or soliciting alms to repair a monastery, or simply begging). Some were of the Nyingma "mad monk" type. They went from yurt to yurt, telling stories, and are depicted in many stories as sleeping easily with their hostess, stealing, etc. There is a whole literature on the topic.

  13. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Many thanks for all this, Isabelle. Clearly, there tends to be an exceptionalism in accounts of Tibetan (mass) monasticism that we need to question, even if it means engaging in the complex exercise of comparing shifting understandings of what a “monk” is: life-long vs. temporary careers (or yet the intermediate situation that we seem to see in the case of the Mongolian “steppe lamas”), celibate vs. more nominal “monkhood” (in Mongolia, Japan or among the Newar), etc.
    (This is just a parenthesis, but this shift in meanings that the comparativist must attend to reminds me of the “controlled equivocation” that Viveiros de Castro argues to be at the basis of anthropological translation:
    Viveiros de Castro, E., 2011, Perspectival anthropology and the method of controlled equivocation, Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, 2(1), pp. 3-22.)

    Anyway, the figures you mention (e.g., “30% to 50% of the total male population”) are really striking… One wonders exactly what realities they referred to. Did all of these “monks” receive religious training? Were they all capable of performing ritual services for the laity? Were they all perceived as legitimate, authorized ritual specialists?

  14. Isabelle Charleux says:

    I agree: with regard to mass monasticism, the Tibetan case was maybe less unique than one might think. If one considers the lay brothers (conversi and others) of certain places and periods in medieval Europe, in particular in areas that were “colonized” by the monks, the monastic population was very important.

    As for the level of religious training of the Mongolian “steppe” monks, it is very difficult to assess precisely. It is considered that roughly 1% of Mongolian monks entered the monastic colleges, and that a large majority of the monks could read or recite the Tibetan texts but not understand them. We know for instance that the itinerant monks (badarch lam) would wander across the country, from yurt to yurt, carrying 4 or 5 ritual texts with them. The range of texts that the “steppe lamas” could offer to perform was most likely quite narrowly focused on responding to the problems of daily life; when the laypeople had other specific needs, they would go to the monastery. The common people themselves also owned some texts, for instance of an all-purpose type, like the Heart Sutra

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