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, 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.
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]).
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.
- 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).
- 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.)
- 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).
- 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).
- Goldstein, M.C. 2009, Bouddhisme tibétain et monachisme de masse (p. 411).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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).
- On the Rongwo sertr’ə, see Caple, Monastic Economic Reform at Rong-bo Monastery (p. 5).
- For the northeast Thai/Lao case, see Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults (p. 102-103, 128-131).