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Testing times for seekers of enlightenment

By Luo Wangshu, Palden Nyima and Daqiong in Lhasa (

Updated: 2015-08-21 14:36:21

Tsering Dorje, a junior monk at the Tashihunpo Monastery, speaks Mandarin and Tibetan so well that he has been selected as tour guide for visitors who arrive in the summer months to hear him "tell the history of the Tashihunpo Monastery and Tibetan culture to tourists from all over the country".

The 25-year-old junior monk is one of more than 800 residents at the monastery, which is in Xigaze, Tibet's second largest city. It is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama and one of the six most-influential monasteries of the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although he enjoys working with the tourists, the junior monk prefers to spend as much time as possible praying and studying the scriptures.

"I get up at 5:30 am in the summer, and go to the assembly hall to chant with other monks for about three hours," he said. The tourists don't begin arriving until 9 am, so he can devote at least three hours to chanting.

"I also study in the noon and evening after work," he said, adding that in winter he devotes all of his time to religious observance.

The Xigaze native began studying religious scriptures at the monastery in 2004, when he was 14. He became a monk three years later, after passing the extrance exam. "The monastery only allows those who pass the exam to become a fully ordained monk," he said.

From their first day in the monastery, the monks lives are dominated by studying for exams, which are held twice a year, including written tests and debates. One week after each exam, the monks gather in the assembly hall where the masters post a list of results. Success guarantees progression to a higher level of religious education.

Each high-ranking monk usually has 12 "apprentices", and Tsering said he feels lucky to be surrounded with the best "teachers", senior monks, and religious masters.

"I don't have to go to another monastery to practice. Some monks from smaller temples or monasteries come to our monastery to study the scriptures because we have so many good teachers," he said.

Although he studies hard, Tsering doesn't known when he will become a senior monk.

"It takes 20 to 30 years on average to study all the mantras, and then juniors go on to study the tantra," he said.

The highest honor that can be bestowed on monks such as Tsering is to be awarded the Geshe Lharampa – the highest academic qualification in the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism — which they earn by debating religious logic in the exam, which is held annually at the Jokhang Temple.

The exam was supended during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), but was resumed in 1986. "The system of religious learning and traditional religion activities, such as the Geshe Lharampa debate in the Jokhang Temple, has been resumed. Pilgrims love it very much," said Lhakpa Tsering, an official from the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission.