Just 2 km north of Lhasa is the Sera Monastery, one of the the great three Gelug university monasteries in Tibet. The original Sera Monastery is responsible for 18 hermitages, including four nunneries, all located in the foothills north of Lhasa.
The original Sera Monastery is a complex of structures founded in 1419 by Jamchen Chojey Sakya Yeshe of Zel Gungtang (1355–1435), a disciple of Je Tsongkhapa. Prior to establishing this monastery, Tsongkhapa, assisted by his disciples, had set up hermitages at higher elevations above Sera Utsé Hermitage.
The Sera complex is divided into two sectors by pathways; the eastern part contains the Great Assembly Hall and the dwellings and the western part has the well-known three colleges: the Sera Je Dratsang, the Sera Me Dratsang; and the Ngakpa Dratsang, all instituted by Tsongkhapa as monastic universities that catered to monks in the age range 8-70. All the structures within this complex formed a clockwise pilgrimage circuit, starting with the colleges (in the order stated), followed by the hall, the dwelling units and finally ending at the hermitage of Tsongkhapa above the Great Assembly Hall.
The Jé and Mé colleges were established to train monks, over a 20-year programme of tsennyi mtshan nyid grwa tshang (philosophical knowledge), which concludes with a geshe degree. The Ngakpa college, which predated the other two colleges, was exclusively devoted to the practice of tantric ritual. Before 1959, the administration of each college comprised an abbot with council of ten lamas for each college.
Over the years, the monastery developed into a hermitage where about 6000 monks resided. The monastery was one of the finest locations in Tibet to witness the debate sessions, which were held according to a fixed schedule. The monastery belongs to the Gelug Order and was one of the largest in Lhasa. In 2008, Sera had 550 monks in residence.
The monastery complex, encompassing 28 acres (11 ha) of land, housed several institutions in its precincts. The structures of notability were the Coqen Hall Tsokchen (Great Assembly Hall), the three Zhacangs (colleges) and Kamcun (dormitory) also called Homdong Kangtsang. In the main hall, scriptures (scripted with gold powder), statues, scent cloth and murals were seen in profusion. The descriptions given here relate to the scenario that existed at the monastery prior to the 1959 invasion by China but most of the monasteries are stated to be since restored, though the strength of the monks are said to be small.
Debates among monks on the Buddhist doctrines are integral to the learning process in the colleges in the Sera Monastery complex. This facilitates better comprehension of the Buddhist philosophy to attain higher levels of study. This exemplary debating tradition supplemented with gestures is said to be exclusive to this monastery, among the several other monasteries of Lhasa. Visitors also attend to witness these debates that are held as per a set schedule, every day in the ‘Debating Courtyard’ of the monastery.
The debate among monks unfolds in the presence of their teachers, with a very well set rules of procedure for the defender and the questioners. The tradition of such debates is traced to the ancient ‘Hindu Orthodoxy’ in India and this practice permeated into Buddhist orthodoxy in Tibet in the eighth century. Such debates usually take place within the monastery’s precincts. The defender has the onus to prove his point of view on the subject proposed for debate. The debate opens with an invocation to Manjushri recited in a loud and high pitched tone. The roles of the debater and the questioner are well defined; the questioner has to succinctly present his case (all on Buddhism related topics) and the defender has to answer within a fixed time frame. The finality of the debate is with specific answers like: “I accept (do), the reason is not established (ta madrup) or there is no pervasion (Kyappa majung)”. Many a time, the questions mooted are meant to mislead the defender. If the defender does not reply within a time frame, an expression of derision is witnessed. In the Tibetan debating sessions, there is no role for a witness and there is normally no adjudicator. This leads to “conflicting opinions of participants and listeners.” When there is direct contradiction on the defenders part, the outcome is, however, formally decided.
Debates are punctuated with vigorous gestures which enliven the ambience of the occasion. Each gesture has a meaning. The debater presents his case with subtlety, robed in a formal monk’s attire. Some of the gestures (said to have symbolic value), made during the debates, generally subtle dramatic gestures are: clapping after each question; holding right hand and stretching left hand forward and striking the left palm with the right palm; clapping hands loudly to stress the power and decisiveness of the defender’s arguments denoting his self-assurance; in case of wrong answer presented by the defender, the opponent gestures three circles with his hand around the defenders head followed by loud screaming to unnerve the defender; opponent’s mistake is demonstrated by wrapping his upper robe around his waist; loud clapping and intense verbal exchange is common; and the approach is to trap the defender into a wrong line of argument. Each time a new question is asked, the teacher strikes his outstretched left palm with his right palm. When a question is answered correctly, it is acknowledged by the teacher bringing the back of his right hand to his left palm. When the defender wins the debate he makes an allegorical dig at the questioner by questioning his basic wisdom as a Buddhist.
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