What is a Geshe?
Among the sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug school places the most rigorous emphasis on philosophical study, administrating a scholastic degree in large monastic universities that can take two decades or more to complete: the “Geshe” degree. These universities are modeled after the Indian monastic institutions of the past, such as the historic Nalanda and Vikramasila universities, which gave rise to a tradition of philosophical rigor and debating prowess as the foundation for deeper realization that has defined the Gelug school for centuries.
Contributor Geshe Thubten Wangchen gives a brief introduction to this hallowed degree …
The title “Geshe” is not just a name for a graduate. In the monastic system we believe that to graduate as a Geshe is to create the karmic imprints to take rebirth in Shambhala. “Ge” means “virtue” and “she” means “knowing.” Geshe thus means one who knows virtue, one who knows what should be practiced and what should be abandoned.
There are four levels of Geshe degrees categorized under the set criteria of a Gelugpa university – Lharam, Tsokram, Rigram, and Lingse. To qualify for the monastic degree of Geshe, the student must undergo the vast and extensive traditional monastic studies on the five major treatises of Buddhist philosophical texts [The Perfection of Wisdom (as elaborated upon by Maitreya in the Abhisamayalamkara; Chandrakirti’s commentary on Nagarjuna’s root text on Madhyamaka; Dharmakirti’s Pramanavartika – Compendium on Valid Cognition; Vasubhandu’s Abhidharmakosha; and Vinaya – studies in monastic discipline].
The specific commentaries on these five treatises which are studied are not fixed. Some read more and some read less. It depends on how enthusiastic is the student. It also depends on the university. To enable a clearer understanding of the theories put forth in the treatises, the monasteries use Yigchas, mainly collections of chosen commentaries that are similar to textbooks.
According to the Sera Je monastic study system, a minimum of seventeen year’s study is required. The best students who are able to meet the required standards are then granted the privileged eligibility to study for the Lharam Geshe degree. Only the students who get into the first and second divisions are allowed to go for examination. For the Geshe Lharampa degree a further six years of study is needed prior to examination – a total of at least twenty-three years of rigorous study. When it is time for examinations, the three main Gelug monsteries of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden hold their exams together.
On completion of a Geshe degree, one can leave the monastery to take up tantric courses in either of the two tantric colleges of Gyuto or Gyume. It is compulsory for the Geshe Lharampas to study in Gyuto or Gyume for at least one year. They mainly study tantric philosophy and the varieties of the drawing of Mandalas, and so forth. Non-Lharampa Geshes can also study in the same way.
Due to health problems or the region of the monastery in which they live, or for other varied reasons, some top students cannot wait for many years to achieve the Geshe Lharampa, and so they go for the Tsokram, Rigram, or Lingse degree. Some Geshes become teachers in the monastery, or in Tibet, or work in the administration of the monastery. Some will teach in Dharma centers in foreign countries. Some will work in university administration, research, education faculties, libraries, etc.; others will go on retreat for three years or for the rest of their lives. Some will go to other universities and engage in further study, such as in the area of science (physics, biology, astronomy, neurology, and so on).
In my opinion, the system that we had in Tibet was excellent, but I also believe that the system we have now is as rigorous as the old Tibetan one. However, because of the degeneration of these times, it is very difficult to achieve the levels of the past.
Geshe Thubten Wangchen currently serves as resident teacher at FPMT’s Dorje Chang Institute in Auckland, New Zealand.