Introductory Teachings: Monasteries, Mind

A Teaching by Geshe Ngawang Phuntsok

Today, I will tell first the story of India, where I came from, because our president, Carolyn (Cox), said that I should.


You know there are four, sometimes five, Tibetan Buddhist schools:

Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Geluk, and sometimes Yungdrung Bonpo. Mostly, we say there are four orders.

Actually, I’m Sakya; that is my father’s lineage. My father’s village is mostly Sakya. Many times, there is a mix; some people are Nyingma and study Geluk; some people are Geluk and study Nyingma. Many are mixed, and that’s no problem.

For the Geluk, there are three big monasteries: Drepung, Ganden, and Sera. There are also two tantric monasteries. I was born in India and haven’t seen the monasteries in Tibet.

Within each big monastery are two monasteries, so in all there are six. In Drepung, there are Loseling and Gomang. In Ganden, there are Jangtse and Shardze. In Sera, there are Sera Jey and Sera Mey. In India, there is Sakya in Drepung. We stay together because India gave land for Tibetan settlements. In India, your school could depend on your teacher, your friends, your parents. It doesn’t depend on your village.

But in Tibet, if you come from the east, and you want to go to Drepung, you go to Drepung Loseling. If you want to go to Ganden, you go to Shardze. If you want to go to Sera, you go to Sera Mey. Different villages have different languages, food, habits. So when people go to the monastery, they make a group. It’s very easy then, when a group’s habits and food are the same. In Loseling, there are twenty-five groups, some with twenty to thirty monks, some with 200 to 300 monks.

In our studies we use two textbooks. One is sutra; one is tantra. All of the sutra is studied before you can become a geshe. After you get the basics of dharma, you learn tantra.

In our monastery, there also are around 200 to 250 students in an ordinary school, where they teach math, English, Hindi.

Mostly, our two thousand monks come from Tibet. Age ranges from eighteen to forty.

First, we learn pramana, which is logic and valid perception. It’s about the mind, about subject and object. "Man" means mind in Sanskrit.

We call the basic training in the first year dudra, which means "collected, essential points." In the first year, we also learn debate, how to use our hands, legs, and malas. In the first year, there is no need for an exam.

Our second year, we call lorig, which means "the science of the mind" or "presentations on mind and perception." Again, it’s very brief and basic.


There are three kinds of mind:

  1. virtuous,

  2. non-virtuous,

  3. and neutral.

Most delusions are non-virtuous. Bodhicitta is mostly wisdom and is virtuous.

Sometimes, we look at two kinds of mind:

  1. sense consciousness and

  2. mind consciousness.

The five senses compose the sense consciousness:

  1. sight,

  2. hearing,

  3. smell,

  4. taste,

  5. touch.

In the Abhidharmakosh of Vasubandhu, he says first there is the eye, then the ear, then the nose, then the tongue, then the body. He says the eye and ear consciousness don’t need to touch the object.

The eye is highest in the body because sometimes it’s the case you can see but you can’t hear. So the eye consciousness knows farther. Second is the ear, then the nose and tongue because they need to touch. A smell must enter the nostrils, so a smell "touches" you.

Mind consciousness deals with delusions. All delusions are mental factors, such as attachment or anger. Mind also is divided into conscious and non-conscious, into primary factors and mental factors.

The Monasteries (continued)

The third year is called tagrik. Tagrik means "logic and reason." We ask, for example, "If there’s an effect, why do we need a cause?" In the third year, we are given an exam. We must memorize and recite. We must take a written exam. And we must debate. For the debate, if there’s time, hundreds of monks come. The examiner sits with a microphone, so everyone can hear. Nervous? Oooh. You debate with a classmate, but you don’t know who in advance. The senior teachers and geshes give you a number. They have a huge bowl; in it are your names written on paper. A geshe takes a name and says, "You come and sit."

Sometimes debate is good and intelligent. Sometimes it’s a poor debate. You give a poor answer, and everyone is laughing. Then everybody knows, "Oh, he’s not good." With the written exam, no one knows but the teacher who checks it.

In these initial years, study remains very brief, very basic. If you’re studying madhyamika, you spend ten months on madhyamika and two months on pramana.

After twelve years, if you want, you can ask to study for a geshe lharam degree. The qualifying exam is most difficult. The exams are held in one monastery, but the questioners comes from all three. All the senior students come.

After the first year of geshe lharam studies, you have nine questions in nine days on your exam. You write for three hours. You are examined on Tibetan grammar; biographies, such as Jey Tsong Khapa; Tibetan history; and Buddhism’s history. Sometimes, you’re given a huge textbook, and you have to describe one sentence.

For the geshe lharam degree, you study in depth the five major philosophies: pramana, prajnaparamita, madhyamika, vinaya, and Abhidharmakosh.

In the second year of geshe lharam studies, there are nine questions in the exam. In the third and fourth year, six questions; then, there’s only debate. At first, there’s a limit of fifteen minutes on a debate question. Later, debates last one hour, half-an-hour on the question, half-an-hour on the answer.

Each year, you study pramana for two months. You study prajnaparamita for seven years. After that, you study madhyamika for three years. You study vinaya for four years, then Abhidharmakosh for two years. In all, studying to become a geshe lharam requires a minimum of seventeen years.

During this time, you also work in the kitchen, build, go out of the monastery to do pujas.

The mind and its control

If you want a mango from a mango tree, you need to see what is the perfect land, water, season. All this is very important. Like that, fruit is enlightenment. The tree is like the path. The earth is basic; it’s the dharma. If there is no earth, nothing can grow. If there’s faith, that’s like the seeds, the seeds of dharma.

First, we need an honest mind. We need to invite the honest mind every day. This is the basis of bodhicitta.

We have one mind and one body, and I think we can transform the mind because we have the power.

We look at an actor, and we think, "Oh, his body is so good; he is so handsome." We think, "Oh, if I could be like that." This means the body is not the "I" or the self. We think we could change bodies with him, but the "I" would not change. Sometimes when we are angry, we use our hands to beat our head or leg. This means the body is not "I." We think we have the power to leave the body.

I think we can get an honest mind by turning to bodhicitta. If we are honest and have faith, then come the virtues, more and more. We need to change our mind, but it is difficult to find the mind or find "I."

Generally, we experience the mind is maybe here (the top of the head). Or maybe the mind is here (the heart). But I don’t know if the brain is mind or not. Some say the mind is inside the brain, a subtle vein in the brain. I don’t know. Science looks at form, what we can see. Buddhist descriptions are very difficult because we cannot see, no shape, no color, so difficult to describe.

Anyway, we have one mind, one body, one speech, and we cannot control our mind. Dharma says we practice meditation for the purpose of controlling our mind. Generally, we follow our mind, and our mind follows delusion.

At midnight, our body needs to sleep. But the mind can force the body to be awake. The mind follows delusions very easily. Delusions are like alcohol. In general, you could be an honest man, and when you drink, you become dishonest. Alcohol says, "Do what you like and never mind." The next day you are free from alcohol, and you have many regrets now that the alcohol is not there. Like that, delusions force us.

We think they are similar, delusions and "I." We can’t see they are separate, without dharma and meditation. For that reason, we are in samsara. Delusions force the mind, and the mind forces us. We are servants of the mind. This is not necessary. You can stop, refuse to do what your mind says.

Dharma is medicine and imposes discipline on the mind. When we have vows, we impose discipline. Monks’ vinaya is discipline. Discipline can be imposed on body, speech, and mind. If you do something wrong with the body, there are laws. If you use harsh speech, we have laws. If you think something bad in your mind, there are no laws, not yet.

But, if you know dharma, you know delusions are poison. Then you can make discipline on your mind. If the mind does not have discipline, it is crazy.

Monks take vows only on speech and body. Bodhisattva and tantric vows are about mind discipline. In Buddhism, it matters how you come to enlightenment. If you have a chicken outside, and your purpose is to put the chicken inside, you use the chicken’s food. You put the food near the chicken; you don’t put it inside where the chicken can’t see it. You put it nearby, so the chicken will come.

We need enlightenment, the omniscient mind, liberation. It comes from our own experience. Geshe-la (Geshe Dakpa Topgyal) and I will try to find what is the good way to show you. You check to see if it is right. If it is not comfortable, leave it.

When delusions come to our mind, we need an antidote to deal with them. When you use Buddhist practice, that is good because you came voluntarily. I want to say maybe dharma forces you not to have delusions. Dharma means you are happy; we need to be happy. But first we need to find out the cause of happiness.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Ngawang Phuntsok in Columbia, South Carolina, June 21, 2002.