In Exile: Tibetan Monastic Universities after 1959
During the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, many of the monasteries of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism were destroyed. Those monastic universities that did survive continue today in Tibet in a greatly weakened form, lacking the political freedom and resources to approach anything like the level of scholastic training they had prior to the Chinese occupation. In exile, however, all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism have successfully recreated at least some of their monastic universities.
The Sakya tradition has relocated its seat to Dehradun, India, where Sakya College continues the traditional Sakya curriculum, with courses of study lasting up to 13 years. Rumtek monastery in Sikkim was founded in the early 1960s and offers training in the Karma Kagyü lineage.
Both the Nyingma and Gelug traditions have rebuilt their universities in South India. In Bylakuppe, the Nyingma scholastic center of Payül (one of the Six Great Nyingma Universities) has been rebuilt as Namdröling, and is today home to more than 2,000 monks. Furthermore, at the beginning of the 1970s, Penor Rinpoche founded a commentarial school (dshad brwa) within Namdröling, which now trains 400 students. The great Nyingma monastery of Mindröling was also rebuilt in Dehradun, beginning in 1965.
All three of the “Three Seats” of the Gelug school have been rebuilt in South India. In the case of Sera, 200 monks from “Old Sera” re-established the university in Karnataka, India, after a decade of living in refugee camps. At present there are nearly 4,000 monks at Sera, and 2,000 each at Drepung and Ganden in India. While there have been many changes made to adapt to the new circumstances, the curriculum of the “Three Seats” remains remarkably similar to what it was in pre-1959 Tibet.
There have also been many new scholastic centers founded in exile that have no precedent in Tibet. In 1973, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics was founded in Dharamsala by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and admits both lay and monastic students. The curriculum of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics is closely modeled on the curriculum followed by the three major Gelug monastic universities. The same five texts are studied and debate remains a central component. However, the curriculum has been modified in anticipation of a new generation of Tibetans who have already finished high school, and are thus able to progress more quickly through the introductory levels of study. Notably, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics differs from all other monastic universities discussed thus far in opening its doors to women, to whom no higher monastic education was made available in Tibet or India.
In 1967, the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies was established in Sarnath, India, following joint discussions between Indian President Jawahar Lal Nehru and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Initially operating under the auspices of the Sampurnananda Sanskrit University, Varanasi, the Central Institute was accredited as an independent university in 1988. The Central Institute offers advanced degrees to both lay and monastic students, after a nine-year course of study that includes debate but differs markedly from the curriculum of the other Tibetan institutions in combining Sanskrit and Tibetan studies, and in its inclusion of scholars from among the four different schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Located in Boulder, Colorado, in the United States, Naropa University began in 1974 as a summer institute bringing together American Beat poets and the students of Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the Kagyü lineage. In 1986, the institution was accredited as a university, and today offers undergraduate degrees in childhood education, contemplative psychology, environmental studies, visual arts, writing and literature, and a number of other humanistic fields. While the university curriculum is not centered on the study of the major Indian philosophical texts—the traditional mainstay of monastic universities in Tibet and India—it does seek to incorporate Buddhist values and places a strong emphasis on meditative practice.
Other new educational formats can be found among Tibetans in exile. Within the Gelug tradition, Kopan Monastery was founded in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal in 1969 by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. Kopan is unique in that it continues the traditional Gelug scholastic curriculum, while also hosting regular meditation programs for Western students.
Lama Thubten Yeshe also founded Lama Tzong Khapa Institute in Pomaia (Pisa) Italy in 1976. Lama Tzong Khapa Institute offers what is perhaps the most in-depth training in Buddhist philosophy currently available in the West.
Based on our Buddhist heritage and the inspiration of the tradition of Buddhist Universities throughout history, Yangsi Rinpoche began teaching a four year Advanced Buddhist Studies Program at Maitripa Institute in Portland, Oregon in January, 2006. In July 2008, Maitripa Institute received legal authority to offer graduate degrees in Buddhist Studies in the state of Oregon. This approval means that Maitripa is now a College, and that the courses offered are available for college credit. Maitripa College is currently offering a Master of Arts degree in Buddhist Studies and a Master of Divinity degree. This achievement is the first step towards regional accreditation. We hope to expand these programs into a fully-functioning accredited university in the future, and to continue the precedent of great scholarship and practical application of this rich philosophical tradition in America.
With thanks to Jeremy Savage Manheim for his contribution of research and text for this page, and to Lhundup Damchö for editing it. Thanks to the Sera Monastery Project of the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library (seramonastery.org) for the following photos: Sera, Tibet; Tsangpa Khangtsen, Sera Monastery, Tibet; Sera Monastery, India.