Sera Monastic University —

The following account was extracted from early drafts of The Novice.

Founded in the fifteenth century, Sera Monastery near Lhasa was one of Tibet’s three great Gelugpa monasteries, home to thousands of monks and a formidable seat of debate training. Along with Ganden and Drepung monasteries it turned out hundreds of geshés each year, among them a steady trickle of accomplished scholars. One of these was my teacher Geshé Rabten, who suggested that while I stayed in the reconstituted monastery in South India I teach English.

Rebuilding Sera more than a decade after the Chinese invasion looked at first like an act of desperation. It began with barely a hundred adults and a hundred young novices, but in just two decades has grown to a population of several thousand. Today, the fifteen-year geshé training program is as robust as ever. The institution has regained all its old prestige and now even attracts the admiration and support of the modern world. The first Western geshés graduated in the late 1990’s. I went there in 1979, before there was any provision for Westerners, to polish my Tibetan and experience monastic life at first hand. Within a year I was persona non grata.

It became clear that I wouldn’t get along with the powers that be shortly after my arrival, when work on the schoolroom in which I was to teach remained stalled. Trying to stick up for my eager pupils I was confronted by an abbot and his advisors who made it clear that I was expected to defer to them, and not to my students. These old-school geshés and lamas, understandably traumatized by the loss of their country, feared the further loss of their heritage and saw the study of a foreign language as diversionary, if not threatening. Several teachers absolutely forbade their wards from attending English classes.

I took up my own studies with the unremarkable Geshé Kayang, whose authority extended no further than the walls of his own house. As we became friends urgent whispers warned me of the low esteem in which he was held, and of his poor scholarship. Nevertheless, I enjoyed his simple companionship, his low-key teaching and hundreds of dumpling soup dinners shared with him and his happy boys. With his encouragement I also helped set up a small dispensary to treat minor health problems.

Transplanted from their high-altitude, cool homeland, these people hadn’t yet adapted to the realities of the tropics and knew little of anti-bacterial hygiene. Although traditional Tibetan medicine was surprisingly effective against India’s plethora of intestinal diseases, many suffered terribly from repeatedly scratched and subsequently infected mosquito bites. Trips to Bangalore hospital were expensive, uncomfortable and far too frequent.

One of my first cases was a six-year old new arrival, still pining pathetically for his mother. A pus-filled crater extended from one side of his foot to the other, and he could no longer walk. With oral tetracycline, antibiotic cream and twice-daily redressing a dry scab eventually formed. The following week, however, the wound was again open and weeping. I suggested a visit to his room to look into living conditions. Panic filled the boy’s eyes and gentle questioning revealed that his housemaster had selected his wounded foot as a site for special punishment, meted out with a wooden baton.

I went directly to the abbot, thinking how lucky the poor lad was to have an advocate in me.

The interview was short and not sweet. “It’s none of my business,” responded the old Geshé shrugging.

“There’s nothing I can do.”

“You approve of this?” I blurted out.

“Approve?” He was bewildered and offended.

A servant cursorily escorted me from the room, making it clear through body language alone that no one ever puts the abbot on the spot.

The culprit was a tall, stone faced man with yellow skin stretched across a permanent grimace. I quietly assured him that he was safe from the monastic authorities, but that I’d be watching. His gaze shifted back and forth from the cowering child to me. He scratched his neck and thought about it. For the next six days I visited the nervous boy each evening, and on the seventh he was gone. “His mother took him home,” the man announced with obvious satisfaction.

As far as he was concerned, the ball of guilt lay in my court. I’d deprived the poor boy of a blessed monastic career. However, I imagine him today, presuming he survived the rigors of South India, as a happy young man.

The long-awaited new school house was complete and I moved in. It was in the heart of the monastery compound, which at that time consisted of about sixty single and two-room houses. The youngest boys sat in the courtyard each morning, copying letters and words on handheld chalkboards. In the evenings they recited whatever texts they were memorizing in a cacophonous clamor. Those in search of distraction migrated to the novelty of my room. Running their fingers laughingly up and down the light hairs of my arm, they peppered me with questions about why I was as hairy as an ape and had such a big nose. Delighted at first by the familiarity of so many sweet, smiling faces, I soon began to crave some privacy.
At the very edge of the monastery grounds, in the yard of the great temple, was a ramshackle hut that I found uninhabited.

“That,” the great temple’s caretaker explained, “is because it’s uninhabitable.”

I prevaricated. “Could I look inside?”

He grabbed a huge ring of keys, waddled past the temple’s two cows and crossed the temple yard.

One side of the room was filled with traditional wood blocks, about thirty inches long and an inch thick. Each was carved with a page in mirror image and hardened by ingrained ink. He picked one up and held it respectfully against his inclined forehead. Among Tibetans the printed word represents the Buddha mind and, in theory at least, is esteemed over and above even the most valuable Buddha image.

I looked around. A coarse mesh but no glass covered the single window. Nor was there any ceiling, and daylight pouring under the rafters illuminated dust, grime, webs and the shells of countless dead insects. Deep in the tons of woodblocks, something scratched.

“It’s perfect,” I said.

He looked at me as if I were cracked, shrugged and pointed questioningly at the room’s precious contents.
I put my hands together and bowed respectfully towards the woodblocks. This apparently satisfied him, for he walked away without a backward glance.


Boys at their lessons, Sera 1979

Sera Novices at their chalk boards, outside
the newly-built schoolroom, 1979


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