The Karmapa and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
awarding Tsewang Rigdzin the degree of Khenpo
awarding Tsewang Rigdzin the degree of Khenpo
Recently my teacher and friend Tsewang Rigdzin from Dzongsar Shedra in India has been awarded the title of 'khenpo', which one could compare to receiving a PhD in Buddhist studies. Besides congratulating him with his achievement, a few words of praise of these incredible scholars seems appropriate.
Looking at the situation in Tibet, one might get discouraged and think that the heydays of Buddhism are over and done with. But young Tibetan scholars like Tsewang show that all is not over yet, and there is hope for the future.
So why is it so important to have scholars like this in the Buddhist tradition? To answer that, we might want to ask ourselves what the Dharma actually is. One answer, as there are a lot of different responses, is that the Dharma consists of the Dharma of transmission and the Dharma of realization.
A story from Patrul Rinpoche illustrates what these two mean. Once, Patrul Rinpoche said that he still had some hope for the Dharma to remain, since there was one practitioner who had attained full enlightenment, or in Dzogchen terminology, had attained the rainbow body, and so he concluded that the Dharma of realization was still present in the world. Also, he heard that there was one tulku or reincarnation of a highly realized being, who was able to teach the Bodhicharyavatara at the age of seven, and so he concluded that the Dharma of transmission was still present in the world.
But there is only one individual who can truly understand and teach the Dharma, and that is a fully enlightened Buddha. Unfortunately for us, the Buddha has passed away 2500 years ago, and so how are we to understand the Dharma, the only way of gaining release from this endless ocean of suffering? Just reading the Buddha's words written down in the scriptures by oneself will not suffice, since Chandrakirti in his Introduction to the Middle Way reminds us that only a highly realized being, who has seen the nature of reality on the grounds or bumis of realization, is able to comprehend the scriptures by him or her self. But, there is a unbroken lineage of explanation of the Buddha's scriptures going back all the way to the Buddha himself. And so based on the explanations of those teachers we can understand the Dharma. And if we can manage to practice well, we can attain full realization and freedom from suffering. Those teachers who are qualified to explain the Buddha's words have different names in the different Buddhist countries in the world, but in the Tibetan tradition, they are called Khenpo.
The words of the Buddha are very vast, and in the Tibetan canon comprise about 100 volumes. And that is leaving aside all the commentaries upon them by the great Indian scholars, like the seventeen Nalanda masters, and the vast array of commentaries by Tibetan scholars from all the different traditions of Tibet. So even though it would be very difficult to study or even just read all the words of the Buddha (if one reads day and night, it will take at least three months), the shedras present a solution to that. Their curricula are designed so that one understands the essence of each field of knowledge, which in the common Mahayana tradition are often cited to be the great subjects of madyamaka, pramana, abhidharma, prajnaparamita and vinaya. By studying all those topics in detail, one will have a general understanding of all the Buddha's teachings. One can then explain the Buddha's teachings to others, and so by upholding the Dharma of transmission, the Buddha's teachings remain in the world.
Dzongsar Shedra in Chauntra, Himachal Pradesh, India
Nevertheless, the road to become a Khenpo at Dzongsar Shedra is long. First one studies the above mentioned subjects for about ten years (for a detailed overview of the texts studied at a shedra, see for example the Namdroling curriculum or my previous blog about the academic curricula of different shedras). The academic year runs for about eight months each year, there is only one day holiday in the week, and the day starts at about 5:30 in the morning(compulsory!) and ends around 9, or even later, in the evening. Once one has finished, or perhaps one could say survived (not all monks survive) the whole curriculum and passed all the exams, one is awarded the title of acharya or, in Tibetan, lobpön. Not everyone who has managed to finish the whole training is qualified or even wants to teach, since it is not an easy task. But if one has the qualifications and propensities, one would teach for at least a few years. Then, as it is written in the curriculum of Namdroling Shedra "Whether an acharya will be enthroned as a khenpo then depends upon "personal virtue and [other] qualifications".
Having followed some of Tsewang Rigdzin's classes and also knowing him personally, I am sure that he embodies all the qualities of a Khenpo and he is more then deserving of this prestigious title.
May he and all the other learned scholars continue to unerringly teach and uphold the Buddha's teachings, to dispel the ignorance and misery of the world!