By Chandra Ehm
That the geshe or geshe-ma degree is equivalent to a Buddhist doctorate is a frequently heard cliché among popular journals, academic articles, and social media posts. For the most part, these articles are not authored by one of the geshe-mas themselves, but by authors researching Buddhist philosophy and/or enthusiastic about women’s empowerment within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition — usually laypersons to Buddhist studies and cultural anthropology.
To compare traditional geshe studies to doctoral Buddhist studies is like comparing an amethyst to a turquoise. Both are extremely beautiful and precious gems but incomparable in texture, colour, and the natural shapes in which they appear.
When I think of academic research, especially on the doctoral level, I think of research sustained by previous studies, fieldwork, and the writing tools that the student has acquired during undergraduate and graduate studies at a university. Academic research, as is commonly known, is founded on an original research project in which the student investigates novel aspects of his or her particular field. It is about adding new knowledge to their field of studies and ultimately to society at large.
Within the context of Buddhist studies in particular, doctoral students acquire a certain toolbox of research utensils. Standard prerequisites include study in one modern Asian language and a primary Buddhist canonical language, such as Sanskrit, Pali, classical Tibetan, or classical Chinese, and to have explored various aspects relevant to the study of Buddhism including historical, literary, and philosophical topics, and then to specialise in an in-depth study of one particular topic in its original language.
What might be one of the most important defining features of doctoral studies is the composition of a thesis based on a critical and objective approach to the topic of research along with an original analysis of the material.
The geshe and geshe-ma degrees mark the completion of the traditional Gelug curriculum. This curriculum is not simply one of study, but a 17–25-year-long immersion into philosophical content in an absolutely rigorous fashion (the time frame differs according to the institution’s specific course of studies). It incorporates the tool of dialectics and is flanked by elements of ritual. A day at Kopan Nunnery, for example, includes 31⁄2 hours of various prayer sessions, and on the weekends there are outside functions at private homes, schools, and associations. Memorisation of rituals and texts, a certain amount of community work, and basic studies in Tibetan, English, and Hindi or Nepali make up the rest of a nun’s formal day.
What stands out most regarding the geshe course of studies is its exhaustiveness with respect to the exoteric aspects of the Buddhist doctrine. All of the five major subjects of Buddhist philosophy — The Ornament of Clear Realization (Abhisamayalamkara), Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamika), Valid Cognition (Pramanavartika), The Treasury of Higher Knowledge (Abhidharma), and monastic discipline (Vinaya) — are taught by qualified geshes in great detail and complemented by a vast array of Indian and Tibetan commentaries. These five treatises encompass the sutra (or exoteric) aspects of the Gelug tradition. After receiving the geshe title, the most important esoteric aspects (tantra) of the tradition are covered, adding one additional year of studies for the geshes and two for the geshe-mas.
Philosophy is taught daily by a geshe from one of the three monastic seats (Ganden, Drepung, or Sera), and then debated for an average of two hours each day in a dialectical debate format. Bi-annual exams in philosophy (both written and debated orally), modern secular studies, and memorisation maintain a scholastic standard.
In short, the geshe/ma studies are an intensive experience of traditional scholarship interwoven with the fabric of a monastic lifestyle. They offer education with regard to nearly every facet of traditional monastery or nunnery life: an in-depth understanding of the main points of the five treatises, knowledge of how to debate them, and proficiency in complicated rituals. The studies are also shaped by the community framework that supports them. Geshe/ma students learn to live within a monastic community and with their vows, and naturally acquire soft skills such as a high degree of resilience, patience, and a longanimous attitude to life.
This being said, a doctoral education typically lacks certain key attributes of a traditional geshe curriculum: completeness of transmission, in-depth study of the Buddhist philosophical canon, dialectical debate, and, most importantly, the preservation of scholastic Buddhist tradition to its highest standards.
The geshe or geshe-ma education, on the other hand, lacks certain characteristics unique to academic studies such as the requirement of a secular education, a critical and objective approach to research, translation of relevant passages while referencing original texts in the respective canonical Buddhist language (i.e. Sanskrit or Chinese), and the composition of a thesis.
For these reasons, geshes who have tried to have their traditional studies accredited at western universities have never been offered anything more than a B.A. In the same way, traditional institutions do not consider academic studies as sufficiently exhaustive and complete to be comparable to the geshe curricula. Therefore, this typical comparison of a geshe-ma curriculum to a doctoral thesis creates a fair bit of obfuscation with regard to the qualities of each approach. Rather, we should delineate the pros and cons of each system and open up a channel for constructive discussion of how both traditional and academic studies can be improved, further adapted, and once again made relevant to society at large.
About Chandra Ehm (École Pratique Hautes Études)
Chandra spent over a decade in Tibetan communities. From 2009-2018 she studied Buddhist philosophy at Khachoe Khagyl Ling convent in Kathmandu, Nepal where she completed the first ten years of the traditional geshema curriculum is currently completing her Diplôme at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) on the transformation of Buddhist convents in the Tibetan diaspora. She also collaborates with Tibethaus Germany, Frankfurt as their program director for Buddhist study programs.