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Life of a lama at Sera Monastery

Awang Jianzan Photo: Wu Jie/

Awang Jianzan has lived in the Sera Monastery for more than 20 years. His daily life in the temple is devoted to the study of Buddhist scriptures, spiritual practice and sutra debate. A conversation with the lama clearly demonstrated his steadfast adherence to his religious belief.

Wearing a red robe, 37-year-old Awang can speak fluent mandarin. He said that lamas' life in the Sera Monastery is very simple. In the morning, lamas study Buddhist scriptures, and in the afternoon, they have two hours to debate Buddhist doctrines.

Located in the northern suburb of Lhasa, the Sera Monastery is one of the six monasteries that belong to the Gelugpa, or the Yellow Hat Sect, a branch of the Tibetan Buddhism. The Sera Monastery is also one of the three most famous monasteries in Lhasa. The other two are the Ganden Monastery and the Drepung Monastery.

It was noon time when we arrived at the Sera Monastery where the lamas were getting ready for a sutra debate. The strong sunlight did not seem to have any effect on their enthusiasm for the debate.

Sutra debate is a kind of discussion where lamas exchange views on the doctrines of the Tibetan Buddhism. Every afternoon, from three to five o'clock, the lamas of the Sera Monastery will hold a sutra debate, in which the participants become very aggressive because they often use exaggerated body languages to urge the opponents to answer the sharp-pointed questions. Sometimes, they even brandish the prayer beads, an act reflecting the belief that the power of the Buddha will help them win in the debate.

A sutra debate at Sera Monastery Photo: Wu Jie/

In ancient India, Buddhists often debated sutras with heretics. With the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet from India, the practice of debating sutras is also followed by Tibetan Buddhists. "Only through a long time of argumentation over the doctrines of the Tibetan Buddhism can the religion be rooted in my mind. Sutra debate offers a channel for us to learn from each other," said Awang.

"I want to help all the living creatures to be liberated from sufferings. It is not just a slogan for me. I need to clear away the negative things from my body, such as greed, to form an accommodative thinking that can produce positive power," said Awang.

Awang likened sutra debate to a collision of wisdom, in which a junior lama usually presents a question that he does not fully understand in the Buddhist scriptures study to a senior lama. "Some propositions need to be debated for the whole life, such as the previous life and the present life," said Awang.

The three elements of a sutra debate include "zong", "yin" and "yu". "Zong" means the proposition presented. "Yin" means the logic that supports the proposition. And "yu" means metaphor. The combination of the three elements forms a perfect logical deduction, namely the syllogism.

In the sutra debate, I saw lamas debating in groups, holding prayer beads and using exaggerated body languages. "It is not a show because everyone is devoted to it," said Awang.

One, who wants to study in the Sera Monastery, needs to meet strict requirements. The prerequisite is to have a good command of Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. Before being picked as the formal member of the monastery, one should pass through a written examination and an interview, according to Awang.

With no salary to earn, the lamas of the Sera Monastery are basically subsidized by the government and donors.

(The article is translated and edited by Ding Yi)

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