A monastic education

We’ve been receiving quite a number of enquiries lately about the monastic curriculum at Phajoding and its importance to modern day Bhutan. Given that the monks have just completed their end of year exams, we thought it timely to explain some of these issues in this blog. It is by no means intended to be a definitive nor thorough account of the complexities involved, but as best as we can within this format, we will answer the questions posed to us about the “What” and “Why” of a monastic education.

Traditionally, education in Bhutan took place only in the monasteries. “Modern” education was largely imported from India and the West in the late 1950’s and with this came the introduction of essentially Western ideals and values generating tensions between tradition and modernity, that continues to this day. In response, Bhutan has created a unique development philosophy. In a world first, Bhutan requires that any development be culturally, economically and environmentally sustainable to measurably enhance the Gross National Happiness (GNH)[1] of its people.

As part of this, Bhutan promotes modern education to provide for the economic needs of the country whilst at the same time ensuring that its unique Buddhist culture and value system is preserved through traditional monastic education. As Bhutan prepares to implement its 11th five-year plan (2013-2018) guided by the philosophy of GNH, the preservation of Bhutan’s cultural traditional values will continue to be infused into Bhutan’s modern education curriculum.

But will this be enough to stem the tide of young Bhutanese students increasingly lured into desiring a life of excessive consumption and glorified materialism touted by the West?

Lama Namgay recently posed this question: ‘How can the monks and monastic education better serve the youth studying within the modern education system?’ This line of enquiry strikes at the heart of the need to find a balance between tradition and modernity.

What is the relevance of monastic education in modern day Bhutan?

This is what Lama Namgay and Khenpo Chimi Dorji expressed recently:

…………It is important that everyone tries to understand the basic teachings of Buddha because it can help them so much and also help them help their families, strangers, in fact all sentient beings. If they focus their mind on developing wisdom and compassion then they will not grasp for external things to make them at peace and happy which ultimately are the causes of unhappiness due to the law of impermanence. If the students in schools understand properly the Buddhist teachings at an early age this will help them to discover peace and inner happiness and help them to spread this to others they come in contact with.

There are many very educated Buddhist masters in Bhutan but it is difficult for them to communicate such wisdom, as they cannot speak English. Therefore, to maximize the potential of the Bhutanese school children, monks should be taught English so they can share these precious teachings with them.

This is our wish

Memorisation of prayers in the main class room


The value placed on a monastic education is directly tied to the importance placed on traditional Buddhist values and culture. Given that Bhutan’s Buddhist culture and traditional values form the foundation of its national identity and GNH philosophy, monastic education is therefore crucial to ensuring that its culture and values are upheld and preserved.

The institution of monastic education is clearly important for Bhutan’s Buddhist population in general but (as touched on earlier by Lama Namgay and Khenpo Chimi) it is particularly relevant to the youth within the modern education system. Monks who have attained a high level of training and who are repositories of spiritual knowledge can counterbalance the process of modernization that perpetuates values that run contrary to Bhutan’s traditional belief systems. They are well positioned to help modern educators shape the youth into highly educated, compassionate and wise individuals, and strengthen the GNH guided education curriculum.

The only problem standing in the way of this is the need to develop the English speaking skills of the many qualified monastics. English is the main medium of instruction in schools (Dzongka is taught as a separate subject). Therefore efforts need to be made to formally introduce English language instruction into the monastic curriculum to facilitate this vitally important transfer of spiritual wisdom to Bhutan’s school aged population.

As mentioned in a previous post, Lama Namgay has already taken measures to begin to teach their students basic English. Opening up the lines of communication between traditional and modern education systems will stimulate debate and discussion and a two way exchange of ideas, which will go a long way to reducing any tensions.

What do the monks learn at Phajoding?

Phajoding serves as a Lopdra, which is equivalent to a primary school education, and recently they have begun to offer a Shedra curriculum, which is equivalent to a high school education. The medium of instruction is Chökey (Classical Tibetan) and Dzongkha (the national language).

The ultimate goal of a monastic education is to provide the student with the tools to attain the mind of enlightenment (a state referred to as an absence of worldly suffering or duhkha in Sanskrit – where the mind is fully awakened) and the generation of Bodhicitta (the seeking of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings). Teachings largely comprise training in Buddhist philosophy, learning Buddhist poetry and grammar, handwriting, the memorization of prayers, contemplation on the spiritual wisdom of revered Buddhist masters in addition to instructions in the Buddhist art forms such as performing various rituals, playing Buddhist instruments, molding butter sculpture offerings, thangka painting and lama dancing.

Playing the Dungchen – the Buddhist long horn

Those in the Lopdra are being taught Buddhist art forms, Dzongkar handwriting and the meaning of various prayers that have to be committed to memory.

The students in the Shedra are currently being taught about the Buddhacarita or the life of the Buddha, which was written by the Indian philosopher/poet Aśvaghoşa. Written in Sanskrit, it is one of the most famous biographies of Buddha’s life.

They are also learning about the Vinaya, which is a set of rules or a code of conduct that the monastic community abides by. It differs from the dharma (Buddhist teachings) in that it relates to discipline. What Lama Namgay is attempting to teach the monks is for them to not just blindly accept these vows but to understand the underlying principles of the vows and why the Buddha proposed them. In this way the monks will be able to direct their mind away from worldly attachments and towards the dharma.

Studying for the exams

After an “all nighter”

What were they examined on?

The junior student’s recent exams primarily comprised the demonstration of competencies in various Buddhist instruments (cymbals, drums, large and small horns, conch shells and bells) and the recitation of certain prayers in front of the Principal of Phajoding (Khenpo Chimi Dorji) and independent examiners. The prayers covered areas from aspirations to meet one’s master to prayers for those suffering and for those who have passed away. According to Lama Namgay this section was the most nerve racking for the students. They were also examined on how well they could write the Dzongka alphabet.

The younger students doing their Dzongka written exam

In contrast, the senior students’ exams were purely written. They were examined on the Vinaya vows in addition to questions on the life of the Buddha.

All students have an examination number to ensure impartiality with their exam papers being sent away to other monasteries for marking. Similarly, the teachers at Phajoding receive exam papers to be marked from other monasteries.

The results are due to be released around the 10th January then they are officially on holidays until mid February 2013.

A typical day

5.30 – Wake up bell

5:30- 6am – Prayers

6-8am – Studies (memorizing text)

8-9am – Tea break (have only tea with some biscuits)

9-10.30am – Teachings (Buddhist philosophy)

10.30-12pm – English lesson.

12 -1pm  – Lunch break (curry and rice)

1 – 3pm – Ritual teachings

3-4pm– Debating based on Buddhist teachings.

4-5pm– Evening prayers.

5-6pm– Dinner time (curry and rice).

6- 9pm– Reading and contemplating the text learnt in the morning.

9pm– Bedtime

# Maths, computer skills , environmental and agricultural studies are taught on the weekends. Lama Namgay and Khenpo Chimi are introducing these life skills in order to provide these young boys with additional options should they choose to leave the monastery for a secular life.

An English lesson. Lama Namgay makes the monks take it in turns to lead the class under his supervision to give them a sense of empowerment


Monastic education is not “a walk in the park”! It involves a rigorous training schedule in Buddhist philosophy, the Buddhist arts and Buddhist discipline with the aim of guiding the student closer towards enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. On the other hand, Bhutan’s wisely chosen development path based on the principles of GNH ensures that school-aged children will be highly educated, innovative, adaptable with a strong sense of their unique cultural identity and Buddhist values.

Can the monastic body play a role in shaping and shoring up a modern education system? Quite possibly. But for this to occur efforts must be made to actively introduce formal English language instruction into all monastic schools and provide opportunities for monastics to be invited into the schools to impart wisdom and answer questions. In this way the relevance of monastic education and the teachings of Buddha will open a doorway for the creation of mutual respect, understanding and sharing of information between the modern and the traditional – a truly educational “middle-way” approach.

[1] GNH is a development philosophy guided by values in order to secure the peace and happiness of the nation. It has 4 main pillars pertaining to equitable economic development, cultural preservation, environmental sustainability and good governance. A GNH Index is used as an evaluation tool for the purposes of results based planning to ensure that development truly contributes to the achievement of GNH within Bhutan.

3 thoughts on “A monastic education

  1. Thank you for this very interesting blog. I wish all of the monks success in their results. Education is so important and combining Buddist teachings with other subjects sounds like a great way forward. Keep up the good work!

  2. There are 2 types of education, one is to teach us how to earn a living and one teaches us how to live.

    The modern education teaches us how to earn a living.

    The monastic education teaches us how to live.

    Have you graduated?

    I mean both……

  3. How wonderful ! I love all things you do. This is exactly what all monasteries should do. I hope you could add Health and hygine (here is some info http://goo.gl/ysk2Hw ). Also with more funding support you could add skills such taking care of the art, paintings and scriptures. Well I know there are so much more to learn about. such as species of birds, flowers, plants, study on medicinal plants, etc. but all at a time. Each students in their interested field can master in these extra skills along with learning Buddhism.

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