Monks at Serpom Monastery study the five main texts: Valid Cognition, Perfection of Wisdom, Middle Way, Monastic Discipline, and Treasure of Knowledge. For the students in the Perfection of Wisdom class, there are two different texts: the General Meaning of Perfection of Wisdom and the Decision of the Perfection of Wisdom. Along with the main texts, they study other root and commentary texts. Monks attend lessons with philosophical masters and debate in the courtyard for two hours in the morning and three hours in evening. And twice a year, monks take writing, debating and oral exams. In all, it takes 18 years to complete the study of the five main texts, including four years for the Geshe Lharampha, the highest degree in Buddhist philosophy.
Debate is a key means of learning Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. Through debating students clear doubts, brighten their wisdom, and develop clear memories; it reminds of all the paths leading to liberation and enlightenment. There are 14 different levels of debate classes at Serpom. The admission for the classes is started right after the Great Prayer Festival. Admission day is called Kyichoe Chenpo in Tibetan. On that day, the Abbot presides over the morning debate session.
As far as the debating is concerned, initially students gather in circle, reciting our monastic uncommon prayers along with the text called ‘Recitation of Manjushri Name’. After the half an hour-prayer monks debate in pairs. One member of each pair takes a seat, while the other stands and poses questions. The debate is centered on an ongoing subject. After 30 minutes or so, the Disciplinarian waves his sen (monk’s red shawl) to signal the students to hold class. Students then form classes, according to seniority. They sit on the ground in two facing rows, leaving space in middle. This represents a class. In each class, two students sit at the top of the rows. These students are respondents. One stands and debates with the respondents. Classmates gradually join in the debate, either in favor of the questioners or respondents. The process is the same in every class. A student begins the debate session by yelling Dhi ji thar choe chen – the syllables of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. Then lifting his left foot, he pulls the rosary (hanging over his left wrist) up the arm with his right hand, and claps his right hand onto his left palm while the left foot bangs down. The clap on the left palm denotes the containment of wrong views. The right hand signifies the correct views. Pulling the right hand up the left arm symbolizes leading living beings to the path of liberation. And turning his left hand down signifies locking the doors of the lower levels of rebirth. Each physical movement denotes great meaning and is intended to purify one’s negativities.
The debate session is over at 11 am. After lunch, carrying their texts and cushions, students pay a visit to the philosophy master in their house. The students offer three prostrations to the master before they sit down on their cushions. The master reads a chapter, pinpoints the contradictions and doubts, comparing them with other texts. He poses questions, which the students answer. In this way, by discussing the major contradictions in the text, students learn the techniques of debate. The master gives one-hour lessons to different classes. The students must visit at least two masters every day. Everyday they debate a new topic during the session with their master. Back in their individual houses, the students reflect on what the master has taught them. They also read the suggested chapters to maintain mindfulness. In debate, when challenged, the questioner recites different quotations to support his view. Thus it is important for the students to memorize the quotations and to read the references to ensure that their views are substantiated by logical reasoning.
When the gong sounds at 6 pm, students gather in a circle in the monastic courtyard where the chanting master leads the prayer. The prayer is called Kurim and is intended for the well-being of students. During the Kurim prayer, monks recite the Heart Sutra 18 times, the Tara Sadhana 21 times and the Dhukar (White Umbrella) which has a long melody. The melody and rhythm of the Kurim are so pleasant that it is not unusual for senior monks to attentively place their ears against the windows of their houses to listen to the prayer. After the Kurim, students debate as in the morning session. The evening session is over at 9 pm. Afterwards, from 9 pm to 1 or 2 am, students recite the memorized texts outside their houses, or read texts. Every Monday evening, after dinner, a group debate session is held. In this session called Damcha, one class act as questioner and the other as respondent, roles assigned the day before by the Disciplinarian.
The Monastery takes Tuesday as a weekly holiday because on that day a vegetable market opens in Kushalnagar town – eight kilometers from Serpom. Monks wash cloths, read books, and relax, and children play in the courtyard. There are two week-long holidays: Gaye and Nangchen holidays. During these breaks, young monks visit and spend time with their families