Shedra (དྲུག་པ་ཚེས་བཞི་) is a commentarial monastic college in the Himalayan Buddhist system. Although religious seminaries existed for many centuries for training the priests and imparting Buddhist education, the term shedra, literally exposition centre, seems to have gained frequency only in the 19th century after the establishment of Dzogchen Śrī Siṃha Shedra in eastern Tibet. The culture of shedra to impart organized scholastic education spread from Kham to other parts of the Himalayan world.

In Bhutan, the earliest shedra colleges were opened in the beginning of the 20th century in Phajoding in Thimphu and Tharpaling in Bumthang. Emulating the shedra education structures in Tibet, the shedra in Bhutan used the zhungchen chusum (གཞུང་ཆེན་བཅུ་གསུམ་) or the thirteen great treatises of classical India as the core curriculum. They comprise the fours classics on Madhyamaka (དབུ་མ་) or Middle Way, the five works of Maitreya (བྱམས་ཆོས་སྡེ་ལྔ་), two works on abidharma (མངོན་པ་གོང་འོག་) phenomenology and philosophy by the two brothers Asaṅga and Vasubandhu and the two treatises on vinaya (འདུལ་བ་) or monastic discipline. To these are also added classical treatises on Buddhist logic and epistemology (ཚད་མ་), language and grammar, history and poetry, and tantric philosophy and practice.

In the second half of the 20th century with the exodus of the Tibetan refugees to India following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the shedra culture saw a new chapter among the Tibetan refugees settlements in India. The shedras in India introduced a new system of routine, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment by learning from other traditions of higher educational practices, particularly modern University colleges and boarding schools. In the most famous shedras, a nine year programme was established with written and oral exams at the end of each year.

The shedra in Namdroling, Mysore, the most well known of the shedra centres today, a student has to undergo higher Buddhist education for nine years to complete the taught programme. At the end of the first four years, the first degree called Exponent of the Middle Way (མཐའ་བྲལ་སྨྲ་བའི་དབང་ཕྱུག་) is given. After two more years of education focused on the study of Buddhist practice and psychology, a degree called Master of Perfection (ཕར་ཕྱིན་རབ་འབྱམས་) is awarded. After three more years of studying esoteric Buddhism and monastic discipline, the students completes the programme with a degree called the Holder of Esoteric and Definitive Doctrine (ངེས་གསང་ལེགས་བཤད་མཛོད་འཆང་).

The new Tibetan shedras attracted a great number of Bhutanese students towards the end of the 20th century which gradually led to the spread of the new shedra educational culture in Bhutan. Today, Bhutan has many new shedras, where monks go through a rigorous nine year scholastic training in Buddhist philosophy, grammar and linguistics, history and poetry. The emphasis of the shedra education lies on exegesis and commentary (བཤད་པ་). The master expounds a core text in a long lecture after having done thorough preparation reading references and supporting literature. The students then emulate the master to give a similar exposition either in private or in a class, purely as an exercise or as an exam.

Such focus on commentary is supplemented by debate sessions when the students hold either debates in groups or pairs to discuss the topics of their lessons. Debate (རྩོད་པ་), as one of the main scholarly activities is also used as a pedagogic technique. Written assignments and tests are carried out to help the student learn writings skills. As exegesis, debates and writing (འཆད་རྩོད་རྩོམ་གསུམ་) form the three primary activities of a scholar in the Himalayan Buddhist pedagogy, the ability to carry out all three are developed in a student in shedra education. In a similar manner, shedra education is considered as an adoption of the first two phases of the tripartite Buddhist path of study (ཐོས་པ་), reflection (བསམ་པ་) and practice (སྒོམ་པ་). Thus, scholastic and academic study in a shedra is seen as an essential part and parcel of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

Such understanding is further reinforced by many classical works praising the scholastic learning of Buddhist system both for the sake of reaching enlightenment and helping other sentient beings. An oft-cited verse from Maitreya claims that without mastering the five sciences of linguistics (སྒྲ་), logic and epistemology (ཚད་མ་), arts and crafts (བཟོ་), medicine (གསོ་བ་) and inner sciences or soteriology (ནང་དོན་), even an exalted being cannot reach full enlightenment. Furthermore, Śāntideva, one of the most influential authors studied in the shedras, asserts that there is nothing an heir to the Buddha would not learn, for there is nothing which he or she cannot turn into an act of merit.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.


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