Panchen Lama achieves mastery of Tibetan Buddhism sutras

The 11th Panchen Lama, Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, participates in a debate at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet autonomous region, on Tuesday to attain the highest degree in sutra teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. [Photo by Kunga Lezang/China News Service]

From Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet autonomous region, one can see distant mountains turn yellow in late autumn as winter arrives early.

A light breeze gently stirs the brisk, fresh air. Not only the Tibetan-style monastic architecture, but virtually anything in sight seems to be in sharp focus under the glowing sun and startlingly blue sky.

In a courtyard in the center of the monastery, on a golden plaque, significant words are written: "Protecting the country and benefiting the people". The plaque is hung high on the west side, where a special academic examination was taking place on Tuesday afternoon.

Rows of monks clad in orange saffron robes held burning incense, an invitation to the 11th Panchen Lama, who was seated on a throne.

After an hour, the Panchen Lama was taken to the debating seat to defend his understanding of the dharma, the foundation of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, against the challenges of a handful of top monk scholars.

He was being examined for the Kachen, the highest academic degree of the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, in front of a board of master practitioners.

After completing a two-hour dharma debate, the Panchen Lama, Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, was accredited. The Kachen degree, which represents mastery of Tibetan Buddhism sutras, is the equivalent of a doctorate in modern education.

Built in 1447, Tashilhunpo is one of the six monasteries in the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism and is the dwelling seat for a long line of Panchen Lamas. The inheriting tradition of the Panchen Lama has a history of more than 600 years.

The event on Tuesday involved over 800 scripture masters, high-ranking monks and local Tibetan Buddhists.

The Kachen degree includes the five volumes of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and requires a scholar to study for decades, or even a lifetime.

The monastery has preserved a scripture learning system from early times and now has 56 monk scholars accredited with the Kachen degree.

The 31-year-old 11th Panchen Lama was the youngest candidate ever to obtain the degree.

He was born into a family of nomads in northern Tibet's Lhari county in 1990, and was enthroned in 1995 after approval by the central government as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.

He is a member of the Standing Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body.

He is also vice-president of the Buddhist Association of China and president of the association's Tibet branch.

After the dharma debate, high-ranking monks presented the 11th Panchen Lama mandalas-complex symbolic representations of the universe-and hada-silk scarves representing purity and best wishes.

Drangche Phuntsok, a staff member and ordained monk at the research office of the High-Level Tibetan Buddhism College of China, said the Kachen degree means the receiver has a profound understanding of the Five Great Volumes of Tibetan Buddhism.

"I am indeed pleased that the Panchen Lama obtained the degree," he said. "It is a big achievement after decades of apprenticeships with dharma masters, and a great event in his life."

The 11th Panchen Lama has always stressed the importance of talent and training, and the fact that he rose to the highest degree will have a positive effect in promoting Tibetan Buddhism within a socialist society, he said.

"I think he will follow the good traditions of patriotism and loving religion just as previous Panchen Lamas have done," he said.

As the great living Buddha of the 21st century, the 11th Panchen Lama has diligently studied science and culture since childhood, and he has mastered the Chinese, Tibetan and English languages.