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A New Tradition: Public Examinations

IMI monks and nuns, Kopan 1974From 1974: Introducing Adamantine Being (Vajrasattva) by Adele Hulse, Big Love author:

Lama Yeshe was very keen for his own students to be examined. Now that most of them had been studying for at least two years, Lama began holding public examinations at Kopan starting in December of 1974. The dates on which these were to be held were even advertised in Kathmandu. Each person was given a lam-rim subject, sometimes not until the exam was just about to begin. He or she had to give a talk on the topic in front of all the other students and then had to debate with Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche. These proved to be very interesting and successful events, where Lama carefully boosted the confidence of those who needed it. He was still constantly amazed at the lack of self-confidence among the apparently powerful Injis. This was also one of Lama’s teaching methods aimed at preparing his monks and nuns eventually to be able to teach the Dharma in the West.

From Lama Yeshe’s lecture to the IMI Sangha in preparation for the first public examinations:

“I think it is necessary that you know why we are going to hold examinations of IMI Sangha.

Since you took ordination, your life, your body and speech, do not belong to you, nor do they belong to Lama. They belong to all universal living beings. It was because of your understanding that you decided to live in the thirty-six vows, to renounce samsara. Lama did not push you. Therefore your duty is to integrate your body, speech and mind as much as possible into Dharma knowledge-wisdom and to give that light to all mother sentient beings. To do this it is not enough to spend all your life sitting on the mountain, doing a “Milarepa trip.” Nor is it enough to receive teachings on just one particular book—for example, the Vajrasattva text—and then spend your life studying that small information just for your own knowledge. To think that work such as this is the purpose of your life is a wrong conception.

You need to be able to explain the basic psychological Dharma wisdom terms that are found in the Prajnaparamita texts of Lord Buddha and in the commentaries written by Nagarjuna, Maitreya and Atisha. Those teachings have been integrated into the graduated path to liberation, the lam-rim. So the IMI Sangha have to at least know Lama Zopa’s lam-rim teaching completely.

The aim of establishing the Institute was to make sure you had the opportunity to study those teachings. You have to know and be able to explain these subjects at least intellectually. If you cannot even answer questions on an intellectual level, how can your actions become practice? First comes hearing, then intellectual understanding, then the experience, the realization.

So in order to have a clean-clear understanding you have to be able to express your thoughts and engage in debate. Many times you may think that you know the answers, you may even think you are Buddha. But when someone questions or contradicts you, then your words are nothingness, because of your limited mind. That can be very dangerous because you are thereby making Dharma wisdom tasteless, even making it smell like ka-ka. So by having deep understanding you have to be able to meditate and also to express yourself within the Sangha. In that way you keep your intellectual understanding and realizations together. You keep both your heart and your speech clean and working simultaneously.”

 

“Those public examinations were terrifying,” said Thubten Pemo. “Sometimes we were not told in advance what the topic would be or who was going to be examined. I remember speaking about impermanence and Rinpoche interrupting with questions. Dr. Nick called out and asked me something like, ‘Where does the ignorance go when we realize emptiness?’ and I replied, ‘Where does the darkness go when we turn on the light in the room?’ And everyone laughed.”

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