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Geshe (Tib. dge bshes, short for dge ba'i bshes gnyen, "virtuous friend"; translation of Skt. kalyanamitra) is a Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monks. The degree is emphasized primarily by the Gelug lineage, but is also awarded in the Sakya and Bön traditions. [1]



The title "Geshe" was first applied to esteemed Kadampa masters such as Geshe Chekawa (1102-1176), who composed an important lojong text called Seven Points of Mind Training and Geshe Langri Tangpa (dge bshes glang ri thang pa) (1054-1123). It means 'Virtuous Friend'

The geshe curriculum represents an adaptation of subjects studied at Indian Buddhist monastic universities such as Nalanda. These centers disappeared around the time of Islam's arrival in India, leaving newly-Buddhist Tibet to continue the tradition. It first developed within the Sakya monastic lineage, where it was known as ka shi ("four subjects") or ka chu ("ten subjects"). The Sakyas also granted degrees at the conclusion of these studies, on the basis of proficiency in dialectical ritualized debate. In Tsongkhapa's time the Sakya degree was awarded at Sangphu, Kyormolung and Dewachen (later Ratö) monasteries.

The geshe degree flowered under the Gelug monastic lineage. Under Gelug domination, monks from various monastic lineages would receive training as geshes through the great Gelug monasteries. Gelugpa geshes often went on to study at one of Lhasa's tantric colleges, Gyuto or Gyume. (The tantric colleges also grant a "geshe" title for scholarship in the tantras.)

Under Sakya and Gelug influence, the Kagyu and Nyingma monastic lineages developed their own systems of scholarly education. Their schools grant the degree of ka-rabjampa ("one with unobstructed knowledge of scriptures") as well as the title "Khenpo," which the Gelug tradition reserves for abbots. The course of study which prevails in Kagyu and Nyingma circles emphasizes commentary over debate, and focuses on a somewhat wider selection of classics (with accordingly less detail). It ideally lasts for nine years, concluding with a three-year, three-month meditation retreat.


The Geshe curriculum consists of the "Collected Topics" (Tibetan: བསྡུས་གྲྭ་Wylie: bsdus grwa) which were preliminary to the syllabus proper, as well as the five major topics, which form the syllabus proper.

The exoteric study of Buddhism is generally organized into "Five Topics," listed as follows with the primary Indian source texts for each:

  1. Abhidharma (Higher Knowledge, Tib. wylie: mdzod)
  2. Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom, Tib. wylie: phar-phyin)
  3. Madhyamaka (Middle Way, Tib. wylie: dbu-ma)
  4. Pramana (Logic, Means of Knowing, Tib. wylie: tshad-ma)
    • Treatise on Valid Cognition (Pramanavarttika) by Dharmakirti
    • Compendium on Valid Cognition (Pramanasamuccaya) by Dignaga
  5. Vinaya (Vowed Morality, Tib. wylie: 'dul-ba)
    • The Root of the Vinaya (Dülwa Do Tsawa, 'dul-ba mdo rtsa-ba) by the Pandita Gunaprabha

Conferral of the Degree

In the Gelug school, the degree may not be earned by laymen (though some monk recipients later give up their robes), or by women (including nuns). [2]. The Gelug curriculum, which lasts between 12 to 20 years, centers around textual memorization and ritualized debate, and is invariably taught through the medium of the Tibetan language.

Each year an examination held for those who have completed their studies, in which their performance is evaluated by the abbot of the particular college. The topics for their dialectical examination are drawn from the whole course of study, so students are unable to do any specific preparation because the topic to be debated is selected by the abbot on the spot. Thus, it is a real test of a student's abilities and the depth of his study. At the conclusion the abbot assigns each candidate to a category of geshe according to his ability. There are four such categories, Dorampa, Lingtse, Tsorampa and Lharampa, Lharampa being the highest. After this, in order to qualify, the geshe candidates are not allowed to miss even one of the three daily debate sessions during the subsequent eight months.


  1. ^ Quotation: The Geshe degree in the Gelug school is comparable to a western doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. The difference is that it usually takes more than twenty years to complete.
  2. ^ Overview of the Gelug Monastic Education System Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II, Translated and compiled by Alexander Berzin, September 2003, Quotation: The monastic education system in the Gelug monasteries covers five major topics, based on five great Indian scriptural texts studied through the medium of logic and debate – "tsennyi" (mtshan-nyid, definitions) in Tibetan.

See also

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