Lamas seeking the religion's most-advanced academic title are judged by 20 examiners and 400 peers in preliminary tests
Ngawang Sogdoi, a 34-year-old monk in the Tibet autonomous region, is the most anxious he has ever been. On Monday, Ngawang, along with eight other candidates, began a seven-day preliminary examination needed to earn the Geshe Lharampa, the equivalent of a doctorate in his school of Buddhism.
Geshe Lharampa, which means "intellectual" in the Tibetan language, is the highest academic title in the Gelug school of Buddhism. Since 2005, more than 100 monks have received the degree in Tibet. Most of the degree holders are older than 40, making Ngawang one of the youngest candidates.
Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, capital of Tibet, where the preliminary test of the examination takes place, is crowded as usual. At Tsogchen (the Great Chanting Hall), candidates are tested by more than 20 examiners and 400 peers who can also raise questions.
The history of Lharampa goes back 400 years.
"It is the dream of almost all monks to reach such a level," said Ngawang, who became a monk at age 8, and started learning scriptures at age 15.
"I finished the Five Classics of Buddhism at age 28," he said. Ngawang's brother is also a Lharampa degree holder.
The Lharampa examination takes the form of debate, questions and answers. Ngawang is from Rato Monastery in Lhasa. He takes two examinations a year, but none are more demanding than the Lharampa exam. "It is a test of brains, physical strength, stamina and devotion to Buddhism," he said.
From July 11 to 15, the examination starts at 9 am and goes on until the afternoon each day. "The Geshe exam brings together high monks from many monasteries. I'm the only one from my monastery to take the exam. I have many things to worry about," Ngawang said.
Emphatic clapping during the examination conveys the intensity of the debate for outsiders, and it serves as a quick reminder for Ngawang to stay focused in his interpretation of Buddhism.
"If I give an answer that does not quite address the question, the examiner will clap his hands and sometimes speak up loudly to correct me," he said.
"Through the study of Buddhism, I have learned several ways to stay calm, and I am grateful for that."
Ngawang gets up at 6 am and spends nearly 11 hours each day learning scriptures and other lessons at the Rato Monastery.
"To prepare for such a high-level examination, I have had to put in extra work, and it is usually 1 am by the time I go to sleep," he said.
Drepung Monastery is not closed to visitors during the exam season, so tourists may observe the examination.
"Standing here, I can appreciate the long history of this monastery, and I am very lucky to see such a part of the Tibetan culture," said Franz, a tourist from Germany.
When Ngawang finishes the preliminary test, he will have to wait until April next year to take the final test at Jokhang Temple.
Last year, Ngawang also attended the High-Level Tibetan Buddhism College of China in Beijing to further his study.
His studies at the college will also earn him a doctorate in the academic field.
Ngawang travelled to Chengde in Hebei province as well as Tianjin and Shanghai during his studies in Beijing and speaks fluent Mandarin.
"My aim is to continue to study every single day. After the examination, I will return to my monastery. I'm a quiet person, and it's best for me to spend the rest of my life learning in the monastery," he said.