BW Interview with Geshe Thubten Sherab: Skillfully Teaching Traditional Tibetan Buddhism for Western Students
Geshe Thubten Sherab, an accomplished and well respected teacher with FPMT, kindly agreed to a short interview with Buddha Weekly during a teaching visit to Lama Yeshe Ling in Ontario Canada. Although trained rigorously in monasteries, Geshe is known for his skillful approach to teaching in the west, emphasizing “the most important thing is to try to integrate ones study and practice.”
The second event, “Cultivating the Ground for Awakening” on Feb 16 is an in-depth teaching, described: “Geshe Sherab has the ability to make this ancient wisdom highly relevant and accessible to us now. We have asked him to continue his commentary on the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (this time Chapters 2 & 3) – which lays the foundation for developing the greatly compassionate mind of awakening — Bodhicitta.” [Details on Eventbrite>>]
Geshe Sherab feels it is important to preserve traditional ways, while skillfully teaching with an understanding of Western Culture:
“We also need to understand Western culture and psychology so that we, as Geshes, can be more effective and bring more benefit. However, we should not take too many liberties in changing the traditional ways of doing things, just because it doesn’t suit the Westerners’ way or because they don’t like it. We should always think of the long-term benefit as opposed to simply short-term results.”
Lama Sherab travels widely to teach at FPMT centres , but teaches regularly at Thubten Norbu Ling in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Some of his teaching topics are: “Vajrasattva Practice”, “Enlightened Courage”, and “Seeing Things as They Really Are”. While at Lama Yeshe Ling, his teaching topics were “Stages of the Path to Enlightenment” and Lama Tsongkhapa. Some of Geshe’s audio teachings can be played here>>
The Rigorous Life of a Monk
Lama Sherab “was born in 1967 in a very small village in the western part of Nepal.” As a young boy, he became a monk at Kopan Monestary — years away from family, and a rigorous study day from 5:30am to 9:30pm. “When I was a teenager, as any normal teenager, I struggled a lot, not knowing whether it was best for me to continue or to disrobe. But then, just before I went to Sera, I made the strong decision that being a monk continuously was how I was going to spend my life.” He went on to even more intense studied at Sera Je.
Geshe Sherab studied with some of the great Geshes and Lamas: “like Geshe Jampa Gyatso and Geshe Doga who came to Kopan to teach, as well as the late Geshe Jampa, and of course Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Lhundrup and Geshe Lama Konchog, as well as H.E. Khensur Rinpoche Losang Tsering, H.E. Jangtse Choje Rinpoche Losang Tenzin and H.E. Khensur Rinpoche Losang Delek.. They are my main root gurus, and I have great respect for them; they were role models for me and inspired me to study.” 
In the interview, he kindly shared his experiences with the intense rigor of study at Sera Je— practice, memorization, debate school, meditation, again 5:30am until late at night. He highlighted importance of Lama Tsongkhapa practice and “Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.”
You taught on Lama Tsongkhapa meditation practice. Why are Lama Tsongkhapa practices so valued by modern Buddhists?
Geshe Sherab: Lama TzongKhapa is known sometimes as the second Buddha and second Nagarjuna. No other Tibetan master or holy being has contributed to dharma as much he did through his writing, example, inspiration and practices. Also Lama TzongKhapa is known as manifestation of Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Varjapani. So practicing Lama TzongKhapa Guru Yoga is equivalent to practicing the sadhana or practice of all those three deities.
You also taught the “Stages of the Path to Enlightenment”. What are some of the key stages and methods you covered?
Geshe Sherab: I cover precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, renunciation, bodhichitta and emptiness.
You were accepted as a monk by Lama Yeshe at Kopan Monestary at a very young age. What is life like for the young monk in a monastery?
The life for young monk like any young boy in boarding school. Of course many monks could not see their parents for few years as they live too far away. It is not easy for both parents and the young monk but that is part of training.
Lots of discipline and studies but not much time to relax and enjoy. So, it is tough and many will drop the robe. Starts the day at 5.30am to go to bed at around 9-10pm.
Who were some of your teachers?
H.H.Dalai Lama, H.E. Jangtse Choje Rinpoche, late H.E. Khensur Losang Tsering,H.E. Khensur Losang Delek, Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche are the main teachers.
My other teachers included H.H.Sakya Trizin Rinpoche, late Chodon Rinpoche, late Dema Locho Rinpoche, late Dulgo Khentse Rinpoche, late Paglung Rinpoche, late Ugen Tseten Rinpoche,late Khensur Lama Lhundup, late Geshe Losang Jampa, late Geshe Jampa Gyatso, Geshe Doga.
You studied at Sera Je Monastery for the Geshe degree starting in 1987. Why did you decide to work towards the Geshe degree?
Geshe Sherab: I went to Sera to study further but not necessarily to become a Geshe. But once I was close to finishing my study I thought of taking Geshe exams.
What was a typical day or week like at Sera Je for a student working towards a Geshe degree?
Geshe Sherab: 5.30-7 am puja, 7-9 am memorization, 9-11.30 am debate class, 11.45 am lunch, 12.30-5 pm rest time, receiving teachings from teachers, and self studies, 5 pm dinner, 6-9.30 pm evening debate class, 9.30- 10 or 11 pm to recite and repeat what has been memorized. Every Tuesday is off day.
How does teaching to Western students differ from how you might teach both monastics and lay people in Nepal?
Geshe Sherab: Yes, since it is different culture and psychology, the method has to be little different. In essence it is same but we have to present slightly differently.
Geshe Sherab teaching video:
For Westerners, especially, is it more difficult to teach integration of study and practice, or integration of Dharma with daily life? How do you approach this?
It is different for different students. Some students are more interested in studies and philosophy but not much interested in practice. Some other are more interested in practice, but not much studies.
So I encourage all students to integrate both studies and practice together. We cannot ignore either of them. Practice means both meditation on cushion as well integrating the Dharma with our every day or daily life.
Life at Sera Je Monastery
Geshe Sherab: “Within Sera Je Monastery there are two divisions for study. For young monks of age of 7 to 18, they attend the Sera Je School which provides general modern education with subjects such as English, Mathematics, Science and Arts in addition to Tibetan Grammar, Buddhist Philosophy etc. At the moment there are around five to six hundred students in the school from grade 1-12.
Once they have graduated from the school, they proceed to join the Monastery’s main University to study Buddhist Philosophy in more detail. The system of study in Sera Je is similar to that of Nalanda Monastery in ancient India. Nalanda was the largest Monastery and university in India for the study of Buddhism during its peak. The Monastery produced many great masters and practitioners such as Nagarjuna, Shantideva and Dharmakirti, to mention just a few. This system involves debating in order to understand the texts correctly, to dispel any misconceptions or misunderstanding of the subject and particularly to help to understand their essential points.” 
There are five great scriptures studied in Monastic University: Abhiddharma Kosha, Parmanavartika, Abhisamaya Aalamkara, Madhyamika, Madhyamika. Gesehe Sherab explains: “It takes at least 16 years of intensive studies to complete these five great scriptures. There are 13 grades within the University. The first seven grades require a year of study in each grade. 2 to 3 years for the eighth grade, 3 to 4 years for the ninth grade, 2 to 4 years for the tenth grade and eleventh grades and several years for the final twelfth and thirteenth grades.” 
Daily Schedule of a Typical Monk:
Geshe Sherab described the typical day of a monk at Sera Jay, clearly a life of dedication and hard work:
“A typical daily schedule of a monk in Sera Je:
5.00 am Wake up and wash.
5.30 am Morning prayers. Breakfast will be served during prayer session if there is any sponsor.
7.30 to 9.00 am Memorizing prayers and scriptures.
9.00 to 10.00 am Debating class.
10.00 to 10.30 am Chanting Sutras and reciting prayers as preliminary practices as well as to eliminate obstacles toward one’s study and practices.
10.30 to 11.30 am Debating class.
11.30 to 12.30 pm Lunch with prayers and dedications for sponsors and all sentient beings.
12.30 to 1.00 pm Break time.
1.00 to 2.00 pm Receiving teachings from teachers.
2.00 to 4.00 pm Homework. Reading, reflecting and discussing on the subjects, covered particularly by the teacher on that day.
4.00 to 5.00 pm Receiving teaching from teachers.
5.00 to 5.30 pm Dinner with prayers.
5.30 to 6.00 pm Break time.
6.00 to 7.00 pm Evening debating class.
7.00 to 8.30/9.00 pm Prayers and meditation. Reciting Heart Sutra, 21 Tara praises many times and reciting many other prayers as preliminary practices and to eliminate obstacles toward one’s study and practices.
9.00 to 10/11.00 pm Debating class (Some of the monks will continue until midnight or 1 am).
10/11.00 to 12.00 mn Reciting the prayers and scriptures which have been memorized so that one does not forget.
12.00mn Bed time but many monks will study till 1 or 2 am.” 
Geshe Thubten Sherab website
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.