In Tibetan Buddhist learning, especially the Gelug Sect (also known as the Yellow Sect.), there are two academic degree systems, traditional and modern. Of the two systems, the highest degrees - Geshe Lharampa and "Tho Ram Pa", are conferred to the most excellent lamas.
Geshe, literally meaning "knowledgeable" in Tibetan language, is the traditional degree evaluating and granting system in Tibetan Buddhism learning.
Geshe Lharampa is the highest degree of the Geshe system, equivalent to the doctorate degree in Buddhist studies. The other three lower-level degrees, namely Dorampa, Lingtse and Tsorampa, will also be conferred according to candidates' performance in the dialectical debate.
"Tho Ram Pa", a combined Tibetan term for "advanced" and "the learned and intelligent", is the modern degree conferral system for Tibetan Buddhism learners (exclusive of laymen, women).
Then, what are the essential differences between the two systems or the two degrees?
Generally speaking, Geshe system is more similar to an election mechanism for Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, while "Tho Ram Pa" system is a pure academic degree conferral system.
This concept will be explained by the different purposes of the two degrees. Geshe Lharampa is more like a certificate of appointment, and Geshe achievers are thus eligible to serve as Khenpo (abbot) of monastery colleges or intermediate or small monasteries. "Tho Ram Pa" is just an academic title for outstanding Buddhist lamas with excellent achievements.
Also the two degree systems differ in the processes of examination.
For Geshe Lharampa, two examinations - summer (preliminary) and winter (final) sessions are held annually. Summer test passers have to take a final session during the Great Prayer Festival (Losar Prayer Puja) at the Johkang Temple. Lamas from three prominent monasteries (Ganden, Drepung, Sera) will be the examiners who propose difficult Buddhist questions for candidates to debate. Only those who pass both tests will be conferred the degree. Such a challenge as it is, it usually takes decades for a few distinguished lamas to succeed.
For Tho Ram Pa, it is a modern approach to cultivate lamas and evaluate their cademic achievements. Candidates take professional courses at Beijing Advanced Tibetan Buddhism College of China. After that, they take exams on Tibetan Buddhist sutras, pass a dissertation defense and be interviewed by a judging committee composed of respected lamas.
The examination for both degrees mainly focus on the "Five Major Topics" (Pramāna-vārtika, Madhyamaka, Abhisamaya, Vinaya, Abhidharmakosa). Yet Geshe exam involves testing for basic Tibetan linguistic knowledge while Tho Ram Pa exam involves testing for basic knowledge of science and sociology.
Geshe Lharampa degree is formally conferred by China Buddhist Association Tibet Branch at the Johkang Temple. "Tho Ram Pa" degree is conferred at the Huangsi (Yellow) Temple in Beijing, upon the consensus of the Examination Committee for Higher Academic Degree in Tibetan Buddhism.
In February 1986, the 10th Panchen Lama hosted the first resumed Fire-Tiger Great Prayer Festival at the Johkang Tempe upon the official notice from the regional government of Tibet Autonomous Region. So was the Geshe degree conferral ritual. Altogether 17 lamas won the Geshe Lharampa degree from 1986 to 1987.
Disappointedly, the just resumed ritual was again disrupted by the upset incited by the exiled Dalai Lama and his clique on March 5, 1988. It seems that the Dalai clique has constant reluctance to go peacefully with the flourishing of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, instead, it always schemes to undermine normal religious events and ploys to seduce young lamas with non-Buddhist baits for illegal activities.
The Geshe examination ritual of the Gelug Sect, which has been interrupted for 16 years, was not resumed until the year 2005. Earlier this year, another eight Geshe lamas have been recognized with the highest level of attainment for lamas studying the scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, the degree authorization committee conferred Geshe Lharampa degree to a total of 48 lamas since 2004.
The "Tho Ram Pa" degree system was established in 2004 by religious figures of Tibet Buddhism to inherit the traditional pattern of learning sutras while adopting the modern education approaches. It is dedicated to setting up a scholarship evaluation system for Tibetan Buddhist lama learners with outstanding academic achievements. In August 2008, the examination committee was formally organized. One month later, the first eleven lama candidates were enrolled in professional courses at Beijing Advanced Tibetan Buddhism College of China.