As an honorary title meaning “the one who has studied extensively”, the term Rabjampa designated scholars who had gone on a scholastic tour. It was not until the 17th century that the title was first granted officially to five monks from the Gelugpa tradition during the Great Prayer festival of 1625 (Georges B.J. Dreyfus, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, Berkeley, London, 2003, pp. 144-145). From that time onwards, the title of Rabjampa reflected the fulfilment of fixed institutional requirements. The Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), who was eight years old at the time and studied at Drepung, recalled this event in his autobiography (Dalai Lama V. Ṅag-dbaṅ-blo-bzaṅ-rgya-mtsho, The Illusive Play: The Autobiography of the Fifth Dalai Lama, trans. Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, Chicago, 2014, p. 62):
“During this time the streets and markets in Lhasa were filled with Tibetans, Mongols and the Hor people. This year there were Konchog Chozang from Chuzang, Ngagwang Palzang from Burtag, the scholar Sonam Chozang from Domnyag, Samlo Denma and Dagpo Kachu who all five sat for the examination of the Rabjam degree. They did a real service to the doctrine. After the end of the Great Prayer I returned to Drepung.”
Established as an academic degree for philosophical studies, the title of Rabjampa was granted after a rigorous examination taking the form of a public debate between selected candidates. In 1648, the Great Fifth requested this examination to be held annually (Dreyfus, op. cit., pp. 144-145).
The system of examination underwent further changes during the time of the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757). Monks from the three great monastic universities of Drepung, Ganden, and Sera would by then join the Great Prayer in Lhasa and compete for the prestigious title of Geshe Lharampa (dge bshes lha rams pa): the term Lharampa is believed to be a contraction of Lhasa and Rabjampa (Tarab Tulku, A Brief History of Tibetan Academic Degrees in Buddhist Philosophy, Copenhagen, 2000, pp. 18-23). Lower titles such as Tsokrampa (tshogs rams pa), Lingsé (gling bsre), and Dorampa (do rams pa) were also created.
In view of the role played by the Fifth Dalai Lama (i.e. early education at Drepung, establishment of annual examination, and Mongol connection) and the historical development of the Gelugpa examination during the Great Prayer festival (i.e. change of title nomenclature), it seems plausible that the ivory seal had been made in the 17th century, perhaps around 1648 when the Fifth Dalai Lama ordered Rabjampa examinations to be held yearly.
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