There used to be thousands monasteries in Tibet. Every family was expected to send at least one boy to the monasteries. Usually boys would be ordained at the age of seven and girls a bit older. Only at the age of 20 could they be fully ordained to take 253 Bhiksu vows. The monastery life used to be the only access to education and improved social status. People went to monasteries to get educated, to merit their family and to pursue religious fulfillment. However monasteries still draw Tibetans although educational and economic conditions in Tibet have been greatly improved.
The monastery life is rigorous. Monks are involved in all kinds of religious services and administrative tasks, on behalf of individual study and the monastery community. Daily life starts in the early morning and ends in the late night. The whole day is occupied with communal and individual religious services and the management of the monastery. Older monks, usually learned lamas, hold greater responsibilities such as maintaining discipline and leading the group prayers while younger monks help by running the kitchen, shopping and serving food and tea.
Religious study and services are the main theme of the monastery life. The newly ordained monks start from basic Tibetan language, grammar, literature, sutra chanting and prayers. Then time will be spent on Buddhism canons such as Abhidharma (Higher Knowledge), Prajnya Paramita (The Perfection of Wisdom), Pramana (Logic), and Madhyamika (The Middle Way). Generally the study process will last for 18 years or more. They study sutras and tantras and read Buddhist texts. Crafts, astrology and medicine are also the subjects they need to learn. Long term solitary retreat will be resorted to reflect and meditate on the meaning and implications of Buddhist philosophy. Sutra debate is important to help master and deepen Buddhist theology. Examinations are debates between applicant monks and high lamas. Those who pass the examinations held in their own monasteries will be qualified to participate the Monlam (The Great Prayer Festival) debate and a Geshe Lharampa Degree, which represents the highest degree in Tibetan Buddhism theology, will be conferred on those who win out. A Geshe Lharampa who wants to advance to a higher religious and scholarly fulfillment needs to attend to tantra colleges to get the Geshe Ngarampa Degree (Tantra Master). Only a few talented monks can enter a scholarly religious life and advance to religious fulfillment. Many others fall into more secular jobs such as craftsmen, builders, artists and cooks.
Nuns live a life similar with monks, in a more invisible manner. Their religious practice mainly focuses on meditation and prayer rather than advanced philosophical studies in less structured nunneries, although there were a few female great adepts in the Tibetan history.