Dzongsar Trashi Lhatsé Monastery

Dzongsar Trashi Lhatsé (rdzong gsar bkra shis lha rtse) Monastery is a Sakya (sa skya) institution in the Menshö (sman shod) valley in Degé (sde dge). The early history of the monastery is relatively inconsequential, though beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century it became a center of the Ecumenical (Rimé; ris med) Movement and in the early twentieth century a center of scholastic studies in Kham (khams). Since China’s political liberalization in the nineteen-eighties the main temple, seminary, and retreat centers have been rebuilt and all are now thriving. Furthermore, Dzongsar is the administrative center for an innovative network of local initiatives aimed at cultural preservation and income generation.

The area of Dzongsar (rdzong gsar) was home to an imperial-era temple named Jakhyi Lhakhang (bya khyi lha khang) that is said to date from the reign of Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po, 7th century). Biographies of early twelfth century figures from Kham portray it as a popular center of Buddhist learning. The founding legend of Dzongsar itself speaks of a yogi who arrived in the early twelfth century at the foot of the hill upon which Dzongsar was eventually built and inquired about its name. As the hill is called Lhatsé and his name was Trashi, the temple he founded there was called Trashi Lhatsé. This yogi brought with him a single statue of Shakyamuni Buddha and the temple he built had only one pillar, thus it was nicknamed “The Temple of One Buddha and One Pillar” (lha khang jo bo lha gcig ka gcig). The ensuing religious community was originally affiliated with the Kadampa (bka’ gdams pa) sect. In the late thirteenth century it was caught up in a widespread conversion to the Sakya sect of monasteries in Kham and has remained Sakya ever since.

Historical knowledge of this establishment prior to the mid-seventeenth century is very fragmentary. One thing that is known is that the Menshö Valley was ruled as an outpost of the Lingtsang (gling tshang) Kingdom, the nominally Sakya polity that was economically and politically powerful in the region from the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. The family that founded the Degé kingdom in the seventeenth century began working for the local Ling ruler in the fifteenth century, until they defeated this powerbase in the 1630s and founded an independent kingdom. The Degé kingdom patronized the Ngor (ngor) sub-sect of Sakya and instituted the Ngor ritual program at Tashi Lhatsé Monastery.

Traditional histories of Dzongsar are often structured around the offices of three lines of lamas that have been prominent over the centuries: the Gangna (sgang sna), Ngari (mnga' ris), and Khyentsé (mkhyen brtse) lamas. The first Gangna lama was born into the important Gangna family of Luding (klu sdings). It is unclear exactly when this line of lamas was founded but it persisted for twenty-nine generations, all the lamas came from the same family, and the line has since died out. The Ngari line of lamas was founded in the seventeenth century by a member of the Gangna family, Ngari Rapjampa Tsültrim Özer (mnga' ris rab 'byams pa tshul khrims 'od zer). The first eighteen Ngari lamas were appointed by the leaders of Ngor Monastery in Central Tibet. After the death of the eighteenth Ngari lama, Künga Jamyang (kun dga' 'jam dbyangs; 1877-1942), the lineage shifted from being elective to reincarnate and the “reincarnation” of Künga Jamyang was identified and raised to be the nineteenth Ngari lama. The third, and most famous, of the Dzongsar lamas is the Khyentsé (mkhyen brtse) line. The first was Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo ('jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse dbang po; 1820-1892), a towering figure in nineteenth century Degé, Sakya, and Nyingma (rnying ma) history. In the 1860s the Nyarong (nyag rong) warlord Gönpo Namgyel (dgon po rnam rgyal) destroyed Dzongsar, after which Khyentsé gradually rebuilt it over the succeeding decades, making it larger and grander than before.

The second Khyentsé Chökyi Lodrö (chos kyi blo gros; 1893-1959) was also a major figure in Degé religion and had a tremendous impact on Dzongsar. In 1918 he established the Khamjé (khams rje) seminary (bshad grwa) below the monastery. Its curriculum was based on the so-called thirteen classics and the course of study lasted five years. There were nine successive abbots from the founding of the seminary to its closing during the Maoist period. Initially the student population fluctuated between sixty to one hundred monks. The seminary was reopened in the eighties and is now one of the more vigorous and strict seminaries in Kham. Chökyi Lodrö also established the Dzongsar retreat college at Karmo Taktsang (dkar mo stag tshang), at the site where the great Mipam Choklé Namgyel (mi pham phyogs las rnam rgyal, 1846-1912) lived in retreat for thirteen years while studying under the first Khyentsé.

A recent history of the monastery lists the temples, residences, and other facilities found at the monastery during its efflorescence in the first third of the twentieth century. There were nineteen temples, including the large assembly hall; the Utsé printing house (dbu rtse par khang); the households of the three lines of lamas; around 180 two-story monk’s homes (belonging to the central monastery); the seminary, including its temples, teacher’s residences, and 57 monk’s rooms; the retreat center; the chapels at the Dzamnang (dzaM nang) and Khyungtak (khyung stag); holy caves; and others. Nearly all of these structures and their priceless contents – books, icons, relics, crafts, and so on – were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The brave and farsighted lamas and local residents who survived the Maoist period began to rebuild Dzongsar in 1983.

In addition to reviving the essential pre-modern Dzongsar traditions, the current leaders of the monastery have also used their position in Degé society and the broader Buddhist world to found a number of projects aimed at cultural preservation and local income generation. Thus the Menshö valley is dotted with workshops, training centers, and health facilities that maintain traditional Tibetan arts and sciences and are staffed by local Tibetans. These include free standing facilities for tanka (thang ka) painting, statue making, metalwork, pottery, woolen clothes, and Tibetan medicine (patient treatment and medicine production). The products made at these satellites of Dzongsar Monastery are held in very high regard and often demand exceeds supply. This is especially true for the tankas and statues produced at Dzongsar. The pottery workshop is one of the last of its kind and its trained potters are often called upon to set up temporary facilities at regional monasteries so that they can fill orders for hundreds of begging bowls. The medicine made at the Dzongsar hospital is thought to be especially effective because of the strict adherence to traditional recipes and the “empowerment” bestowed on the finished pills and powders by the monks of Dzongsar.