A few miles west of Lhasa, just above the village of Denbak or Dampa, which is now just a suburb of the city, lies Drepung (lit. “pile of rice”), which was during the last century the largest monastery in the world. Although this monastery has by now gone through difficult times, it is still an important institution, with majestic buildings in a grandiose site. Lying at the foot of dge ’phelMountain, the highest point in the lha saValley, Drepung offers an impressive sight with its hundreds of large buildings nestled in an impressive mountainous surrounding. It is one of the most important religious institutions in Tibet and hence its study offers a great avenue to penetrate Tibetan civilization, its religion, politics, economy, and culture. For in Drepung, all these aspects of traditional Tibetan life, which are often thought to exist apart, come together.
Tenma in Loselling Assembly Hall
Since its foundation in the fifteenth century, Drepung has been one of the most important religious institutions in Tibet. Together with Sera and Ganden, it forms the three great monastic seats of learning (densa chenmo) that have made the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism famous. Like Sera, its main competitor, and unlike Ganden, which is more isolated, Drepung was built a few miles from Lhasa, the political, economic, and cultural capital of the Tibetan world. Hence, Drepung has been close to the political and cultural center of Tibetan life and this has allowed this institution to prosper. Created as a major scholastic center, Drepung became also one of the main political centers of the rising Geluk school, being the seat of the Dalai Lamas (Talé Lama) from the end of the fifteenth century. With the rise to power of the Fifth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Ngapa) in the seventeenth century, the importance of this monastery continued to increase until 1959, when it was the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery, with well over ten-thousand monks.
But throughout its history, Drepung has not just been an important center of monastic learning and power, it has also been a sacred place, a major center of religious life for the laity as well. The site on which this monastery was built seems to have been a site of great religious significance well before the foundation of the monastery. It is considered as being the residency of the protectoress Dorjé Drak Gyelma, one the leaders of a set of twelve female deities in charge of protecting the Buddhist teaching (Tenma Chunyi). This deity is said to reside above Drepung, on dge ’phelMountain, a place directly connected to MountKailash and Marchen Pomra, two of the most sacred mountains of the Tibetan world. During the Summer Festival of Smoke Offerings (Dzamling Chisang), lay people celebrate this connection by making pilgrimage to Drepung and climbing dge ’phelMountain to make offerings to the local gods.
The importance of Drepung is also greatly enhanced by the proximity of Nechung, the monastery where Pehar, one of the main protective deities in the Tibetan world, is propitiated. The legend is that this god was tamed by Padma Jungné (eighth century CE-?) and appointed by him as a protector of the Buddhist teaching. This happened when the latter came to Tibet during the second half of the eighth century to pacify the wrathful local gods who had opposed the arrival of the Buddhist teaching. Pehar was chosen by the Dalai Lama as one of their main protectors and has been the officially sanctioned oracle of the Tibetan state. Thus, when lay people come to Drepung, they are not just paying a justified homage to a great institution of religious learning and thus accumulating merits as prescribed by the Buddhist tradition, they are also asking for the favors and protection of powerful deities of the Tibetan world and recognizing the connection that these deities have with Drepung.
The sacred character of the monastery is signified by its very name. At a superficial level, the name of the monastery refers to its appearance as a “pile of rice” neatly nested in the impressive surroundings of the foothills of dge ’phelMountain. At a deeper level, the name indicates the place assigned by its founder within the mystical geography of Tibetan Buddhism. Drepung in Tibet is the namesake of Śrīdānyakataka in India, the place where the Buddha taught the Kālacakra Tantra and where a large monastery was built by the kings of Orissa to celebrate this event. Drepung is meant to be the Tibetan counterpart of this important place and its importance partly derives from this connection.
This essay presents the various aspects of this complex and rich institution. We examine first its history, starting with the founding of the monastery and a discussion of its place in the early part of Geluk history. In particular, we focus on the role of Drepung in the rise of the Geluk tradition and the role that the Dalai Lama played in this rise. We then turn to a more synchronic approach and consider the organization of the monastery as it existed during the first half of the twentieth century. We examine its administrative structures, underlining the ways in which this corporate body has been organized throughout its history. In this way we are in measure to understand this institution as a magnificent institution of scholastic learning, an important site of pilgrimage, and a major center of political and economic power. We conclude by examining the present situation of the monastery and its difficult confrontation with the often tragic circumstances of Tibetan modernity.
The rise of Drepung is closely connected to that of the Geluk tradition and hence a few words must be said about this topic before examining the history of the monastery. The tradition that was later to be called by its adherents Gelukpa (the “virtuous one”) goes back to one of the seminal figures of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in Amdo, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) came to Central Tibet to pursue his studies in the scholastic centers that flourished in that part of the Tibetan world. Exceptionally gifted as a scholar, dedicated as a Buddhist practitioner and endowed with a charismatic personality, Tsongkhapa made a profound impression on his contemporaries. As an extremely productive writer, an original thinker and a dedicated Buddhist practitioner, he attracted a large group of gifted and devoted students, who were instrumental in developing (some would say creating) his tradition. He also attracted the support of powerful lay sponsors, particularly that of Drakpa Gyeltsen (1618-1655 CE) and his minister Namkha Zangpo from the Neudong family, which had been the dominant power in Central Tibet since the time of Jangchup Gyeltsen (1302-1364 CE).
It is not clear to which degree Tsongkhapa saw himself as creating a new school. The powerful commentaries that he wrote attest to the fact that he saw himself as offering what he took to be the correct interpretations of the classical Indian Buddhist tradition, particularly as far as Madhyamaka philosophy and the practice of tantras are concerned. But it is quite mistaken to present him as a reformer, a Martin Luther of Tibetan Buddhism bent on denouncing and reforming its institutions. In many respects, Tsongkhapa did not see himself as diverging from the ideas and practices of his time but as correcting some of the mistakes and misinterpretations that he saw around him. Even his emphasis on monasticism, a hallmark of his approach, was not his invention but was widespread within the Kadam and Sakya traditions of his time. For Tsongkhapa, monasticism offered the best ethical framework in which to practice Buddhism, even in its tantric forms. The neglect of such a framework represented for him a clear danger, a portent of the deterioration of the Buddhist teaching that had to be prevented by the creation of new monastic centers and the strengthening of monastic discipline.
Indian– Bodhisattva in the Chapel of the Buddhas of the Three Times/Great Assemby Hall
This monastic emphasis is reflected in his writings and in his action, particularly his convening several thousands of monks from all over Central Tibet and Tsang to the Great Prayer Festival (Mönlam Chenmo) in Lhasa in 1409 followed shortly after by the monastery of Ganden. This program of institutional build-up was furthered a few years later with the creation of Drepung (1416) and Sera (1418). Thus, by the time of Tsongkhapa’s death in 1419, the institutions that were to become the great centers of the Geluk tradition were in existence. But it would be a mistake to attribute to these institutions the importance that they came to acquire and thus to see in their creation an attempt to create alternatives to the institutions of his time. Rather, Tsongkhapa saw himself as contributing to a movement that already existed but needed to be strengthened and perhaps reoriented. He certainly did see himself as offering important correctives to the practices and ideas of his time but his desire to establish a separate tradition or to reform existing ones is yet to be established. What is less uncertain is that after the death of its “founder,” the followers of his tradition who were then called “Gandenpa” grew rapidly in number and created a separate tradition, leading to confrontations with other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
The rapidity and direction of this growth is quite clear in the case of Drepung and its founder, Jamyang Chöjé (1379-1449 CE). Born in an old family of tantrikas from the Samyé area that claimed to go back to the Tibetan empire of Songtsen Gampo (604-650 CE), Jamyang Chöjé had an unusually brilliant and gifted personality. After studying topics in Pramāṇa and Prajñāpāramitā at Samyé and at Sangpu, he went to Ganden to study Madhyamaka and Tantras with Tsongkhapa. There he quickly became one of the most learned disciples in a circle of great talents. Endowed with an extraordinary memory, Jamyang Chöjé was chosen by Tsongkhapa to be his assistant, daily repeating and commenting on the latter’s teachings at Ganden. Impressed by Jamyang Chöjé’s talents, Tsongkhapa urged his student to create a new monastery, which he predicted would be greater than Ganden, following the Tibetan proverb that “one comes to prefer the son to the mother” (ma las bu dga’ ba ’ong). At first reluctant to embark on such a major task, Jamyang Chöjé decided to follow his teacher’s wish after he had several premonitory dreams indicating the importance, likely success and site of the monastic project.
In a particularly significant dream that he had just after talking with Tsongkhapa during the rainy season retreat of 1414, Jamyang Chöjé saw a large crowd of sentient beings stranded across a deep water. Moved by compassion he jumped in the deep waters and created a bridge through which the stranded beings escape to safety. In a tradition where the ultimate goal of nirvana is often depicted through this metaphor, such a dream could not but move Jamyang Chöjé, who took the resolution to create a monastery. Tsongkhapa further encouraged the project by giving Jamyang Chöjé a conch unearthed from the soil of the mountain on which Ganden was built. Gelukpas have considered this conch as an important sign supporting the narrative justifying Tsongkhapa’s central role in their tradition. All the founders, mythical or actual, of other Tibetan Buddhist traditions had direct connection to India. For example, Marpa (1002/1012-1097 CE), one of the founding figures of the Kagyü tradition, was a translator who went to India to collect texts and receive direct teachings from Indian masters. No such connection existed in Tsongkhapa’s case since he lived at a time when the connection with Buddhist India had been lost. Hence, there was the need to build a narrative connecting the founding figure of the tradition to the land of origin. In one such a story, Tsongkhapa is a young boy, who offers a crystal rosary to the Buddha. In exchange, the Buddha gives him a conch and predicts his future role as offering a crown to monument in Lhasa. In another story, the conch is entrusted to Mogallana, who buries it near Ganden so that it can be unearthed when the time is right. It is this conch that Tsongkhapa is said to have entrusted to Jamyang Chöjé. No need to say that this conch was considered as the most sacred object at Drepung, the symbol of its connection to the founder of the tradition and of its mission to spread the Buddhist teaching. Alas, it was stolen in the 1980s and has not been recovered.
To choose the site, Jamyang Chöjé also relied on dreams. In a later dream, he sees a white god, Pehar, showing him the area above the village of Denbak and saying “if you found a monastery there, I will give you five thousand monks.” Excited, Jamyang Chöjé rushes to the site and notices the presence of numerous ponds of fresh water. Near one of them he sees Tsongkhapa, who tells him that this is the water of hearing and contemplating the teaching. “Drink” orders the master, and after obeying the disciple feels a wonderful sense of satisfaction. The choice of this site, however, was not just based on a dream. I already mentioned the connection of this area with Dorjé Drak Gyelma and other local deities. It also appears that there was a temple dedicated to Yamāntaka, one of the central deities of Jamyang Chöjé’s practice. Furthermore, the site offered several natural advantages. It was in the middle of a charming forest surrounded on the east and west by streams of water, thus providing plentiful supply of wood and water, a welcome situation in a high altitude semi-desert area. The site had also numerous caves that could be used by practitioners. In fact, Drepung became famous for its caves. Whereas Sera had many hermitages, Drepung had only one hermitage on dge ’phelMountain but had many caves where monks could retire during the breaks to memorize important texts. Thus, the site seemed ideal for a monastery, blessed by the gods and endowed with unusual natural resources and beauty.
Jamyang Chöjé moved to the site in 1414, building a small thatched hut next to a small cave on the east of the site (nowadays, this site is called Draktokkhang and is considered one of the four caves where Jamyang Chöjé resided at Drepung). He then moved to another cave that is just behind what is nowadays the Main Assembly Hall (Dukang). There, he started teaching the great scholastic texts. With the support of Namkha Zangpo from the Neudong family, he started in 1416 to build the Main Assembly Hall, the Tantric Monastic College (Ngakpa Dratsang) and several monastic residencies. By 1419, the project was well under way. The two temples were completed and the most important statues such as monument and their monument as well as the monument were in place. Tsongkhapa visited Drepung in the same year on his way to the hot springs, consecrating the buildings as well as the most important statues during a ceremony marked by several auspicious omens.
Jamyang Chöjé seems to have been a generous and humble man, and this may have had quite some influence on the development of the Geluk tradition. In the first decade after Tsongkhapa’s death, Drepung was the only scholastic center of the nascent Ganden tradition and Jamyang Chöjé was its head. He was also one the most gifted scholars among Tsongkhapa’s students and it would seem that he would have a decisive influence on the development of the tradition. But the reality would be quite different and it is Khedrup who became the leader of the Ganden tradition. We will obviously never know whether the rise of sectarianism that has deeply scarred Tibetan history from that time on could have been avoided had Jamyang Chöjé, rather than Khedrup, become the tradition’s leader. We will also never know the degree to which Khedrup’s own personality and sectarian tendencies contributed to the development of a Geluk tradition that saw itself as radically different and superior to other schools. All what we can do is to try to guess from the limited evidence we have the course that the nascent Ganden tradition took early on and the role of figures such as Khedrup and Jamyang Chöjé had in this course.
The evidence suggests that a certain amount of tension existed between these two figures. Such tension is to be expected in a group like the one that surrounded Tsongkhapa. The ability to attract gifted students with strong personalities from all parts of Tibet and all ages was one of the main reasons for Tsongkhapa’s success. But this success also meant that conflicts were likely to happen after the passing away of the founder. Among Tsongkhapa’s students, there was a group of senior practitioners such as Tokden Jampel Gyatso (1356-1428 CE) and Lama Jamkar, who may have considered themselves more as Tsongkhapa’s equals than his students. There were also a group of senior students such as Gyeltsap Darma Rinchen (1364-1432 CE) and Drakpa Gyeltsen, who were already well-established scholars or practitioners in their own right when they met the master and became his disciples. These students came to spend a long time with Tsongkhapa and formed a closely-knit group. Hence, there seems to have been little discussion after Tsongkhapa’s passing away that Gyeltsap would inherit the leadership of the group. Gyeltsap must have been the obvious choice, being the great scholar among senior students. Moreover, his kind character must have made him popular among Tsongkhapa’s followers. Thus, Gyeltsap was appointed as the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa), the position that came to be regarded as that of Tsongkhapa’s successor. It is hard to know when the Throne of Drepung (Drepung Tri) came to be regarded as such rather than as just that of the senior abbot (khenrap) of this monastery, but it is clear that Gyeltsap’s own supremacy was well established in the circle of Tsongkhapa’s students, where he was regarded as a respected figure.
The situation was different for the second generation of students among whom conflicts may have started to develop. This seems to have been the case for Khedrup and Jamyang Chöjé, two gifted and dynamic scholars who could lay legitimate claims to the succession. It is hard to know what happened since most of the evidence has either disappeared or has been actively suppressed, as is the case of Jamyang Chöjé’s writings, which were sealed at a later date. But the few sources we have seem to suggest that the succession of Gyeltsap seems not to have been completely smooth. An interesting incident throws some light on the tensions that surfaced within the Ganden tradition at that time. This incident took place at Drepung when Gyeltsap came for a visit to the monastery toward the end of his tenure as the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa, 1419-1431). At that time, Drepung was the only scholastic center among Tsongkhapa’s followers, Sera and Ganden being largely devoted to practice rather than to studies. Drepung monks seem to have been upset by the presence at the side of Gyeltsap of Khedrup, who had joined the latter and was treated by him as his successor. Drepung monks thought that it was their teacher Jamyang Chöjé who should been given the respect due to Gyeltsap’s successor, not Khedrup. Jamyang Chöjé himself is said to have urged his monks to obey Gyeltsap, declaring that he had no problem with this choice.
Given the poverty of our sources, it is easy to make too much of such a small incident. It is not unreasonable, however, to think that it reflects deeper tensions among Gandenpas about the leadership and direction of their group after the passing away of the generation of senior students. We know that Gyeltsap resigned his position one year before his death to ensure that Khedrup would be chosen as his successor. All this seems to indicate a conflict between two sides, one favoring Khedrup and another probably rooting for Jamyang Chöjé. We obviously know very little about the issues that were at stake in this dispute, since Jamyang Chöjé’s writings have not been available for centuries. But one cannot but notice that Jamyang Chöjé seems to have cut a strikingly different figure from Khedrup. Whereas the latter was prone to define and assert forcefully a dominant orthodoxy, Jamyang Chöjé is presented as holding views that are by now considered as heretical within the Geluk traditions. In particular, he is described as holding the view of extrinsic emptiness (zhentong), a striking position within the tradition of Tsongkhapa, an author who had rejected quite clearly this view in his writings. Jamyang Chöjé is also described as being part of a long line of reincarnation of proponents of this view of extrinsic emptiness, starting with the precursor of the Jonang tradition, Yumo Mikyö Dorjé, and continuing later with Jonang Künga Drölchok (1507-1565/1566 CE), Taranatha (1575-1634 CE), and Khalkha Jetsün Dampa. It is obviously hard to know what to make of this description of Jamyang Chöjé as a proponent of extrinsic emptiness. In a tradition that has rejected forcefully this view for a long time, such a description may be a put down by the victorious side to justify their position. It may be, however, that this description accurately captures elements of Jamyang Chöjé’s view and shows the fluidity of the tradition in the first decade after Tsongkhapa’s passing away, fluidity that may have been quashed by Khedrup, the creator and enforcer of the Geluk orthodoxy.
Despite these difficulties, Jamyang Chöjé remained at Drepung for the rest of his life, functioning as its leader, providing teachings and offering guidance. He established the calendar of the debate sessions throughout the year and oversaw the curriculum. He also wrote commentaries on the great Indian texts, commentaries that functioned as the first textbook (yikcha) of the monastery, though they were later replaced by other texts before being rejected as heterodox. Contrary to Khedrup, however, Jamyang Chöjé did not write extensively about tantric matters, preferring to leave this dangerous domain to more adventurous thinkers. He preferred to devote most of his time to teaching his students at Drepung. There he gave daily teachings to as many as eight classes per day and hence had numerous students.
Jamyang Chöjé is said to have had fourteen major disciples, but the actual number is much larger. Among his students, the one who is best known to Western scholars is the translator Taktsang Lotsawa. He is counted as one of Jamyang Chöjé’s students, despite the controversies surrounding his relation to the Geluk tradition. Gelukpas describe him as having first critiqued Tsongkhapa before converting to his tradition and studying with Jamyang Chöjé. Critics of Tsongkhapa offer a quite different picture of Taktsang first studying Tsongkhapa’s tradition before becoming one of its staunchest critics. Taktsang was not, however, the most important among Jamyang Chöjé’s students, for this title should be reserved to Müsepa Lodrö Rinchen Senggé (fifteenth century CE-?). Müsepa was close to Jamyang Chöjé and is said to have shared some of his teacher’s alleged heterodox views about emptiness. He left Drepung at an unknown date and under circumstances that remain unclear to move to Sera where he established the Jé monastic college (Dratsang Jé). It is likely that he left Drepung when Jamyang Chöjé’s death deprived him of the protection that he must have enjoyed as his chief disciple. But why did he need such a protection? For his alleged unorthodox views or for his well known allegiance to the Nyingma deity Hayagriva? These questions have so far not been answered. During his tenure at Drepung, Jamyang Chöjé had many other disciples, among whom Taklep and Galep were particularly important. They were the second and third abbots (khenrap) of Gomang and had a significant role in making this monastic college one of the main scholastic centers at Drepung.
Under Jamyang Chöjé’s leadership, Drepung flourished, growing rapidly into one the large scholastic centers of its time. Throughout the rest of his life, Jamyang Chöjé remained at Drepung where he played a dominant role in the direction of the monastery. For example, he is said to have appointed his students to the abbotship of the new monastic subunits that were being created to accommodate the growth of the monastic population. We do not know the history of the foundation of these monastic subunits, under which circumstances they were created, etc. What we know is that Gomang was the first subunit to emerge, followed by others, so that prior to the middle of the fifteenth century Drepung was divided into seven monastic subunits led by abbots appointed by Jamyang Chöjé. These seven monastic subunits were: Gomang, Loselling, Shakkor, Gyepa (or Gyelwa, also called Tösamling), Deyang, Ngakpa, and Vinaya [College] (Dülwa). These subunits seem at first to have functioned like colleges specialized by topics: Gomang, Loselling, Shakkor and Gyepa (or Gyelwa) were devoted to the study of the prajñāpāramitā literature and madhyamaka. The Vinaya Monastic College (Dratsang Dülwa) was devoted to the study of the ’Dul ba and the Hīnayāna tradition in general, as its name indicates, whereas Deyang was specialized in logic and epistemology. Finally, Ngakpa, the Tantric Monastic College, was devoted to the study and practice of the cycles of the three main tantric deities of the Geluk tradition: Guhyasamāja, Yamāntaka, and Cakrasaṃvara.
These colleges seem to have fared quite differently. Loselling and Gomang grew into very large institutions, becoming veritable monasteries in their own right with thousands of monks, their own abbotship, textbooks, rituals, etc. Shakkor, Vinaya [College] and Gyepa, do not seem to have fared so well. They survived until the eighteenth century when they were absorbed by the larger colleges, though they kept their separate abbotship. Desi Sanggyé Gyatso (1653-1705 CE), our main source on the early history of Drepung, mentioned these colleges in his History of the Geluk Tradition composed in 1698 and hence we know that this absorption happened later. We do not know when this absorption took place but it is reasonable to assume that this took place during the eighteenth century. Shakkor and Gyepa became part of Loselling, whereas Vinaya [College] was absorbed into Gomang. The Tantric Monastic College was kept as a smaller unit, since it had a distinct and important function, practicing the great tantric rituals without which no religious institution can be considered viable within the Tibetan world. The fate of Deyang is more intriguing. It was small like the other colleges that disappeared but was kept as a separate unit. This survival may be due to its close connection to the Fifth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Ngapa) and to its particular place in the propitiation of protectors at Drepung.
It is obviously difficult to give numbers corresponding to the growth of Drepung, but it appears that this monastery may have reached two-thousand monks during the fifteenth century. This seems at least to have been close to the number of monks living at Drepung at the time when Gendün Gyatso (1475-1542 CE) restarted the Great Prayer Festival in 1517. It is said that about fifteen-hundred monks from Drepung attended this occasion. This allows us to speculate that there may have been around two-thousand monks at that time and probably not much less during the preceding century. During the next century and half, particularly during the second half of the seventeenth century, the number of monks kept growing, reaching 4400 by the time that Desi Sanggyé Gyatso composed his History at the end of the seventeenth century. This growth was obviously greatly favored by the rise to power of the Dalai Lama and the support of their government. Drepung, Sera and Ganden became the three monastic seats supported by the Lhasa authorities, receiving support, protection and being given a great deal of influence in the process. By the middle of the twentieth century, the number had gone over ten-thousand (the official count was 9980 when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Chupzhipa) visited Drepung in 1958 during his exam but it is likely that not every monk was counted at this occasion), thus illustrating the rise of mass monasticism within the Tibetan tradition.
In growing, Drepung has evolved in its structure and organization, adapting to its role as major monastic center with branch monasteries throughout the Tibetan Buddhist cultural world, including Mongolia. In the process, Drepung moved from being a single coherent unit under a unified leadership to its being divided into several largely autonomous entities, each endowed with considerable resource and political power. This evolution is quite clear in the succession list of the abbots of the monastery. When one looks at the list of the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa), one cannot but be struck by a sharp difference between the first nine abbots and their later successors. Whereas the first nine abbots reached their abbotship through the usual cursus honorum that scholars followed in the Geluk tradition, the next six abbots were quite different. Four of them were the Dalai Lamas and two were the most famous Geluk teachers of their day. This difference reflects the transformation that the monastery underwent in its growth, but it also reflects broader trends in the evolution of the Geluk tradition and of Tibetan Buddhism in general. Hence, this phenomenon is well worth examining.
As we recall, Drepung was directed by Jamyang Chöjé, who exercised oversight on the governance of the monastery, at the practical as well as the scholarly level. His immediate successors were scholars who were trained in the scholastic centers of Central Tibet and Tsang. Among these successors, one of the most significant was Drepung Tripa Ngapa Lozang Nyima (1438-1492 CE), who was Tsongkhapa’s distant relative. He came from Amdo and trained at Drepung with Müsepa, Taklep and Galep, Jamyang Chöjé’s most eminent disciples. To establish himself as a senior scholar, Lozang Nyima went to Sangpu where he debated the twenty texts he had mastered and defeated the master Tsenyakpa (fifteenth century CE-?) in a public debate. He then went to Trashi Lhünpo where he became a disciple of Gendün Drup (1391-1474 CE), the retrospective First Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Dangpo) who founded this monastery and became one of the most important figures among the youngest disciples of Tsongkhapa. Lozang Nyima was appointed at the age of forty-three abbot of Drepung before obtaining the titles of Lord of the Dharma of the Lower Monastery of Sangpu (Sangpu Lingmekyi Chöjé) and that of the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa). This distinguished career is quite typical of the time and reveals the state of the Geluk tradition, which was still only partially differentiated from other traditions, particularly the Bka’ gdam. Hence, Drepung was a large scholastic center among others and monks moved freely from one center to another, as they had done for the last centuries. In particular, they kept going to Sangpu, which was still an important scholastic center. Similarly, senior scholars moved from the abbotship of one monastery to that of another quite liberally, indicating a state of fluidity and openness that was to change quite dramatically, as Central Tibet and Tsang descended into the civil war that lasted until the middle of the seventeenth century.
Such change already appears in the career of Drepung Tripa, Mönlam Pelwa (1414-1491 CE). Having undergone the same training as the other abbots, he was appointed the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa) in 1480 and the next year abbot of Drepung. This illustrates the fluidity of the tradition of that time but also raises questions. For if Mönlam became abbot of Drepung the year after being abbot of Ganden, it suggests that the the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa) was not considered the leader of the Geluk tradition, as it became later. In fact the situation may have been quite different, with Drepung and Sera in a growth mode overshadowing Ganden, which seems to have remained an isolated monastery in decline, despite its connection to the glorious days of Tsongkhapa, Gyeltsap and Khedrup. It may be symptomatic of this state that the monks of Ganden did not take part in the Great Prayer Festival instituted by Tsongkhapa until the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama when the role of Ganden was increased, perhaps as a way to counterbalance the influence of Drepung and Sera. Mönlam Pelwa’s career also reflects the agitated times. He is said to have successfully led a ritual to repel the armies (Makdok) of the Ringpung rulers, who were engaged with the Neudong family in a struggle for supremacy over Tibet.
This marks the beginning of a troubled and still largely unexplored period of the history of Drepung and the Geluk tradition. During that time, Drepung and the Geluk tradition were involved in the civil war that opposed the forces of Tsang and that of Central Tibet, particularly those of the Neudong family, who had been from the beginning the staunchest supporters of Tsongkhapa and his tradition. The war seems to have been the result of the decline of the power of the Neudong in the 1430s and the rise of the Ringpung family and its success in rallying to its cause various leaders from the Tsang province. For the next few decades, both sides were involved in a power struggle resulting in a series of violent incidents. The fight was all the more bitter that each side was supported by religious traditions. The Kagyüpas, particularly the followers of the Karmapa, were staunch supporters of the Ringpung, whereas the Gelukpas sided with the Neudong, who had generously sponsored Tsongkhapa’s monastic plans. We also remember that the 1430s was also the time of Khedrup’s tenure as the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa). Although we do not know whether this temperamental figure was involved in the dispute between the Ringpung and the Neudong, we know that he engaged in several controversies, particularly with the Sakya scholar Ngorchen Künga Zangpo (1382-1456 CE), perhaps in response to some of the Sakya critics of Tsongkhapa. Coming at a time of civil strife, these controversies cannot but have further polarized an already highly conflictual situation and led to the continuation of this bitter conflict for more than two centuries.
This war did not spare Drepung, which was occupied several times by the forces of Tsang. In 1479, the Ringpung established a Kagyü monastery in Yangbachen, near Lhasa. Geluk monks, particularly those from Drepung, the leading monastery of the tradition, saw this as a provocation, an encroachment on their zone of influence and attacked the monastery. The Ringpung forces retaliated and eventually occupied Lhasa in 1498. In a deliberately provocative act, they forbid the monks from Drepung and Sera to attend the Great Prayer Festival whose oversight had been their privilege since the early days of the festival. These difficult events brought considerable changes to Drepung and the Geluk tradition in general. In particular, it transformed the nature of monastic leadership and the transmission of authority, as is evident in the changes of the nature of the abbotship at Drepung. Whereas the first nine abbots were ordinary monks who had reached their position through their qualities of scholar and practitioner, the tenth abbot is none other than Gendün Gyatso, the retrospective Second Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Nyipa). Henceforth, Drepung’s fate is going to be associated with this charismatic figure and his reincarnated successors. This marks a dramatic shift in the transmission of authority within the Geluk tradition and Tibetan Buddhism in general, obviously a reflection of the troubled times. Henceforth, reincarnated lamas (trülku) will take precedence over others as leaders of the tradition.
As is well known, the model of transmission of charismatic religious authority on the basis of a reincarnation lineage was first developed in the Kagyü tradition with the official recognition of the Third Karmapa (Karmapa Sumpa) Rangjung Dorjé (1284-1339 CE) as Karma Pakshi’s (1204-1283 CE) reincarnation. Such a model seems particularly well adapted to the Tibetan tradition, allowing for the integration of tantric practices and transmissions within a monastic environment. In contrast to family transmission, reincarnation is easier to integrate into a monastic environment. It allows a focus on the personality of the tantric master as providing the charismatic element necessary to the continuation of the tradition. Nevertheless, up to the fifteenth century, this transmission of authority remained limited to very few cases and was noticeably absent from the Geluk tradition. Its leaders had been ordinary monks recognized for their scholarly and spiritual achievements, as is clear from the career of the first nine abbots of Drepung. With Gendün Gyatso, this situation changes drastically. Henceforth, authority within the Geluk tradition moves away from the meritorcratic succession of scholars to a lineage of reincarnated lamas, who owe their power less to their personal achievements than to the prestige of the reincarnation genealogy they are recognized to be part of.
The diffusion of this genealogical model of transmission of religious authority, which is also in evidence in other traditions such as that of the Drukpa Kagyü, is likely due to the troubled times of the civil war that divided Tibet at that time. The recourse to such an institution was also a way for the Gelukpas to respond to the difficult situation they were in. Having sided with the Neudong family, the Geluk seems to be on the losing side. I already mentioned the occupation that they had to endure from the forces of Tsang and the banning of Geluk monks from the Great Prayer Festival that had been initiated by their founder. In such a difficult time, the presence of a clearly defined holder of authority endowed with the prestige of a sacred connection with the past via reincarnation must have been seen as an important asset for the embattled Geluk school.
The emergence of such a model within the Geluk tradition is clear in the hagiographies of Gendün Gyatso, who is presented as the prototypical reincarnated lama (trülku). A precocious and gifted child, Gendün Gyatso showed signs from the earliest age of belonging to his prestigious religious lineage. As soon as he was born, he turned to Trashi Lhünpo and joined his palms in reverence. At age three, when scolded by his mother he responded that he wanted to go back to his place at Trashi Lhünpo. When he visited the monastery, he climbed on a throne, saying “this is how one should teach the Dharma.” At age ten, he was invited to join Trashi Lhünpo where he was given some degree of recognition as the reincarnation of Gendün Drup, the prestigious founder of the monastery and one of the dominant Geluk figures of the second half of the fifteenth century. But Gendün Gyatso seems not to have been accepted by all the monks of Trashi Lhünpo. Hence, he moved to Drepung where he continued his studies and became a well-known figure. In 1517 he was appointed to the Throne of Drepung, which he occupied until 1535. During this period, Gendün Gyatso showed the great skills that were to become the hallmarks of several of his successors: scholastic learning, deep training in tantric practice, abilities to perform tantric rituals, personal charisma, as well as great diplomatic skills. Gendün Gyatso adopted a non-confrontational strategy, presenting an image of tolerance and inclusiveness. Such a strategy may have reflected his personal dispositions, but was particularly adapted to the delicate circumstances in which the Geluk tradition was. Lhasa had been occupied by the Ringpung forces, which had prevented Geluk monks from participating in the Great Prayer Festival. Gendün Gyatso ingratiated himself to the Ringpung rulers, persuading them to reverse this prohibition and succeeding in calming down the situation. He himself took part in the ceremony where he taught fifteen-hundred monks from Drepung and three hundred from Sera. This achievement seems to have established him as the uncontested leader of Drepung, Sera and the Geluk tradition of his time, recognition marked by the establishment of his estate, the Ganden Palace (Ganden Podrang) in 1518 at Drepung.
Courtyard of Ganden Palace
Gendün Gyatso was succeeded in 1535 by another major figure in the history of the Geluk tradition, Penchen Sönam Drakpa (1478-1554 CE). This figure could be seen as representing a return to the old meritocratic model of ordinary monks assuming leadership, but this is not really the case. By the time he was appointed to the Throne of Drepung (Drepung Tri), Sönam Drakpa was already a famous Geluk master. He had already occupied the Throne of Ganden (Ganden Tri) and was considered the most prolific and important Geluk thinker of his time. Moreover, his successor was none other than Sönam Gyatso (1543-1588 CE), the lama who would receive the official title of the Third Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Sumpa). Thus, it appears that Sönam Drakpa’s rule was just an interlude in the rise of reincarnated lamas to positions of authority at Drepung and in the Geluk tradition. Before his death in 1554, Sönam Drakpa established his own estate, the Upper Chamber (Zimkhang Gongma), which was named because of its location at the top of Drepung, just below the Ngakpa debating courtyard. It is hard to know whether the creation of this estate represents an attempt by Sönam Drakpa to rival the Dalai Lama, but such rivalry did eventually develop, ending with the tragic death of Drakpa Gyeltsen, Sönam Drakpa’s second reincarnation and the rival of the Fifth Dalai Lama, followed by the discontinuation of this major reincarnation lineage.
The place of reincarnated lamas within the Geluk tradition of that time is confirmed by the way Sönam Gyatso was received at Drepung when he came at the tender age of three after being recognized as Gendün Gyatso’s reincarnation. He was enthusiastically greeted by the monks, who stood for hours on both sides of the path to greet him. In this young child, they saw a future leader who would be able to take care of the monastery in these troubled times. Sönam Gyatso was ordained by Penchen Sönam Drakpa and assumed the official title of the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa) shortly after receiving his full ordination (1564) at the age of twenty-one. At the same time, he was appointed abbot of Sera. Since Sönam Drakpa had retired from the Drepung abbotship in 1551, it appears that the Throne of Drepung was left empty for more than a decade, thus making it abundantly clear that the authority at Drepung was less based on scholastic merits than on the charisma of religious figures. Drepung monks preferred being without an abbot for a decade rather than appoint anybody else than Sönam Gyatso, who still too young to be abbot. It should be clear, however, that the success of the Dalai Lama was made possible not just by their prestigious religious genealogy but also by the great qualities of the persons who were chosen. Sönam Gyatso’s well-known career is a testimony to the extraordinary qualities of these figures, who were able to reconcile the learning of great scholars, the achievements of skilled ritual practitioners and the diplomatic skills of politicians. It is these qualities that allowed Sönam Gyatso to become the famous lama courted by the Mongols. In this way, he laid down the foundation of the Mongolian connection, which was later used so successfully by the Fifth Dalai Lama to establish the Geluk supremacy.
Sönam Gyatso was followed by Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617 CE), the unfortunate Fourth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Zhipa), and by Penchen Lobzang Chögyan (1570-1662 CE), who would later be recognized as the Fourth Penchen Lama (Penchen Kutreng Zhipa). The latter’s rule was not, however, a return to a meritocratic model of authority but an interlude in the rule of the Dalai Lama. Lobzang Chögyan was far from being an ordinary monk by the time he ascended the Throne of Drepung (Drepung Tri). He was the most famous Geluk master of his day, being admired almost universally as a saintly figure embodying tolerance and openness. This enabled him to play an important political role as a moderator of a situation that had again flared up. In 1612 the forces of Tsang led by Püntsok Wanggyel attacked some of the Geluk allies. This led to a series of hostilities culminating in the taking over of Lhasa, the massacre of hundreds of monks and soldiers at Drepung and the destruction of the monastery, with its monks having to flee as far as the Blue Lake (Tso Ngönpo) in Amdo. The Gelukpas responded in kind, mobilizing Mongolian troupes to eliminate the forces of Tsang. Lobzang Chögyan intervened and brought to an end this particularly bloody episode (known as the Rat-Ox war for the year in which it started) in the protracted struggle between Central Tibet and Tsang. The troupes of Tsang were allowed to withdraw unharmed and Drepung and other Geluk monasteries were restored to their previous status. But this settlement did not last and trouble started again, particularly in Eastern Tibet where Gelukpas came under renewed persecutions. This led Lobzang Chögyan’s successor, his student Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (1617-1682 CE), the Fifth Dalai Lama, to conclude an alliance with the Qoshot tribe and its leader, Gushri Khan. Together, they formed a powerful alliance that first took over Eastern Tibet, eliminating some of the enemies of the Geluk, such as the King of Beri (Beri Gyelpo). They then turned their sight on Central Tibet and with the support of hundreds of young Drepung monks, who had yet to take full ordination, they inflicted a decisive defeat on the forces of Tsang, thus bringing to an end the bitter strife that had divided Tibet for more than two centuries.
The exterior of the Great Assembly Hall during a monastic ritual
This victory marked a new period for Drepung. From a large but embattled institution, Drepung became an official pillar of the state and in the process accrued large benefits. It received new estates with numerous taxpayers and thus greatly increased its resources. the Fifth Dalai Lama’s first prime-minister Sönam Rapten (1595-1658 CE) embarked on an ambitious program of constructions. The Great Assembly Hall (Tsokchen) was rebuilt anew and other structures such as the Ganden Palace were expanded and beautified. Several sacred statues were brought from other institutions to enhance the prestige of Drepung. Of particular interest are three venerable statues of Tara that still exist at Drepung nowadays. These statues are said to be speaking and were brought to Drepung by the Fifth Dalai Lama from other institutions such as Tsetang and Nyetang.
The Fifth Dalai Lama also sought to enhance the importance of the the Great Prayer festival. Tsongkhapa had instituted this ritual, which is strictly reserved to monks, as a celebration of Maitreya, the future Buddha, a means to accelerate his coming, but also a way to assert the centrality of monasticism. It had also been provided avenues to rulers for acquiring legitimacy by demonstrating their commitment to Buddhism. Hence, its control became a contentious issue, pitting against each other the important political groups of the day, as we saw above. After his victory, the Fifth Dalai Lama continued to use the ritual for political purposes, promoting it as a way to renew his state’s commitment to Buddhism. The Fifth (Ngapa) increased the length and intensity of the festival, entrusting its governance to the Drepung authorities. This meant not just the direction of the ceremonies but of the entire life of Lhasa. During the twenty-two days of the ritual, the rule of the government was suspended and the governance of the city was entrusted to the Drepung authorities. By turning over its power to Drepung, the government sought to purify its rule thus enhancing its legitimacy. But this turning over of power also had practical consequences. It meant a considerable increase of power for the Drepung authorities, which were entitled to decide during this time any pending issue without any possible further appeal. Important families and rich sponsors could not ignore that every year Drepung would have a free hand to redress any wrong done to them. In general, the monastic authorities did not grossly abuse this power and ruled more or less fairly. Still, every year at the time of the Great Prayer Festival, many among the rich and powerful left the city in fear for their wealth or safety.
Maitreya Liberating Upon Sight
This role in the Great Prayer Festival increased the power and influence of Drepung, which became the main monastic support of the Dalai Lama’s rule. As often in Tibetan culture, a story involving protective deities illustrates this shift of power at the benefit of Drepung. It appears that originally the governing of the festival had alternated between Drepung and Sera, but while the latter was in charge, an evil person tried to poison the monks. Karmashar, the Sera protector, warned the Sera monks not to drink that day but failed to warn the Drepung monks. This infuriated Nechung, the Drepung protector, who standing with one foot on the po ta laHill PotalaHill (Potala ri) and the other on the Iron Hill (Chakpo ri) crushed the poisoned beverage with his spear. The verdict was clear. Sera’s protector could not be trusted and henceforth, it would be Drepung that would be in charge of the festival. As is often the case in the Tibetan world, a narrative involving protectors illustrates and explains events of the socio-political world.
The close connection of the monastery with the Dalai Lama was not, however, always unproblematic. the Fifth (Ngapa) officialized the established practice of past Dalai Lama to hold the thrones of Drepung and Sera. This meant that the monastery was, at least theoretically, under the direct control of a ruler whose interest did not necessarily coincide with those of Drepung. In particular, the Dalai Lama had little to gain in seeing Drepung and Sera become too powerful. It was his advantage to see these institutions become large and prestigious, for this strengthened his rule, helping him to project in the Tibetan imagination a vision of Lhasa, where he ruled supreme, as the center of their religious universe. This vision was strengthened by the promotion of the Great Prayer Festival, as the main ritual event of the Tibetan year. But Drepung and Sera should not be strong enough to establish themselves as independent centers of power. They should remain loyal subjects ready to support his rule rather than advance their own ambitions. To increase his control, the Fifth (Ngapa) attempted various strategies. He revived the role of Ganden monastery, inviting its monks to the Great Prayer Festival, thus creating a more balanced distribution of power within the Geluk monastic establishment. He also promoted the role of the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa) as the official leader of the Geluk tradition, keeping for himself the thrones of Sera and Drepung. In this way, these titles became unimportant and eventually faded away. The present usage is for the more senior among the abbots of Gomang or Loselling to function as abbot of Drepung but there is no separate holder of the throne (tripa), as there is for Ganden.
The Dalai Lama and his prime-minister also attempted to control the curriculum of Sera, Drepung and Ganden by controlling the final examinations and regulating the titles that could be delivered by these monasteries. He, or at least his prime-minister, also seems to have been interested in promoting his own writings as the official textbooks of the monastic seats, particularly at Drepung, but the monastic authorities refused this offer, which seemed such an obvious threat to their intellectual independence. This tension between the Dalai Lama and the monastic seats remained throughout the Fifth’s rule and increased as the years went by and he attempted to increase his power. After his death, the conflict further escalated and his prime-minister, Desi Sanggyé Gyatso, became embroiled in a bitter dispute with some of the Geluk hierarchs leading to his death and the loss of power of the Dalai Lama, who for the next two centuries were more figureheads than actual leaders.
The weakening of the Dalai Lama’s power did not affect the growth of Drepung, which continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, despite the vicissitudes encountered by the Tibetan state. During this period, Drepung became even larger, reaching over ten-thousand monks in the 1950s, and even more dominant than it had been during the seventeenth century. Together with Sera and Ganden, it became the undisputed center of Tibetan religious and intellectual life. When monks from the other schools wanted to get a scholastic training, Drepung was often their first choice. A stay at this monastery would ensure any scholar valuable knowledge as well as considerable prestige. Economically, Drepung continued to prosper, receiving new estates and received the support of new sponsors such as Polhané Sönam Topgyel (1689-1747 CE), who built Miwang Lhakhang (named after the title of its sponsor) at the Great Assembly Hall and contributed to the beautification of several other buildings. Politically, the relative weakness of the Lhasa government ensured that Drepung would retain a strong influence. Supported by the weight of its thousands of monks, Drepung was able to block the actions of any government tempted to go against its interests. This became particularly clear during the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s (Talé Lama Kutreng Chuksumpa) rule, when the latter tried to implement reforms to modernize his country. His plans, particularly his attempt to reinforce the Tibetan army and to establish schools in English, were vigorously opposed by Drepung and the other two seats of learning. Unable to overcome the resistance of the abbots of these monasteries, the Dalai Lama had to abandon the plans that might have set Tibet on a very different course, thus demonstrating once more the power of this monastery, power that continued unabated until the 1950s.
The organization of the monastery reflects the historical patterns examined here. The growth of Drepung into a large institution, with more than four thousand monks at the end of the seventeenth century, must have implied changes in the organization of the monastery as well. We already mentioned the creation of monastic colleges in the fifteenth century. It appears that as the monastery grew, the role of these subunits greatly increased. The fact that the Throne of Drepung could be left empty for more than a decade in the sixteenth century suggests that the effective running of the monastery was no more in the hands of the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa) but in those of the abbots of the various monastic colleges, particularly those of Gomang and Loselling. This raises the question of how we should describe an entity such as Drepung and its larger subunits, Gomang and Loselling.
Tsa Assembly Hall and East living quarters
Drepung is described in English as a monastery and its subunits are often presented in the secondary literature as colleges. Although this description is not necessarily mistaken, it is somewhat misleading for it suggests that the subunits of Drepung are merely sub-divisions of a larger unit. But from at least the sixteenth century, large aspects of the monastic life have been in the hands of the various subunits. With the rise of the Dalai Lama, the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa) was more a distant leader than a person in charge of the daily running of the place, with the abbots of the various subunits stepping in. Later on, the title itself was emptied of much of its meaning, the charge being assumed by the abbots of Loselling or Gomang. Furthermore, each monastic subunit developed its own set of rituals, curriculum and scholastic manuals (yikcha). It had its own assembly hall, administrative and disciplinary structures, economic basis, monastic constitution (chayik), and internal subdivisions into regional houses (khangtsen). Monks owed their primary allegiance to these monasteries, not to the monastic seat. For example, when asked which monastery he was from, a monk from Gomang would have pointed to this entity as the source of his monastic pride, not to Drepung. Hence, in many ways, subunits such as Gomang and Loselling were, and still are in exile, more actual monasteries than mere colleges.
The Tibetan language reflects this situation. Drepung is described as a densa, that is, a seat rather than as a dratsang (i.e., a monastery). The Tibetan has another word, gönpa, which is at times translated as monastery, and which applies to Drepung. But this word includes more than just monasteries. Hermitages are called gönpa inasmuch as they are located in remote places and are devoted to religious practice. This is certainly the case of Drepung but this does not mean that it is a monastery. In fact, it appears that Drepung as it has existed from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth century has been more a monastic seat than a monastery in the strict and institutional sense of the term. Loselling and Gomang are the entities best described as monasteries, though I often call them monastic colleges to conform to the scholarly convention.
The organization of Drepung until the seventeenth century was extremely complex, with power being divided between the monastic seat, the colleges and the various regional houses, often following baroque customary arrangements. The general outline of such a complex organization was that the highest authority was that of the monastic seat, which was administered by a council (lachi) composed of the representatives of the monastic colleges and regional houses, the present and former abbots of each monastic college, and important monastic officials. It was in charge of administrating the finances of the monastic seat, deciding important questions of discipline and arbitrating conflicts between colleges. Two head disciplinarians (tsokchen shelngo) chosen from Gomang and Loselling implemented its decisions with the help of several assistants. During the twenty-two days of the Great Prayer Festival, these two head disciplinarians had total control over the whole of Lhasa and could render judgment on any matter brought before them. The council and the head disciplinarians had no say, however, in each college’s religious activities, which were in the hands of the abbot and the disciplinarian of the college.
Another important member of the hierarchy was the chanting master of the Great Assembly Hall (tsokchen umdzé). His role was to lead the rituals held by all Drepung monks at the Great Assembly Hall. He would prepare the rituals, direct the monks in charge of the various aspects of the ritual and lead the chanting. At Drepung, these rituals were considered particularly important and the practice of the arts connected with their performance such as chanting, playing musical instruments, preparing offerings, etc. was greatly emphasized. The reason for this emphasis was the role of Drepung during the Great Prayer Festival. Drepung was in charge not just of the discipline during the festival, no small matter in a gathering of tens of thousand of monks often behaving in quite rowdy ways, but also of the performance of the rituals that were central to the festival. Hence, the role of the chanting master, a figure of importance in any monastery, was particularly significant at each monastic college. Each college had its own chanting master in charge of leading the college’s rituals but the main figure was the chanting master of the Great Assembly Hall. He was in charge of the rituals of the Great Prayer Festival during which he would lead the assembly of monks who might number in the tens of thousands. He would be supported in this task by the chanting masters of the four colleges and by a larger group of monks chosen for the quality of their voice and their chanting abilities. At a time where there was no sound system, leading such a large assembly was no small matter and only the best voices could pretend to such high honor. The chanting master and the monks specialized in chanting would train throughout the year, but especially during some of the evening debating sessions where the first two hours might be taken by the practice of chanting for the Great Prayer Festival.
This organization was reproduced at the level of each monastic college, which had in turn its own administrative, disciplinary, and religious structure. Its council, which was composed of the abbot, the representatives of the large regional houses, and important monastic officials, controlled the administration of the monastic college. The abbot, who headed the college, was in charge of its religious activities, overseeing the admission of new monks, the curriculum as well as the ritual calendar. The college’s disciplinarian (dratsanggi gekö) oversaw all disciplinary matters within the monastic college but had to defer to Drepung’s two head disciplinarians. A chant leader (umdzé) led the college’s assembly in its ritual performances, and the director of the studies (lama zhung lenpa) oversaw various aspects of the scholastic routine.
At the lowest level were the regional houses, where monks from the different regions resided, much as in European medieval universities scholars were grouped by nations. Similarly, each monastery was composed of several regional houses where monks were grouped according to regional affiliation. For example, monks from the Trehor area of Kham would go to the Trehor house, whereas monks from the Kongtserawa area would go to the Phukhang house. There, newcomers would find people able to understand and help them, thus providing a means to integrate culturally and linguistically vastly different groups. Gomang had sixteen such regional houses whereas Loselling had twenty-three, Ngakpa and Deyang being too small to have regional houses. Not all regional houses were, however, equal, some being very large with as many as a thousand monks while others were much smaller. At Gomang, for example, Hamdong, Samlo, Gungru, and Drati were considered the larger houses. As such they were given special privileges and had a large network of apartment houses (chikhang) and affiliated houses (mitsen).
Like the medieval nation, which was headed by a procurer appointed by a council of regents, the regional houses were ruled by a council, which appointed a house teacher (khangtsen gegen) to administer the house. He was in charge of the discipline of the house, making sure that the schedule was respected, young monks memorized their texts, scholars attended debate, and so on. He was also in charge of making sure that monks did not keep knives in their rooms, a reminder of the rather heteroclite nature of monasteries where the best scholar lived side by side with the worst punk. As with the other monks in charge of the monastic discipline, he could not be criticized while in office, even by the house’s council. However, once he had stepped down after a fixed term (often a year), he could be attacked and penalized by the council for his actions as a house teacher. This system allowed the officers to have sufficient authority over a large mass of monks, who were often quite rowdy and difficult to control. It also provided checks and balances, since the officers were retroactively accountable for their actions, and had to be mindful not to overstep their authority.
This hierarchy directed a highly complex institution with a large and rather heteroclite monastic population. Although Drepung was originally conceived as a scholastic institution dedicated to the study and practice of Buddhism, the reality has at times been quite different and monks have been admitted in large numbers to the monastery regardless of their actual commitment to scholastic studies. This liberal policy of admission led to a lowering of monastic standards. Few restrictions on comportment were placed on monks, who were not required to undergo rigorous educational training. There were no exams to pass to remain in the monastery, and those who had no interest in studying or meditating were as welcome as dedicated scholars. Many monks spent their time as administrators (chiso), being engaged in a variety of political and economical tasks. Even punk-monks (dapdop), members of monastic gangs who spent most of their time fighting each other and playing competitive sports, were accommodated and could remain part of the monastic community. Rather than repress these groups of unusual monks, the monastic seats used their martial inclinations to act as a monastic police force, maintaining order among its large and often rowdy monastic population, collecting taxes from recalcitrant payers and defending monastic officials in dangerous travels.
The great majority of monks (dramang) opted for a relaxed life revolving around the elaborate ritual life of the monastery. Supported by their families, they dutifully attended monastic ceremonies while supplementing their income by performing rituals for the laity. They did not have any intellectual or spiritual ambition and considered their present life as a meritorious and pleasant preparation for future lives. The life of the scholars (pechawa) was quite different and entailed great sacrifices, but few were ready to endure such hardships in order to study. Hence, only a minority engaged in the scholastic activities on which the reputation of the institution was based. Most were quite happy with their participation to the rich ritual life of the monastery or to the complex administration of the vast wealth of the monastery.
The schematic description of the monastic chain of command does not begin, however, to capture the actual complexities of the organization and bureaucracies involved in the administration of the three seats. For example, besides regional houses, there were a number of affiliated houses whose status was determined customarily and hence was hard to encompass in an abstract organizational scheme. This was particularly true at Gomang, which counted as many as twenty-two affiliated houses. Among those, ten belonged to Samlo Regional House (Samlo Khangtsen) and nine were affiliated with Hamdong, the largest regional house at Gomang. Among the other three, one was affiliated to a smaller regional house (Zungchu) while the last two were autonomous. The Gomang Staff House (Gomang Böpa Zhung) was a residence for the monks fulfilling administrative tasks at Gomang, whereas Gadong did not have any determined affiliation. Nevertheless, its monks, who originated from Central Tibet, would have to be part of a regional house determined by their precise origin. Even among the houses affiliated with a larger regional house, there were further distinctions to be made. For example, Tsenpo was affiliated to Hamdong, but this was not true of all its monks. Only the monks coming from nomadic areas could be part of Hamdong, whereas the ones coming from agricultural areas would have to belong to Samlo Regional House, despite being part of the same Tsenpo affiliated house as their nomadic colleagues!
A similar baroque complexity is in evidence in the various bureaucracies that administrated this large institution. Each corporate entity, that is, the seat, the monastic colleges, the regional houses and the affiliated houses, was managed by a complex administration whose structure was more often than not determined by complex customary arrangements. For example, the financial administration of Gomang was in the hands of a council of five stewards. Four were designated by the four large regional houses (Hamdong, Samlo, Gungru and Drati) and were called chakbuk, whereas the last one represented the abbot and was called labrang chakdzö. The four monks, who were nominated by the four important regional houses, were not just elected but had to be approved by the Gadong and the Tenma oracles, who lived near Drepung. These five administrators met on a daily basis and decided on all financial concerns of the monastery. They were helped by two secretaries and a representative of the smaller regional houses designated from either Zhungpa, Tewo or Chupzang houses. If the decision was too important or the five administrators could not reach agreement, they would convey an exceptional council of fourteen members composed of the five administrators, the disciplinarian, the chant leader and representatives of the important regional houses. If this council could not decide, a plenary session of the monastery, involving representatives from all the regional houses, would meet. At Loselling, a similar structure existed, with a council composed of the three stewards designated by the three large regional houses (Tsa, Pukhang and Kongbo), a steward representing the abbot and a secretary. Such council reflected not only the distribution of power between the large regional houses but also a regional balance, for among the five administrators, two would have to be from Central Tibet or Tsang and two from Eastern Tibet.
Besides deciding financial matters, the council of the monastic college oversaw the other tasks that were part of the life of the monastery. For example, two store-managers (nyertsang depa) were in charge of providing the teas and food to be offered during the college’s rituals, whereas two caretakers (könnyer) were looking after its headquarters. There were monks in charge of preparing tea and food for the monks participating in the college’s rituals. There were also monks in charge of taking care of the various buildings of the college such as its Assembly Hall (Dukang), its two debating courtyards, and the buildings of its administration. Other monks would prepare the offerings, make sure that all of its objects remain accounted for, etc., whereas others were in charge of various tasks pertaining to the practice of rituals such as performing the college’s rituals for its protectors, marking the time for rituals, etc.
A similar complexity existed on the disciplinary side of the life of each college where the disciplinarian was helped in his tasks by various office holders. There were the two helpers (chapril), who would oversee the monks taking part in rituals in the monastery’s Assembly Hall. There were also the leaders of each class (kyorpön) in charge of overseeing that the texts are well memorized, the proper topics studied, and the debates well attended. These class-leaders would be overseen by a chief-class leader (karam kyorpön) in charge of overseeing the work of the leaders. Finally, the disciplinarian could request the help of punk-monks to control large crowds of monks, some of whom may behave in quite rowdy ways.
An even greater complexity existed in the administration of the monastic seat. My preceding description of the council as being in charge of administrating the seat is a crude simplification, for the council existed at several levels. There was the Large Council (Lachi Chenmo) that would meet for deciding important decisions. It was composed of the seven present abbots (four heading the four existing colleges whereas the other three were the honorific and fictional heads of the three colleges folded into Gomang and Loselling), the retired abbots, the overseer of the Ganden Palace, the overseer of the Trashi Khangsar, the two disciplinarians, the chanting master of the Great Assembly Hall and two administrators designated by Gomang and Loselling. This council was the highest authority at Drepung, being in charge of the finances of the monastic seat and of deciding important cases. It would not meet very often but would delegate its authority to two lesser councils in charge of administrating the numerous lesser aspects of the life at Drepung.
The middling council, which was composed of the teachers of Hamdong and Samlo Regional Houses and responsible for the Rainy Season Retreat (Yarné), was in charge of watching over aspects of the monastic calendar. The small council, which was composed of two monks in charge of offerings, two in charge of the printing press, one in charge of buildings and one in charge of health, was entrusted with various lesser tasks: watching over the various buildings such as the Ganden Palace and the Teaching Compound (Künga Rawa), overseeing the Great Assembly Hall, looking after its cleanliness, preparing the offerings, overseeing libraries and the printing of texts, providing rudimentary health care for the sick, etc. There were also the tasks of feeding the monks during the rituals held at the Great Assembly Hall, marking the time of the rituals, making sure that the proper rituals, particularly those intended for the protectors, were held, etc.
The financial administration of such a place was obviously no small matter, as Drepung had large estates on which its subjects (miser) lived. They were the monastery’s tax-payers (trelpa), who were bound to the land and had to pay taxes to the monastery, taxes that were collected by the monastery’s stewards. The stewards were helped in this task by various tax collectors, who were at times not adverse to use the force of punk-monks to bring to order recalcitrant payers. The stewards were helped in their other tasks by officers such as grain-keepers (drunyer) in charge of lending grain, and treasurers (ngülnyer) in charge of managing financial transactions, etc. In this way, Drepung administered 185 estates with twenty-thousand subjects and three-hundred pastures with sixteen-thousand nomads, from which large resources were extracted through a system of taxes paid in the form of grain or butter, rather than money. These resources would then be used to engage in a variety of trade and lending operations. Grain would be lent to the peasants and collected back with a yearly interest, which could be as high as twenty percent. Butter would be sold, either on the market or bartered against other goods.
The resources that were thus obtained were used for some of the monastic tasks, particularly for supporting the rituals held for the monastery (to be distinguished from those requested by outside sponsors). The administrators would have to make sure that the proper resources were given to support these activities. They would also watch over the use of a number of particular funds allocated for particular rituals. These funds were part of bequests made by important donors such as the Tibetan government, the Emperor of China or rich families to support the yearly practice of particular rituals. These funds consisted of capital invested in trade or in agricultural loans to produce the interests that would be used for covering the expenses of the ritual.
One purpose for which the considerable wealth of the monastery was almost never used was the welfare of the monks, even the poorer ones. Drepung and its subunits did not provide for their members, except at ritual assemblies where tea was served. If the sponsor was generous, food would also be served and money given, but this was not the rule. Hence, monks largely provided for themselves with the help of their families and donors. Non-scholars would often supplement their income by practicing rituals at the home of donors. Scholars renounced such possibilities to devote themselves single-mindedly to their studies. This created great difficulties, particularly for young monks coming from afar. It was quite common for them to run out of food and to go hungry for several days until they could find some way to sustain themselves. Moreover, the diet of most monks was extremely impoverished, even by the rudimentary standards of Tibetan cuisine. Many lived almost exclusively on roasted barley flour (tsampa) and butter tea, and had rarely access to meat or vegetables. Thus, the wealth of the monastery did not imply ease and comfort for its monks but power and prestige for the institution itself.
This power and prestige were communicated through various symbolic means. Temples were filled with great riches, statues in precious metals adorned with jewels, books printed with golden letters, and vast amounts of rich silk brocade and gold. Monastic officials saw the preservation and increase of such a wealth as one of their main tasks. The history of Drepung is marked by a string of recorded gifts such as Polhané’s building of mi dbang lha khang. For an administrator, the reception of such a gift was considered a major achievement. Rituals displayed the same spirit of pomp and splendor. They were often quite elaborate and intricate, with rich offerings carried on by monks specializing in such tasks. Finally, monastic dress communicated the prestige and position of the monks wearing them. Monastic officials in particular emphasized the power of their office by wearing shirts made of brocade, rich woolen robes, and walking slowly, standing tall and balancing their arms in a dignified way. The disciplinarians carried a big staff that stressed the power and severity of their charge, and would stuff their shoulders so as to appear more formidable. Similarly, reincarnated lamas wore rich robes, silk undershirts and brocade shirts to mark their ranks.
The accumulation of wealth and the pomp of monastic dresses and ceremonies may surprise those who imagine Buddhist monks as following the simple and ascetic life of mendicants. The behavior and pomp of monastic officials also appear to conflict with our modern conceptions of efficient administration. But such practices become more understandable when placed in their proper context, the administration of power in a traditional society where authorities had fewer means to control their population. This was true of the state but also of other large power-holders such as Drepung. In such a society, the symbolic projection of authority became all the more significant given the limits of the actual control that could be exercised. Hence, it became important for monastic office holders to project an image of power and wealth. Images of power impressed often more than actual power and led people to model their behavior to the expected norms. Similarly, wealth impressed people and attracted more wealth. When donors saw the magnificent temples and their artistic treasures, they felt that they had made a good choice in supporting this institution. This in turn allowed the monastery to attract more resources and to present to the outside world an image of greatness that greatly helped in enforcing its rights and privileges.
The administration of such complex entities required not just the display of symbolic power but real political, administrative and financial skills. There was a kind of cursus honorum for those interested in the politico-administrative side of monastic life. Monks moved from lower to higher echelons, reaching the important jobs that were both a source of honor and considerable rewards. Often, but not always, the important jobs were monopolized by monks from an aristocratic background, or by those belonging to one of the large households (shaktsang chenmo) of the monastery, or by monks who were rich enough to become one of the monk-sponsors (chödzé). Often, these three categories overlapped. monk-sponsors were often of an aristocratic background and belonged to one of the powerful monastic households, which were like small dynasties of monastic administrators. The continuity of these households was insured by taking in new monks, either relatives or promising candidates, who would be in a position to maintain the good standing of the household.
External observers have often viewed this complex hierarchical system critically, seeing it as a radical departure from and a betrayal of an originally pure tradition of simplicity and equality. Regardless of the possible historical merits of such a view, what is important to understand is that Tibetans themselves do not share this perception. Rather than being embarrassed by it, most Tibetan monks view the complexity of the monastic institution as a civilizational achievement, something to be proud of rather than embarrassed by. Gen Lobzang Gyatso, one of my teachers, used to remark with great pride on the “capitalist” and “democratic” nature of the large Tibetan monasteries, which were powerful self-governing associations supported by large financial assets and led by complex bureaucracies staffed by competent and dedicated administrators.
If the past of Drepung is one of enormous political and economic power, splendid liturgical and artistic achievements, great intellectual and religious practices, its present is quite different. With the tragic events that have marred the history of Tibet in the second half of the twentieth century, life at Drepung has changed quite dramatically. This became particularly true in the aftermath of the failure of the revolt of 1959 when the Lhasa population rose against the authorities. Many joined the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Chupzhipa) in exile in India while those who stayed in Tibet underwent great hardships, being engulfed in the vagaries of the post-1959 repression, the economic devastation of the Great Leap Forward, the famine that ensued, and the chaos and destructions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
Many of the Drepung monks who remained in Tibet from 1959 onwards had taken part in the failed uprising, and even those who had not were suspect due to the monastery’s overall involvement. The monastery was seen as rebellious and thus became a target for authorities bent on eliminating resistance to the implementation of socialist policies. Overnight the estate system overall, including that supporting major monasteries such as Drepung, was abolished and all the outstanding loans (perhaps as much as $5 million) were cancelled. A group of party officials formed a government “work team” which descended on the monastery. Many monks belonging to the intellectual, religious or administrative elite were denounced as counter-revolutionaries and sent to labor camps from where few came back. The others, particularly the younger ones who were lucky enough to have remained anonymous, gradually left or were sent home where they were integrated into local work units. Thus, by 1966 Drepung had ceased to exist as a monastic institution in Tibet, the buildings transformed into schools, hospitals or storage-rooms. The few who remained ceased to function as monks and were subjected to harsh treatments, such as being made to perform exhausting manual labor. Moreover, they were not allowed to wear robes or to engage in any religious activity and were required to participate in endless ideological reeducation campaigns during which religion was denounced. Some dealt with this terrible situation with great courage, using their position to save what could be saved. They buried statues, packed away texts, and they preserved temples by transforming them into storerooms, thus putting them beyond the reach of the vandalism of Red Guards. Hence, most of the important buildings at Drepung were preserved, contrary to most monasteries in Tibet. Still, many buildings fell apart, either through intentional destruction or neglect.
Gen Lamrimpa in the Chapel of the Buddhas of the Three Times/Great Assemby Hall
The greatest example of the attempt to preserve the monastic heritage at Drepung during these difficult years is that of Gen Lamrimpa, a modern saint whose personality dominates contemporary Drepung. Gen Lamrimpa was an ordinary monk from south-eastern Tibet who had been engaged in studies for a number of years when the events of 1959 overtook his life. Throughout the difficult events of the next two decades, Gen Lamrimpa managed to stay at ’Bras spungs within Tibet. When he was told that he would have to chose between working for his keep and not eating, Gen Lamrimpa embraced the latter alternative. He entered into a prolonged retreat in which he is said to have sustained himself with blessed pills. During this time, he also collected as many texts and statues as he could. Remaining in complete isolation and probably benefiting from the protection of local administrators, he remained at Drepung throughout the dark years and emerged in the 1980s as a source of learning and inspiration. He became recognized as one of the great monks of his generation, a scholar as well as a saint whose courage and resolution embody the determination of the Tibetan people to preserve its culture and traditions. Despite the veneration that surrounded him, Gen Lamrimpa continued to live as a simple monk, devoting his time to teaching monks and collecting as many texts as possible. After his passing away, his library and few personal belongings were moved to the Ganden Palace where they have remained exposed since then.
Things started to improve after the end the Cultural Revolution. By 1980, the few monks who had remained were allowed to engage in limited religious activities while still doing full time manual labor. The monastery was also allowed to restart gradually its traditional activities, holding its first collective ritual in 1982 and reinstating the scholastic curriculum that had made its past glory. Some of the monks who had been at Drepung before 1959 and had preserved their monastic vows were allowed to come back. The monastery was also allowed to admit new recruits, but only under tight supervision of the authorities. Whereas previously, the admission to the monastery was in the hands of the monastic authorities and hence quite liberal, the new policies are very restrictive. Only young men over eighteen years can be admitted. More importantly, the monastery is allowed to admit only a limited number of applicants. An absolute limit of seven hudnred monks was set for the whole of Drepung, a monastery that housed more than ten-thousand before 1959. Moreover, this limit did not mean that the monastery could automatically fill its quota, for it had to receive special authorization for each batch of new admissions. By the summer of 2005, Drepung had around 640 monks officially enrolled, with several hundred young men waiting for their turn.
This limitation has been one of the main sources of friction with the authorities. It has prevented thousands of young men from fulfilling their religious vocation, leading many to seek in India what they could not find in their homeland. It has also had difficult consequences for the monastery, which has struggled to maintain its traditional religious activities with such a monastic body much reduced in size. Monks have worked very hard at reviving their institution and in many ways have been quite successful. But there are simply not enough people to do all that needs to be done: keep up the place, perform the religious rituals required by the monastic calendar or by the laity, work for the monastery and engage in studies! Even the maintenance of the old buildings, which were built to house more than ten-thousand monks and require constant care, has proved too much for a community of fewer than seven hundred people stretched thin over too many tasks. Hence, buildings often look poorly kept and the monastery has at times the appearance of a ghost town.
The structure of the administration of the monastery has also been radically changed. As we saw, Drepung, like any other monastery in Tibet, was an autonomous, self-governing corporate body ruled by a council chosen by the various entities composing the monastery. Since reopening, the monastery has been directed by a Democratic Management Committee (DMC, Mangtso Daknyer Uyön Lhenkhang), which has consistently functioned as a channel for implementing the decisions taken by the government and the party. The composition of the DMC reflects this function. At first composed exclusively of monks working under the supervision of party cadres, the presence of officials from the Bureau of Religious Affairs within the DMC has been officialized since the mid 1990s. The present DMC at Drepung is made up of seventeen members: eleven monks and six cadres. The day to day running of the place is in the hands of the four monastic managers, who are in charge of coordinating the various tasks performed by the monks working for the monastery. But their decisions have to be approved by the DMC, where the cadres hold effective power. Hence, this body is less the expression of the monastic population, as the old council was, than a channel for implementing the policies of the government and the party.
This has led to a tense situation in which the leaders of the monastery are placed in a delicate situation, being caught between the decisions of the authorities and the wishes of the monastic body. This tension concerns particularly the young monks, who are frustrated by the restrictions imposed by the authorities, particularly those imposed on the admission process. This difficult situation has also led many young monks to become involved in nationalist politics with problematic consequences. Young monks from Drepung were at the heart of the riots of 1987-8 when they demonstrated around Lhasa against the authorities. This political involvement has in turn exacerbated the situation, creating renewed difficulties for the monastery and its leaders. Many of the more active young monks were expelled, particularly those politically committed, thus removing from the monastery a group of highly dedicated young talents. More importantly, the participation of young Drepung monks has revived the suspicion of the authorities, which see the monastery as fundamentally rebellious. This has strengthened the hands of those who are not supportive to the limited cultural and religious renewal that has been allowed since 1980 and would rather impose tougher restrictions on the activities of the monastery. In 2005, they were able to push for a new wave of patriotic reeducation campaign. Work teams have been reconstituted to visit monasteries around Lhasa, reminiscent of the old days of the Maoist era. This has made the already difficult task of monastic leaders even more problematic. They are more than ever caught between the authorities and the young monks, who keep resenting a situation that is showing too little improvement.
In addition, in 1959 many Drepung monks left for exile in India, where they struggled to reconstitute their institution in very difficult circumstances. Some monks were judged not to show sufficient scholarly promise and were shipped to the Himalayan foothills where they worked on various strategic road projects in very harsh conditions. The lucky ones were allowed to stay in Buxadur (Assam) where they had the opportunity to continue their studies and start to rebuild their institution. Many had, however, great difficulties in adapting to the Indian climate and died of tuberculosis, hepatitis or other diseases. Later on, the monks staying in Buxadur were moved to Mundgod in the Karnataka state of South India where they were given land. There, they had to start from scratch, building houses and bringing the land into cultivation. By the mid 1970s, they were on their way to rebuilding their institutions, a project that has continued to this day.
This rebuilding has been largely successful, though difficult. The material conditions are tough, the land poor and the harvest often threatened by wild life. Moreover, the increase of the monastic population has meant new hardships. At first intended for a limited monastic population of three hundred, the land has long become insufficient to support Drepung-in-exile. By the beginning of the 1980s, the population had reached a thousand, already vastly outgrowing the resources provided by the land. The end of the 1980s marks the start of a new period of massive influx of monks from Eastern Tibet. Prevented from entering Drepung in Tibet, these monks found no other solution than to join Drepung-in-exile. Consequently, the population of Drepung in Mundgod has exploded, reaching around three thousand at the turn of the century. Taking care of such a large population has been quite challenging, and only the tapping of new networks of international donors has allowed the monastery to survive.
The recreation of the intellectual tradition has also been difficult. Although many monks escaped to India, their number was small compared to those of Drepung prior to 1959. Hence, the monastery has found it difficult at times to sustain the intensity of its intellectual life, though on the whole it has been quite successful. Classes have been reconstituted, texts reprinted, examinations reinstituted and teachers mobilized to ensure that the monastery’s learning would be preserved. Although Drepung-in-exile never managed to match the learning that existed in Tibet prior to 1959, it has succeeded in producing competent scholars who are able to preserve their tradition.
In exile, Drepung has kept some of its traditional organization. Loselling and Gomang are again large and thriving colleges but Deyang and Ngakpa, being too small, have not been reestablished. The monastery has also tried to maintain as much of its administrative and disciplinary structure, though it is obviously deprived of the wealth and power it had in the old society. Being a steward or even an abbot is now more a chore than a desirable position, as it was in the old days when ambitious monks thought of these jobs as ways to advance in life. Similarly, being a disciplinarian does not give access to the wealth of Lhasa as it was the case in the old days. Finally, the regional houses have lost some of their meaningfulness. Many of them are too small to support all the range of activities they had in Tibet. Finally, affiliated houses have disappeared, their monks being absorbed into a more rationalized organization. Nevertheless, the structures of Drepung-in-exile is still quite similar to the one described here, with a general council ruling over Drepung, monastic colleges in charge of scholastic activities and regional houses in charge of housing and socializing their monks.
Writing about Drepung is not an easy task, for the sources are rather limited. This is particularly true for Drepung’s history, which is quite difficult to reconstruct. The main source is Desi Sanggyé Gyatso’s Ganden Chönjung Baidurya Serpo, especially for the earlier period. This is a work written by an exceptionally broad-minded and curious person but it is still a traditional historiography. Hence, this text suffers from the problems of such a genre, which is often more hagiographic than historical in the strict modern sense of the word. Moreover, Sanggyé Gyatso, who was the Fifth Dalai Lama’s prime-minister, comes to his historical task with a very clear agenda, that of extolling the role of the Dalai Lamas. This is quite clear in his discussion of the history of Drepung where the role of these hierarchs is constantly emphasized, hagiographical descriptions of their lives taking more space than the discussion of all the other events that concerned Drepung. Although I have tried to account for such a bias, I must recognize that it has influenced my own discussion, which cannot but rely on Sanggyé Gyatso’s presentation.
Other sources are also useful in reconstructing Drepung’s early history, particularly some of the histories of the Geluk tradition. Several texts deserve particular mention:
- Cha har dge bshes blo bzang tshul khrims (eighteenth century). Rje thams cad mkhyen pa tsong kha pa chen po’i rnam thar go sla bar brjod pa bde legs kun kyi byung gnas. In Cha har dge bshes blo bzang tshul khrims kyi gsung ’bum. Vol. 2 (KHA), 7-791. New Delhi: Chatring Jansar Tenzin, 1971.
- Las chen kun dga’ rgyal tshan (perhaps end of the fifteenth century). Bka’ gdams chos ’byung gsal ba’i sgron me. Lhasa: Tibetan People’s Press, 2003.
- Phur lcog ngag dbang byams pa (seventeenth century). Grwa sa chen po bzhi dang rgyud pa bstod smad chags tshul pad dkar ’phreng ba. Lhasa: Tibetan People’s Press, 1989, 2003.
There are a few other relevant texts such as Mkhar nag lo tsa ba (seventeenth century), Dga’ ldan chos ’byung dpag bsam gdong po mkhas pa dgyes byed, but I have not been able to consult it. There are also several contemporary texts examining the history of Drepung that seem to be based on these earlier sources. They contain some useful oral sources but their reliability is problematic. Hence, the history of Drepung remains uncertain.
For the discussion of the structure and life of Drepung, I have relied on a variety of sources. I have used my own recollections as well as the fieldwork that I have done in Tibet and in India. I have also relied on several works by contemporary Tibetan scholars. Some of them have not been published and hence will not be mentioned here. Two are available and have helped me a great deal:
- Dge bshes dge ’dun blo gros. “’Bras spungs chos ’byung.” In Geshichte der Kloster-Universität Drebung. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1974.
- Bstan pa bstan ’dzin. Chos sde chen po dpal ldan ’bras spungs bkra shis sgo mang gi chos ’byung chos dung gyas su ’khyil ba’i sgra dbyangs. Gomang Library, 2003.
There are several works in English on Tibetan monasticism that could be mentioned here, including my own The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, but these works are not specifically about Drepung. In fact, there are few works in English that focus on this monastery. Two deserve mention:
- Lobzang Gyatso. Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama. Translated and edited by Gareth Sparham. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1998. This autobiography provides an excellent account of the life of a monk at Drepung. The great merit of this work is to focus not just on the scholarly aspect of monastic life but also on its practical and administrative tasks, thus delivering a very realistic, though by no means cynical, account.
- Goldstein, Melvyn. “The Revival of Monastic Life in Drepung Monastery.” In Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet, edited by Melvyn Goldstein and Matthew Kapstein. Berkeley: University of California, 1998. This article by Goldstein, whose articles have helped to forge a more grounded view of Tibetan monasticism, provides useful information on the recent history of Drepung.
Note: The glossary is organized into sections according to the main language of each entry. The first section contains Tibetan words organized in Tibetan alphabetical order. To jump to the entries that begin with a particular Tibetan root letter, click on that letter below. Columns of information for all entries are listed in this order: THL Extended Wylie transliteration of the term, THL Phonetic rendering of the term, the English translation, the Sanskrit equivalent, associated dates, and the type of term. To view the glossary sorted by any one of these rubrics, click on the corresponding label (such as “Phonetics”) at the top of its column.
|karma pa brgyad pa||Karmapa Gyepa||the Eighth Karmapa||1507-1554 CE||Person|
|karma pa gsum pa||Karmapa Sumpa||the Third Karmapa||1284-1339 CE||Person|
|karma pak shi||Karma Pakshi||1204-1283 CE||Person|
|kun dga’ rwa ba||Künga Rawa||the Teaching Compound||Monastery|
|kong jo ra ba||Kongtserawa||Place|
|bka’ brgyud pa||Kagyüpa||Monastery|
|bka’ gdams chos ’byung gsal ba’i sgron me||Kadam Chönjung Selwé Drönmé||Text|
|bka’ rams skyor dpon||karam kyorpön||chief-class leader||Term|
|bkra shis khang gsar||Tashi Khangsar||Organization|
|bkra shis sgo mang grwa tshang||Trashi Gomang Dratsang||the Auspicious Many Doors Monastic College||Monastery|
|bkra shis lhun po||Trashi Lhünpo||Monastery|
|skyes bu gsum gyi srung ma||kyebu sumgyi sungma||protectors of the three scopes||Term|
|skyor dpon||kyorpön||the leaders of each class||Term|
|khang dmar||khangmar||red house||Term|
|khang tshan||khangtsen||regional house||Term|
|khang tshan dge rgan||khangtsen gegen||house teacher||Term|
|khal kha rje btsun dam pa||Khalka Jetsün Dampa||Person|
|khri pa||tripa||holder of the throne||Person|
|mkhan po||khenpo||the abbot||Term|
|mkhar nag lo tsa ba||Kharnak Lotsawa||Author|
|mkhas grub dge legs dpal bzang||Khedrup Gelek Pelzang||1385-1438 CE||Person|
|gung thang ’jam dpal dbyangs||Gungtang Jampelyang||Person|
|gung ru chos kyi blo gros||Gungru Chökyi Lodrö||Person|
|gung ru chos kyi ’byung gnas||Gungru Chökyi Jungné||Person|
|go ram pa||Gorampa||1429-1489 CE||Person|
|grags pa rgyal mtshan||Drakpa Gyeltsen||1618-1655 CE||Person|
|grags pa rin chen||Drakpa Rinchen||Person|
|gral rim pa||drelrimpa||senior monk||Term|
|grwa rgyun||dragyün||new recruit||Term|
|grwa mang||dramang||majority of monks||Term|
|grwa tshang gi dge skos||dratsanggi gekö||the college’s disciplinarian||Term|
|grwa tshang gi dbu mdzad||dratsanggi umdzé||the college’s chanting master||Term|
|grwa tshang gi las sne lnga||dratsanggi lené nga||five officials||Term|
|grwa tshang ’dul ba||Dratsang Dülwa||Vinaya Monastic College||Monastery|
|grwa tshang byes||Dratsang Jé||the Jé Monastic College||Monastery|
|grwa sa chen po bzhi dang rgyud pa bstod smad chags tshul pad dkar ’phreng ba||Drasa Chenpo Zhi dang Gyüpa Tömé Chaktsül Pekar Trengwa||Text|
|dga’ gdong||Gadong||Buddhist deity|
|dga’ ldan khri||Ganden Tri||the Throne of Ganden||Term|
|dga’ ldan khri||Ganden Tri||the Throne of Ganden||Monastery|
|dga’ ldan khri pa||Ganden Tripa||the Throne-Holder of Ganden||Person|
|dga’ ldan chos ’byung dpag bsam gdong po mkhas pa dgyes byed||Ganden Chönjung Samdongpo Khepa Gyejé||Text|
|dga’ ldan chos ’byung bai ḍūrya ser po||Ganden Chönjung Baidurya Serpo||Text|
|dga’ ldan pa||Gandenpa||Monastery|
|dga’ ldan pho brang||Ganden Podrang||the Ganden Palace||Monastery|
|dge skos||gekö||the disciplinarian||Term|
|dge ’dun grub||Gendün Drup||1391-1474 CE||Person|
|dge ’dun rgya mtsho||Gendün Gyatso||1475-1542 CE||Person|
|dge lugs pa||Gelukpa||Organization|
|dge bshes||geshé||spiritual teacher||Term|
|dge bshes dge ’dun blo gros||Geshé Gendün Lodrö||Author|
|dgon khang||Gönkhang||the Protector House||Monastery|
|mgon po phyag drug||Gönpo Chakdruk||Six-armed Mahākāla||Buddhist deity|
|dgon po phyag bzhi pa||Gönpo Chakzhipa||the Four-Armed Mahākāla||Buddhist deity|
|rgan blo bzang rgya mtsho||Gen Lobzang Gyatso||Person|
|rgan lam rim pa||Gen Lamrimpa||Person|
|rgya gling||gyaling||Chinese clarinet||Term|
|rgyal po sku lnga||Gyelpo Kunga||The Five Kings||Buddhist deity|
|rgyal tshab dar ma rin chen||Gyeltsap Darma Rinchen||1364-1432 CE||Person|
|rgyal mtshan tshul khrims||Gyeltsen Tsültrim||Person|
|rgyud stod||Gyütö||the Tantric Monastery of Upper Lhasa||Monastery|
|rgyud sde spyi rnam||Gyüdé Chinam||General Presentation of the Tantras||Text|
|rgyud smad||Gyümé||the Tantric Monastery of Lower Lhasa||Monastery|
|sgo mang grwa tshang||Gomang Dratsang||the Gomang Monastic College||Monastery|
|sgo mang bod pa gzhung||Gomang Böpa Zhung||Gomang Staff House||Monastery|
|sgrub mchod||drupchö||nine great ceremonies||Term|
|ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho||Ngawang Lozang Gyatso||1617-1682 CE||Person|
|ngor chen kun dga’ bzang po||Ngorchen Künga Zangpo||1382-1456 CE||Person|
|lnga pa||Ngapa||the Fifth||Person|
|sngags khang||ngakkhang||tantric temple||Term|
|sngags pa grwa tshang||Ngakpa Dratsang||the Tantric Monastic College||Monastery|
|bca’ yig||chayik||monastic constitution||Term|
|bco lnga mchod pa||Chonga Chöpa||the Offerings of the Fifteenth||Ritual|
|lcags po ri||Chakpo Ri||Iron Hill||Place|
|lcog pa byang chub dpal ldan||Chokpa Jangchup Penden||1404-? CE||Person|
|cha har dge bshes blo bzang tshul khrims||Chahar Geshé Lozang Tsültrim||Author|
|cha har dge bshes blo bzang tshul khrims kyi gsung bum||Chahar Geshé Lozang Tsültrimkyi Sungbum||The Collected Works of Chahar Geshé Lozang Tsültrim||Text|
|chos kyi rgyal mtshan||Chökyi Gyeltsen||Person|
|chos skyong srung ma||chökyong sungma||the protectors of the dharma||Term|
|chos sde chen po dpal ldan ’bras spungs bkra shis sgo mang gi chos ’byung chos dung gyas su ’khyil ba’i sgra dbyangs||Chöde Chenpo Penden Drepung Trashi Gomanggi Chönjung Chödung Gyesu Kyilwé Drayang||Text|
|chos rwa||chöra||debating courtyard||Term|
|jo nang kun dga’ grol chog||Jonang Künga Drölchok||1507-1565/1566 CE||Person|
|jo bo rin po che||Jowo Rinpoché||the Jowo Buddha statue||Monument|
|’jam dbyangs dga’ ba’i blo gros||Jamyang Gawé Lodrö||Person|
|’jam dbyangs chos rje||Jamyang Chöjé||1379-1449 CE||Person|
|’jam dbyangs don yod dpal ldan||Jamyang Dönyö Penden||Person|
|’jam dbyangs bzhad pa||Jamyang Zhepa||1648-1721/1722 CE||Person|
|’jam dbyangs legs pa chos ’byor||Jamyang Lekpa Chönjor||1429-1504 CE||Person|
|rje thams cad mkhyen pa tsong kha pa chen po’i rnam thar go sla bar brjod pa bde legs kun kyi byung gnas||Jé Tamché Khyenpa Tsongkhapa Chenpö Namtar Go Lawar Jöpa Delek Künkyi Jungné||Text|
|rje btsun chos kyi rgyal mtshan||Jetsün Chökyi Gyeltsen||1469-1544 CE||Person|
|gnyer tshang sde pa||nyertsang depa||store-manager||Term|
|tā ran ā tha||Taranatha||1575-1634 CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma||Talé Lama||the Dalai Lama||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng lnga pa||Talé Lama Kutreng Ngapa||the Fifth Dalai Lama||1617-1682 CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng bcu bzhi pa||Talé Lama Kutreng Chupzhipa||the Fourteenth Dalai Lama||1935-? CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng bcu gsum pa||Talé Lama Kutreng Chuksumpa||the Thirteenth Dalai Lama||1876-1933 CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng gnyis pa||Talé Lama Kutreng Nyipa||the Second Dalai Lama||1476-1542 CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng dang po||Talé Lama Kutreng Dangpo||the First Dalai Lama||1391-1474 CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng drug pa||Talé Lama Kutreng Drukpa||the Sixth Dalai Lama||1683-1706/1746 CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng bzhi pa||Talé Lama Kutreng Zhipa||the Fourth Dalai Lama||1589-1617 CE||Person|
|tā la’i bla ma sku phreng gsum pa||Talé Lama Kutreng Sumpa||the Third Dalai Lama||1543-1588 CE||Person|
|rtogs ldan ’jam dpal rgya mtsho||Tokden Jampel Gyatso||1356-1428 CE||Person|
|stag tshang lo tswa ba||Taktsang Lotsawa||Person|
|bstan pa bstan ’dzin||Tenpa Tendzin||Author|
|bstan ma||Tenma||Buddhist deity|
|bstan ma||tenma||Tenma deities||Term|
|bstan ma bcu gnyis||Tenma Chunyi||a set of twelve female deities in charge of protecting the Buddhist teaching||Term|
|thu’u bkwan chos kyi nyi ma||Tuken Chökyi Nyima||1737-1802 CE||Person|
|thos bsam gling||Tösamling||Monastery|
|dam can chos rgyal||Damchen Chögyel||the Dharma-king||Buddhist deity|
|dung chen||dungchen||large horn||Term|
|drung grags pa rin chen||Drung Drakpa Rinchen||Person|
|gdan sa||densa||monastic seat||Term|
|gdan sa chen mo||densa chenmo||great monastic seat of learning||Term|
|bde mchog||Demchok||Cakrasaṃvara||Buddhist deity|
|bde yangs grwa tshang||Deyang Dratsang||the Deyang Monastic College||Monastery|
|mdo sngags zung ’brel gyi grwa tshang||dongak züngdrelgyi dratsang||monasteries uniting sūtras and tantras||Term|
|’du khang||dukhang||Assembly Hall||Building|
|’du khang||dukhang||Main Assembly Hall||Building|
|’dul ba||Dülwa||Vinaya [College]||Monastery|
|’dul ba||Dülwa||Discipline||Vinaya||Doxographical Category|
|’dul ba chos ’byung||Dülwa Chönjung||History of the Vinaya||Text|
|rdo rje grags rgyal ma||Dorjé Drak Gyelma||Buddhist deity|
|rdo rje g.yu sgron ma||Dorje Yüdronma||Buddhist deity|
|rdo rje legs pa||Dorjé Lekpa||Buddhist deity|
|sde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho||Desi Sanggyé Gyatso||1653-1705 CE||Person|
|sde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho||Desi Sanggyé Gyatso||Author|
|bsdus grwa||Düdra||the Collected Topics||Doxographical Category|
|nam mkha’ bzang po||Namkha Zangpo||Person|
|gnas chung||Nechung||Buddhist deity|
|rnam thar sgo gsum||namtar gosum||the three doors of liberation||Term|
|padma ’byung gnas||Pema Jungné||Padmasaṃbhava||8th Century-? CE||Person|
|paṇ chen sku phreng bzhi pa||Penchen Kutreng Zhipa||the Fourth Penchen Lama||Person|
|paṇ chen blo bzang chos rgyan||Penchen Lobzang Chögyan||1570-1662 CE||Person|
|paṇ chen bsod nams grags pa||Penchen Sönam Drakpa||1478-1554 CE||Person|
|pe har||Pehar||Buddhist deity|
|po ta la ri||Potala Ri||Potala Hill||Place|
|dpal ldan lha mo||Penden Lhamo||the Great Goddess||Buddhist deity|
|dpal ’byor lhun grub||Penjor Lhündrup||1427-1514 CE||Person|
|dpe cha ba||pechawa||scholar||Term|
|spom ’bor ra||Pomborra||Monastery|
|spyan snga rin po che||Chennga Rinpoché||Person|
|spyan ras gzigs||Chenrezik||Avalokiteśvara||Buddhist deity|
|spyi khang||chikhang||apartment house||Term|
|sprul sku||trülku||reincarnated lama||Term|
|phun tshogs dbang rgyal||Püntsok Wanggyel||Person|
|phur lcog ngag dbang byams pa||Purchok Ngawang Jampa||Author|
|pho lha nas||Polhané||Person|
|pho lha nas bsod nams stobs rgyal||Polhané Sönam Topgyel||1689-1747 CE||Person|
|phyag mdzod||chakdzö||steward monk||Term|
|ba so chos rje||Baso Chöjé||Person|
|be ri rgyal po||Béri Gyelpo||King of Beri||Person|
|bod pa gzhung||Böpa Zhung||Monastery|
|byang chub rgyal mtshan||Jangchup Gyeltsen||1302-1364 CE||Person|
|byang chub dpal ldan||Jangchup Penden||Person|
|byams pa||Jampa||Maitreya||Buddhist deity|
|brag thog khang||Draktokkhang||Place|
|brag yer pa||Drakyerpa||Monastery|
|bla spyi chen mo||Lachi Chenmo||the Large Council||Organization|
|bla brang bkra shis ’khyil||Labrang Tashikhyil||Monastery|
|bla brang phyag mdzod||labrang chakdzö||treasurer||Term|
|bla ma 'jam dkar||Lama Jamkar||Person|
|bla ma gzhung len pa||lama zhung lenpa||the director of the studies||Term|
|blo bzang chos rgyan||Lobzang Chögyan||Person|
|blo bzang nyi ma||Lozang Nyima||1438-1492 CE||Person|
|blo gsal gling||Loselling||Monastery|
|blo gsal gling grwa tshang||Loselling Dratsang||the Loselling Monastic College||Monastery|
|dbu mdzad||umdzé||the chant leader||Term|
|dbyar gnas||Yarné||Rainy Season Retreat||Name|
|’bras spung khri||Drepung Tri||the Throne of Drepung||Term|
|’bras spung spyi gso||Drepung chiso||the Drepung authorities||Term|
|’bras spungs khri||Drepung Tri||the Throne of Drepung||Monastery|
|’bras spungs khri pa||Drepung Tripa||the Throne-Holder of Drepung||Person|
|’bras spungs khri pa brgyad pa||Drepung Tripa Gyepa||the Eighth Throne-Holder of Drepung||Person|
|’bras spungs khri pa lnga pa||Drepung Tripa Ngapa||the Fifth Throne-Holder of Drepung||Person|
|’bras spungs khri pa bdun pa||Drepung Tripa Dünpa||the Seventh Throne-Holder of Drepung||Person|
|’bras spungs chos ’byung||Drepung Chönjung||Text|
|’brug pa bka’ brgyud||Drukpa Kagyü||Organization|
|sbyin sreg||jinsek||fire offering||Term|
|ma las bu dga’ ba ’ong||malé bu gawa ong||one comes to prefer the son to the mother||Term|
|mar chen pom ra||Marchen Pomra||Place|
|mar pa||Marpa||1002/1012-1097 CE||Person|
|mi bskyod rdo rje||Mikyö Dorjé||1507-1554 CE||Person|
|mi bskyod pa||Mikyöpa||Akṣobhya||Buddhist deity|
|mi ’gro gsung byon||Midro Sungjön||The Not Going Speaking One||Buddhist deity|
|mi tshan||mitsen||affiliated house||Term|
|mud sras pa||Müsepa||Person|
|mud sras pa blo gros rin chen seng ge||Müsepa Lodrö Rinchen Senggé||15th Century-? CE||Person|
|dmag bzlog||Makdok||ritual to repel the armies||Ritual|
|dmangs gtso bdag nyer u yon lhan khang||Mangtso Daknyer Uyön Lhenkhang||Democratic Management Committee||Organization|
|dmangs gtso bdag nyer u yon lhan khang||Mangtso Daknyer Uyön Lhenkhang||DMC||Organization|
|sman bla||Menla||the Medicine Buddha||Buddhist deity|
|smon lam chen mo||Mönlam Chenmo||the Great Prayer Festival||Festival|
|smon lam dpal ba||Mönlam Pelwa||1414-1491 CE||Person|
|tsong kha pa||Tsongkhapa||1357-1419 CE||Person|
|rtsam pa||tsampa||roasted barley flour||Term|
|rtse nyag pa||Tsenyakpa||15th Century-? CE||Person|
|rtse gung thang||Tsé Gungtang||Monastery|
|tshe dpag med||Tsepakmé||Amitāyur||Buddhist deity|
|tshogs chen||Tsokchen||Great Assembly Hall||Building|
|tshogs chen dbu mdzad||tsokchen umdzé||the chanting master of the Great Assembly Hall||Person|
|tshogs chen shal ngo||tsokchen shelngo||head disciplinarian||Term|
|mtshan nyid grwa tshang||tsennyi dratsang||philosophical monastic college||Term|
|mtsho sngon po||Tso Ngönpo||the Blue Lake||Place|
|’dzam gling spyi bsang||Dzamling Chisang||the Summer Festival of Smoke Offerings||Festival|
|gzhan stong||zhentong||extrinsic emptiness||Term|
|gzhis sdod pa||zhidöpa||administrator in charge of the estates||Term|
|gzims khang gong ma||Zimkhang Gongma||the Upper Chamber||Monastery|
|yangs ba chen||Yangbachen||Place|
|yi dam||yidam||tutelary deity||Term|
|yig cha||yikcha||scholastic manual||Term|
|yu mo mi bskyod rdo rje||Yumo Mikyö Dorjé||Person|
|yon tan rgya mtsho||Yonten Gyatso||1589-1617 CE||Person|
|rang byung rdo rje||Rangjung Dorjé||1284-1339 CE||Person|
|rab ’byams||Rapjam||Great Scholar||Term|
|rwa lo tsa ba||Ra Lotsawa||1016-1198 CE||Person|
|lan hwa thi||Lenhati||Monastery|
|lam rim||Lamrim||the Stages of the Path||Doxographical Category|
|las chen kun dga’ rgyal tshan||Lechen Künga Gyeltsen||Author|
|legs pa chos ’byor||Lekpa Chönjor||Person|
|shākya mchog ldan||Shakya Chokden||1428-1509 CE||Person|
|shag gi dge rgan||shakgi gegen||room teacher||Term|
|shag tshang chen mo||shaktsang chenmo||large household||Term|
|shes rab seng ge||Sherap Senggé||1383-1445 CE||Person|
|sangs rgyas rgya mtsho||Sanggyé Gyatso||1653-1705 CE||Person|
|sum pa ye shes dpal ’byor||Sumpa Yeshé Penjor||1704-1788 CE||Person|
|se ra khri||Sera Tri||the Sera Throne||Term|
|se ra byes||Sera Jé||Monastery|
|seng gdong ma||Sengdongma||Lion-Faced Goddess||Buddhist deity|
|srung ma dmar nag gnyis||sungma marnak nyi||the red and black protectors||Term|
|srong btsan sgam po||Songtsen Gampo||604-650 CE||Person|
|gsang phu gling smad||Sangpuling Mé||Lower College of Sangpu||Monastery|
|gsang phu gling smad kyi chos rje||Sangpu Lingmekyi Chöjé||Lord of the Dharma of the Lower Monastery of Sangpu||Person|
|gsang ba ’dus pa||Sangwa Düpa||Guhyasamāja||Buddhist deity|
|bsam blo khang tshan||Samlo Khangtsen||Samlo Regional House||Monastery|
|bsod nams grags pa||Sönam Drakpa||Person|
|bsod nams rgya mtsho||Sönam Gyatso||1543-1588 CE||Person|
|bsod nams rab brtan||Sönam Rapten||1595-1658 CE||Person|