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Athena Review Vol.1, no.4

Buddhist Monasteries in Tibet

The Tibetan origin myth, first arising among pre-Buddhist, Bön cultures in the Yarlung Valley, features the marriage of a monkey and a demoness named Sinmo, from whose six children evolved the main tribes of Tibet. Later adapted by Buddhism, the monkey became the Bodhissatva of compassion.

A sparsely settled country of several million people in an area of nearly 500,000 sq miles, most of the population is concentrated in southern Tibet, living as farmers and herders in valleys of the Salween and Brahmaputra Rivers (fig.1). The political history of Tibet remains buried in legend prior to the introduction of writing in the 7th century AD. By about AD 600, Yarlung forces led by their 32nd king, Namri Songtsen (AD 570-619) had overcome Qiang tribes and unified much of Tibet. This set the stage for further expansion under his son, Songtsen Gampo (AD 618-649). Both legend and history agree that it was through two Buddhist brides of Songtsen Gampo (one Chinese, the other Nepalese) that Buddhism was permanently introduced to Tibet. A century later, by the time of King Trisong Detsen who founded the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet at Samye, Buddhism was firmly implanted.

[Fig.1: Map of Tibet showing provinces, major rivers, and Buddhist monasteries.]

The vast majority of people speak Tibetan, in the Tibeto-Burman subgroup of the Sino-Tibetan language family and more closely related to Burmese than Chinese. During Songtsen Gampo's reign, writing had been introduced into Tibet based on Sanskrit texts from India, Kashmir and Nepal. All available Buddhist literature in India and Tibet was translated into Tibetan by the 14th century, including both the main Buddhist canon (the Tripitaka, meaning "three baskets": discipline [dulva], sermons [do], and metaphysics [chos-nonpa]); and some Sanskrit texts now known only in Tibetan translations.

Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism evolved from the late 6th century AD Mahayana Buddhism brought into Tibet by missionaries from India. Lamaism incorporated ritual practices of the mystical sect known as Tantric Buddhism, which showed affinities with shamanistic features of Bön (somewhat analogous to the relation of Buddhism to Taoism in China). In AD 1040 a reform movement was initiated by the arrival of Atisa (AD 982-1054) a great Buddhist scholar from Bengal, India, invited by the king of Guge in western Tibet. Over the next centuries, a number of sects emerged. Since the 17th century, the predominant sect has been the Gelugpa, commonly known as the Yellow Hats, which includes the order of the Dalai Lama, political and spiritual ruler of Tibet, and the Panchen Lama, a main spiritual authority. When the Dalai or Panchen Lama dies, his spirit is thought to enter the body of a baby boy. Monks search the country for a boy born about the same time as the lama's death, who must pass several tests before being declared the successor. Religious rites and festivals central to the yearly round of life include pilgrimages to sites of important temples at Shigatse or Lhasa. On a daily basis, Tibetans recite prayers and use prayer wheels

[Fig.2: Tibetan prayer wheel, with Tibetan writing.].

Since the 1951 Chinese takeover, Lhasa's Chinese population has grown rapidly, and now dominates the once secluded Tibetan capital. Many religious institutions were destroyed during the "Cultural Revolution" of the 1960s and `70s. In the 1980's, some monasteries were allowed to re-open and recruit new monks. Today, however, Tibet has far fewer monasteries, which nevertheless remain centers of education, art, and public worship.

A Short List of Tibetan Monasteries

Samye, the oldest monastery in Tibet, was founded between AD 765-780, during the reign of King Trisong Detsen. Here occurred a debate in the 790's between a more traditional approach of enlightenment through scholarship, and a radical doctrine of Zen Buddhism favoring simple contemplation.  Samye is now a popular tourist destination. Its architecture, copied from Odantapuri temple in Bihur, India, is based on a mandalic symbol of the universe. The central temple represents a mountain, and those around it are oceans and continents.

Lhasa: Seated in a fertile plain along the Lhasa River, a Brahmaputra tributary, and until recently isolated by the Himalayas from outsiders, Lhasa ("God's place") is the religious, commercial, and political center of Tibet. In the heart of Lhasa is the Jokhang, built between AD 637-647 by King Songtsen Gampo as a shrine to store an image of the Buddha, the dowry of his wife Princess Bhrikuti. This Buddha image still stands inside. Also in Lhasa are the Norbulingka, summer palace of the Dalai Lama, while several monasteries, Sera, Dreprung, and Nechung, lie just outside the city (fig.3).  Lhasa's most famous shrine is the Potala palace, built by Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (1617-1682). This thousand-room structure ( featured in the recent movie Seven Years in Tibet, based on the book by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer), was built on an ancient fort on a ridge overlooking the northern part of the city. After 1642 it served as the home of the Dalai Lama. In 1959, eight years after the Chinese takeover, the 14th Dalai Lama fled to northern India. where he still resides. The Potala has since been converted by the Chinese into a museum.

[Fig.3: Map of Buddhist monasteries in Lhasa.]

Reting, situated in the Rong Chu Valley of Central Tibet, was founded in AD 1056. The monastery was initially associated with the Indian scholar Atisha, a watershed figure in the revival of Buddhism in Tibet, and later had important ties to the Dalai Lamas and the Gelugpa Order. It contained a main assembly hall with murals of venerable lamas and Tantric gods, and a much revered gold statue of Guhyasumaja, usually defined as the personal Tantric deity of Atisha. Destroyed after the Communist takeover, the monastery is now slowly being rebuilt.

Dung-kar is located in the valley of Tro-mo just north of Yatung Monastery. Of fairly recent date, its monks are of the Gelugpa Order. The 3rd Grand Lama of the Gelugpa sect converted Mongol chief Altan Khan to the Tibetan version of Buddhism, and in 1578 obtained from him the name Dalai or "the Ocean" which implied wisdom.  The monastery consists of a large courtyard surrounded by wooden buildings. There is also a temple with frescoes of the Four Kings of the Directions of Space (gyal-chen de-shi) and Two Protectors, Vajrapani (Chana-dorje) and Hayagriva (Tamdrin).

Sakya, located at an altitude of 4280 meters in the province of Tsang, contains two monasteries on the north and south sides of the Trum River. The northern site, whose name means "tawny soil," was founded in 1073 by Kön Könchag Gyelpo. By the 13th century it was a center of learning. In AD 1270, the abbot received special favors from the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (Marco Polo's contemporary) who adopted Lamaism after investigating different religions. Very little remains of the northern monastery, which once housed about 3,000 monks in over 100 buildings. Visitors can still see a white stupa reconstruction honoring the remains of Kunga Nyingpo, founder of the Sakyapa Order. The southern monastery, first built in 1268, is a defensive structure which retains immense, thick walls. An entrance in the east wall leads to a central courtyard and the huge main assembly hall. Within, among massive pillars, are statues and reliquaries of Sakyapa abbots, along with a library for Buddhist texts.

[Fig.4: a Tibetan k'an-po or abbot, head of a monastery.]

Ganden, established in 1417 by Tsong-kapa (AD 1357-1419), founder of the Gelupga sect, became the first and main Gelugpa monastery. Situated only 40 km east of Lhasa on a ridge overlooking the Kyi Chu valley, it was totally destroyed by the Red Guards in 1966. Currently undergoing restoration, among its most impressive buildings is the Golden Tomb of Tsong-kapa, a fortress- like structure containing a silver and gold chörten, or reliquary, with fragments of Tsong-kapa's remains. Other buildings include the Golden Throne Room, the residence of the Ganden tripa (abbot), and the small temple known as the Nagam Chö Khang.

Dreprung, only three miles west of Lhasa, was founded in AD 1416 by a monk called Jamyang Chöje, a disciple of Tsong-kapa. Named after the Indian monastery of "The Rice Heap" in Kalinga, it is one of the most powerful of all monasteries and was formerly one of the most populous religious centers. Many of its buildings remained relatively unscathed during the turmoils of the Chinese cultural revolution, and much of interest can be seen today.

Sera, meaning "the merciful hail," was founded in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe, one of the disciples of Tsong-Kapa. Sera is a neighbor to the Dreprung Monastery with whom it often feuded. Until the Chinese invasion of 1959, Sera maintained five colleges of instruction but today only three remain. Of particular note is the debating courtyard which is still active on a daily basis.

Nechung, which is only a short walk from Dreprung, now houses a small number of monks. Up until 1949 it was the seat of the State Oracle or medium, consulted by the former government before any important decisions were taken. The Oracle fled with the Dalai Lama in 1959. The monastery's chapel contains images of Pehar, sometimes portrayed as a demon-king and identified as the protective spirit manifested in the State Oracle.

Tashilhunpo, meaning "the mass of glory," was founded in 1447 at Shigatse by a disciple of Tsong-kapa (1357-1419). Associated with the Gelugpa Order, it is one of the largest functioning monasteries in Tibet today, and one of the few not damaged during the Cultural Revolution. The monastery includes dozens of chapels, shrines with Buddhist images, and a 15th century assembly hall containing the throne of the Panchen Lama.

[Fig.5: a tomb in the monastery at Tashilhunpo.]

Between 1642-59 the Abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery received from the Fifth Dalaia Lama the title of Panchen Lama or great scholar. The monastery has remained the main headquarters of the Panchen Lama. During the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Chinese backed the Panchen Lama against the Dalai Lama, a political maneuver recently repeated.

Kumbum is located on the far northeast side of Tibet in Amdo province. Prior to his exile in India, Thubten Jigme Norbu, elder brother of the Dalai Lama, was Abbot of the Kumbum Monastery. 19th century conditions in Kumbum and several other monasteries were described by Évariste Huc (1813-1860) ordained a priest in 1839 and sent in the same year as a Lazarist missionary to China. During his travels he penetrated Mongolia and Tibet as far as Lhasa. The last Europeans to enter Tibet for a number of years, Huc and his companion Gabet established a mission but were eventually expelled and the borders of Tibet closed. Huc wrote a valuable account in 1852 of his experiences, entitled Souvenirs of a Journey to Tartary, Thibet, and China.

Recent Political History: Communists gained control of China's government in 1949 and in 1950, Chinese forces entered Tibet. In 1951, Tibet surrendered its sovereignty to the Chinese government but kept its right to regional self-government and freedom of religious belief. In 1956, Tibet was promised status as an autonomous (self-governing) region. At the same time, however, China began tightening its control of Tibet. The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, establishing a government in exile which still exists.

[Upcoming issues of Athena Review will present more details on the history and culture of Tibet.]

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