Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text

Bla brang Monastery and Wutai Shan

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5718, pp. 327-348.

© 2011 by Paul K. Nietupski, IATS, and THL

[page 327]

Abstract: This essay explores the connections between LabrangBla brang Monastery and Wutai Shan. It shows that in addition to seeking the benefits of Wutai Shan’s religious qualities, the LabrangBla brang Tibetans sought to establish a presence on Wutai and, through Wutai, with Beijing. The LabrangBla brang Tibetans active on Wutai Shan were most often high level, LhasaLha sa educated scholars, monastic officials, and wealthy estate owners. Given the type of political structures in Tibetan areas, in the Qing court, and in Mongol communities, these bla mas were able to exercise considerable political power. They served both as religious experts and diplomats at Wutai Shan and by extension in Beijing and Ulan Bator. The essay includes descriptions of the LabrangBla brang bla mas’ religious activities and political connections, and argues that Qing dynasty, Tibetan, and Mongol politics were often a matter of formal recognition and polite diplomacy, frequently accompanied by religious language and rituals.


Tibetan nomadic and semi-nomadic societies were always dominant in the greater LabrangBla brang Monastery community (founded 1709), but through history relations with the Mongols, Manchus, Chinese and others shaped events crucial to this AmdoA mdo Tibetan community. The KhoshudQošud Mongols in particular, though deferential to and in many respects assimilated into LabrangBla brang’s Tibetan culture, maintained a lasting presence at LabrangBla brang. As the LabrangBla brang Tibetans built, maintained, and strengthened their community and identity, they sought to interact with places outside of AmdoA mdo, in Mongolia, in China at Beijing, and notably at Wutai Shan. At Wutai Shan along with the many Chinese establishments, the LabrangBla brang lamabla mas occupied ostensibly religious outposts largely populated by ethnic Tibetans, Mongols, and to a lesser extent Manchus, and Chinese educated in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The result was that Wutai Shan functioned as a major site for Buddhist pilgrimage and arguably in the case of the LabrangBla brang Tibetans as a forum for diplomacy.

[page 328]

In his essay in this volume Johan Elverskog makes a strong case for Wutai Shan as a site of Qing cosmopolitan culture, where all ethnic groups assumed a “pan-Qing” identity.1 Elverskog is careful to add that this pan-Qing identity or cosmopolitan culture did not entirely preclude pre-existing ethnic concepts or, one might add, political priorities. For the elite LabrangBla brang Tibetans this meant participation in a foreign culture but with the status of recognized, respected, and well-endowed experts. Natalie Köhle moreover points out that such participation and recognition was not without precedent in previous dynasties, of which the LabrangBla brang Tibetans were surely aware; there was continuity with previous dynasties on the part of the Qing, and likewise continuity with previous Tibetan lamabla mas and support groups on the part of the Tibetans.2 AmdoA mdo Tibetans had a long history of interaction with and support from different Chinese regimes, and at LabrangBla brang’s founding in 1709 several regional Tibetan Buddhists already had close ties to the Manchus. Good examples of lamabla mas who had close relationships with the Qing court and its emerging cosmopolitan imperial identity, and with LabrangBla brang are Rölpé DorjéRol pa’i rdo rje (1717-1786), Sumpa KhenpoSum pa mkhan po (1704-1788), and Tukwan Lozang Chökyi NyimaThu’u bkwan blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma (1737-1802; Tuken Lozang Chökyi Nyima in Standard Tibetan pronunciation).3 This essay will work to identify the extent of political motives in the recognition of pan-Qing identity among the LabrangBla brang Tibetans, the effect of Qing cosmopolitanism on the Tibetans, and the extent to which the LabrangBla brang Tibetans could, as Elverskog puts it, see, act, and think beyond the local. Put simply, to what extent were the LabrangBla brang Tibetans engaged in political networking at Wutai Shan, even if a byproduct of religious activities, and how successful were they?

To begin with, as in their home environments, the LabrangBla brang Tibetan presence at Wutai Shan and in Beijing can be understood as both religious and political, and their very presence an indication of translocal activity. They did appear to retain their ethnic and religious heritage while at Wutai. However, while the LabrangBla brang Tibetans were successful in establishing religious institutions and political contacts at Wutai and in Beijing, outside of honorary titles, letters, and gifts, there was no significant reciprocal elite Manchu or Chinese presence at LabrangBla brang. This, and detailed investigation of LabrangBla brang’s history indicate that the often mentioned “rule of the Manchu conquest regime” is problematic. Qing-sponsored cosmopolitanism [page 329] may have flourished as these chapters show, and the Qing did have military strength, but a cosmopolitan period in history and intermittent and short lived military expeditions are rather different from rule by conquest.

Many prominent AmdoA mdo lamabla mas were active at Wutai Shan; this was a powerful network of like minded individuals. The context was different at Wutai in that there was no Tibetan-style mass monasticism, as Charleux notes. The LabrangBla brang lamabla mas, both Tibetan and Mongol at Wutai were elite, highly educated monks, in contrast to the Mongols at Wutai Shan, who included persons from all social strata, and in contrast to the default local Chinese culture, again as explained by Isabelle Charleux, Johan Elverskog, and Gray Tuttle. Many of the LabrangBla brang lamabla mas active at Wutai Shan knew each other and had lifelong relationships as teachers and disciples. With few exceptions (for example, Detri Jamyang Tupten NyimaSde khri ’jam dbyangs thub bstan nyi ma [1779-1862])4 all were educated at GomangSgo mang College, Drepung’Bras spung Monastery, in LhasaLha sa. All were proficient in GelukpaDge lugs pa and Tibetan Buddhist theories, philosophies, rituals and meditations, proficiency which was subsequently taught, learned, and institutionalized in AmdoA mdo. They exchanged scholarly information, performed rituals together, and cultivated lifelong relationships, as Kurtis Schaeffer shows.5 These close relationships do not preclude Qing cosmopolitanism, and even a vision of inclusion in the Qing Empire, but their presence at Wutai does not necessarily signal Qing rule by conquest, either. Rather, it may well be that the Qing’s military restraint in AmdoA mdo was in part a successful result of the network of LabrangBla brang lamabla mas’ consistent diplomacy at Wutai Shan.

These mostly LhasaLha sa-educated LabrangBla brang Tibetan Buddhist authorities were also the political leaders of LabrangBla brang, elsewhere in AmdoA mdo, and in some cases in LhasaLha sa. While there were clearly religious motives for the LabrangBla brang Tibetans to visit Wutai Shan, attested in Tibetan sources by the detailed descriptions of visions of bodhisattvas, of historical teachers, and of intricate maṇḍala palaces, deities, and tantric initiations, the LabrangBla brang leaders also sought to variously ally themselves with and assert themselves against their powerful neighbors, in later years for example, against the Xining Muslims. In the case of the LabrangBla brang Tibetans these political alliances can, when considering the extensive data in Tuttle’s6 and Köhle’s7 [page 330] essays, perhaps be signaled in Chinese sources by their frequent religious prayers for the longevity of the emperors and the state. This paper shows that the LabrangBla brang Tibetans participated in Qing cosmopolitan culture at Wutai Shan, and yet this did not preclude their maintaining their cultural and religious heritage, and a political agenda.8 Wutai Shan was where the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañjuśrī, was fully accessible to Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, and Chinese. It served as a meeting point, a religious and social-political contact point, a tīrtha, for all four groups.

[1] Johan Elverskog, “Wutai Shan, Qing Cosmopolitanism, and the Mongols,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011), http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5715.
[2] See Natalie Köhle, “Why Did the Kangxi Emperor Go to Wutai Shan?: Patronage, Pilgrimage, and the Place of Tibetan Buddhism at the Early Qing Court,” Late Imperial China 29, no. 1 (2008): 73-119.
[3] In her essay in this volume Isabelle Charleux documents the relative sizes of the ethnic communities (Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 [December 2011], http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712). Several of the essays in this volume note the importance of Tibetans and the sponsorship they enjoyed at Wutai Shan. Patricia Berger shows that the Manchus promoted their vision of Tibetan lamabla mas both as religious leaders and as Chinese gentlemen; in a later era Elliot Sperling describes the self-assured attitude and political strategies of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama while at Wutai. Natalie Köhle, Gray Tuttle, Isabelle Charleux, and others show the importance of the Wutai Shan Tibetans from different perspectives.
[4] One of the key LabrangBla brang lamabla mas was the Third Detri Jamyang Tupten NyimaSde khri ’jam dbyangs thub bstan nyi ma (a close associate of Pelmang Könchok GyentsenDbal mang dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, 1764-1853), see Chari Kelzang TokméCha ris skal bzang thogs med (b. 1962), Chödé Chenpo Shitsang Gönsargyi Denrap KarchakChos sde chen po shis tshang dgon gsar gyi gdan rabs dkar chag [An Index to the Lineage of the Great Monastery of New Shitsang] (Lanzhou: Gansu People’s Publishing House, 1995), 112; see Gungtang Tenpé DrönméGung thang bstan pa’i sgron me, Pelden Rikpa Dzinpé Khorlö Gyurwa Chenpo Detri Rinpoché Lozang Döndruppé Zhelnga Nekyi Nambar Tarpa Sangchen Chökyi Zhukpé RölmoDpal ldan rig pa ’dzin pa’i ’khor los bsgyur ba chen po sde khri rin po che blo bzang don grub pa’i zhal snga nas kyi rnam bar thar pa gsang chen chos kyis bzhugs pa’i rol mo [A Song of the Establishment of the Secret Dharma, An Oral Biography of the Glorious and Wise Wheel Turning Detri Rinpoché Lozang Döndrup], vol. ca, Gungtang SungbumGung thang gsung ’bum [The Collected works of Gungtang] (Labrang Monastery, n.d.), 3b.4.
[5] Kurtis R. Schaeffer, “Tibetan Poetry on Wutai Shan,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011), http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5719.
[6] Gray Tuttle, “Tibetan Buddhism at Wutai Shan in the Qing: The Chinese-language Register,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 [December 2011], http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5721.
[7] Köhle, “Why Did the Kangxi Emperor Go to Wutai Shan?.”
[8] Compare for example the significant influence of Qing cosmopolitanism in Mongol culture, their acknowledgement of membership in, fighting, and dying for “Our Great Qing,” the Qing-brokered Chinese impact on Mongol literature, their recognition of the Chinese Buddhist canon, Chinese historiography, visual culture, and literature, all documented in Elverskog’s essay in this volume and yet not as extensive in LabrangBla brang’s Tibetan culture.

Note Citation for Page

Paul K. Nietupski, “Bla brang Monastery and Wutai Shan,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5718 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Paul K. Nietupski, “Bla brang Monastery and Wutai Shan,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 327-348, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5718 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Nietupski, Paul K. “Bla brang Monastery and Wutai Shan.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 327-348. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5718 (accessed ).