Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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An Introduction to Drepung’s Colleges
by Georges Dreyfus
April 2, 2006
Section 4 of 5

The Tantric Monastic College (Ngakpa Dratsangsngags pa grwa tshang)

The Tantric Monastic College is the only tantric institution at Drepung’Bras spungs. It is also the smallest among the four colleges, a function of the goal of Drepung’Bras spungs as a scholastic center focused on the study great exoteric texts of the Indian Buddhist tradition. This scholastic focus has differentiated Drepung’Bras spungs from its sister institution GandenDga’ ldan, which was founded by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa as a monastery that combined the study and practice of both exoteric and esoteric aspects of the tradition. Hence, GandenDga’ ldan and its two colleges have been described as monasteries uniting sūtras and tantras (dongak züngdrelgyi dratsangmdo sngags zung ’brel gyi grwa tshang), a description that does not apply to the main colleges of Drepung’Bras spungs, which continue to follow the tradition started by the monastery’s founder.

Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s view was that monks should train for a prolonged time in the purely exoteric tradition before entering the secret tantric domain reserved to elite practitioners. Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje himself showed the example, focusing on the exoteric aspects of the tradition in his writings and teachings. He refused his students’ repeated entreaties to write or teach about tantras, arguing that such a task was for people much braver than himself (a likely pique at his great rival KhedrupMkhas grub whose tantric writings were quite extensive). In accordance with their founder’s wish, most monks at Drepung’Bras spungs entered tantric practice only after achieving proficiency in the exoteric tradition. In the first years of their careers, young monks were not allowed to take tantric empowerments or even to keep tantric ritual texts in their rooms, a privilege reserved to monks who had reached seniority in the scholastic curriculum. The scholastic focus of Drepung’Bras spungs did not necessarily imply that all the monks from these colleges, or even a majority of them, engaged in exoteric studies, for the monastic population was rather heteroclite. Most monks considered that joining the monastery and engaging in the appropriate rituals was meritorious enough. There was no need to bother with long and arduous studies. Still, the colleges themselves were devoted to the study of the exoteric curriculum. Hence, they were described as philosophical monastic colleges, in opposition to the Tantric Monastic College.

The foundation of the Tantric Monastic College goes back to the creation of Drepung’Bras spungs in 1416. With the support of the powerful NedongNe’u dong family, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje conceived of his monastery as a fairly large project that included a tantric temple (ngakkhangsngags khang). Hence, contrary to the other colleges, which were created later, the Tantric Monastic College was part of the original plan, though it may at first not have been conceived as a separate college. The tantric temple was built above the Main Assembly Hall, a site where a temple is said to have already existed. This original temple is at times described as a red house, perhaps a sign that it might have been devoted to the tantric deity Yamāntaka. In some parts of the temple the Tantric Monastic College one can still see double walls, perhaps a sign that the walls of an earlier building were included in a later construction.

Because the tantric temple was part of the original plan of the monastery, its precise starting point is hard to pin down. Desi Sanggyé GyatsoSde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho, our main source for the early history of Drepung’Bras spungs, provides a list of twenty-one abbots up to the year 1680 starting with Gyeltsen TsültrimRgyal mtshan tshul khrims. Other sources, however, present Mönlam PelwaSmon lam dpal ba (1414-1491 CE), Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s direct disciple, as the founder of the college. It is not sure where this difference comes from and what is its significance, but it may be that Mönlam PelwaSmon lam dpal ba was the first leader of a not yet officially formed Tantric Monastic College and Gyeltsen TsültrimRgyal mtshan tshul khrims its first official abbot.

Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s original plan was to create a large institution where monks would study and practice the esoteric tradition only after completing their scholastic studies and receiving their spiritual teacher degrees. But this plan did not quite work as its author intended, for in 1433 Sherap SenggéShes rab seng ge (1383-1445 CE) founded the Tantric Monastery of Lower Lhasa, followed shortly after by the Tantric Monastery of Upper Lhasa. In short order these two monasteries became quite prestigious and attracted the scholars from Drepung’Bras spungs, who ceased to attend the Tantric Monastic College at Drepung’Bras spungs. As a result, the Tantric Monastic College became quite small, a fact that seems to have create repeated problems throughout its history. In 1953, for example, its population fell to a dangerously low level. The Drepung authorities decided to increase the population of the college by conscripting from neighbor districts a hundred monks. With this infusion of new blood, the college reached the level of 325 monks, which was small by Drepung’Bras spungs’s standards but allowed the college to maintain the full range of its activities. Because of its size, the college never adopted the regional house system of the larger two colleges, but placed its monks in their various regional houses. Monks from the Tantric Monastic College seem to have been free to select their house, but they tended to choose one of the three great regional houses at Drepung’Bras spungs, SamloBsam blo, HardongHar gdong and TsaTsha.

Although the Tantric Monastic College did not quite fulfill its original mission, it played an important role in the religious life of Drepung’Bras spungs. For traditional Tibetans, receiving the protection and the blessing of deities was considered vital. This was also true of monasteries, which needed to propitiate the protectors of the dharma (chökyong sungmachos skyong srung ma) and invoke the tantric deities. At Drepung’Bras spungs, these tasks were entrusted to the Tantric Monastic College, which practiced the often very elaborate rituals of the complex tantric cycles that were practiced throughout the year. Like for the other colleges, the year at the Tantric Monastic College was divided between sessions (chötokchos thog) and breaks (chötsamchos mtshams), but instead of studying exoteric texts, the sessions of the Tantric Monastic College monks were devoted to the practice of the great tantric deities. In a year, the college went through nine great ceremonies (drupchösgrub mchod) focusing on a particular tantric cycle: Sangwa DüpaGsang ba ’dus pa, DemchokBde mchog, the Thirteen Deities of Vajrabhairava, the Nine Deities of MikyöpaMi bskyod pa, Mahākaruṇika, the Five Deities of Heruka, the Medicine Buddha (Menlasman bla), the Nine Deities of TsepakméTshe dpag med and Vairocana. For each of these nine ceremonies, the monks created a powdered maṇḍala and practiced the complete tantric cycle before doing an extensive concluding fire offering (jinseksbyin sreg).

During the times in the sessions when they were not engaged in such practice, the Tantric Monastic College’s monks attended their own debating courtyard three times a day. There, they debated on tantric topics, engaged in various smaller rituals and recited the twelve chapters of the root tantra of Sangwa DüpaGsang ba ’dus pa, the central tantric text in the GelukDge lugs tradition.

Among the tantric cycles practiced by the college, the most important was the one consecrated to Vajrabhairava. Every year, the college practiced the full cycle of the deity. It also made sure that two monks would undergo a three-month retreat of the deity during hundreds of thousands of its mantras were recited. The practice of this deity has always been valued in the GelukDge lugs tradition. Its fierce nature has been considered appropriate to the nature of the present, which is seen as particularly degenerated. But this deity has also a closer connection to Drepung’Bras spungs. It was Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s tutelary deity (yidamyi dam) and prior to the establishment of the monastery, the site is said to have had a temple devoted to its practice (the red house mentioned above). Hence, it comes as no surprise that Vajrabhairava was chosen as the tutelary deity of the college, despite the fact that Sangwa DüpaGsang ba ’dus pa is the more important tantra in the GelukDge lugs tradition. A particularly important statue was made for the college in which many sacred relics were placed. Particularly significant were the remains of the translator Ra LotsawaRwa lo tsa ba (1016-1198 CE), who played a central role in the lineage of the practice of this deity. The statue was said to have had RaRwa’s complete remains, except for one finger, which had been lost. Hence, this statue was considered particularly valuable, an embodiment of the practice of this deity. It was one of the most sacred objects at Drepung’Bras spungs, second only to TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s conch. But unfortunately a fire destroyed this statue in the later years of the nineteenth century. Its ashes were carefully collected and placed within a new statue, whose value is said to equal that of the old one. Hence, Vajrabhairava’s statue is still considered as one the most sacred objects of the monastery. It is one of the main objects for the pilgrims who come to Drepung’Bras spungs.

Besides these already onerous ritual duties, the Tantric Monastic College paid special attention to the propitiation of dharma protectors, particularly those connected to the GelukDge lugs tradition. Its main guardian deity was the Dharma-king (Damchen ChögyelDam can chos rgyal), the supra-mundane deity bound to an oath by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa himself. But the college also propitiated the other protectors connected to GelukDge lugs tradition. The practice of this tradition is set up according to the model of the three scopes of the Stages of the Path (Lamrimlam rim) literature, and each of these scopes is connected to a particular protector: Six-armed Mahākāla (Gönpo ChakdrukMgon po phyag drug) for the person of great scope, Vaiśravaṇa for the person of middling scope, and the Dharma-king for the person of small scope. TheTantric Monastic College focused its practice on these protectors of the three scopes (kyebu sumgyi sungmaskyes bu gsum gyi srung ma), though it also included other protectors such as the Great Goddess or NechungGnas chung.

Like for the other institutions at Drepung’Bras spungs, the direction of the Tantric Monastic College was in the hands of a complex hierarchy that divided the tasks and maintained a balance of power. The college’s main officials were the abbot, the disciplinarian, the chant leader, and two overseers (parenvalja chab). Together, these five officials (dratsanggi lené ngagrwa tshang gi las sne lnga) formed the highest authority at the college. The abbot was in charge of the religious aspects of the monastic life, particularly that of leading the nine great tantric practices performed by the college every year. The chant leader would lead the monastic assembly in its rituals, either during the tantric rituals held in the college’s temple or in the debating courtyard, whereas the disciplinarian was in charge of maintaining the discipline, making sure that its customs were respected and its usages maintained. The two overseers made sure that the timetable was respected, alerting the abbot and the disciplinarian of particular tasks and in general overseeing the lower echelons of the hierarchy. Below them, four stewards, a treasurer (ngülnyerdngul gnyer), and three administrators in charge of the estates (zhidöpagzhis sdod pa) administrated the finances of the college, particularly the college’s estates.

The running of a tantric college also involved other tasks such as ceremonial recitations, the making of intricate offerings and the playing of musical instruments. Since the college was conceived as a place for the study of the tantras, it was important to maintain the study of the major tantric texts. This was done by senior monks (drelrimpagral rim pa) who would recite every year the important tantric texts, particularly those concerning the practice of Vajrabhairava and the commentary of the Sangwa DüpaGsang ba ’dus pa, the central tantra in the GelukDge lugs tradition.

The making of offerings was another important task at the Tantric Monastic College, particularly during the nine great ceremonies of the yearly ritual cycle and Mon lam chen mo held during the month of the Tibetan calendar. Since Drepung’Bras spungs was in charge of this ritual, which was the most important one in the religious life of Central Tibet, the monastery had to oversee the ceremony in all of its aspects. The Tantric Monastic College was in charge of performing the appropriate rituals for the protectors which were held in a closed chapel, since the festival did not involve any official tantric element. The college was also in charge of making the offerings used during the festival. These offerings, which were called the Offerings of the Fifteenth (Chonga ChöpaBco lnga mchod pa), were made of butter especially for the festival and were displayed on the fifteenth of the month, the festival’s climax. The ritual life of the college also required the practice of musical instruments, particularly the Chinese clarinet (gyalingrgya gling) and the large horn (dungchendung chen). Monks chosen for this task underwent a preliminary training of three months and served for twelve years as instrument players.

Only the monk-sponsors (chödzéchos mdzad) would be exempted from such duties. They would sponsor a ritual at the college and provide the monks with donation. In exchange they received the title of monk-sponsor, which dispensed them from many of the ordinary chores but not from obeying the overall discipline of their institution. Such title existed at all the levels of the institution. The Great Assembly, the colleges and the regional houses had their own monk-sponsors, who received special privileges in the institution in exchange for donations. They would sit at a higher place in the assembly and would be dispensed from ordinary chores, but not from the overall requirements of the institutions. Hence, they followed the same training and had to undergo the same exams as the ordinary monks.

Nowadays, the Tantric Monastic College has found it difficult to continue its mission. Few of its monks made it to exile in India where they lacked the critical mass to recreate the college. In Tibet, colleges do not have any official function at Drepung’Bras spungs where all the monks are part of a single administrative entity. Hence, it has been difficult for the Tantric Monastic College to reestablish itself. Moreover, nowadays there are few monks who have the knowledge necessary to the conduct of the complex rituals that are parts of the tantric cycles that used to be the specialty of the college. Elder monks have almost disappeared and the younger generations have found it difficult to get the training necessary to continue the complex tradition of this college. Nevertheless, young monks are being trained in the ritual arts of the college and efforts are being made to revive some of the traditional practices of the college.

An Introduction to Drepung's Colleges, by Georges Dreyfus