A few miles west of LhasaLha sa, just above the village of DenbakLdan bag or DampaDam pa, which is now just a suburb of the city, lies Drepung’Bras spungs (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’Bras spungs 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’Bras spungs, all these aspects of traditional Tibetan life, which are often thought to exist apart, come together.
TenmaBstan ma in LosellingBlo gsal gling Assembly Hall
Since its foundation in the fifteenth century, Drepung’Bras spungs has been one of the most important religious institutions in Tibet. Together with SeraSe ra and GandenDga’ ldan, it forms the three great monastic seats of learning (densa chenmogdan sa chen mo) that have made the GelukDge lugs school of Tibetan Buddhism famous. Like SeraSe ra, its main competitor, and unlike GandenDga’ ldan, which is more isolated, Drepung’Bras spungs was built a few miles from LhasaLha sa, the political, economic, and cultural capital of the Tibetan world. Hence, Drepung’Bras spungs 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’Bras spungs became also one of the main political centers of the rising GelukDge lugs school, being the seat of the Dalai Lamas (Talé Lamatā la’i bla ma) from the end of the fifteenth century. With the rise to power of the Fifth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Ngapatā la’i bla ma sku phreng lnga pa) 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’Bras spungs 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 GyelmaRdo rje grags rgyal ma, one the leaders of a set of twelve female deities in charge of protecting the Buddhist teaching (Tenma Chunyibstan ma bcu gnyis). This deity is said to reside above Drepung’Bras spungs, on dge ’phelMountain, a place directly connected to MountKailash and Marchen PomraMar chen pom ra, two of the most sacred mountains of the Tibetan world. During the Summer Festival of Smoke Offerings (Dzamling Chisang’dzam gling spyi bsang), lay people celebrate this connection by making pilgrimage to Drepung’Bras spungs and climbing dge ’phelMountain to make offerings to the local gods.
The importance of Drepung’Bras spungs is also greatly enhanced by the proximity of NechungGnas chung, the monastery where PeharPe har, one of the main protective deities in the Tibetan world, is propitiated. The legend is that this god was tamed by Padma JungnéPadma ’byung gnas (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. PeharPe har 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’Bras spungs, 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’Bras spungs.
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’Bras spungs 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’Bras spungs 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 GelukDge lugs history. In particular, we focus on the role of Drepung’Bras spungs in the rise of the GelukDge lugs 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.