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Drepung: An Introduction
by Georges Dreyfus
January 30, 2006
Section 2 of 7

The Founder

The rise of Drepung’Bras spungs is closely connected to that of the GelukDge lugs 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 GelukpaDge lugs pa (the “virtuous one”) goes back to one of the seminal figures of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in AmdoA mdo, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa (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, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa 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 GyeltsenGrags pa rgyal mtshan (1618-1655 CE) and his minister Namkha ZangpoNam mkha’ bzang po from the NeudongNe’u dong family, which had been the dominant power in Central Tibet since the time of Jangchup GyeltsenByang chub rgyal mtshan (1302-1364 CE).

It is not clear to which degree TsongkhapaTsong kha pa 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, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa 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 KadamBka’ gdams and SakyaSa skya traditions of his time. For TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, 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–style 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 TsangGtsang to the Great Prayer Festival (Mönlam Chenmosmon lam chen mo) in LhasaLha sa in 1409 followed shortly after by the monastery of GandenDga’ ldan. This program of institutional build-up was furthered a few years later with the creation of Drepung’Bras spungs (1416) and SeraSe ra (1418). Thus, by the time of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s death in 1419, the institutions that were to become the great centers of the GelukDge lugs 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, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa 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 “GandenpaDga’ ldan pa” 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’Bras spungs and its founder, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje (1379-1449 CE). Born in an old family of tantrikas from the SamyéBsam yas area that claimed to go back to the Tibetan empire of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po (604-650 CE), Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje had an unusually brilliant and gifted personality. After studying topics in Pramāṇa and Prajñāpāramitā at SamyéBsam yas and at SangpuGsang phu, he went to GandenDga’ ldan to study Madhyamaka and Tantras with TsongkhapaTsong kha pa. There he quickly became one of the most learned disciples in a circle of great talents. Endowed with an extraordinary memory, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje was chosen by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa to be his assistant, daily repeating and commenting on the latter’s teachings at GandenDga’ ldan. Impressed by Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s talents, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa urged his student to create a new monastery, which he predicted would be greater than GandenDga’ ldan, 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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 TsongkhapaTsong kha pa during the rainy season retreat of 1414, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje, who took the resolution to create a monastery. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa further encouraged the project by giving Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje a conch unearthed from the soil of the mountain on which GandenDga’ ldan was built. GelukpaDge lugs pas have considered this conch as an important sign supporting the narrative justifying TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s central role in their tradition. All the founders, mythical or actual, of other Tibetan Buddhist traditions had direct connection to India. For example, MarpaMar pa (1002/1012-1097 CE), one of the founding figures of the KagyüBka’ brgyud tradition, was a translator who went to India to collect texts and receive direct teachings from Indian masters. No such connection existed in TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’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, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa 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 the Jowo Buddha statue (Jowo ṛinpochéjo bo rin po che) in LhasaLha sa. In another story, the conch is entrusted to Mogallana, who buries it near GandenDga’ ldan so that it can be unearthed when the time is right. It is this conch that TsongkhapaTsong kha pa is said to have entrusted to Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje. No need to say that this conch was considered as the most sacred object at Drepung’Bras spungs, 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje also relied on dreams. In a later dream, he sees a white god, PeharPe har, showing him the area above the village of DenbakLdan bag and saying “if you found a monastery there, I will give you five thousand monks.” Excited, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje rushes to the site and notices the presence of numerous ponds of fresh water. Near one of them he sees TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, 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 GyelmaRdo rje grags rgyal ma and other local deities. It also appears that there was a temple dedicated to Yamāntaka, one of the central deities of Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’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’Bras spungs became famous for its caves. Whereas SeraSe ra had many hermitages, Drepung’Bras spungs had only one hermitage on GempelDge ’phel Mountain 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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 DraktokkhangBrag thog khang and is considered one of the four caves where Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje resided at Drepung’Bras spungs). He then moved to another cave that is just behind what is nowadays the Main Assembly Hall (Dukang’du khang). There, he started teaching the great scholastic texts. With the support of Namkha ZangpoNam mkha’ bzang po from the NeudongNe’u dong family, he started in 1416 to build the Main Assembly Hall, the Tantric Monastic College (Ngakpa Dratsangsngags pa grwa tshang) and several monastic residencies. By 1419, the project was well under way. The two temples were completed and the most important statues such as monumentThe Buddhas of the Three Times and their monumentSix Sons as well as the monumentStatue of Yamāntaka were in place. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa visited Drepung’Bras spungs 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje seems to have been a generous and humble man, and this may have had quite some influence on the development of the GelukDge lugs tradition. In the first decade after TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s death, Drepung’Bras spungs was the only scholastic center of the nascent GandenDga’ ldan tradition and Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje was its head. He was also one the most gifted scholars among TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’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 KhedrupMkhas grub who became the leader of the GandenDga’ ldan 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje, rather than KhedrupMkhas grub, become the tradition’s leader. We will also never know the degree to which KhedrupMkhas grub’s own personality and sectarian tendencies contributed to the development of a GelukDge lugs 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 GandenDga’ ldan tradition took early on and the role of figures such as KhedrupMkhas grub and Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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 TsongkhapaTsong kha pa. The ability to attract gifted students with strong personalities from all parts of Tibet and all ages was one of the main reasons for TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s success. But this success also meant that conflicts were likely to happen after the passing away of the founder. Among TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s students, there was a group of senior practitioners such as Tokden Jampel GyatsoRtogs ldan ’jam dpal rgya mtsho (1356-1428 CE) and Lama JamkarBla ma ’jam dkar, who may have considered themselves more as TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s equals than his students. There were also a group of senior students such as Gyeltsap Darma RinchenRgyal tshab dar ma rin chen (1364-1432 CE) and Drakpa GyeltsenGrags pa rgyal mtshan, 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 TsongkhapaTsong kha pa and formed a closely-knit group. Hence, there seems to have been little discussion after TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s passing away that GyeltsapRgyal tshab would inherit the leadership of the group. GyeltsapRgyal tshab must have been the obvious choice, being the great scholar among senior students. Moreover, his kind character must have made him popular among TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s followers. Thus, GyeltsapRgyal tshab was appointed as the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa), the position that came to be regarded as that of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s successor. It is hard to know when the Throne of Drepung (Drepung Tri’bras spungs khri) came to be regarded as such rather than as just that of the senior abbot (khenrapmkhan rabs) of this monastery, but it is clear that GyeltsapRgyal tshab’s own supremacy was well established in the circle of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’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 KhedrupMkhas grub and Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje, 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s writings, which were sealed at a later date. But the few sources we have seem to suggest that the succession of GyeltsapRgyal tshab seems not to have been completely smooth. An interesting incident throws some light on the tensions that surfaced within the GandenDga’ ldan tradition at that time. This incident took place at Drepung’Bras spungs when GyeltsapRgyal tshab came for a visit to the monastery toward the end of his tenure as the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa, 1419-1431). At that time, Drepung’Bras spungs was the only scholastic center among TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s followers, SeraSe ra and GandenDga’ ldan being largely devoted to practice rather than to studies. Drepung’Bras spungs monks seem to have been upset by the presence at the side of GyeltsapRgyal tshab of KhedrupMkhas grub, who had joined the latter and was treated by him as his successor. Drepung’Bras spungs monks thought that it was their teacher Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje who should been given the respect due to GyeltsapRgyal tshab’s successor, not KhedrupMkhas grub. Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje himself is said to have urged his monks to obey GyeltsapRgyal tshab, 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 GandenpaDga’ ldan pas about the leadership and direction of their group after the passing away of the generation of senior students. We know that GyeltsapRgyal tshab resigned his position one year before his death to ensure that KhedrupMkhas grub would be chosen as his successor. All this seems to indicate a conflict between two sides, one favoring KhedrupMkhas grub and another probably rooting for Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje. We obviously know very little about the issues that were at stake in this dispute, since Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s writings have not been available for centuries. But one cannot but notice that Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje seems to have cut a strikingly different figure from KhedrupMkhas grub. Whereas the latter was prone to define and assert forcefully a dominant orthodoxy, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje is presented as holding views that are by now considered as heretical within the GelukDge lugs traditions. In particular, he is described as holding the view of extrinsic emptiness (zhentonggzhan stong), a striking position within the tradition of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, an author who had rejected quite clearly this view in his writings. Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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 JonangJo nang tradition, Yumo Mikyö DorjéYu mo mi bskyod rdo rje, and continuing later with Jonang Künga DrölchokJo nang kun dga’ grol chog (1507-1565/1566 CE), TaranathaTā ra nā tha (1575-1634 CE), and Khalkha Jetsün DampaKhal kha rje btsun dam pa. It is obviously hard to know what to make of this description of Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s view and shows the fluidity of the tradition in the first decade after TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s passing away, fluidity that may have been quashed by KhedrupMkhas grub, the creator and enforcer of the GelukDge lugs orthodoxy.

Despite these difficulties, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje remained at Drepung’Bras spungs 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 (yikchayig cha) of the monastery, though they were later replaced by other texts before being rejected as heterodox. Contrary to KhedrupMkhas grub, however, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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’Bras spungs. There he gave daily teachings to as many as eight classes per day and hence had numerous students.

Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje 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 LotsawaStag tshang lo tswa ba. He is counted as one of Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s students, despite the controversies surrounding his relation to the GelukDge lugs tradition. GelukpaDge lugs pas describe him as having first critiqued TsongkhapaTsong kha pa before converting to his tradition and studying with Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje. Critics of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa offer a quite different picture of TaktsangStag tshang first studying TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s tradition before becoming one of its staunchest critics. TaktsangStag tshang was not, however, the most important among Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s students, for this title should be reserved to Müsepa Lodrö Rinchen SenggéMud sras pa blo gros rin chen seng ge (fifteenth century CE-?). MüsepaMud sras pa was close to Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje and is said to have shared some of his teacher’s alleged heterodox views about emptiness. He left Drepung’Bras spungs at an unknown date and under circumstances that remain unclear to move to SeraSe ra where he established the Jé monastic college (Dratsang Jégrwa tshang byes). It is likely that he left Drepung’Bras spungs when Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’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’Bras spungs, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje had many other disciples, among whom TaklepLtag leb and GalepRga leb were particularly important. They were the second and third abbots (khenrapmkhan rabs) of GomangSgo mang and had a significant role in making this monastic college one of the main scholastic centers at Drepung’Bras spungs.

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Drepung: An Introduction, by Georges Dreyfus

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Founder
  3. The History
  4. The Organization
  5. The Present
  6. The Sources
  7. Glossary
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