Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Drepung: An Introduction
by Georges Dreyfus
January 30, 2006
Section 3 of 7

The History

Under Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s leadership, Drepung’Bras spungs flourished, growing rapidly into one the large scholastic centers of its time. Throughout the rest of his life, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje remained at Drepung’Bras spungs where he played a dominant role in the direction of the monastery. For example, he is said to have appointed his students to the abbotship of the new monastic subunits that were being created to accommodate the growth of the monastic population. We do not know the history of the foundation of these monastic subunits, under which circumstances they were created, etc. What we know is that GomangSgo mang was the first subunit to emerge, followed by others, so that prior to the middle of the fifteenth century Drepung’Bras spungs was divided into seven monastic subunits led by abbots appointed by Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje. These seven monastic subunits were: GomangSgo mang, LosellingBlo gsal gling, ShakkorShag skor, GyepaRgyas pa (or GyelwaRgyal ba, also called TösamlingThos bsam gling), DeyangBde yangs, NgakpaSngags pa, and Vinaya [College] (Dülwa’dul ba). These subunits seem at first to have functioned like colleges specialized by topics: GomangSgo mang, LosellingBlo gsal gling, ShakkorShag skor and GyepaRgyas pa (or GyelwaRgyal ba) were devoted to the study of the prajñāpāramitā literature and madhyamaka. The Vinaya Monastic College (Dratsang Dülwagrwa tshang ’dul ba) was devoted to the study of the ’Dul ba and the Hīnayāna tradition in general, as its name indicates, whereas DeyangBde yangs was specialized in logic and epistemology. Finally, NgakpaSngags pa, the Tantric Monastic College, was devoted to the study and practice of the cycles of the three main tantric deities of the GelukDge lugs tradition: Guhyasamāja, Yamāntaka, and Cakrasaṃvara.

These colleges seem to have fared quite differently. LosellingBlo gsal gling and GomangSgo mang grew into very large institutions, becoming veritable monasteries in their own right with thousands of monks, their own abbotship, textbooks, rituals, etc. ShakkorShag skor, Vinaya [College] and GyepaRgyas pa, do not seem to have fared so well. They survived until the eighteenth century when they were absorbed by the larger colleges, though they kept their separate abbotship. Desi Sanggyé GyatsoSde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653-1705 CE), our main source on the early history of Drepung’Bras spungs, mentioned these colleges in his History of the Geluk Tradition composed in 1698 and hence we know that this absorption happened later. We do not know when this absorption took place but it is reasonable to assume that this took place during the eighteenth century. ShakkorShag skor and GyepaRgyas pa became part of LosellingBlo gsal gling, whereas Vinaya [College] was absorbed into GomangSgo mang. The Tantric Monastic College was kept as a smaller unit, since it had a distinct and important function, practicing the great tantric rituals without which no religious institution can be considered viable within the Tibetan world. The fate of DeyangBde yangs is more intriguing. It was small like the other colleges that disappeared but was kept as a separate unit. This survival may be due to its close connection to the Fifth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Ngapatā la’i bla ma sku phreng lnga pa) and to its particular place in the propitiation of protectors at Drepung’Bras spungs.

It is obviously difficult to give numbers corresponding to the growth of Drepung’Bras spungs, but it appears that this monastery may have reached two-thousand monks during the fifteenth century. This seems at least to have been close to the number of monks living at Drepung’Bras spungs at the time when Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho (1475-1542 CE) restarted the Great Prayer Festival in 1517. It is said that about fifteen-hundred monks from Drepung’Bras spungs attended this occasion. This allows us to speculate that there may have been around two-thousand monks at that time and probably not much less during the preceding century. During the next century and half, particularly during the second half of the seventeenth century, the number of monks kept growing, reaching 4400 by the time that Desi Sanggyé GyatsoSde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho composed his History at the end of the seventeenth century. This growth was obviously greatly favored by the rise to power of the Dalai Lama and the support of their government. Drepung’Bras spungs, SeraSe ra and GandenDga’ ldan became the three monastic seats supported by the LhasaLha sa authorities, receiving support, protection and being given a great deal of influence in the process. By the middle of the twentieth century, the number had gone over ten-thousand (the official count was 9980 when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Chupzhipatā la’i bla ma sku phreng bcu bzhi pa) visited Drepung’Bras spungs in 1958 during his exam but it is likely that not every monk was counted at this occasion), thus illustrating the rise of mass monasticism within the Tibetan tradition.

In growing, Drepung’Bras spungs has evolved in its structure and organization, adapting to its role as major monastic center with branch monasteries throughout the Tibetan Buddhist cultural world, including Mongolia. In the process, Drepung’Bras spungs moved from being a single coherent unit under a unified leadership to its being divided into several largely autonomous entities, each endowed with considerable resource and political power. This evolution is quite clear in the succession list of the abbots of the monastery. When one looks at the list of the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa’bras spungs khri pa), one cannot but be struck by a sharp difference between the first nine abbots and their later successors. Whereas the first nine abbots reached their abbotship through the usual cursus honorum that scholars followed in the GelukDge lugs tradition, the next six abbots were quite different. Four of them were the Dalai Lamas and two were the most famous GelukDge lugs teachers of their day. This difference reflects the transformation that the monastery underwent in its growth, but it also reflects broader trends in the evolution of the GelukDge lugs tradition and of Tibetan Buddhism in general. Hence, this phenomenon is well worth examining.

As we recall, Drepung’Bras spungs was directed by Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje, who exercised oversight on the governance of the monastery, at the practical as well as the scholarly level. His immediate successors were scholars who were trained in the scholastic centers of Central Tibet and TsangGtsang. Among these successors, one of the most significant was Drepung Tripa Ngapa’Bras spungs khri pa lnga pa Lozang NyimaBlo bzang nyi ma (1438-1492 CE), who was TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s distant relative. He came from AmdoA mdo and trained at Drepung’Bras spungs with MüsepaMud sras pa, TaklepLtag leb and GalepRga leb, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje’s most eminent disciples. To establish himself as a senior scholar, Lozang NyimaBlo bzang nyi ma went to SangpuGsang phu where he debated the twenty texts he had mastered and defeated the master TsenyakpaRtse nyag pa (fifteenth century CE-?) in a public debate. He then went to Trashi LhünpoBkra shis lhun po where he became a disciple of Gendün DrupDge ’dun grub (1391-1474 CE), the retrospective First Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Dangpotā la’i bla ma sku phreng dang po) who founded this monastery and became one of the most important figures among the youngest disciples of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa. Lozang NyimaBlo bzang nyi ma was appointed at the age of forty-three abbot of Drepung’Bras spungs before obtaining the titles of Lord of the Dharma of the Lower Monastery of Sangpu (Sangpu Lingmekyi Chöjégsang phu gling smad kyi chos rje) and that of the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa). This distinguished career is quite typical of the time and reveals the state of the GelukDge lugs tradition, which was still only partially differentiated from other traditions, particularly the Bka’ gdam. Hence, Drepung’Bras spungs was a large scholastic center among others and monks moved freely from one center to another, as they had done for the last centuries. In particular, they kept going to SangpuGsang phu, which was still an important scholastic center. Similarly, senior scholars moved from the abbotship of one monastery to that of another quite liberally, indicating a state of fluidity and openness that was to change quite dramatically, as Central Tibet and TsangGtsang descended into the civil war that lasted until the middle of the seventeenth century.

Such change already appears in the career of Drepung Tripa’Bras spungs khri pa bdun pa, Mönlam PelwaSmon lam dpal ba (1414-1491 CE). Having undergone the same training as the other abbots, he was appointed the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa) in 1480 and the next year abbot of Drepung’Bras spungs. This illustrates the fluidity of the tradition of that time but also raises questions. For if MönlamSmon lam became abbot of Drepung’Bras spungs the year after being abbot of GandenDga’ ldan, it suggests that the the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa) was not considered the leader of the GelukDge lugs tradition, as it became later. In fact the situation may have been quite different, with Drepung’Bras spungs and SeraSe ra in a growth mode overshadowing GandenDga’ ldan, which seems to have remained an isolated monastery in decline, despite its connection to the glorious days of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, GyeltsapRgyal tshab and KhedrupMkhas grub. It may be symptomatic of this state that the monks of GandenDga’ ldan did not take part in the Great Prayer Festival instituted by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa until the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama when the role of GandenDga’ ldan was increased, perhaps as a way to counterbalance the influence of Drepung’Bras spungs and SeraSe ra. Mönlam PelwaSmon lam dpal ba’s career also reflects the agitated times. He is said to have successfully led a ritual to repel the armies (Makdokdmag bzlog) of the RingpungRing spungs rulers, who were engaged with the NeudongNe’u dong family in a struggle for supremacy over Tibet.

This marks the beginning of a troubled and still largely unexplored period of the history of Drepung’Bras spungs and the GelukDge lugs tradition. During that time, Drepung’Bras spungs and the GelukDge lugs tradition were involved in the civil war that opposed the forces of TsangGtsang and that of Central Tibet, particularly those of the NeudongNe’u dong family, who had been from the beginning the staunchest supporters of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa and his tradition. The war seems to have been the result of the decline of the power of the NeudongNe’u dong in the 1430s and the rise of the RingpungRing spungs family and its success in rallying to its cause various leaders from the TsangGtsang province. For the next few decades, both sides were involved in a power struggle resulting in a series of violent incidents. The fight was all the more bitter that each side was supported by religious traditions. The KagyüpaBka’ brgyud pas, particularly the followers of the KarmapaKarma pa, were staunch supporters of the RingpungRing spungs, whereas the GelukpaDge lugs pas sided with the NeudongNe’u dong, who had generously sponsored TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s monastic plans. We also remember that the 1430s was also the time of KhedrupMkhas grub’s tenure as the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa). Although we do not know whether this temperamental figure was involved in the dispute between the RingpungRing spungs and the NeudongNe’u dong, we know that he engaged in several controversies, particularly with the SakyaSa skya scholar Ngorchen Künga ZangpoNgor chen kun dga’ bzang po (1382-1456 CE), perhaps in response to some of the SakyaSa skya critics of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa. Coming at a time of civil strife, these controversies cannot but have further polarized an already highly conflictual situation and led to the continuation of this bitter conflict for more than two centuries.

This war did not spare Drepung’Bras spungs, which was occupied several times by the forces of TsangGtsang. In 1479, the RingpungRing spungs established a KagyüBka’ brgyud monastery in YangbachenYangs ba chen, near LhasaLha sa. GelukDge lugs monks, particularly those from Drepung’Bras spungs, the leading monastery of the tradition, saw this as a provocation, an encroachment on their zone of influence and attacked the monastery. The RingpungRing spungs forces retaliated and eventually occupied LhasaLha sa in 1498. In a deliberately provocative act, they forbid the monks from Drepung’Bras spungs and SeraSe ra to attend the Great Prayer Festival whose oversight had been their privilege since the early days of the festival. These difficult events brought considerable changes to Drepung’Bras spungs and the GelukDge lugs tradition in general. In particular, it transformed the nature of monastic leadership and the transmission of authority, as is evident in the changes of the nature of the abbotship at Drepung’Bras spungs. Whereas the first nine abbots were ordinary monks who had reached their position through their qualities of scholar and practitioner, the tenth abbot is none other than Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho, the retrospective Second Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Nyipatā la’i bla ma sku phreng gnyis pa). Henceforth, Drepung’Bras spungs’s fate is going to be associated with this charismatic figure and his reincarnated successors. This marks a dramatic shift in the transmission of authority within the GelukDge lugs tradition and Tibetan Buddhism in general, obviously a reflection of the troubled times. Henceforth, reincarnated lamas (trülkusprul sku) will take precedence over others as leaders of the tradition.

As is well known, the model of transmission of charismatic religious authority on the basis of a reincarnation lineage was first developed in the KagyüBka’ brgyud tradition with the official recognition of the Third Karmapa (Karmapa Sumpakarma pa gsum pa) Rangjung DorjéRang byung rdo rje (1284-1339 CE) as Karma PakshiKarma pak shi’s (1204-1283 CE) reincarnation. Such a model seems particularly well adapted to the Tibetan tradition, allowing for the integration of tantric practices and transmissions within a monastic environment. In contrast to family transmission, reincarnation is easier to integrate into a monastic environment. It allows a focus on the personality of the tantric master as providing the charismatic element necessary to the continuation of the tradition. Nevertheless, up to the fifteenth century, this transmission of authority remained limited to very few cases and was noticeably absent from the GelukDge lugs tradition. Its leaders had been ordinary monks recognized for their scholarly and spiritual achievements, as is clear from the career of the first nine abbots of Drepung’Bras spungs. With Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho, this situation changes drastically. Henceforth, authority within the GelukDge lugs tradition moves away from the meritorcratic succession of scholars to a lineage of reincarnated lamas, who owe their power less to their personal achievements than to the prestige of the reincarnation genealogy they are recognized to be part of.

The diffusion of this genealogical model of transmission of religious authority, which is also in evidence in other traditions such as that of the Drukpa Kagyü’Brug pa bka’ brgyud, is likely due to the troubled times of the civil war that divided Tibet at that time. The recourse to such an institution was also a way for the GelukpaDge lugs pas to respond to the difficult situation they were in. Having sided with the NeudongNe’u dong family, the GelukDge lugs seems to be on the losing side. I already mentioned the occupation that they had to endure from the forces of TsangGtsang and the banning of GelukDge lugs monks from the Great Prayer Festival that had been initiated by their founder. In such a difficult time, the presence of a clearly defined holder of authority endowed with the prestige of a sacred connection with the past via reincarnation must have been seen as an important asset for the embattled GelukDge lugs school.

The emergence of such a model within the GelukDge lugs tradition is clear in the hagiographies of Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho, who is presented as the prototypical reincarnated lama (trülkusprul sku). A precocious and gifted child, Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho showed signs from the earliest age of belonging to his prestigious religious lineage. As soon as he was born, he turned to Trashi LhünpoBkra shis lhun po and joined his palms in reverence. At age three, when scolded by his mother he responded that he wanted to go back to his place at Trashi LhünpoBkra shis lhun po. When he visited the monastery, he climbed on a throne, saying “this is how one should teach the Dharma.” At age ten, he was invited to join Trashi LhünpoBkra shis lhun po where he was given some degree of recognition as the reincarnation of Gendün DrupDge ’dun grub, the prestigious founder of the monastery and one of the dominant GelukDge lugs figures of the second half of the fifteenth century. But Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho seems not to have been accepted by all the monks of Trashi LhünpoBkra shis lhun po. Hence, he moved to Drepung’Bras spungs where he continued his studies and became a well-known figure. In 1517 he was appointed to the Throne of Drepung, which he occupied until 1535. During this period, Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho showed the great skills that were to become the hallmarks of several of his successors: scholastic learning, deep training in tantric practice, abilities to perform tantric rituals, personal charisma, as well as great diplomatic skills. Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho adopted a non-confrontational strategy, presenting an image of tolerance and inclusiveness. Such a strategy may have reflected his personal dispositions, but was particularly adapted to the delicate circumstances in which the GelukDge lugs tradition was. LhasaLha sa had been occupied by the RingpungRing spungs forces, which had prevented GelukDge lugs monks from participating in the Great Prayer Festival. Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho ingratiated himself to the RingpungRing spungs rulers, persuading them to reverse this prohibition and succeeding in calming down the situation. He himself took part in the ceremony where he taught fifteen-hundred monks from Drepung’Bras spungs and three hundred from SeraSe ra. This achievement seems to have established him as the uncontested leader of Drepung’Bras spungs, SeraSe ra and the GelukDge lugs tradition of his time, recognition marked by the establishment of his estate, the Ganden Palace (Ganden Podrangdga’ ldan pho brang) in 1518 at Drepung’Bras spungs.

Courtyard of GandenDga’ ldan Palace

Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho was succeeded in 1535 by another major figure in the history of the GelukDge lugs tradition, Penchen Sönam DrakpaPaṇ chen bsod nams grags pa (1478-1554 CE). This figure could be seen as representing a return to the old meritocratic model of ordinary monks assuming leadership, but this is not really the case. By the time he was appointed to the Throne of Drepung (Drepung Tri’bras spungs khri), Sönam DrakpaBsod nams grags pa was already a famous GelukDge lugs master. He had already occupied the Throne of Ganden (Ganden Tridga’ ldan khri) and was considered the most prolific and important GelukDge lugs thinker of his time. Moreover, his successor was none other than Sönam GyatsoBsod nams rgya mtsho (1543-1588 CE), the lamabla ma who would receive the official title of the Third Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Sumpatā la’i bla ma sku phreng gsum pa). Thus, it appears that Sönam DrakpaBsod nams grags pa’s rule was just an interlude in the rise of reincarnated lamas to positions of authority at Drepung’Bras spungs and in the GelukDge lugs tradition. Before his death in 1554, Sönam DrakpaBsod nams grags pa established his own estate, the Upper Chamber (Zimkhang Gongmagzims khang gong ma), which was named because of its location at the top of Drepung’Bras spungs, just below the NgakpaSngags pa debating courtyard. It is hard to know whether the creation of this estate represents an attempt by Sönam DrakpaBsod nams grags pa to rival the Dalai Lama, but such rivalry did eventually develop, ending with the tragic death of Drakpa GyeltsenGrags pa rgyal mtshan, Sönam DrakpaBsod nams grags pa’s second reincarnation and the rival of the Fifth Dalai Lama, followed by the discontinuation of this major reincarnation lineage.

The place of reincarnated lamas within the GelukDge lugs tradition of that time is confirmed by the way Sönam GyatsoBsod nams rgya mtsho was received at Drepung’Bras spungs when he came at the tender age of three after being recognized as Gendün GyatsoDge ’dun rgya mtsho’s reincarnation. He was enthusiastically greeted by the monks, who stood for hours on both sides of the path to greet him. In this young child, they saw a future leader who would be able to take care of the monastery in these troubled times. Sönam GyatsoBsod nams rgya mtsho was ordained by Penchen Sönam DrakpaPaṇ chen bsod nams grags pa and assumed the official title of the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa’bras spungs khri pa) shortly after receiving his full ordination (1564) at the age of twenty-one. At the same time, he was appointed abbot of SeraSe ra. Since Sönam DrakpaBsod nams grags pa had retired from the Drepung’Bras spungs abbotship in 1551, it appears that the Throne of Drepung was left empty for more than a decade, thus making it abundantly clear that the authority at Drepung’Bras spungs was less based on scholastic merits than on the charisma of religious figures. Drepung’Bras spungs monks preferred being without an abbot for a decade rather than appoint anybody else than Sönam GyatsoBsod nams rgya mtsho, who still too young to be abbot. It should be clear, however, that the success of the Dalai Lama was made possible not just by their prestigious religious genealogy but also by the great qualities of the persons who were chosen. Sönam GyatsoBsod nams rgya mtsho’s well-known career is a testimony to the extraordinary qualities of these figures, who were able to reconcile the learning of great scholars, the achievements of skilled ritual practitioners and the diplomatic skills of politicians. It is these qualities that allowed Sönam GyatsoBsod nams rgya mtsho to become the famous lamabla ma courted by the Mongols. In this way, he laid down the foundation of the Mongolian connection, which was later used so successfully by the Fifth Dalai Lama to establish the GelukDge lugs supremacy.

Sönam GyatsoBsod nams rgya mtsho was followed by Yonten GyatsoYon tan rgya mtsho (1589-1617 CE), the unfortunate Fourth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Zhipatā la’i bla ma sku phreng bzhi pa), and by Penchen Lobzang ChögyanPaṇ chen blo bzang chos rgyan (1570-1662 CE), who would later be recognized as the Fourth Penchen Lama (Penchen Kutreng Zhipapaṇ chen sku phreng bzhi pa). The latter’s rule was not, however, a return to a meritocratic model of authority but an interlude in the rule of the Dalai Lama. Lobzang ChögyanBlo bzang chos rgyan was far from being an ordinary monk by the time he ascended the Throne of Drepung (Drepung Tri’bras spung khri). He was the most famous GelukDge lugs master of his day, being admired almost universally as a saintly figure embodying tolerance and openness. This enabled him to play an important political role as a moderator of a situation that had again flared up. In 1612 the forces of TsangGtsang led by Püntsok WanggyelPhun tshogs dbang rgyal attacked some of the GelukDge lugs allies. This led to a series of hostilities culminating in the taking over of LhasaLha sa, the massacre of hundreds of monks and soldiers at Drepung’Bras spungs and the destruction of the monastery, with its monks having to flee as far as the Blue Lake (Tso Ngönpomtsho sngon po) in AmdoA mdo. The GelukpaDge lugs pas responded in kind, mobilizing Mongolian troupes to eliminate the forces of TsangGtsang. Lobzang ChögyanBlo bzang chos rgyan intervened and brought to an end this particularly bloody episode (known as the Rat-Ox war for the year in which it started) in the protracted struggle between Central Tibet and TsangGtsang. The troupes of TsangGtsang were allowed to withdraw unharmed and Drepung’Bras spungs and other GelukDge lugs monasteries were restored to their previous status. But this settlement did not last and trouble started again, particularly in Eastern Tibet where GelukpaDge lugs pas came under renewed persecutions. This led Lobzang ChögyanBlo bzang chos rgyan’s successor, his student Ngawang Lozang GyatsoNgag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (1617-1682 CE), the Fifth Dalai Lama, to conclude an alliance with the Qoshot tribe and its leader, Gushri Khan. Together, they formed a powerful alliance that first took over Eastern Tibet, eliminating some of the enemies of the GelukDge lugs, such as the King of Beri (Beri Gyelpobe ri rgyal po). They then turned their sight on Central Tibet and with the support of hundreds of young Drepung’Bras spungs monks, who had yet to take full ordination, they inflicted a decisive defeat on the forces of TsangGtsang, thus bringing to an end the bitter strife that had divided Tibet for more than two centuries.

The exterior of the Great Assembly Hall during a monastic ritual

This victory marked a new period for Drepung’Bras spungs. From a large but embattled institution, Drepung’Bras spungs became an official pillar of the state and in the process accrued large benefits. It received new estates with numerous taxpayers and thus greatly increased its resources. the Fifth Dalai Lama’s first prime-minister Sönam RaptenBsod nams rab brtan (1595-1658 CE) embarked on an ambitious program of constructions. The Great Assembly Hall (Tsokchentshogs chen) was rebuilt anew and other structures such as the Ganden Palace were expanded and beautified. Several sacred statues were brought from other institutions to enhance the prestige of Drepung’Bras spungs. Of particular interest are three venerable statues of Tara that still exist at Drepung’Bras spungs nowadays. These statues are said to be speaking and were brought to Drepung’Bras spungs by the Fifth Dalai Lama from other institutions such as TsetangRtse thang and Nyetang.

The Fifth Dalai Lama also sought to enhance the importance of the the Great Prayer festival. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa had instituted this ritual, which is strictly reserved to monks, as a celebration of Maitreya, the future Buddha, a means to accelerate his coming, but also a way to assert the centrality of monasticism. It had also been provided avenues to rulers for acquiring legitimacy by demonstrating their commitment to Buddhism. Hence, its control became a contentious issue, pitting against each other the important political groups of the day, as we saw above. After his victory, the Fifth Dalai Lama continued to use the ritual for political purposes, promoting it as a way to renew his state’s commitment to Buddhism. The Fifth (Ngapalnga pa) increased the length and intensity of the festival, entrusting its governance to the Drepung’Bras spungs authorities. This meant not just the direction of the ceremonies but of the entire life of LhasaLha sa. During the twenty-two days of the ritual, the rule of the government was suspended and the governance of the city was entrusted to the Drepung’Bras spungs authorities. By turning over its power to Drepung’Bras spungs, the government sought to purify its rule thus enhancing its legitimacy. But this turning over of power also had practical consequences. It meant a considerable increase of power for the Drepung’Bras spungs authorities, which were entitled to decide during this time any pending issue without any possible further appeal. Important families and rich sponsors could not ignore that every year Drepung’Bras spungs would have a free hand to redress any wrong done to them. In general, the monastic authorities did not grossly abuse this power and ruled more or less fairly. Still, every year at the time of the Great Prayer Festival, many among the rich and powerful left the city in fear for their wealth or safety.

Maitreya Liberating Upon Sight

This role in the Great Prayer Festival increased the power and influence of Drepung’Bras spungs, which became the main monastic support of the Dalai Lama’s rule. As often in Tibetan culture, a story involving protective deities illustrates this shift of power at the benefit of Drepung’Bras spungs. It appears that originally the governing of the festival had alternated between Drepung’Bras spungs and SeraSe ra, but while the latter was in charge, an evil person tried to poison the monks. Karmashar, the SeraSe ra protector, warned the SeraSe ra monks not to drink that day but failed to warn the Drepung’Bras spungs monks. This infuriated NechungGnas chung, the Drepung’Bras spungs protector, who standing with one foot on the PotalaPo ta la Hill Potala Hill (PotalaPo ta la ri) and the other on the Iron Hill (Chakpolcags po ri) crushed the poisoned beverage with his spear. The verdict was clear. SeraSe ra’s protector could not be trusted and henceforth, it would be Drepung’Bras spungs that would be in charge of the festival. As is often the case in the Tibetan world, a narrative involving protectors illustrates and explains events of the socio-political world.

The close connection of the monastery with the Dalai Lama was not, however, always unproblematic. the Fifth (Ngapalnga pa) officialized the established practice of past Dalai Lama to hold the thrones of Drepung’Bras spungs and SeraSe ra. This meant that the monastery was, at least theoretically, under the direct control of a ruler whose interest did not necessarily coincide with those of Drepung’Bras spungs. In particular, the Dalai Lama had little to gain in seeing Drepung’Bras spungs and SeraSe ra become too powerful. It was his advantage to see these institutions become large and prestigious, for this strengthened his rule, helping him to project in the Tibetan imagination a vision of LhasaLha sa, where he ruled supreme, as the center of their religious universe. This vision was strengthened by the promotion of the Great Prayer Festival, as the main ritual event of the Tibetan year. But Drepung’Bras spungs and SeraSe ra should not be strong enough to establish themselves as independent centers of power. They should remain loyal subjects ready to support his rule rather than advance their own ambitions. To increase his control, the Fifth (Ngapalnga pa) attempted various strategies. He revived the role of GandenDga’ ldan monastery, inviting its monks to the Great Prayer Festival, thus creating a more balanced distribution of power within the GelukDge lugs monastic establishment. He also promoted the role of the Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa) as the official leader of the GelukDge lugs tradition, keeping for himself the thrones of SeraSe ra and Drepung’Bras spungs. In this way, these titles became unimportant and eventually faded away. The present usage is for the more senior among the abbots of GomangSgo mang or LosellingBlo gsal gling to function as abbot of Drepung’Bras spungs but there is no separate holder of the throne (tripakhri pa), as there is for GandenDga’ ldan.

The Dalai Lama and his prime-minister also attempted to control the curriculum of SeraSe ra, Drepung’Bras spungs and GandenDga’ ldan by controlling the final examinations and regulating the titles that could be delivered by these monasteries. He, or at least his prime-minister, also seems to have been interested in promoting his own writings as the official textbooks of the monastic seats, particularly at Drepung’Bras spungs, but the monastic authorities refused this offer, which seemed such an obvious threat to their intellectual independence. This tension between the Dalai Lama and the monastic seats remained throughout the Fifth’s rule and increased as the years went by and he attempted to increase his power. After his death, the conflict further escalated and his prime-minister, Desi Sanggyé GyatsoSde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho, became embroiled in a bitter dispute with some of the GelukDge lugs hierarchs leading to his death and the loss of power of the Dalai Lama, who for the next two centuries were more figureheads than actual leaders.

The weakening of the Dalai Lama’s power did not affect the growth of Drepung’Bras spungs, which continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, despite the vicissitudes encountered by the Tibetan state. During this period, Drepung’Bras spungs became even larger, reaching over ten-thousand monks in the 1950s, and even more dominant than it had been during the seventeenth century. Together with SeraSe ra and GandenDga’ ldan, it became the undisputed center of Tibetan religious and intellectual life. When monks from the other schools wanted to get a scholastic training, Drepung’Bras spungs was often their first choice. A stay at this monastery would ensure any scholar valuable knowledge as well as considerable prestige. Economically, Drepung’Bras spungs continued to prosper, receiving new estates and received the support of new sponsors such as Polhané Sönam TopgyelPho lha nas bsod nams stobs rgyal (1689-1747 CE), who built Miwang LhakhangMi dbang lha khang (named after the title of its sponsor) at the Great Assembly Hall and contributed to the beautification of several other buildings. Politically, the relative weakness of the LhasaLha sa government ensured that Drepung’Bras spungs would retain a strong influence. Supported by the weight of its thousands of monks, Drepung’Bras spungs was able to block the actions of any government tempted to go against its interests. This became particularly clear during the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s (Talé Lama Kutreng Chuksumpatā la’i bla ma sku phreng bcu gsum pa) rule, when the latter tried to implement reforms to modernize his country. His plans, particularly his attempt to reinforce the Tibetan army and to establish schools in English, were vigorously opposed by Drepung’Bras spungs and the other two seats of learning. Unable to overcome the resistance of the abbots of these monasteries, the Dalai Lama had to abandon the plans that might have set Tibet on a very different course, thus demonstrating once more the power of this monastery, power that continued unabated until the 1950s.

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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
  8. Specify View:
  9. Specify Format: