Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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Drepung: An Introduction
by Georges Dreyfus
January 30, 2006
Section 4 of 7

The Organization

The organization of the monastery reflects the historical patterns examined here. The growth of Drepung’Bras spungs into a large institution, with more than four thousand monks at the end of the seventeenth century, must have implied changes in the organization of the monastery as well. We already mentioned the creation of monastic colleges in the fifteenth century. It appears that as the monastery grew, the role of these subunits greatly increased. The fact that the Throne of Drepung could be left empty for more than a decade in the sixteenth century suggests that the effective running of the monastery was no more in the hands of the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa’bras spungs khri pa) but in those of the abbots of the various monastic colleges, particularly those of GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling. This raises the question of how we should describe an entity such as Drepung’Bras spungs and its larger subunits, GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling.

TsaTsha Assembly Hall and East living quarters

Drepung’Bras spungs is described in English as a monastery and its subunits are often presented in the secondary literature as colleges. Although this description is not necessarily mistaken, it is somewhat misleading for it suggests that the subunits of Drepung’Bras spungs are merely sub-divisions of a larger unit. But from at least the sixteenth century, large aspects of the monastic life have been in the hands of the various subunits. With the rise of the Dalai Lama, the Throne-Holder of Drepung (Drepung Tripa’bras spungs khri pa) was more a distant leader than a person in charge of the daily running of the place, with the abbots of the various subunits stepping in. Later on, the title itself was emptied of much of its meaning, the charge being assumed by the abbots of LosellingBlo gsal gling or GomangSgo mang. Furthermore, each monastic subunit developed its own set of rituals, curriculum and scholastic manuals (yikchayig cha). It had its own assembly hall, administrative and disciplinary structures, economic basis, monastic constitution (chayikbca’ yig), and internal subdivisions into regional houses (khangtsenkhang tshan). Monks owed their primary allegiance to these monasteries, not to the monastic seat. For example, when asked which monastery he was from, a monk from GomangSgo mang would have pointed to this entity as the source of his monastic pride, not to Drepung’Bras spungs. Hence, in many ways, subunits such as GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling were, and still are in exile, more actual monasteries than mere colleges.

The Tibetan language reflects this situation. Drepung’Bras spungs is described as a densagdan sa, that is, a seat rather than as a dratsanggrwa tshang (i.e., a monastery). The Tibetan has another word, gönpadgon pa, which is at times translated as monastery, and which applies to Drepung’Bras spungs. But this word includes more than just monasteries. Hermitages are called gönpadgon pa inasmuch as they are located in remote places and are devoted to religious practice. This is certainly the case of Drepung’Bras spungs but this does not mean that it is a monastery. In fact, it appears that Drepung’Bras spungs as it has existed from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth century has been more a monastic seat than a monastery in the strict and institutional sense of the term. LosellingBlo gsal gling and GomangSgo mang are the entities best described as monasteries, though I often call them monastic colleges to conform to the scholarly convention.

The organization of Drepung’Bras spungs until the seventeenth century was extremely complex, with power being divided between the monastic seat, the colleges and the various regional houses, often following baroque customary arrangements. The general outline of such a complex organization was that the highest authority was that of the monastic seat, which was administered by a council (lachibla spyi) composed of the representatives of the monastic colleges and regional houses, the present and former abbots of each monastic college, and important monastic officials. It was in charge of administrating the finances of the monastic seat, deciding important questions of discipline and arbitrating conflicts between colleges. Two head disciplinarians (tsokchen shelngotshogs chen shal ngo) chosen from GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling implemented its decisions with the help of several assistants. During the twenty-two days of the Great Prayer Festival, these two head disciplinarians had total control over the whole of LhasaLha sa and could render judgment on any matter brought before them. The council and the head disciplinarians had no say, however, in each college’s religious activities, which were in the hands of the abbot and the disciplinarian of the college.

Another important member of the hierarchy was the chanting master of the Great Assembly Hall (tsokchen umdzétshogs chen dbu mdzad). His role was to lead the rituals held by all Drepung’Bras spungs monks at the Great Assembly Hall. He would prepare the rituals, direct the monks in charge of the various aspects of the ritual and lead the chanting. At Drepung’Bras spungs, these rituals were considered particularly important and the practice of the arts connected with their performance such as chanting, playing musical instruments, preparing offerings, etc. was greatly emphasized. The reason for this emphasis was the role of Drepung’Bras spungs during the Great Prayer Festival. Drepung’Bras spungs was in charge not just of the discipline during the festival, no small matter in a gathering of tens of thousand of monks often behaving in quite rowdy ways, but also of the performance of the rituals that were central to the festival. Hence, the role of the chanting master, a figure of importance in any monastery, was particularly significant at each monastic college. Each college had its own chanting master in charge of leading the college’s rituals but the main figure was the chanting master of the Great Assembly Hall. He was in charge of the rituals of the Great Prayer Festival during which he would lead the assembly of monks who might number in the tens of thousands. He would be supported in this task by the chanting masters of the four colleges and by a larger group of monks chosen for the quality of their voice and their chanting abilities. At a time where there was no sound system, leading such a large assembly was no small matter and only the best voices could pretend to such high honor. The chanting master and the monks specialized in chanting would train throughout the year, but especially during some of the evening debating sessions where the first two hours might be taken by the practice of chanting for the Great Prayer Festival.

This organization was reproduced at the level of each monastic college, which had in turn its own administrative, disciplinary, and religious structure. Its council, which was composed of the abbot, the representatives of the large regional houses, and important monastic officials, controlled the administration of the monastic college. The abbot, who headed the college, was in charge of its religious activities, overseeing the admission of new monks, the curriculum as well as the ritual calendar. The college’s disciplinarian (dratsanggi gekögrwa tshang gi dge skos) oversaw all disciplinary matters within the monastic college but had to defer to Drepung’Bras spungs’s two head disciplinarians. A chant leader (umdzédbu mdzad) led the college’s assembly in its ritual performances, and the director of the studies (lama zhung lenpabla ma gzhung len pa) oversaw various aspects of the scholastic routine.

At the lowest level were the regional houses, where monks from the different regions resided, much as in European medieval universities scholars were grouped by nations. Similarly, each monastery was composed of several regional houses where monks were grouped according to regional affiliation. For example, monks from the TrehorTre hor area of KhamKhams would go to the Trehor house, whereas monks from the KongtserawaKong jo ra ba area would go to the Phukhang house. There, newcomers would find people able to understand and help them, thus providing a means to integrate culturally and linguistically vastly different groups. GomangSgo mang had sixteen such regional houses whereas LosellingBlo gsal gling had twenty-three, NgakpaSngags pa and DeyangBde yangs being too small to have regional houses. Not all regional houses were, however, equal, some being very large with as many as a thousand monks while others were much smaller. At GomangSgo mang, for example, HamdongHar gdong, SamloBsam blo, GungruGung ru, and DratiBra sti were considered the larger houses. As such they were given special privileges and had a large network of apartment houses (chikhangspyi khang) and affiliated houses (mitsenmi tshan).

Like the medieval nation, which was headed by a procurer appointed by a council of regents, the regional houses were ruled by a council, which appointed a house teacher (khangtsen gegenkhang tshan dge rgan) to administer the house. He was in charge of the discipline of the house, making sure that the schedule was respected, young monks memorized their texts, scholars attended debate, and so on. He was also in charge of making sure that monks did not keep knives in their rooms, a reminder of the rather heteroclite nature of monasteries where the best scholar lived side by side with the worst punk. As with the other monks in charge of the monastic discipline, he could not be criticized while in office, even by the house’s council. However, once he had stepped down after a fixed term (often a year), he could be attacked and penalized by the council for his actions as a house teacher. This system allowed the officers to have sufficient authority over a large mass of monks, who were often quite rowdy and difficult to control. It also provided checks and balances, since the officers were retroactively accountable for their actions, and had to be mindful not to overstep their authority.

This hierarchy directed a highly complex institution with a large and rather heteroclite monastic population. Although Drepung’Bras spungs was originally conceived as a scholastic institution dedicated to the study and practice of Buddhism, the reality has at times been quite different and monks have been admitted in large numbers to the monastery regardless of their actual commitment to scholastic studies. This liberal policy of admission led to a lowering of monastic standards. Few restrictions on comportment were placed on monks, who were not required to undergo rigorous educational training. There were no exams to pass to remain in the monastery, and those who had no interest in studying or meditating were as welcome as dedicated scholars. Many monks spent their time as administrators (chisospyi gso), being engaged in a variety of political and economical tasks. Even punk-monks (dapdopldab ldob), members of monastic gangs who spent most of their time fighting each other and playing competitive sports, were accommodated and could remain part of the monastic community. Rather than repress these groups of unusual monks, the monastic seats used their martial inclinations to act as a monastic police force, maintaining order among its large and often rowdy monastic population, collecting taxes from recalcitrant payers and defending monastic officials in dangerous travels.

The great majority of monks (dramanggrwa mang) opted for a relaxed life revolving around the elaborate ritual life of the monastery. Supported by their families, they dutifully attended monastic ceremonies while supplementing their income by performing rituals for the laity. They did not have any intellectual or spiritual ambition and considered their present life as a meritorious and pleasant preparation for future lives. The life of the scholars (pechawadpe cha ba) was quite different and entailed great sacrifices, but few were ready to endure such hardships in order to study. Hence, only a minority engaged in the scholastic activities on which the reputation of the institution was based. Most were quite happy with their participation to the rich ritual life of the monastery or to the complex administration of the vast wealth of the monastery.

The schematic description of the monastic chain of command does not begin, however, to capture the actual complexities of the organization and bureaucracies involved in the administration of the three seats. For example, besides regional houses, there were a number of affiliated houses whose status was determined customarily and hence was hard to encompass in an abstract organizational scheme. This was particularly true at GomangSgo mang, which counted as many as twenty-two affiliated houses. Among those, ten belonged to Samlo Regional House (Samlo Khangtsenbsam blo khang tshan) and nine were affiliated with HamdongHar gdong, the largest regional house at GomangSgo mang. Among the other three, one was affiliated to a smaller regional house (ZungchuZung chu) while the last two were autonomous. The Gomang Staff House (Gomang Böpa Zhungsgo mang bod pa gzhung) was a residence for the monks fulfilling administrative tasks at GomangSgo mang, whereas GadongDga’ gdong did not have any determined affiliation. Nevertheless, its monks, who originated from Central Tibet, would have to be part of a regional house determined by their precise origin. Even among the houses affiliated with a larger regional house, there were further distinctions to be made. For example, TsenpoBtsan po was affiliated to HamdongHar gdong, but this was not true of all its monks. Only the monks coming from nomadic areas could be part of HamdongHar gdong, whereas the ones coming from agricultural areas would have to belong to Samlo Regional House, despite being part of the same TsenpoBtsan po affiliated house as their nomadic colleagues!

A similar baroque complexity is in evidence in the various bureaucracies that administrated this large institution. Each corporate entity, that is, the seat, the monastic colleges, the regional houses and the affiliated houses, was managed by a complex administration whose structure was more often than not determined by complex customary arrangements. For example, the financial administration of GomangSgo mang was in the hands of a council of five stewards. Four were designated by the four large regional houses (HamdongHar gdong, SamloBsam blo, GungruGung ru and DratiBra sti) and were called chakbukphyag sbug, whereas the last one represented the abbot and was called labrang chakdzöbla brang phyag mdzod. The four monks, who were nominated by the four important regional houses, were not just elected but had to be approved by the GadongDga’ gdong and the TenmaBstan ma oracles, who lived near Drepung’Bras spungs. These five administrators met on a daily basis and decided on all financial concerns of the monastery. They were helped by two secretaries and a representative of the smaller regional houses designated from either ZhungpaGzhung pa, TewoThe bo or ChupzangChu bzang houses. If the decision was too important or the five administrators could not reach agreement, they would convey an exceptional council of fourteen members composed of the five administrators, the disciplinarian, the chant leader and representatives of the important regional houses. If this council could not decide, a plenary session of the monastery, involving representatives from all the regional houses, would meet. At LosellingBlo gsal gling, a similar structure existed, with a council composed of the three stewards designated by the three large regional houses (TsaTsha, PukhangPhu khang and KongboKong po), a steward representing the abbot and a secretary. Such council reflected not only the distribution of power between the large regional houses but also a regional balance, for among the five administrators, two would have to be from Central Tibet or TsangGtsang and two from Eastern Tibet.

Besides deciding financial matters, the council of the monastic college oversaw the other tasks that were part of the life of the monastery. For example, two store-managers (nyertsang depagnyer tshang sde pa) were in charge of providing the teas and food to be offered during the college’s rituals, whereas two caretakers (könnyerdkon gnyer) were looking after its headquarters. There were monks in charge of preparing tea and food for the monks participating in the college’s rituals. There were also monks in charge of taking care of the various buildings of the college such as its Assembly Hall (Dukang’du khang), its two debating courtyards, and the buildings of its administration. Other monks would prepare the offerings, make sure that all of its objects remain accounted for, etc., whereas others were in charge of various tasks pertaining to the practice of rituals such as performing the college’s rituals for its protectors, marking the time for rituals, etc.

A similar complexity existed on the disciplinary side of the life of each college where the disciplinarian was helped in his tasks by various office holders. There were the two helpers (chaprilchab ril), who would oversee the monks taking part in rituals in the monastery’s Assembly Hall. There were also the leaders of each class (kyorpönskyor dpon) in charge of overseeing that the texts are well memorized, the proper topics studied, and the debates well attended. These class-leaders would be overseen by a chief-class leader (karam kyorpönbka’ rams skyor dpon) in charge of overseeing the work of the leaders. Finally, the disciplinarian could request the help of punk-monks to control large crowds of monks, some of whom may behave in quite rowdy ways.

An even greater complexity existed in the administration of the monastic seat. My preceding description of the council as being in charge of administrating the seat is a crude simplification, for the council existed at several levels. There was the Large Council (Lachi Chenmobla spyi chen mo) that would meet for deciding important decisions. It was composed of the seven present abbots (four heading the four existing colleges whereas the other three were the honorific and fictional heads of the three colleges folded into GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling), the retired abbots, the overseer of the Ganden Palace, the overseer of the Trashi KhangsarBkra shis khang gsar, the two disciplinarians, the chanting master of the Great Assembly Hall and two administrators designated by GomangSgo mang and LosellingBlo gsal gling. This council was the highest authority at Drepung’Bras spungs, being in charge of the finances of the monastic seat and of deciding important cases. It would not meet very often but would delegate its authority to two lesser councils in charge of administrating the numerous lesser aspects of the life at Drepung’Bras spungs.

The middling council, which was composed of the teachers of HamdongHar gdong and Samlo Regional Houses and responsible for the Rainy Season Retreat (Yarnédbyar gnas), was in charge of watching over aspects of the monastic calendar. The small council, which was composed of two monks in charge of offerings, two in charge of the printing press, one in charge of buildings and one in charge of health, was entrusted with various lesser tasks: watching over the various buildings such as the Ganden Palace and the Teaching Compound (Künga Rawakun dga’ rwa ba), overseeing the Great Assembly Hall, looking after its cleanliness, preparing the offerings, overseeing libraries and the printing of texts, providing rudimentary health care for the sick, etc. There were also the tasks of feeding the monks during the rituals held at the Great Assembly Hall, marking the time of the rituals, making sure that the proper rituals, particularly those intended for the protectors, were held, etc.

The financial administration of such a place was obviously no small matter, as Drepung’Bras spungs had large estates on which its subjects (misermi gser) lived. They were the monastery’s tax-payers (trelpakhral pa), who were bound to the land and had to pay taxes to the monastery, taxes that were collected by the monastery’s stewards. The stewards were helped in this task by various tax collectors, who were at times not adverse to use the force of punk-monks to bring to order recalcitrant payers. The stewards were helped in their other tasks by officers such as grain-keepers (drunyergru gnyer) in charge of lending grain, and treasurers (ngülnyerdngul gnyer) in charge of managing financial transactions, etc. In this way, Drepung’Bras spungs administered 185 estates with twenty-thousand subjects and three-hundred pastures with sixteen-thousand nomads, from which large resources were extracted through a system of taxes paid in the form of grain or butter, rather than money. These resources would then be used to engage in a variety of trade and lending operations. Grain would be lent to the peasants and collected back with a yearly interest, which could be as high as twenty percent. Butter would be sold, either on the market or bartered against other goods.

The resources that were thus obtained were used for some of the monastic tasks, particularly for supporting the rituals held for the monastery (to be distinguished from those requested by outside sponsors). The administrators would have to make sure that the proper resources were given to support these activities. They would also watch over the use of a number of particular funds allocated for particular rituals. These funds were part of bequests made by important donors such as the Tibetan government, the Emperor of China or rich families to support the yearly practice of particular rituals. These funds consisted of capital invested in trade or in agricultural loans to produce the interests that would be used for covering the expenses of the ritual.

One purpose for which the considerable wealth of the monastery was almost never used was the welfare of the monks, even the poorer ones. Drepung’Bras spungs and its subunits did not provide for their members, except at ritual assemblies where tea was served. If the sponsor was generous, food would also be served and money given, but this was not the rule. Hence, monks largely provided for themselves with the help of their families and donors. Non-scholars would often supplement their income by practicing rituals at the home of donors. Scholars renounced such possibilities to devote themselves single-mindedly to their studies. This created great difficulties, particularly for young monks coming from afar. It was quite common for them to run out of food and to go hungry for several days until they could find some way to sustain themselves. Moreover, the diet of most monks was extremely impoverished, even by the rudimentary standards of Tibetan cuisine. Many lived almost exclusively on roasted barley flour (tsampartsam pa) and butter tea, and had rarely access to meat or vegetables. Thus, the wealth of the monastery did not imply ease and comfort for its monks but power and prestige for the institution itself.

This power and prestige were communicated through various symbolic means. Temples were filled with great riches, statues in precious metals adorned with jewels, books printed with golden letters, and vast amounts of rich silk brocade and gold. Monastic officials saw the preservation and increase of such a wealth as one of their main tasks. The history of Drepung’Bras spungs is marked by a string of recorded gifts such as PolhanéPho lha nas’s building of mi dbang lha khang. For an administrator, the reception of such a gift was considered a major achievement. Rituals displayed the same spirit of pomp and splendor. They were often quite elaborate and intricate, with rich offerings carried on by monks specializing in such tasks. Finally, monastic dress communicated the prestige and position of the monks wearing them. Monastic officials in particular emphasized the power of their office by wearing shirts made of brocade, rich woolen robes, and walking slowly, standing tall and balancing their arms in a dignified way. The disciplinarians carried a big staff that stressed the power and severity of their charge, and would stuff their shoulders so as to appear more formidable. Similarly, reincarnated lamas wore rich robes, silk undershirts and brocade shirts to mark their ranks.

The accumulation of wealth and the pomp of monastic dresses and ceremonies may surprise those who imagine Buddhist monks as following the simple and ascetic lifestyle of mendicants. The behavior and pomp of monastic officials also appear to conflict with our modern conceptions of efficient administration. But such practices become more understandable when placed in their proper context, the administration of power in a traditional society where authorities had fewer means to control their population. This was true of the state but also of other large power-holders such as Drepung’Bras spungs. In such a society, the symbolic projection of authority became all the more significant given the limits of the actual control that could be exercised. Hence, it became important for monastic office holders to project an image of power and wealth. Images of power impressed often more than actual power and led people to model their behavior to the expected norms. Similarly, wealth impressed people and attracted more wealth. When donors saw the magnificent temples and their artistic treasures, they felt that they had made a good choice in supporting this institution. This in turn allowed the monastery to attract more resources and to present to the outside world an image of greatness that greatly helped in enforcing its rights and privileges.

The administration of such complex entities required not just the display of symbolic power but real political, administrative and financial skills. There was a kind of cursus honorum for those interested in the politico-administrative side of monastic life. Monks moved from lower to higher echelons, reaching the important jobs that were both a source of honor and considerable rewards. Often, but not always, the important jobs were monopolized by monks from an aristocratic background, or by those belonging to one of the large households (shaktsang chenmoshag tshang chen mo) of the monastery, or by monks who were rich enough to become one of the monk-sponsors (chödzéchos mdzad). Often, these three categories overlapped. monk-sponsors were often of an aristocratic background and belonged to one of the powerful monastic households, which were like small dynasties of monastic administrators. The continuity of these households was insured by taking in new monks, either relatives or promising candidates, who would be in a position to maintain the good standing of the household.

External observers have often viewed this complex hierarchical system critically, seeing it as a radical departure from and a betrayal of an originally pure tradition of simplicity and equality. Regardless of the possible historical merits of such a view, what is important to understand is that Tibetans themselves do not share this perception. Rather than being embarrassed by it, most Tibetan monks view the complexity of the monastic institution as a civilizational achievement, something to be proud of rather than embarrassed by. Gen Lobzang GyatsoRgan blo bzang rgya mtsho, one of my teachers, used to remark with great pride on the “capitalist” and “democratic” nature of the large Tibetan monasteries, which were powerful self-governing associations supported by large financial assets and led by complex bureaucracies staffed by competent and dedicated administrators.

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: