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Drepung: An Introduction
by Georges Dreyfus
January 30, 2006
Section 5 of 7

The Present

If the past of Drepung’Bras spungs is one of enormous political and economic power, splendid liturgical and artistic achievements, great intellectual and religious practices, its present is quite different. With the tragic events that have marred the history of Tibet in the second half of the twentieth century, life at Drepung’Bras spungs has changed quite dramatically. This became particularly true in the aftermath of the failure of the revolt of 1959 when the LhasaLha sa population rose against the authorities. Many joined the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Talé Lama Kutreng Chupzhipatā la’i bla ma sku phreng bcu bzhi pa) in exile in India while those who stayed in Tibet underwent great hardships, being engulfed in the vagaries of the post-1959 repression, the economic devastation of the Great Leap Forward, the famine that ensued, and the chaos and destructions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Many of the Drepung’Bras spungs monks who remained in Tibet from 1959 onwards had taken part in the failed uprising, and even those who had not were suspect due to the monastery’s overall involvement. The monastery was seen as rebellious and thus became a target for authorities bent on eliminating resistance to the implementation of socialist policies. Overnight the estate system overall, including that supporting major monasteries such as Drepung’Bras spungs, was abolished and all the outstanding loans (perhaps as much as $5 million) were cancelled. A group of party officials formed a government “work team” which descended on the monastery. Many monks belonging to the intellectual, religious or administrative elite were denounced as counter-revolutionaries and sent to labor camps from where few came back. The others, particularly the younger ones who were lucky enough to have remained anonymous, gradually left or were sent home where they were integrated into local work units. Thus, by 1966 Drepung’Bras spungs had ceased to exist as a monastic institution in Tibet, the buildings transformed into schools, hospitals or storage-rooms. The few who remained ceased to function as monks and were subjected to harsh treatments, such as being made to perform exhausting manual labor. Moreover, they were not allowed to wear robes or to engage in any religious activity and were required to participate in endless ideological reeducation campaigns during which religion was denounced. Some dealt with this terrible situation with great courage, using their position to save what could be saved. They buried statues, packed away texts, and they preserved temples by transforming them into storerooms, thus putting them beyond the reach of the vandalism of Red Guards. Hence, most of the important buildings at Drepung’Bras spungs were preserved, contrary to most monasteries in Tibet. Still, many buildings fell apart, either through intentional destruction or neglect.

Gen LamrimpaRgan lam rim pa in the Chapel of the Buddhas of the Three Times/Great Assemby Hall

The greatest example of the attempt to preserve the monastic heritage at Drepung’Bras spungs during these difficult years is that of Gen LamrimpaRgan lam rim pa, a modern saint whose personality dominates contemporary Drepung’Bras spungs. Gen LamrimpaRgan lam rim pa was an ordinary monk from south-eastern Tibet who had been engaged in studies for a number of years when the events of 1959 overtook his life. Throughout the difficult events of the next two decades, Gen LamrimpaRgan lam rim pa managed to stay at ’Bras spungs within Tibet. When he was told that he would have to chose between working for his keep and not eating, Gen LamrimpaRgan lam rim pa embraced the latter alternative. He entered into a prolonged retreat in which he is said to have sustained himself with blessed pills. During this time, he also collected as many texts and statues as he could. Remaining in complete isolation and probably benefiting from the protection of local administrators, he remained at Drepung’Bras spungs throughout the dark years and emerged in the 1980s as a source of learning and inspiration. He became recognized as one of the great monks of his generation, a scholar as well as a saint whose courage and resolution embody the determination of the Tibetan people to preserve its culture and traditions. Despite the veneration that surrounded him, Gen LamrimpaRgan lam rim pa continued to live as a simple monk, devoting his time to teaching monks and collecting as many texts as possible. After his passing away, his library and few personal belongings were moved to the Ganden Palace where they have remained exposed since then.

Things started to improve after the end the Cultural Revolution. By 1980, the few monks who had remained were allowed to engage in limited religious activities while still doing full time manual labor. The monastery was also allowed to restart gradually its traditional activities, holding its first collective ritual in 1982 and reinstating the scholastic curriculum that had made its past glory. Some of the monks who had been at Drepung’Bras spungs before 1959 and had preserved their monastic vows were allowed to come back. The monastery was also allowed to admit new recruits, but only under tight supervision of the authorities. Whereas previously, the admission to the monastery was in the hands of the monastic authorities and hence quite liberal, the new policies are very restrictive. Only young men over eighteen years can be admitted. More importantly, the monastery is allowed to admit only a limited number of applicants. An absolute limit of seven hudnred monks was set for the whole of Drepung’Bras spungs, a monastery that housed more than ten-thousand before 1959. Moreover, this limit did not mean that the monastery could automatically fill its quota, for it had to receive special authorization for each batch of new admissions. By the summer of 2005, Drepung’Bras spungs had around 640 monks officially enrolled, with several hundred young men waiting for their turn.

This limitation has been one of the main sources of friction with the authorities. It has prevented thousands of young men from fulfilling their religious vocation, leading many to seek in India what they could not find in their homeland. It has also had difficult consequences for the monastery, which has struggled to maintain its traditional religious activities with such a monastic body much reduced in size. Monks have worked very hard at reviving their institution and in many ways have been quite successful. But there are simply not enough people to do all that needs to be done: keep up the place, perform the religious rituals required by the monastic calendar or by the laity, work for the monastery and engage in studies! Even the maintenance of the old buildings, which were built to house more than ten-thousand monks and require constant care, has proved too much for a community of fewer than seven hundred people stretched thin over too many tasks. Hence, buildings often look poorly kept and the monastery has at times the appearance of a ghost town.

The structure of the administration of the monastery has also been radically changed. As we saw, Drepung’Bras spungs, like any other monastery in Tibet, was an autonomous, self-governing corporate body ruled by a council chosen by the various entities composing the monastery. Since reopening, the monastery has been directed by a Democratic Management Committee (DMC, Mangtso Daknyer Uyön Lhenkhangdmangs gtso bdag nyer u yon lhan khang), which has consistently functioned as a channel for implementing the decisions taken by the government and the party. The composition of the DMC reflects this function. At first composed exclusively of monks working under the supervision of party cadres, the presence of officials from the Bureau of Religious Affairs within the DMC has been officialized since the mid 1990s. The present DMC at Drepung’Bras spungs is made up of seventeen members: eleven monks and six cadres. The day to day running of the place is in the hands of the four monastic managers, who are in charge of coordinating the various tasks performed by the monks working for the monastery. But their decisions have to be approved by the DMC, where the cadres hold effective power. Hence, this body is less the expression of the monastic population, as the old council was, than a channel for implementing the policies of the government and the party.

This has led to a tense situation in which the leaders of the monastery are placed in a delicate situation, being caught between the decisions of the authorities and the wishes of the monastic body. This tension concerns particularly the young monks, who are frustrated by the restrictions imposed by the authorities, particularly those imposed on the admission process. This difficult situation has also led many young monks to become involved in nationalist politics with problematic consequences. Young monks from Drepung’Bras spungs were at the heart of the riots of 1987-8 when they demonstrated around LhasaLha sa against the authorities. This political involvement has in turn exacerbated the situation, creating renewed difficulties for the monastery and its leaders. Many of the more active young monks were expelled, particularly those politically committed, thus removing from the monastery a group of highly dedicated young talents. More importantly, the participation of young Drepung’Bras spungs monks has revived the suspicion of the authorities, which see the monastery as fundamentally rebellious. This has strengthened the hands of those who are not supportive to the limited cultural and religious renewal that has been allowed since 1980 and would rather impose tougher restrictions on the activities of the monastery. In 2005, they were able to push for a new wave of patriotic reeducation campaign. Work teams have been reconstituted to visit monasteries around LhasaLha sa, reminiscent of the old days of the Maoist era. This has made the already difficult task of monastic leaders even more problematic. They are more than ever caught between the authorities and the young monks, who keep resenting a situation that is showing too little improvement.

In addition, in 1959 many Drepung’Bras spungs monks left for exile in India, where they struggled to reconstitute their institution in very difficult circumstances. Some monks were judged not to show sufficient scholarly promise and were shipped to the Himalayan foothills where they worked on various strategic road projects in very harsh conditions. The lucky ones were allowed to stay in Buxadur (Assam) where they had the opportunity to continue their studies and start to rebuild their institution. Many had, however, great difficulties in adapting to the Indian climate and died of tuberculosis, hepatitis or other diseases. Later on, the monks staying in Buxadur were moved to Mundgod in the Karnataka state of South India where they were given land. There, they had to start from scratch, building houses and bringing the land into cultivation. By the mid 1970s, they were on their way to rebuilding their institutions, a project that has continued to this day.

This rebuilding has been largely successful, though difficult. The material conditions are tough, the land poor and the harvest often threatened by wild life. Moreover, the increase of the monastic population has meant new hardships. At first intended for a limited monastic population of three hundred, the land has long become insufficient to support Drepung’Bras spungs-in-exile. By the beginning of the 1980s, the population had reached a thousand, already vastly outgrowing the resources provided by the land. The end of the 1980s marks the start of a new period of massive influx of monks from Eastern Tibet. Prevented from entering Drepung’Bras spungs in Tibet, these monks found no other solution than to join Drepung’Bras spungs-in-exile. Consequently, the population of Drepung’Bras spungs in Mundgod has exploded, reaching around three thousand at the turn of the century. Taking care of such a large population has been quite challenging, and only the tapping of new networks of international donors has allowed the monastery to survive.

The recreation of the intellectual tradition has also been difficult. Although many monks escaped to India, their number was small compared to those of Drepung’Bras spungs prior to 1959. Hence, the monastery has found it difficult at times to sustain the intensity of its intellectual life, though on the whole it has been quite successful. Classes have been reconstituted, texts reprinted, examinations reinstituted and teachers mobilized to ensure that the monastery’s learning would be preserved. Although Drepung’Bras spungs-in-exile never managed to match the learning that existed in Tibet prior to 1959, it has succeeded in producing competent scholars who are able to preserve their tradition.

In exile, Drepung’Bras spungs has kept some of its traditional organization. LosellingBlo gsal gling and GomangSgo mang are again large and thriving colleges but DeyangBde yangs and NgakpaSngags pa, being too small, have not been reestablished. The monastery has also tried to maintain as much of its administrative and disciplinary structure, though it is obviously deprived of the wealth and power it had in the old society. Being a steward or even an abbot is now more a chore than a desirable position, as it was in the old days when ambitious monks thought of these jobs as ways to advance in life. Similarly, being a disciplinarian does not give access to the wealth of LhasaLha sa as it was the case in the old days. Finally, the regional houses have lost some of their meaningfulness. Many of them are too small to support all the range of activities they had in Tibet. Finally, affiliated houses have disappeared, their monks being absorbed into a more rationalized organization. Nevertheless, the structures of Drepung’Bras spungs-in-exile is still quite similar to the one described here, with a general council ruling over Drepung’Bras spungs, monastic colleges in charge of scholastic activities and regional houses in charge of housing and socializing their monks.

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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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