Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries
by Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble and Marietta Kind
Edited by Samten G. Karmay and Yasuhiko Nagano
National Museum of Ethnology and THL
Reproduced with permission from the authors
under the THL Digital Text License.

The bo County

(91) gTso tshang Monastery

1. Name

gTso tshang Monastery’s full name is gSang sngags smin grol dar rgyas gling. gTso is the family name of gTso ’phags Zla ba rgyal mtshan whose descendents founded the three monasteries -Ze kha, Bya brang and gSer gzhong- that constitute gTso tshang. Since the monastery is presently located in Legs lung village, it is also known as Legs lung Monastery. In the local dialect, the name of the village used to be La lo, but since no one no longer knows the original meaning of the term, the monastery’s name was recently changed to Legs lung, “Good Valley”, because of the term’s positive connotation.

2. Location

In the early nineteen-eighties, the authorities granted permission to rebuild Ze kha, Bya brang and gSer gzhong monasteries together as one monastery at the site of Bya brang Monastery in Bya brang village, where the main assembly hall (’du khang) had escaped destruction. However, since there was no longer enough land there to rebuild all three monasteries, Legs lung village was chosen as a new site. The site is located in Drongtsa (’Brong tsha) valley, 2 km east of the The bo county seat. The mountain behind the monastery (rgyab ri) is part of the sTag sgang range. The monastery, nestled in the mountain, is situated on the north bank of the eastward flowing ’Brug chu river and faces south (latitude: 34°02’93”N, longitude: 103°15’22”E).

The original site of Ze kha monastery (latitude: 34°02’41”N, longitude: 103°14’67”E) is located 1 km northeast.

The original site of Bya brang Monastery is located 2 km east of county town on the opposite river bank (latitude: 34°02’27”N, longitude: 103°15’35”E).

The original site of gSer gzhong Monastery (latitude: 34°35’45”N, longitude: 103°30’27”E) is located 5 km east of county town on the north bank of the river.

3. History

According to oral tradition, the three brothers and great Bonpo masters Do ’phags chen mo, sKyang ’phags Nyi ma rgyal mtshan and gTso ’phags Zla ba rgyal mtshan came to Amdo to spread the Bon doctrine. They “opened” many hermitages (ri khrod), some of which later became monasteries (for instance, sNang zhig Monastery No. 180, one of the largest Bonpo monasteries in Tibet, was originally a hermitage founded by Do ’phags chen mo). The three masters played a key role in the first spread of Bon in Amdo. There are descendents of gTso still living in The bo, Khri ka, Shar khog (=Zung chu) and rGan rgya in Amdo. Kyang za Yig rtsis ma, the mother of the three masters, also a fervent Bonpo, established her main residence at a site known as dGu skyang. gTso ’phags Zla ba rgyal mtshan is believed to have travelled extensively throughout the area, actively spreading the Bon religion. Although he founded only a number of sacred sites (and no monastery), he made a profound impression on the local culture and traditions. One of his mother’s sacred sites and his main ritual and cremation sites are located at Chu gter rdzong, on Brag dkar bya rgod, a sacred mountain (gnas ri) in Amdo. The first Bonpo monasteries were founded much later (only four to five generations ago) by gTso ’phags’s descendents. At present the remaining known descendents of gTso ’phags live in the three villages that are financing the reconstruction of the three monasteries. Five of the families live in Ra nang village which is responsible for Ze kha Monastery, four in Bya brang village which is responsible for Bya brang Monastery, and two in gSer gzhong village which is responsible for gSer gzhong Monastery. There is no doubt that the ’Phags pa rnams gsum were lay people and that their religious tradition was permeated by indigenous customs and beliefs. However, the monasteries - which emerged much later - seem to have been strongly influenced by Buddhism.

Since gTso tshang Monastery in fact comprises three monasteries - Ze kha, Bya brang, and gSer gzhong - it is important to mention here the information concerning their respective historical backgrounds.

Ze kha

The date of Ze kha Monastery’s foundation and the identity of its founder remain obscure; even A skal, the only surviving monk who has some knowledge on the history of gTso tshang and who wrote the only historical account of the monastery (TGLG) is uncertain. The first master of Ze kha Monastery, Shar ba khri skyang, was born in sTod mtsho ’phel into one of the three Khri skyang villages of Zung chu County in rNga ba Prefecture; the second master was born in rGya myi ya ru (the exact location of which remains unknown). The third master was born in En ’dzin mtsho ’dus. During his lifetime the monastery’s assembly hall was destroyed by fire and rebuilt. He travelled to Central Tibet and Khams. He was renowned as a saint, and was believed to be endowed with miraculous powers (grub rtags); He is said to have founded the monastery’s ’cham (monastic dance). The fourth master remains unidentified. The fifth, Bla ma skyabs, was born in lDong ba village of Brag sgom ba; his father was called A dam and his mother Klu mo. He broke his religious vows, so three influential monks of Ze kha - Dran pa skyabs, bSod nams dar rgyas and A rdo - invited Tshul khrims rgyal mtshan, a descendent of Do ’phags chen po, then aged five, from rNga khog to take his place in 1930. However, the new incumbent also broke his vows when he turned twenty-five, and was replaced by his brother Bon slebs Nam mkha’ bstan ’dzin, the present master of gTso tshang Monastery. Before 1958, Ze kha Monastery comprised a two storey assembly hall with five rooms on each floor, a common house (spyi khang) with nine rooms and a two-storey building with five rooms called rNga sgra khang. According to oral tradition, the monastery was built on the site of an ancient Chinese Han fort.

Bya brang

Although the real name of Bya brang Monastery’s first lama remains unknown, he was locally known as gSer so can and was born in dGu skyang. According to oral tradition, he left dGu skyang with a retinue in search of an auspicious place to build a monastery. Disappointed by the first two sites where he expected to receive some favourable omen, he continued his search. As he was passing through a place called Nags ’bul beyond Tsha bzo mountain, he came upon a dead body which turned out to be that of the son of the A bze village chief who had been killed by a gang of robbers. He covered up the corpse, left his favourite dog behind to guard the corpse, and went to look for the deceased man’s father. He eventually met the chief and his entourage who were looking for the son. The chief, moved by the Lama’s solicitude for his dead son, requested him to become his spiritual master and offered him land on which to build the monastery, as well as fields and an estate to support it. The chosen site was known as Bya brang (“Bird’s chest”) because of its garuda-like shape. gSer so can accepted the offer and thus Bya brang Monastery was built. His successor and incarnation was born in Mar sgur village not far from the monastery. Not much is known about the third incarnation except that he too was born in Mar sgur. However there are many fantastical tales relating his miraculous deeds circulating among the local Bonpo community. The fourth incarnation was born in En ’dzi’i snya bza’. The fifth was born in 1918, and his father was Klu ’bum bsod nams. He studied under Hor btsun bsTan ’dzin blo gros and obtained the Rab ’byams pa degree at gYung drung gling Monastery (No.2), and thus acquired a reputation as a learned lama. He built a new assembly hall. He died in 1958 at gYung drung gling. Before 1958, the monastery comprised a new assembly hall built of wood with five rooms on each floor, and a two-storey common house (spyi khang) with five rooms on each floor, likewise built of wood.

gSer gzhong

The first master of gSer gzhong Monastery, a descendent of gTso ’phags called Thor cog can, arrived from Dwang ra in the North to look for a place to build a monastery. He stopped at the site of gSer gzhong one night to rest and dreamt that a fox had stolen one of his boots, thus preventing him from travelling further. However, he found the fox’s den with his boot inside. Thor cog can took this as a favourable omen and decided to build the monastery there. Its construction was financed by A nag dbang chen and gShen tsha glang thar.

Thor cog can’s reincarnation was born in sTag ri snya nang. The following incarnation and third lama of the monastery was born in En ’dzi’i nyin ri. The fourth, Shes rab bstan ’dzin was born at sGang ri kha in 1907 and was enthroned at the age of six. He studied under Kun bzang tshang from sNang zhig in The bo and later went himself to sNang zhig to further his studies. He also travelled to central Tibet with an entourage. On the way, at Sog sde in Nag chu kha, he subdued a demon, a feat which earned him considerable fame and popularity. After spending three years at gYung drung gling and seven years at Grwa sa ’og ma i.e. sTag rtse ri khrod in Kong po to study and collect funds for the monasteries, he returned to The bo where he died in 1954 at the age of forty-seven.

Another incarnation of the same lama was born almost at the same time, in 1916. His father was named Klu ’bum and his mother gNam sman ’tsho. He was enthroned at the age of twelve and his appointed tutor (yongs ’dzin) was Tshe dbang shes rab. He left the monastery at a young age to search for his own spiritual teacher and whom he found in the person of bSe ba drung ram pa Shes rab phun tshogs at sKyang tshang Monastery (No. 202). He studied and practised assiduously for many years until his master’s death, after which he returned to The bo where he spent four years at bDe gsal ri khrod, a hermitage he had founded. He then travelled to Central Tibet with two students via rKyang phyag. There is a record of all the Bonpo and Buddhist monasteries and sacred sites of Amdo, Khams, gTsang, dBus, Nag chu kha, mNga’ ris which he visited on his way. He also studied under Shar rdza bKra shis rgyal mtshan for two years. While in Central Tibet, he made a three-year retreat to practise the secret Ma rgyud tantra in a cave at lHa ri gyang tho where King dMu khri btsan po is said to have practised the sPyi spungs tantra of the Bon religion. A message from his monastery informing him of a disaster and requesting him to return drew him from his retreat. Back in The bo he chose to stay at the hermitage which he had recently established and not at his residence in the monastery. He became renowned throughout the area as an outstanding lama. He died in 1958 in Cone.

In addition to the above-mentioned lamas of the main lineage, there are many other famous masters and practitioners whose stories are well known by the local population. Before 1958, the monastery comprised a three-storey assembly hall with seven rooms on each floor, a three-room sgrub khang and a five-room spyi khang, all built of wood.

In the early nineteen-eighties, the elder monks from all three monasteries gathered to discuss how to rebuild the three monasteries together (permission was granted for only one monastery). They sought the advice of Bon slebs Nam mkha’ bstan ’dzin, the head lama of Ze kha at the time, and requested him to supervise the reconstruction of gTso tshang Monastery. The new assembly hall has twelve pillars. The most sacred objects within are a statue of sTon pa gShen rab which was discovered by dBal khyung sMon lam rgyal mtshan at gNas chen gSang ba yang rdzong, and brought to the monastery by Bon lsebs Nam mkha’ bstan ’dzin.

4. Hierarchical system

  • bla ma
  • dbon po
  • dbu mdzad
  • dge skos
  • gnyer pa,
  • ’go bdag bla ma
  • las sne
  • spyi ba
  • dkor gnyer or lha gnyer
  • mar chen
  • ja mar
  • ja g-yog
  • chu len

Two common practices in monasteries are mang ja, tea offering and ’gyed phogs, money and other offerings distributed among the monks during assemblies.

5. Current number of monks

There are thirty-three monks and novices in gTso tshang Monastery.

6. Current education

At first A skal only taught the young monks reading and reciting. Later he began to teach a little grammar from texts such as the Sum bcu pa and rTags ’jug. In 1996, Bon slebs Nam mkha’ bstan ’dzin sent sTag tsha Kun grol from rTogs ldan Monastery (No.178) to gTso tshang to be the head of a meditation college, to teach Tibetan, Bonpo theory and practice to all the monks, and to guide the three-year meditation retreat (lo gsum) following the tradition (phyag len) of rTogs ldan Monastery. According to this tradition, The lo gsum must begin on the 11th day of the 4th month according to the Tibetan calendar and the first period of the first year begins with the practice of meditation according to the Khrid yig dmar mo mdzub tshugs for one hundred nights. The second period of the first year begins on the 1st of September with the practice of meditation according to the rTsa lung gsang mdzod by Kun grol grags pa for one hundred nights. The first period of the second year is devoted to the introduction (sngon ’gro) to the rDzogs chen tradition according to the bKa’ lung rgya mtsho by Shar rdza bKra shis rgyal mtshan (1859-1934) for one hundred nights, and the second period to rDzogs chen meditation for one hundred nights. In the third year, the Khrid yig dmar mo mdzub tshugs is again used as a base for practice as sngon ’gro and bcud len for one hundred nights, followed by the Tshe dbang bod yul ma, including the mun mtshams (meditation in darkness), for one hundred nights. Teachings during the lo gsum are based on the following works: the Ma rgyud cycle; Khrid yig dmar mo mdzub tshug of Kun grol grags pa (b.1700); the bKa’ lung rgya mtsho, the sDe snod mdzod and the bsKyed rdzogs lha gnyen shel gong by Shar rdza; the Bon rang lugs kyi khrid gzhung du ma las btus pa’i byang chub lam gyi rim pa’i dmigs khrid gshen bstan gsal ba’i sgron me (also known as Tshul chen lam rim) by Tshul chen Tshul khrims bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan.

7. Educational exchange

gTso tshang Monastery has close ties with rTogs ldan Monastery, the seat of Bon slebs Nam mkha’ bstan ’dzin. Thus Bon slebs sends educated monks to gTso tshang to teach and gTso tshang sends some of its young monks to rTogs ldan to study. rGod po (No.92) and gTer ri (No.97) used to be branch monasteries of gSer gzhong Monastery.

8 / 9. Rituals

  • 1st month, 3rd-5th day: celebration of mNyam med Shes rab rgyal mtshan’s anniversary during which the monks perform the dge spyod ritual and invite mNyam med for the gling skor; the 6th day marks the beginning of smon lam during which the bDe gshegs stong gi mtshan brjod is recited once a day. Ze kha Monastery had their ’cham dance on the 8th day followed by the gtor bzlog rite on the 9th day. Bya brang Monastery performed their ’cham on the 13th day, which was also followed by gtor bzlog rite. gSer gzhong Monastery exhibited its gos sku (a large embroidered tangkha) on the 15th day and its smon lam ceremonies ended on the 16th day with the gtor bzlog rite.
  • 3rd month, 1st-17th day: the Du tri su recitation practised, without interruption, by the monks and lay people together (male and female alike); participants must practise in silence (thun), while circumambulating the monastery (skor ba) the whole time. The transmission (dbang) of the Du tri su cycle is given on the 8th.
  • 4th month, 7th-16th day: the mChod pa stong mchod ritual is performed (7th-12th day: the stong mchod ritual in conjunction with the Klong rgyas ceremony, 13th-16th day: the ceremony of fasting known as the smyung gnas yar tshogs together with the dGe bsnyen lha lnga ritual).
  • 5th month, 1st-15th day: the dbyar gnas ritual in which all the monks of different grades, drang srong ba and gtsang gtsug pa must participate in the great ritual known as Ma tri sgrub chen. The practitioners of the dbyar gnas must also recite the Kun dbyings sku lnga’i cho ga and the sPang skong once a day. The transmission of the bzlog chog was given on the 16th day.
  • 8th month, 1st-7th day: the ritual service (zhabs brtan sku rim), consisting of one thousand bskang ba and tshogs for the tutelar (yi dam) and protective deities (bka’ skyong) in conjunction with the ritual cycle of the deity gSang drag, had to be completed withintat period. The ritual ended with the performance of the srung zlog bsad gsum of the gSang drag cycle.
  • 10th month, starting on the 26th day: seven-day ritual of the dBal gsas cycle with the ’cham dance on the 29th.

12th month, 21st-29th day: ritual known as dgu gtor during which the srung zlog of the deity sTag la is performed.

In addition to the above-mentioned annual ceremonies there are monthly rituals known as the Cho ga bcu gnyis, “The Twelve Rituals” sponsored by each of the monks in turn:

  1. dPal ldan dus ’khor in the 1st month
  2. Byams ldan rgyal ba in the 2nd month
  3. Kun dbyings sku lnga in the 3rd month
  4. rNam dag byams ma in the 4th month
  5. Kun rig sgron ma in the 5th month
  6. dGe bsnyen lha lnga in the 6th month
  7. Kun gsal byams ma in the 7th month
  8. sMon lam mtha’ yas in the 8th month
  9. gYung drung rnam ’joms in the 9th month
  10. sMan bla in the 10th month
  11. dGe spyod in the 11th month
  12. rGyal ba rgya mtsho in the 12th month

10. Books held in the monastery

Seven copies of the Bonpo Canon (the second edition printed in Chengdu), one copy of the Dran pa bka’ thang in eight volumes, one copy of the Tshe dbang bka’ thang in four volumes, one copy of the Slob dpon bka’ thang in four volumes, one copy of the mKha’ ’gro’i bka’ thang.

12. Local community

In the past the communities of three monasteries were organized, following the traditional Tibetan military system, into three units (dmag ru), which, in the past, functioned as military divisions during critical times and which were stationed in open valleys: Nyin pa unit comprising Ra nang, Yang le, rDza ri, Kha lung, Lag lab, Gyi rong, lDong bzo and A ro, the manor villages of Ze kha Monastery; Srib pa unit comprising mDa’ lung, Yar sgur, Mar sgur, Bya brang, dPa’ brgya, sBas skyes, sNgo sngo and Nges sa, the manor villages of Bya brang Monastery (since the Bonpo monastery in Kha ba’i klong was a branch monastery of Bya brang, its villages, as well as half of Kha ba, Shug steng kha and Ri bo sgang also belonged to Bya brang Monastery); sMad ma khag gsum unit comprising Chag sgo, Nyin lung kha, Shing ’bras, gSer gzhong, Ci nges nang, Kha nang, sGur mgo, Ban chung (no mention in KBTL), Nyin srib, and gSer gzhong Monastery’s villages. Altogether three hundred and sixty families. All of them now belong to sTeng ka district (xiang) of The bo.

13. Local festivals

The mountain behind (rgyab ri) of Ze kha is called Ho ri. Mount Brag nag behind Ho ri is the abode of the local deity Brag nag. The mountain range to the east of Ze kha is called sTag sgang and and is the rgyab ri of gTso tshang Monastery, and the range to the west of Ze kha is called gZig sgang.

gTso tshang Monastery is located at the foot of the sTag sgang range and the la btsas that was built at its summit with the help of Bon slebs Nam mkha’ bstan ’dzin in 1986 is propitiated on the 13th day of the 4th month.

14. Occupation of the local people

Farmers, who, in the past, were organized into military units (see above section). A wide variety of crops grow in the valley - wheat, barley, beans, potatos, peas, and maize. Most of the farmers also keep animals of some kind - cows, horses, donkeys, mules, sheep and goats.


(1) Interviews

Interviews with A skal and sTag tsha Kun grol on 26 August 1996 at the monastery. A skal was a monk at Ze kha Monastery and was born in De bzo in 1932.

sTag tsha Kun grol was born in rNga khog in 1960. He is a monk at rTogs ldan Monastery in rNga khog, and was sent to gTso tshang by Bon slebs Nam mkha’ bstan ’dzin to teach the monks there and guide the three-year retreat (lo gsum).

On 29 August, I visited Nyi ma bstan ’dzin, a monk from gSer gzhong Monastery, born in 1908, on account of his knowledge of the monastery’s history. Unfortunately, owing to his old age, he had lost much of his memory and could not assist me.

(2) Texts
  1. BHMT
  2. DBSJ
  3. KBTL
  4. KNGL
  5. KTSD
  6. TGLG
  7. TLPY
  8. ZNYZ

Note Citation for Page

Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble, and Marietta Kind, A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2003), .

Bibliographic Citation

Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble, and Marietta Kind. A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2003.