Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
An Introduction to Sera’s Colleges
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 2 of 4

The Early History of SeraSe ra’s Colleges

A statue of Gungru Gyeltsen ZangpoGung ru rgyal mtshan bzang po (1383-1450), from a photo in Tshe dbang rin chen, ed., Se ra theg chen gling.9

Although the historical sources are inconsistent, it would appear that it was Gungru Gyeltsen ZangpoGung ru rgyal mtshan bzang po, the third holder of the SeraSe ra throne, who was responsible for instituting the college structure at SeraSe ra. GungruwaGung ru ba (1383-1450) created four colleges. He kept one of these colleges as his personal seat, and placed three of his senior students at the head of the other three colleges, as follows:

  • GungruwaGung ru ba: Stod or “Upper” College
  • Jangchup BumpaByang chub ’bum pa: Smad or “Lower” College
  • Jamyang Pakpa’Jam dbyangs ’phags pa: GyaRgya College
  • RangjungwaRang byung ba (per PurchokPhur lcog) or Sanggyé TsültrimSangs rgyas tshul khrims (per PenchenPaṇ chen and DesiSde srid): Dromteng’Brom steng or Drongteng’Brong steng College

Künkhyen Jangchup BumpaKun mkhyen byang chub ’bum pa (ca. fifteenth century) is to this day reckoned as the founder of the Mé College (Dratsang Mégrwa tshang smad), one of three still extant colleges of SeraSe ra. The colleges (dratsanggrwa tshang) GyaRgya and Dromteng’Brom steng eventually merged into the Töpa College (Dratsang Töpagrwa tshang stod pa) under another of GungruwaGung ru ba’s students, Sherap GyamtsoShes rab rgya mtsho or ShergyampaSher rgyam pa. Within a short time the Tö College itself was absorbed into a newly founded college called Byes. The Jé College (Dratsang Jégrwa tshang byes) was founded by KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa or Müsepa Lodrö Rinchen SenggéMus srad pa blo gros rin chen seng ge (ca. fifteenth century). Thus it would appear that by the middle of the fifteenth century, there were only two active colleges at SeraSe ra: Byes and Smad. Both of these were philosophical colleges (tsennyi dratsangmtshan nyid grwa tshang).

The four abbots of SeraSe ra, from a photo taken by F. Spencer Chapman in 1936-7. In Clare Harris and Tsering Shakya, Seeing Lhasa.10

The historical texts do not tell us when or why the colleges were consolidated. We can surmise, however, that at least two factors were involved. As is the case with most institutions, the success of a college probably had a lot to do with the charisma of its leader. The fact that the Tö College absorbed GyaRgya and Dromteng’Brom steng, and that Stod was itself absorbed into Byes, may have to do with the popularity of GungruwaGung ru ba (the founding lamabla ma of Stod) and of KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa (the founding lamabla ma of Byes) as scholars and saints. But there may also have been institutional factors at work. For example, the college consolidations may have coincided with the rise of the regional house (khangtsenkhang mtshan) as the formal subunits of colleges. As these smaller units of the colleges were institutionalized, they might have taken the place of the college as the locus of a monk’s main affiliation and as the site of his instruction. This, in turn, might have permitted the colleges to grow in size, and to absorb other colleges that were, for whatever reason, floundering. This, in any case, is one possible scenario explaining the process of college consolidation.

The third of SeraSe ra’s colleges, the Tantric College (Ngakpa Dratsangsngags pa grwa tshang), was not founded until the eighteenth century. The Tantric College is a ritual college whose perceived mission was and is the preservation of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s tantric tradition through the enactment of a yearlong liturgical cycle of tantric rites that focus on several different deities.

Thus, from the early eighteenth century on, SeraSe ra has had three colleges: Byes, Smad, and NgakpaSngags pa. The abbotship of the defunct Töpa College (Dratsang Töpagrwa tshang stod pa)11 continued on as an honorary position up to 1959. Thus, SeraSe ra had four abbots, even though one of them, as the monks were fond of saying, “had no college and no monks.”


[9] Tshe dbang rin chen, ed., Se ra theg chen gling (Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1995), 44.
[10] Clare Harris and Tsering Shakya, Seeing Lhasa (Chicago: Serindia , 2003), 11.
[11] One wonders whether this might not have something to do with the fact that at the time of its founding the original monks of Lha bzang khang’s private ritual college were most likely monks from the capital.
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An Introduction to Sera's Colleges, by José Ignacio Cabezón