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

The Jé College (Dratsang Jégrwa tshang byes)

KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa, founder of the Jé College (Dratsang Jégrwa tshang byes); a statue in the Jé College assembly hall, SeraSe ra-Tibet

The Jé College is the larger of SeraSe ra’s two philosophical colleges (tsennyi dratsangmtshan nyid grwa tshang). Shortly after the founding of the monastery, Künkhyenpa Lodrö Rinchen SenggéKun mkhyen pa blo gros rin chen seng ge, originally a monk of Drepung’Bras spungs Monastery, abandoned that institution with one hundred or so of his followers. Adopting SeraSe ra as their new home, KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa and his followers established a new college that became known as byes. The word byes means “traveler,” and the college came to be known by this name because KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa and his followers originally arrived as “travelers” from Drepung’Bras spungs. The full, official name of the college is “Sera Jé College of Renowned Scholars (Sera Jé Khenyen Dratsangse ra byes mkhas snyan grwa tshang).”

KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa was himself a great scholar (especially renowned for his mastery of madhyamaka), but he was also a visionary. When KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa arrived at SeraSe ra he had several visions that confirmed to him that this was the place where he and his followers should settle. For example, when he made his first visit to the Assembly Hall, one of the Sixteen Arhat statues is said to have come to life and spoken to him, saying:

The travelers have arrived from their travels. This is good!

The great KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa has arrived. This is good!

He will raise up the banner of the teachings. This is good!12

One of the Sixteen Arhats, a statue in the Jé College assembly hall, SeraSe ra-Tibet

Later, he had a vision of a series of crows, one melting into the next until the last crow melted into a wild rose bush. He took this as an indication that this was the precise site where he should build the chapel of his tutelary deity, Hayagrīva.

Under KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa’s leadership, the Jé College quickly flourished as a center for the study of the great texts and their various “layers” of commentaries. In addition to the classical commentaries, another kind of work, the so-called “textbooks” (yikchayig cha) became an important part of the curriculum. Although there were many textbooks by different authors in use in the college during its early days (including textbooks composed by KünkhyenpaKun mkhyen pa himself), in time most of these were banned because they were seen as containing views that were at odds with those of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, the founder of the order. Eventually, the textbooks written by Sera Jetsün Chöki GyaltsénSe ra rje bstun chos kyi rgyal msthan (1469-1544) became the core textbooks of the Jé College.

From the earliest days it would appear that monks lived together in informal living arrangements based on the area of the country from which they came. As the college grew, these informal units became institutionalized as the so-called “regional houses” (khangtsénkhang tshan). The Jé College was divided into eighteen regional houses that ranged in size from fifty to thousand monks.

Hamdong KhangtsenHar gdong khang tshan, the largest regional house of the Jé College, located in the northern edge of the monastery, SeraSe ra-Tibet.

Monks from different parts of Tibet would usually enter one or another of these houses depending upon the geographical region of the country from which they hailed. Here is the list of the Jé College regional houses. Click on the regional house name to see a short description of that regional house, and pictures of its headquarters in Tibet (where still extant). In that same window, next to “Regional House Affiliation,” click on the regional house name to go to a separate data-window with demographic and other information about that particular regional house.

  1. HamdongHar gdong
  2. TrehorTre hor
  3. DakpoDwags po
  4. NgariMnga’ ris
  5. EpaE pa
  6. LhopaLho pa
  7. JadrelBya bral
  8. PatiSpa ti or sba ti
  9. Denma’Den ma
  10. JetsangByes gtsang
  11. GomdéSgom sde
  12. JetsaByes tsha
  13. LawaLwa ba
  14. NyelpaGnyal pa
  15. SamloBsam lo
  16. GyejéRgyas byes
  17. PowoSpo bo13
  18. TsetangRtsed thang

The Jé College Assembly Hall, SeraSe ra-Tibet

The Jé College Assembly Hall is the headquarters of the college. It contains a huge meeting hall, and several ancillary chapels (lhakhanglha khang), each with its own altar and “theme.” (Click here for access to a database entry for the Jé College Assembly Hall, with pictures.) Oral tradition has it that it was one of the rear chapels of the present assembly hall that was the original assembly hall of the Jé College built by Nyeltön Peljor LhündrupGnyal ston dpal ’byor lhun grub (1427-1514) in the late fifteenth century.14 The present assembly hall was built by the ruler Polhané Miwang Sönam TopgyelPho lha gnas mi dbang bsod nams stobs rgyal (1689-1747) in the early eighteenth century.

PolhanéPho lha gnas (right), the patron of the present Jé College assembly hall, and his son (left), the patron of the Hardong KhangtsénHar gdong khang tshan temple. From a mural in the Kongpo KhangtsenKong po khang tshan, SeraSe ra-Tibet

The most important chapel in the present temple is the abode of the Jé College tutelary deity (yidamyi dam), Hayagrīva, the “horse-headed deity,” who is the wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteśvara. This chapel is located at the north-west corner of the temple, and it is arguably the most important religious site in the entire monastery, being one of the most popular spots with pilgrims, lay worshippers, and tourists. The cult of Hayagrīva – a deity whose lineage of transmission derives from the NyingmaRnying ma school – is extremely important in the Jé College, to the point where the monks of the college consider themselves, jokingly, “Yellow (that is, GelukDge lugs) on the outside, but Red (NyingmaRnying ma) on the inside.” 15

The only time that the monks of the Jé College in Tibet meet together today is during the Great “Good Conduct” Prayer Meeting (Zangchö Chenmobzang spyod chen mo). During this weeklong event monks spend many hours a day reciting the “Good Conduct Prayer” (Zangchö Mönlambzang spyod smon lam), and lay people flock from LhasaLha sa and surrounding areas to make offerings. Traditionally, the other major yearly event that took place at the Jé College was the daylong Dagger Blessing (Phurjelphur mjal). The Jé College abbot would spend one entire day blessing monks and lay people with the famous SeraSe ra purbaphur ba, a magical, ritual dagger that is said to have belonged to a famous Indian tantric saint. That event still takes place, although today it is considered a monastery-wide celebration, and not a festival exclusive to the Jé College.

Hayagrīva, the horse-headed tutelary deity of the Jé College. Statue in the Jé College Assembly Hall, SeraSe ra-Tibet.
The SeraSe ra purbaphur ba, said to be the original ritual dagger that was in use before 1959. It is wrapped in silk. From a photo in Tshe dbang rin chen, ed., Se ra theg chen gling.16

The Jé College was reestablished in India in 1970, and it preserves most of the traditions of that institution as these were practiced in Tibet before 1959. This is not to say that everything is the same as it was before 1959, however. For example, the administration today is more democratic (and the abbacy less powerful) than it once was. 17 Monks are provided with three vegetarian meals a day, so that they no longer have to worry about their food (in Tibet, before 1959, many monks often went hungry). Also, in the early 1980s the Jé College in exile was innovative in founding a separate school within the college for young monks. Today, the “Sera JéSe ra byes School,” as it is known, provides monks up to the age of sixteen with a well-rounded education that focuses on a variety of both traditional and modern subjects – from Tibetan language to computer science. At the age of sixteen monks enter the traditional debate-based curriculum.

The Assembly Hall of the Jé College in India
Young monks study under the supervision of their teacher at the Sera JéSe ra byes School, SeraSe ra-India

Before 1959, the Jé College in Tibet had between five thousand and seven thousand monks. Today, in Tibet, it has about 275 monks. In India, the Jé College has about 2500 monks. Click here to gain access to more detailed demographic information and other tabular data on the Jé College.

Go on to read about the Mé College (Dratsang Mégrwa tshang smad).

[12] byes pa byes nas byon pa legs/ kun mkhyen chen po byon pa legs/ bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan tshugs pa legs/.
[13] The Powo KhangtsenSpo bo khang tshan belonged to both Byes and Smad Colleges.
[14] It is unclear whether kun mkhyen pa built anything more than the Hayagrīva Chapel during his time at SeraSe ra.
[15] phyi gser po/ nang dmar po.
[16] Tshe dbang rin chen, ed., Se ra theg chen gling (Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1995), back cover.
[17] The monks hold elections for the abbot, and the names of the senior teachers who achieve the highest number of votes are presented in a list to His Holiness the Dalai Lama\, who then makes the final selection.
An Introduction to Sera's Colleges, by José Ignacio Cabezón