by José Ignacio Cabezón and THL.
The Fifth Dalai Lama. Detail of a tangkathang ka in the Tibet House Collection, from an image (no. 71944) on the www.himalayanart.org website.
Trinlé GyatsoPhrin las rgya mtsho (d. 1667), considered the founder of ChupzangChu bzang,2 was a student of the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (Dalai Lama Kutreng Ngapa Ngawang Lozang GyatsoDa lai bla ma sku phreng lnga pa ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho). Trinlé GyatsoPhrin las rgya mtsho served as regent (desisde srid) of Tibet from 1665 until his death in 1667, and he hailed from NyangdrenNyang bran, the suburb of LhasaLha sa to the west of SeraSe ra where the hermitage is located. Trinlé GyatsoPhrin las rgya mtsho is arguably best known as the uncle of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s famous student (and the next regent of Tibet), Desi Sanggyé GyatsoSde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653-1705), who, like his uncle, was also born in NyangdrenNyang bran.3
In the latter part of his life, Trinlé GyatsoPhrin las rgya mtsho decided to build a hermitage in the foothills above NyangdrenNyang bran. He requested permission for this, and invited the Fifth Dalai Lama to perform a “site investigation” (sataksa brtag) to determine the most auspicious location on which to build. The Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma chose the site that is presently ChupzangChu bzang. He is also the one who provided the institution with this name. It is perhaps at this time as well that the Fifth Dalai Lama made the treasure (tergter) discovery of the self-arisen stone image of the Buddha that still resides in ChupzangChu bzang’s lower temple.
The stone Buddha image discovered as “treasure” by the Fifth Dalai Lama.
The site was originally founded as a monks’ hermitage with eight monks. Some sources say that later there developed a tradition of maintaining a group of sixteen fully-ordained monks in residence at the hermitage – eight from each of the JéByes and Mé Colleges (Dratsang MéGrwa tshang smad) of SeraSe ra.4 This served as the ritual core of the monastic community. Today the nuns can still point to a set of ruins that they say is the original residence of those eight/sixteen monks.
Seven years after its founding, the hermitage passed into the hands of Chupzang Yeshé GyatsoChu bzang ye shes rgya mtsho (1789-1856), who built a four-pillar temple with rear chapel and porticos at the site.5 After that, the hermitage came under the aegis of the sixty-ninth throne-holder of Ganden (Ganden tripadga’ ldan khri pa), Jangchup ChöpelByang chub chos ’phel (1756-1838). Eventually, it seems, the hermitage became the property of Trijang Kutreng Sumpa Lozang YeshéKhri byang sku phreng gsum pa blo bzang ye shes, the junior tutor to the present Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma.
Among contemporary GelukpaDge lugs pas, ChupzangChu bzang is perhaps best known as the place where, in 1921, Pabongkha Dechen NyingpoPha bong kha bde chen snying po (1878-1941) gave the “graded stages of the path” (lamrimlam rim) teachings that would eventually be compiled into his most famous work, Liberation in Our Hands (Namdröl LakchangRnam grol lag bcangs).6
Informants tell us that in the 1950s the site began to be used as a retreat by elderly Lhasans, who constructed small huts in which they could live out the final years of their lives in intensive Buddhist practice. The area around ChupzangChu bzang thus became a kind of religious retirement community. During the Cultural Revolution, ChupzangChu bzang was simply used by lay people as residences. Nuns began repair work at the site and started moving there in 1984. Today it is one of the largest nunneries in the ḷhasaḷha sa Valley .
ChupzangChu bzang, however, is not a typical nunnery, but rather something more like a communal living situation for nuns. Nuns get together for rituals only on special holy days (on the new and full moon, and on the eighth, tenth and twenty-fifth of the lunar month) or when there is a sponsor.7 The houses are owned individually by the nuns and are not the property of the nunnery itself. Despite this, ChupzangChu bzang has many of the traits of a standard monastic community. It has an administrative body, a site for communal gathering, and a well-defined group of deities that are worshipped and propitiated. The tutelary deities of the nunnery are Vajrabhairava and Vajrayoginī, and the two protector deities are Penden LhamoDpal ldan lha mo and Dorjé YudrönmaRdo rje g.yu sgron ma.
A statue of Vajrayoginī in the main temple at ChupzangChu bzang.
Originally, the hermitage portion of the site – the part that contained the monastic residence and the temple – appears to have been the property of Sera as a whole (Sera chisoSe ra spyi so). Given its historical ties to Pabongkha RinpochéPha bong kha rin po che, however, some sources count it as one of the hermitages that belongs to Sera MéSe ra smad (Pabongkha RinpochéPha bong kha rin po che’s home college). Today ChupzangChu bzang is an autonomous institution with minimal ties to SeraSe ra.