Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Pabongkha Hermitage
by José Ignacio Cabezón
1991
Section 3 of 5

Later History

Although the various accounts agree that PabongkhaPha bong kha was originally built as a fort and not as a monastery, traditional lore has it that the site was converted into a religious center very early in its history. Initially, it is said to have served as the home to “about a hundred tantrikas.”24 According to some accounts, after Tibetans began to get ordained as Buddhist monks, PabongkhaPha bong kha was converted into a residence for the first seven Tibetan monks (semi dünsad mi mi bdun). This would have taken place during the reign of Trisong DetsenKhri srong lde’u btsan). If this is true,25 it would make PabongkhaPha bong kha one of the oldest monasteries in Tibet.

PabongkhaPha bong kha was destroyed during the reign of King LangdarmaGlang dar ma. There are different accounts of this event. In the more naturalistic version given by Dungkar RinpochéDung dkar rin po che, the temple on the rock was completely destroyed by the king. According to the more super-naturalistic version current among the monks of the monastery, LangdarmaGlang dar ma began to destroy the nine-story temple story-by-story starting from the top. After destroying four stories, the deity Pel LhamoDpal lha mo appeared to him and told him to stop.26 A five-story temple then remained. During the Cultural Revolution the temple lost two more stories. This explains how today it is a three-story building.

We know little about PabongkhaPha bong kha between the time of LangdarmaGlang dar ma and the eleventh century. It was then that the site was re-established as a KadampaBka’ gdams pa monastery by one of the most important masters of that tradition. The great KadampaBka’ gdams pa master Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba rin chen gsal (1027/31-1105) is said to have lived in the so-called “Cave of the Tenth Day” (TsechupukTshes bcu phug),27 for a period of time. PabongkhaPha bong kha is the site where Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba rin chen gsal transmitted many of the KadampaBka’ gdams pa teachings to Geshé DrakkarwaDge bshes brag dkar ba (1032-1111), one of his eight great close disciples (kabap buchen gyébka’ babs bu chen brgyad).28 Because Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba rin chen gsal was quite old at the time, he regretted that he could not bring PabongkhaPha bong kha back to its former glory, so he entrusted this work to his student. It is Geshé DrakkarwaDge bshes brag dkar ba, then, who is credited with the re-establishment of PabongkhaPha bong kha as a monastic institution.29 He stayed in retreat in the Cave of the Tenth Day for quite some time, and during this period gathered many disciples. He then began the process of reconstruction, and rebuilt at least two stories of the temple that had been destroyed during LangdarmaGlang dar ma’s reign. He also taught extensively at PabongkhaPha bong kha until his death at around the age of eighty. During his decades of residence at PabongkhaPha bong kha, upwards of three hundred monks gathered around him. The monastery appears to have remained a KadampaBka’ gdams pa institution for the next two hundreds of years, passing through seven or more abbots, and growing in size to upwards of four hundred monks.30 Many stūpas31 are said to have been built at the site by the successive KadampaBka’ gdams pa masters who held the throne of PabongkhaPha bong kha, and some of these monuments still exist at the site today. A small clay tablet repository (tsakhangtsa khang) to the east of the temple of the Three Protectors is also said to have been built during the KadampaBka’ gdams pa period as an antidote to demonic influences.

Stūpas at PabongkhaPha bong kha that are said to date to the KadampaBka’ gdams pa period.

After the seventh KadampaBka’ gdams pa abbot of PabongkhaPha bong kha, the monastery went into a period of decline. It appears that it may have then become a SakyaSa skya institution around the time of Pakpa’Phags pa (1235-1280), remaining under SakyapaSa skya pa control for a period of about two hundred years. At the time of Pakmo DrupaPhag mo gru pa hegemony, PabongkhaPha bong kha once again went into a period of decline. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, the founder of the GelukpaDge lugs pa school, apparently remained in retreat at PabongkhaPha bong kha for a short period of time. The site was once again revived – this time as a GelukDge lugs institution – by Penchen Delek NyimaPaṇ chen bde legs nyi ma (sixteenth century). Under Penchen Delek NyimaPaṇ chen bde legs nyi ma’s abbacy, PabongkhaPha bong kha thrived, at least for a short period of time, but, like many institutions in and around LhasaLha sa, it suffered as a result of the internecine warfare that plagued Central Tibet as a whole, and PabongkhaPha bong kha once again went into a period of decline.

It was in year 1619 that PabongkhaPha bong kha came under the aegis of the great GelukpaDge lugs pa master Khöntön Peljor Lhündrup’Khon ston dpal ’byor lhun grub (1561-1637). Khöntön’Khon ston was a lamabla ma renowned for his ecumenical outlook. He was an important figure in the history of SeraSe ra, and one of the teachers of the Fifth Dalai Lama. After the death of Khöntön’Khon ston, the Fifth Dalai Lama had “a three story palace”32 built at PabongkhaPha bong kha. He commissioned an image of his teacher, and endowed the institution generously by providing it with fields, pastures for animals, and many head of yak.33 He also became (at least nominally) the head of PabongkhaPha bong kha, and it seems that he inaugurated a tradition according to which all of the successive Dalai LamaDa lai bla mas visited the institution at least once in their lives.

Desi Sanggyé GyatsoSde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653-1705), the regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama, lists the following abbots from the time of Khöntön’Khon ston up to his own day:

PabongkhaPha bong kha has remained a GelukDge lugs institution up to the present time. Informants tell us that one of the great lamabla mas of SeraSe ra, Lhaptsün RinpochéLha btsun rin po che, established a lama’s residence (labrangbla brang) at PabongkhaPha bong kha at some point in time, but we do not know when precisely this was. This compound now lies in ruins.

The ruins of the Lhaptsün Rinpoché’s estate (Lhaptsün Rinpoché LabrangLha btsun rin po che’i bla brang) at PabongkhaPha bong kha.

Before 1959 PabongkhaPha bong kha was an independent monastery, albeit one that had had strong historical and social ties to SeraSe ra for several hundred years of its history. According to one informant, before 1959 only fully ordained monks were allowed to live at PabongkhaPha bong kha. While this may have been true in theory, it is difficult to imagine that this rule was strictly observed, given that so much of the menial labor in small monasteries like this one (hauling water, cleaning, serving tea, etc.) is traditionally done by novice monks.

As with many of Tibet’s great monasteries, PabongkhaPha bong kha was forcibly closed after the events of 1959. Many of its important images36 were destroyed. It remained closed until the monks of SeraSe ra formally applied for permission to rebuild the site. They began the project of restoring PabongkhaPha bong kha in the mid 1980s. Today PabongkhaPha bong kha is owned and administered by SeraSe ra, and all of the monks of the hermitage are SeraSe ra monks.


[24] Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho, 15: “from the time (of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po) up to the ordination of the seven original monks, about one hundred tantrikas with long locks of hair lived continuously at the site.”
[25] The claim is made not only in Dungkar Dictionary (Dungkar TsikdzöDung dkar tshig mdzod), but also in Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 33a-b.
[26] This is according to the oral account of one of the PabongkhaPha bong kha monks. According to the Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 34b, Pel LhamoDpal lha mo intervened by calling for Lhalung Pelgyi DorjéLha lung dpal gyi rdo rje, the monk who assassinated LangdarmaGlang dar ma.
[27] The only cave that exists at PabongkhaPha bong kha today is Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s cave located inside the Female ṭurtle Boulder . And in fact Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 31a, confirms that it is this cave that is called the “Temple of the Tenth Day” (Tsechu LhakhangTshes bcu lha khang). The cave apparently got its name from the fact that members of Trisong DetsenKhri srong lde’u btsan’s inner circle used to perform rituals inside the cave on the tenth day of the lunar month. Since the monastery is in a fairly flat area, it is difficult to imagine that there was any other cave at the hermitage itself in the past. However, Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 30f, lists many caves. These, one assumes, are located in the hills above PabongkhaPha bong kha.
[28] Literally, “the eight great sons who received the oral instruction”; also called the “eight great ones who were named to receive the oral instructions” (Kabap Mingchen GyéBka’ babs ming can brgyad).
[29] The Fifth Dalai Lama, in fact, does not mention Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba at all, and credits the re-founding of PabongkhaPha bong kha to Geshé DrakkarwaDge bshes brag dkar ba; see Ṅag-dBaṅ Blo-bZaṅ rGya-mTSHo, Fifth Dalai Lama, A History of Tibet, trans. by Zahiruddin Ahmad (Bloomington: Indiana University Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1995), 84.
[30] Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho, 16, mentions a certain “Geshé Pabongkha” (Geshé Pabongkhar drakpaDge bshes pha bong khar grags pa) as having been responsible for increasing the size of the monastery to 400 monks after Geshé DrakkarwaDge bshes brag dkar ba’s tenure.
[31] The tradition says that hundred and eight stūpas were built. But it also claims that each stūpa contained one bead from TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s rosary. This, of course, would be impossible if they were built during the KadampaBka’ gdams pa period, since TsongkhapaTsong kha pa was not born until more than 200 years after this time.
[32] Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 44b. It is unclear which (if any) of the present buildings this might be.
[33] Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 44b: rab byung gnyug mar gnas pa’i ja tshul thebs/ snye thang bkra shis gling/ gzhis ka dud ’dzin bcu/ lag ’bab khal drug brgya/ nyang bran ka ma can dud gsum dang/ lag ’bab la khal drug cu skor bstsal/.
[34] Perhaps TBRC P939 or P3188?
[35] Perhaps TBRC P162?
[36] Among the more interesting and important images or religious objects mentioned in Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 47bf, are the following: a set of sixteen arhat statues made by Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba rin chen gsal himself, a tooth relic of the Buddha Dipaṃkara, stone statues of Avalokiteśvara and of the protector trakshéTrak shad blessed by virtue of the deities’ dissolving into them, the self-arisen stone statue that emerged as Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po was gestating in his mother’s womb, the statue of Khöntön Peljor Lhündrup’Khon ston dpal ’byor lhun grub commissioned by the Fifth Dalai Lama as well as the his highly ornamented funerary stūpa that contained his actual body, a silver funerary stūpa and statue of Jamyang Drakpa’Jam dbyangs grags pa, a one-story statue of the Buddha made in part from the gold extracted by King MewönMes dbon from “Gold Cave,” a speaking statue of Cakrasaṃvara (DemchokBde mchog) that conversed with the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma Kelzang GyatsoBskal bzang rgya mtsho (1708-1757) while he was doing the retreat of this deity; the self-arisen stone images of the Three Protectors (mentioned above); TönmiThon mi’s “oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ” stone, statues of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa in the five-visions-forms, a volume of the dhāraṇī that dates to the SakyaSa skya period. This, of course, is only a sampling of the more important artifacts; there were many other images and religious objects beside those mentioned here. Most of the images in the hermitage were lost or destroyed after 1959.
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Pabongkha Hermitage , by José Ignacio Cabezón

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Location and Layout
  3. History
    1. Founding Narratives
    2. Later History
  4. Glossary
  5. Notes
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