Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
by José Ignacio Cabezón
March 1, 2004
Section 6 of 9


Monks from all three densagdan sas at the Great Prayer Festival (Mönlam ChenmoSmon lam chen mo) in LhasaLha sa shows their sheer numbers. From Rosemary Jones Tung, A Portrait of Lost Tibet, Photographs by Ilya Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), plate 121.

SeraSe ra seems to have grown very quickly after its founding in 1419. So much so that even before Jamchen ChöjéByams chen chos rje, SeraSe ra’s founder, left for his second visit to China a short time after the founding of the monastery, he saw the need to divide the institution up into four colleges.47 A couple of centuries later, by the late seventeenth century, the monastery had a monastic population of 2,850. 48 And in 1904, L. Augustine Waddell informs us that the monastery had six thousand monks.49

By the early twentieth century, a certain oral lore had arisen in Tibet to the effect that Drepung’Bras spungs had a monastic population of 7,700, that SeraSe ra had 5,500 monks, and that GandenDga’ ldan had 3,300. It is unclear when these obviously stylized figures entered the popular imaginary, but it must have been before the twentieth century.

By my estimate, before the events of 1959, SeraSe ra alone had an official enrollment of close to ten thousand.50 This figure was arrived at through interviews with elder SeraSe ra monks in Tibet and India in 1991 and 2002. If, as one would expect, monks are most familiar with details concerning their own regional house – the primary site of daily activities – then, short of having access to the monastery’s actual roles, working at the regional-house level is the best way of gaining a sense of the demographics of SeraSe ra. Now the fact that there were ten thousand monks “on the books,” so to speak, does not mean that there were this many monks ever living at one time within the perimeter walls of SeraSe ra. This is so for two reasons.

  1. By all accounts, monastic populations could fluctuate by as much as 30 percent within a monk’s lifetime. The figure of ten thousand is the upper limit – a number arrived at by adding up the largest number of monks that an informant could remember as having belonged to his regional house during his lifetime.51
  2. The figure of ten thousand also includes all of the monks that belonged to the regional house, whether or not they were in residence at the monastery. At any given point in time, many of the monks of a given house might be involved in work that would have taken them outside of the monastery for extended periods of time, even while they remained officially “on the books” (kyidukskyid sdug).

All of this is to say that in the decades before 1959, there were probably between six thousand and eight thousand monks in residence at SeraSe ra at any given time, with an additional undetermined number who, while officially on the monastery’s roles, were living outside of the monastery, sometimes even permanently so.

Monks in assembly in the Jé College, SeraSe ra-India.

SeraSe ra-Tibet today has an official monastic population of slightly less than 550,52 a limit set by the Chinese authorities. It would appear that this number is not completely arbitrary, for it is hardly a coincidence that it should be one-tenth of the classical number of 5,500. In addition to the official monks, there are about half that many “unofficial monks” in residence at SeraSe ra-Tibet. A new monk cannot be officially admitted until another official monk has left or died. New monks must therefore wait for extended periods of time to achieve official status, or else resign themselves to having unofficial status, which has many negative consequences, not the least of which is financial (only official monks enjoy the privilege of receiving donations and other forms of funding from the monastery). To make matters even more difficult for the unofficial monk, there are also indications that in recent years (2002) the Chinese authorities had been refusing to allow vacant official monks’ seats to be filled (perhaps as a way of further decreasing the official number of monks in the densagdan sas). Chinese policy further limits official status at SeraSe ra only to monks who come from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Men and boys who hail from KhamKhams and AmdoA mdo, for example, are for the most part not allowed to travel to SeraSe ra for higher studies.53

Monks of the Trehor Regional House (SeraSe ra-India) file into their regional house temple. Most of the monks of this regional house are new monks from eastern Tibet (KhamKhams).

These various restrictions have led to a steady exodus of young Tibetan monks from the Tibetan regions of the PRC since the late 1980s. Young Tibetan men who want to pursue advanced studies flee to India, where they can realize their educational/religious goals in the diaspora versions of Drepung’Bras spungs, GandenDga’ ldan and SeraSe ra in the south of India. Since the late 1980s the monastic population of SeraSe ra-India, for example, has approximately quadrupled. The largest percentage of the new monks comes from the eastern provinces of the Tibetan cultural world (especially from KhamKhams). This is not surprising, given that it is precisely young monks from these areas that are impeded from entering institutions like SeraSe ra-Tibet. In 2002 SeraSe ra-India had a monastic population of approximately four thousand monks, almost half the size of pre-1959 SeraSe ra, and more than four times the size of present-day SeraSe ra-Tibet (if one includes unofficial monks).

Before 1959, monks of all ages (age seven and higher) could be found at SeraSe ra. Lacking any real data about the makeup of the monastic community, however, it is difficult to know how many monks there were in each age-group, just as it is almost impossible to know other demographic data like the percentage of rapjungrab byung to novices to fully-ordained monks. Because SeraSe ra was a monastery for higher philosophical studies, however, we know that the percentage of young monks was lower than what it would be in smaller, outlying monasteries: the monasteries where SeraSe ra monks often got their start. Monks at SeraSe ra – as in the other densagdan sas – were therefore older and slightly more mature than in other monasteries. Today, there are very few young monks (monks under sixteen) in SeraSe ra-Tibet. There are also hardly any middle-aged and older monks (monks over forty-five). In Tibet this can be explained in terms of Chinese government policies post-1959, and especially during the Cultural Revolution. From 1960 to about 1980 monasticism was banned, many monks were forced to renounce their vows and to enter lay life, and many monks, as we know, were imprisoned and killed. The few monks that remained are of course the ones who reopened the monastery when this was permitted in the early 1980s. Most of these are now very old, or have since died.

The group of monks who reestablished SeraSe ra-Tibet in the early 1980s. Most of these monks are today very old, or else they have passed away.

By contrast, the monastic community in SeraSe ra-India is very young: the vast majority of monks are between age six and thirty. As in Tibet, so too in India, there is an entire generation missing: monks in their mid-forties to late fifties. In exile this is due to the fact that most of the monks who left Tibet in 1959 were in their twenties and early thirties. Since the densagdan sas in south India were not fully functional until about 1975, SeraSe ra monks accepted few new students from 1960 to 1975, and this explains why there are few monks in the forty-five to sixty age group today.

Since any one regional house tended to have monks from several different regions of the country, it is also difficult to come to any firm conclusions about the geographical/regional makeup of the monastic community at SeraSe ra before 1959. Because regional houses like TrehorTre hor, for example, were quite large and were made up almost exclusively of monks from KhamKhams, we know that there were many monks from this region of Tibet at SeraSe ra. In other cases it is difficult to say. For example, Hamdong Regional House (Hamdong KhangtsenHar gdong khang tshan), the largest regional house in all of SeraSe ra, with over one thousand monks, housed monks from many different regions of Tibet: LhasaLha sa and AmdoA mdo principally, but also Inner Mongolia and northern Tibet (ChangByang). There were also other regional houses that housed monks from LhasaLha sa and AmdoA mdo. The point is that even with decent numbers regarding the populations of regional houses, this does not translate into knowledge about what portions of SeraSe ra monks came from what region of Tibet. Given that the elder monks who might have some (at least anecdotal) knowledge of this are now quite old, short of getting access to written documents (the monastery’s written roles, for example), it is probable that we will never have any reliable demographic data of this kind.

Monks of one household in SeraSe ra-India taken in the early 1980s. Today, the two older monks are close to seventy. The two younger monks have since left the monastery

[47] Sde srid sang rgyas rgya mtsho, Bai ḍūrya ser po (1991), 138: “When the monastic population became too large, (Jamchen Chöjé) instituted four colleges – Tö, Mé, Gya and Drongteng, and then he placed Dargyé Zangpo, master of the ten treatises, on the throne” (dge ’dun yang ’du che bar stod smad rgya ’brong[sic] steng ste grwa tshang bzhi btsugs de nas bka bcu smra ba dar rgyas bzang po gdan sar bskos). According to other sources, however, the four colleges were instituted at a slightly later date.
[48] Sde srid sang rgyas rgya mtsho, Bai ḍūrya ser po, 142
[49] L. Augustine Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, 372.
[50] That this number is more or less on target is supported by the fact that in 1944/5 when word was sent out from the Jé College that all monks of the College from all over Tibet were to assemble in LhasaLha sa for a special assembly, about five thousand arrived; Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 444.
[51] This is something that I was not aware of until I had almost finished the survey in 2002. Were I to repeat this work, I would now interview elder monks, inquiring about the maximum and minimum number of monks that were associated with their regional house within their lifetime.
[52] The number of official monks has been declining in recent years. As monks leave or pass away, the monastery has not been permitted to fill all of these vacancies in recent years (2002).
[53] The rationale for this derives from Chinese policy that in most instances restricts a student’s educational venues to the institutions within his/her home region. To cross official provincial borders for education is not a trivial thing in China.
Sera Monks, by José Ignacio Cabezón