Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
The Space of Sera (Se ra’i khor yug)
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 3 of 6

Tibetan Conceptions of the Site of SeraSe ra

Since so much of the discussion of the physical space of SeraSe ra on this website presumes western, academic concerns and presuppositions, it might be interesting to ask how Tibetans view this same space. How do Tibetans conceive of the space that SeraSe ra occupies? How do they describe SeraSe ra’s whereabouts? How do they situate the monastery vis-à-vis other sites and the surrounding landscape? How do they envision the physical space around the monastery? What makes the land distinctive in their eyes? It will probably not come as a great surprise that Tibetans consider the site of SeraSe ra to be sacred (nechok dampagnas mchog dam pa). But what does it mean for a site to be sacred? These are the types of questions we will explore here.

In some instances, the Tibetan views of space in general – and of the space of the monastery in particular – will seem familiar. In others, they will seem ... well, distant and remote. In the process of exploring these similarities and differences, our own conceptions of space and place may come to appear a bit less obvious, and a bit more idiosyncratic. This, I take it, is a good thing. It is part of the goal of, and reason for, studying other cultures, other places, and other people’s conceptions of sacred space.

What data shall we use to begin our investigation? We could look at a Tibetan map of SeraSe ra,16 or we could begin by simply asking Tibetans about SeraSe ra, or we could turn to texts, and see what Tibetans have to say about the site of the monastery in their writings. We will do all of these things in due course. But I propose that we begin to get a general sense of the way Tibetans en-vision the monastery not through words but through pictures. How is SeraSe ra as a physical site depicted in Tibetan art? Consider this fine example, of a 19th century Tibetan painting of the famous sites in and around the environs of LhasaLha sa.

Painting in the George Crofts Collection, Ontario Museum, Toronto. Photo in Marilyn M. Rhie and Robert A.F. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1991, 374-375); by permission of the photographer, John Bigelow Taylor

SeraSe ra is depicted above and slightly to the right of the central image, the Dalai Lama’s PotalaPo ta la Palace that towers above the city of LhasaLha sa. Even if the map is not to scale, the relative position of SeraSe ra is approximately correct, since SeraSe ra lies north and slightly east of the PotalaPo ta la. The first thing to note – something that perhaps may go unnoticed because it is so obvious – is that SeraSe ra is part of the LhasaLha sa landscape. In fact, SeraSe ra is the closest to LhasaLha sa of the three large GelukpaDge lugs pa monasteries – the Three Seats of Learning (Densa sumgdan sa gsum).

When we look closer, we see that SeraSe ra is portrayed as a compound – a group of structures at least partially enclosed by a perimeter wall. (This, as we shall see, is also an important fact to notice, since in the section on Architecture I will claim that “enclosure” as a principal is central to Tibetan conceptualization of large monasteries.) On the front perimeter wall there are three gates. Above the monastery, in the mountains, are other, small structures. These are the famous hermitages (ritröri khrod) that lie in the SeraSe ra foothills, one of which, Sera ChödingSe ra chos sdings, is extremely important to the history of the monastery, as we shall see. The monastery appears to be divided into two halves by a north-south running crevice (painted brown in this painting). It has boulders in the middle of it, giving it the appearance of a streambed. This is the famous Sera JezhungSe ra bye gzhung or “Sand Street.” As Geshe Rabten informs us in his biography, after heavy rains, the JezhungBye gzhung would in fact serve as a runoff for water that came down from the mountains.17

Detail of the painting on left.

Finally, we see that amid the smaller, white structures, there are four large buildings partially painted in red to distinguish them from the rest. These are the four great temples of SeraSe ra – the Great Assembly Hall (to the right of the JezhungBye gzhung) and the assembly halls of the Byes, Smad, and NgakpaSngags pa Colleges (to the left). The fact that these temples are prominent in the painting is also significant. It tells us something about the role they are perceived to have in the life of the monastery. What is less noticeable (because of size) is the fact that each of the smaller, white buildings are themselves compounds – of monks’ quarters and smaller temples that belonged to the residential houses (khangtsenkhang tshan) of the various colleges. All of these various features are found in an even more exquisite painting of LhasaLha sa that has already been mentioned in the first section of this essay, En-visioning the Space of SeraSe ra.

The old eastern gate, no longer in use.

This painting varies in minor ways from the previous one. First of all, a greater number of buildings are shown, but this may represent nothing more than a greater stamina for detail on the part of the artist. The painting is also more true to the actual orientation of the buildings, in so far as they face SSW (as they do in the actual monastery). It also depicts the various debate courtyards, even if their position in the monastery is not entirely correct. The fact that the artist chose to depict the debate courtyards at all reveals the extent to which the monastery was associated with the activity of education, and the extent to which education was perceived in terms of one of its principal pedagogical modes – debate.

The second painting of SeraSe ra only shows two front entryways into the monastery, as opposed to the traditional three. The perimeter wall, and the “gates” or entryways of the monastery are important enough that legends have developed around them.18 Today, the main gate or entryway is located in the same place as the original entryway that we see in these paintings – at the bottom of the Sand Street – but it has been rebuilt.

Neither of the two minor gates to the east and west exist today. However, the old eastern gate does survive (inside the new perimeter wall), although it is in poor condition.

A new perimeter wall has been built to replace the ancient perimeter wall of the monastery. On the importance of perimeter walls within the monastery, see the section on Architecture.

The main gate of the monastery, taken during a festival day at SeraSe ra.
Detail of thangka in the Musée des arts-asiatiques Guimet, Paris (Jean Schormans). Portion of a photo in Larsen and Sinding-Larsen, The Lhasa Atlas, inside cover.

Physical Descriptions of the Site of SeraSe ra

It is the mid-1950s, and you are standing in the center of downtown LhasaLha sa. If you ask a group of Tibetans where SeraSe ra is located, they would most likely tell you that it is due north (byang phyogs la yod pa red). If you were to ask, “How far north?” they would probably tell you that it is an hour’s walk away. This is not a trivial observation, for it tells us something about the way that Tibetans view space and distance. Like us, Tibetans use the cardinal and intermediate directions (N, S, E, W, NE, etc.) to designate bearing. When it comes to designating the distance between two sites, however, they tend to opt for translating distance into time – the time that it takes to traverse the distance.19 In the mid 1950s, of course, there were few modes of transportation available. Most people simply walked. Thus, a given distance was conceived of in terms of the time that it took to walk it. (Today, a Tibetan in downtown LhasaLha sa would probably tell you that by bus it takes about twenty minutes to get to SeraSe ra, and that by taxi it takes about ten.)

Not only is distance often expressed in terms of time, but on occasion time is also expressed in terms of distance. For example, in the evening debate prayer-assembly at the Jé College of SeraSe ra, there was a tradition of reciting the Heart Sutra – a famous scripture on emptiness – using a very slow tempo. This was done so as to give monks time to contemplate the meaning of the words they were reciting. As a result, the recitation took a great deal of time, or, as monks were fond of putting it, “it took as much time as it took to walk to Lhasa.”

Pilgrims make lungtarlung rta (printed prayer) offerings on Space Soaring (Namkha DingNam mkha’ lding) Mountain during a pilgrimage festival day. Thus, the site of SeraSe ra is sometimes designated with reference to the mountains that surround it.

Direction and walking-time are typical ways to designate SeraSe ra’s location. There are others as well. Mountains are ubiquitous reference points in most of the Tibetan cultural world. Tibet is a mountainous land, and LhasaLha sa is surrounded by mountains. One of the ways of identifying a particular site has always been with reference to specific mountains. In the case of SeraSe ra, some Tibetan historians identify the monastery as lying between specific mountains. Hence, Geshé Yeshé WangchukDge bshes ye shes dbang phyug states that SeraSe ra “lies between the corner of Elephant Mountain [to the east], and Space Soaring Mountain [to the west].” 20

Tibetans also often conceive of a given space in terms of the natural phenomena that exist within it: the flora and fauna that inhabit or flourish in a given place. SeraSe ra too has been seen in terms of the attributes of its natural landscape. According to some Tibetan historians, the word SeraSe ra is an abbreviated form of sewé rase ba’i rwa – literally, “wild-rose tip.”21 Hence, Sera Monastery (Sera Gönse ra dgon) was built, it would seem, on a site at one time known for its wild-rose bushes.22 It also appears that the site was known by this name even before the founding of the monastery. The hermitage that was TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s home on and off for many years, located in the foothills just above what is today SeraSe ra was called Sera ChödingSe ra chos sdings even before the founding of the institution of SeraSe ra.23 Unlike the other two large GelukDge lugs monasteries – GandenDga’ ldan and Drepung’Bras spungs – whose names derive from Buddhist cosmology,24 the founders of Sera Monastery seem to have simply adopted the traditional Tibetan name of the site, one that derives from the attributes of the natural landscape.

The hermitage of Sera ChödingSe ra chos sdings, above SeraSe ra, where TsongkhapaTsong kha pa taught and wrote for many years.

All of these forms of description we call “physical.” They involve conventions understood by almost anyone, and variables and reference points that are public and visible to anyone (the direction of the sun, mountains, plants, etc.).

SeraSe ra and the Metaphysics of Tibetan Sacred Space

Apart from these conceptions of place that derive from nature, landscape and the physical world, there are more metaphysical conceptions of SeraSe ra and its environs. For example, a contemporary Tibetan historian, and former SeraSe ra monk, Dungkar Lozang TrinléDung dkar blo bzang ’phrin las writes:

This seat of learning [Sera] is believed to be one of the sites in the environs of the city of Lhasa where self-arisen [i.e., miraculous] mountains and rocks with eight auspicious signs have manifested. A protuberance on the middle mountain directly in back of [the monastery] has a shape similar to a victory banner. To the right of that mountain range there is something that looks like a clockwise-turning white conch shell. To the right, on the mountain in back of the Chubzang Hermitage, there is something that looks like a parasol. To the left, in the direction of the Neuchung Mountains, there is a rock face that looks like golden fish face-to-face.25

A self-arisen image (rang jung/jönrang byung/byon) is usually a miraculously produced bas-relief of a deity or historical personage that emerges (super)naturally on a rock face, e.g., on a boulder.

Self-arisen images of the deity Tārā on a boulder behind SeraSe ra.

The images are self-arisen because they are not created or produced by human agents, but by the power or blessing of the deities, or “by the blessing of the truth of the nature of reality” itself.26 The idea that Dungkar RinpochéDung dkar rin po che is expressing, though, is slightly different, given that entire features of the mountains are being characterized as self-arisen images – not of deities but of the eight auspicious symbols. The point is that the sacrality of the site manifests in and through the physical landscape itself, molding the mountains so that they become signs of the site’s auspiciousness. Thus, the land around SeraSe ra is a land where the natural and supernatural merge, where sacredness is not inscribed in, but rather exscribed out of nature. The supernatural emerges out of the natural landscape, and these self-emergent signs acts as ciphers from which the sacredness of the space can be inferred. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that at play here is a notion of nature and the natural that is broader than our own.

Of course, SeraSe ra as a site is not unique in this regard. When the 18th century polymath Situ PanchenSi tu pan chen describes the area surrounding his monastery, he says:

This is a site that has collected a great expanse of goodness. The mountains to the right are like haughty turquoise dragons. The mountains to the left are like lions that roam the sky. The mountains in back are like crystal stupas, and in the front, like genuflecting elephants.27

For Situ PanchenSi tu pan chen too the sacrality or “natural goodness” of the site manifests in the natural landscape: in the fact that the mountains have distinct forms – principally, the forms of powerful and auspicious animals. When Jamgön Kongtrül, Situ PanchenSi tu pan chen’s spiritual descendent, a century later speaks of the site of his monastery (adjacent to SituSi tu’s), he says that it appears in three ways to three different types of people. (1) To ordinary people it appears simply as a beautiful site (having few stones, thorns, free of wild animals, moderate in climate, with beautiful trees, flowers, mountains and streams, etc.). (2) To practitioners, it appears as a place perfectly suited to meditation, to the point where even “the mountain behind resembles a meditator; the lower meadow, crossed legs.” (3) To exalted or accomplished individuals, it appears as the abode of deities, as their celestial palaces.28

As Toni Huber states:

Mountains have, without a doubt, been the most venerated and culturally significant feature of the Tibetan landscape throughout space and time. Tibetans have considered various mountains to possess a special status or to be powerful or sacred in different ways for the entire period of their recorded history.29

In Huber’s own research on the Pure Crystal Mountain of Tsari, he notes that “written and oral accounts of the site image the regional geography as a gigantic ritual sceptre or dorje laid on its site,” with the mountain itself as a great, crystal stupa.30

This tradition of ascribing Buddhist meaning to the landscape goes back to very early times, perhaps even to the introduction of Buddhism into the country in the seventh century. Consider the way that Tibet is depicted in this beautiful poem ascribed to the first Buddhist king, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po:

Mountains possessing good qualities were also there.

Tsagongin Tsari, Self-arisen Demchog,

And precious stones and waters31 were also there.

On the snows of Kailash there lived the 500 arhants,

And rivers of ambrosia existed in those mountains.

In Lake Mapang, a bodhisattva serpent-king dwelt,

And rivers possessing good qualities were also there ...

In the Namtso chugmo (lake) there were bodhisattvas,

And on Tanghla rock there were 500 arhants.

A bodhisattva serpent-king (dwelt) on the island of Lake Pub,

And there were multitudes of arhants on the snows of (mount) Ka’u.

Rito Satsang Snow Mountain was encircled by Nyen (spirits),

And their speech resembled the beautiful cadence of Sanskrit.32

When the whole of Tibet is envisioned as sacred, it is hardly surprising that the site of one of its great institutions, SeraSe ra, should also be so conceived. How else can one explain the success of the institution that thrived there? Great things don’t usually happen in bad places. The sacrality, auspiciousness, and power of the place thus serve as the metaphysical ground for the events that would unfold there – for example, the founding and flourishing of a great monastery.33

Trashi ChölingBkra shis chos gling, one of the hermitages in the SeraSe ra foothills used by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa.

A good or auspicious physical site, however, is not enough to explain human or institutional flourishing. To put it the way a philosopher would, the sacredness of the physical space is at most a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the success of institutions. Many causes and conditions (gyu kyenrgyu rkyen) actually go into making a space sacred. Chief among these is the fact that the space has been blessed (jingyi lappabyin gyis rlabs pa).

How does a place come to be blessed? First and foremost, a place is blessed when holy beings (kyebu dampaskyes bu dam pa) make it their home. These holy beings can be human or nonhuman. As H.H. the Dalai Lamastates:

The fact that many holy beings, spiritually advanced practitioners, stay and practice in a certain place makes the atmosphere or environment of that place change. The place gets some imprint from that person. Then, when another person who does not have much experience or spiritual development comes and remains in that place and practices, he or she can obtain certain special kinds of experience ... According to the Tantric teachings, at important places there are non-human beings, like dakinis, who have bodies that are much more subtle than those of humans. When great spiritual practitioners stay in a certain place and perform meditation and rituals there, that place becomes familiar to dakas and dakinis so that they may inhabit the place and travel around it ... This could also act as a factor influencing whether or not a place is considered special.34

The envoys of the Ming Emperor invite TsongkhapaTsong kha pa to China at Sera ChödingSe ra chos sdings; from a mural in Kongpo Regional House (Kongpo Khangtsenkong po khang tshan).

Even before its founding, as we have seen, hermitages were ubiquitous in the SeraSe ra foothills. Several of these hermitages were places where TsongkhapaTsong kha pa had lived – where meditated, taught, where certain important historical events occurred, and where he had composed some of his most important works.

As Dungkar RinpochéDung dkar rin po che states:

On the mountain behind [Sera] the places where the great lord Tsongkhapa lived in retreat for long periods of time – places like Chöding, Seratse, Rakatrag, etc., with their meditation caves, practice huts and miraculous springs – can still be seen today. This is also the place where Khedrupjemet [his teacher], the lord Tsongkhapa, for the first time, and it is the place where [Tsongkhapa] composed his Great Commentary on the Root Text on the Middle Way. Sera Chöding is also the place where Tsongkhapareceived the envoys of the Tà ming Yung lo emperor, in the sixth year of his reign, in the earth-rat year (1408). These envoys had been sent to invite [Tsongkhapa] as chief chaplain to the court in Beijing\... It was also at Sera Chöding that [Tsongkhapa] charged Jamchen Chöje [with the founding of Sera]; it is where Jetsun Sherab Senge was made a teacher, and therefore where, symbolically, the glorious Lower Tantric College was founded.35

TsongkhapaTsong kha pa died in the same year that SeraSe ra was founded, and so he never saw even the first buildings of the monastery completed. But SeraSe ra monks believe that TsongkhapaTsong kha pa nonetheless had strong connections to the site of SeraSe ra, and this is because he prophesied its founding.36 TsongkhapaTsong kha pa composed his famous commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Root Verses on the Middle Way, entitled The Ocean of Reasoning (Rikpé GyatsoRigs pa’i rgya mtsho), in the hermitage of Sera ChödingSe ra chos sdings around the year 1409.

A mural in Lhopa Regional House (Lhopa Khangtsenlho pa khang tshan) showing TsongkhapaTsong kha pa teaching at Sera ChödingSe ra chos sdings.

In the midst of writing this work, one of the folios of the text flew into the air in a gust of wind. It began to emit (“a”) letters (the symbol of the perfection of wisdom) in the color of molten gold.37 Some of the letters dissolved into a stone at the base of the hill and permanently imprinted themselves on it. Witnessing this, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa prophesied that this would be the future site of a great center of Buddhist learning, an institution of particular importance for the study and practice of the madhyamaka doctrine of emptiness. A decade later, Jamchen Chöjé Shakya YeshéByams chen chos rje shā kya ye shes (1354-1435) founded SeraSe ra at this very site. Nor is TsongkhapaTsong kha pa the only holy being who is believed to have left his mark on the landscape of SeraSe ra. A mound of earth on one of the paths at the monastery’s eastern border is considered to be “one of the stupas that the Buddhist king Ashoka built when he built 10 million stupas in a single day.” 38

One of the things that makes the site of SeraSe ra special, then, is the fact that it was blessed by holy beings like Ashoka and TsongkhapaTsong kha pa. The blessing of the site by holy beings and deities is something that continues to occur, even after the monastery has been founded, like a battery that continues to be recharged. Hence, there are many later tales of miraculous events that continue to take place in the foothills of SeraSe ra: statues from India are found in its caves, miraculous images of deities emerge on its boulders, magical springs with curative waters suddenly begin to flow, etc.39 All of these events certainly bless the site, but they are also continuing indications (and vindications) of the activities that are occurring within the monastery, legitimating the institution as a place where goodness can and does continue to flourish.

Besides having been blessed in terms of its natural landscape, and historically blessed by important holy persons, the site of SeraSe ra has been blessed ritually. Tibetan Buddhist custom requires that a site be made suitable (lesu rungpalas su rung ba) before it can be built upon. This is usually done through complex tantric rites that involve, among other things, asking the indigenous deity of the site – the Zhidakgzhi bdag, or “owner of the place” – for permission to use the land. In the case of SeraSe ra, however, it was TsongkhapaTsong kha pa himself who got the cooperation of Zhidag Genyen (Layman Lord of the Place):

The protector ZhidagGzhi bdag, who is propitiated in Bati Regional House (Bati khangtsensba ti khang tshan). This is from a tangkathang ka painting in that regional house in SeraSe ra-India.

When the Lord Lama, the Protector Manjushri [that is, Tsongkhapa] was living and turning the wheel of the doctrine at Sera Chöding, Zhidag Genyen became his conscientious servant, and took on the task of protecting the wheel of the doctrine. And the Lord Lama, from his side, gave him the oath [to continue to serve as protector of the site in perpetuity].40

Zhidag today serves as one of the protector deities of SeraSe ra, and continues to be propitiated in the monastery.

The fact that the land needs to be ritually appropriated before it is fit for human use is of course an aspect of the Tibetan vision of space that – even if not unique to this culture – is important to the understanding of indigenous Tibetan notions of place. Human society may have established a convention of land-ownership, but in a prior and more fundamental sense, the original owner of the land is not human at all. And for the land to be used successfully, the permission of this deity must be obtained.

All of this together constitutes what I am calling the metaphysical conception of the space of SeraSe ra – “meta-physical” in the literal sense of the word as “beyond the physical.” Beyond the legal, political, geographical and other conceptions of the site, there is also operative this metaphysical sense of place and space, much of which is beyond the ken of the senses of ordinary beings. To understand this dimension of sacred space, a variety of metaphysical concepts must be invoked: the karma of the beings who inhabit a place, the deities who live above it in the sky, on the ground, or below the ground, as well as the notion of an intangible energy called “blessing.” In the Tibetan worldview the metaphysics of space does not negate the physical, more tangible, dimensions, but it operates alongside the physical in a dimension that, even if less palpable, is just as real.

The Greater SeraSe ra

Our emphasis throughout this essay has been on the actual site of SeraSe ra and its environs. Before 1959, however, SeraSe ra was a much larger political and economic entity than it is today. The monastery, colleges, and even many regional houses, and lamabla ma residences, owned estates, pasture lands, and real estate (e.g., houses in LhasaLha sa). Moreover, the monastery, colleges and, sometimes, individual lamabla mas had proprietary rights over other, smaller monasteries called branch monasteries (yenlakgyi gönpayan lag gyi dgon pa). When all of this is taken into account, there emerges a vision of SeraSe ra as a network of institutions that encompasses a space much larger than that contained within the perimeter walls of the monastery. Since these will be treated under other subheadings, however, we are content just to mention this fact in passing.

Theoretical Postlude

Anthropologists use the term etic to refer to descriptions that are external to the worldview being described – descriptions that will usually not be accepted, and sometimes not even recognized, by the indigenous people being studied. An etic view of sacred space – and most anthropological discourse is etic – stresses the agency of human subjects or institutions in the creation of meaning.41 Sacredness is considered a human construct, and the job of scholars becomes one of describing the process of its construction, both synchronically and diachronically. Much of Huber’s (1999) masterful study of a pilgrimage mountain is written from such a perspective:

a meaningful, albeit visionary, architecture of landscape is generated and imposed on the natural environment ... [and] ritual and other forms of representation ensure that this subtle and naturally embodied architecture is regularly redefined at néri [mountain pilgrimage] sites.42

Huber’s goal is to show “that the néri cult appeared in connection with concerted Tibetan élite attempts to convert their culture thoroughly to a Buddhist one ... The néri tradition should be regarded as a complex product of the syncretism stimulated by the agency of so-called universal religions.43

By contrast to etic forms of discourse, anthropologists speak emic views. Emic discourse usually emerges from – and is recognizable to – the culture itself. In an etic analysis, the scholar is concerned with demonstrating how, for example, the imperatives of history (e.g., the desire to convert Tibet into a Buddhist country) lead to a certain Buddhist “reading” of the natural landscape (a mountain as a crystal stupa, a Buddhist image). From an etic perspective, history serves as an explanatory mechanism for elucidating human behaviors (the behavior of reading Buddhist meaning into the natural landscape). The emic perspective is precisely the reverse of this. Most indigenous theorists are concerned with explaining history (the flourishing of Buddhism, and more specifically the flourishing of certain Buddhist institutions in certain places).44 The historical fact that Tibet flourished as a Buddhist country, and that SeraSe ra flourished as a Buddhist monastery, is something that requires explanation. The sacredness of the space becomes the mechanism for explaining a historical fact (the flourishing of SeraSe ra as an institution). As mentioned before, the presupposition here is that good things don’t happen in bad places. Thus the logic goes something like this:

  • Why did SeraSe ra flourish at this particular site?
  • At least in part because the site is sacred.
  • How do we know the site is sacred?
  • Because of the extraordinary signs evident in its surrounding landscape.

But what mechanism is at work in creating these extraordinary attributes in SeraSe ra’s natural landscape? What precisely constitutes the sacredness of a site so that it comes to exhibit these unusual environmental features? This brings us to yet another series of metaphysical arguments that have to do with the concept of karma.

The principal argument has embedded within it a logic similar to what in the philosophy of religion is called “the argument from design.” There the claim is that nature exhibits an order that can only be explained by positing an intelligent creator (God). In the present context a similar form of reasoning is at work. In the indigenous Tibetan view, the order visible in the landscape of Tibet is seen as proof of the fact that there are extraordinary, sentient forces at work. Mountains that look like conches, parasols and lions don’t simply arise by accident. They must be explained in some way. Tibetan Buddhist philosophers explain the order evident in the natural landscape in metaphysical (even if not theistic) terms. The environmental features of a given place come about as the result of the karma of the beings that are (or will be) reborn in that place. When these features are auspicious – as they are in the case of SeraSe ra, LhasaLha sa and Tibet generally – then the karma that has created (and is sustaining) them must be good or virtuous; it must be a form of “merit” (sönambsod nams). Incidentally, the fact that Tibet has these extraordinary physical attributes as part of its natural landscape means that Tibetans are in some sense special, in so far as they possess the karma to create this place of auspiciousness. Thus, the sacredness of the land reflects, and is ultimately derived from, the sacredness of its people and their actions. More simply, good deeds cause good places to come about, and when the good people who created those good deeds are reborn in those good places, the places serve as the environment in which more good deeds can be created.

The fact that more good deeds can be created – to sustain, as it were, the auspiciousness of the natural landscape – does not, however, mean that they necessarily will be created.45 There is, after all, free will. If more good deeds are not created – if the bank account of merit is exhausted and not replenished – then the goodness of the place will cease, and the auspicious signs of its goodness, even in the natural landscape, will disappear.46 There are degrees, and an implicit order, to the exhaustion of merit (sönam dzokpabsod nams rdzogs pa). First good institutions cease. That causes good people to disappear, and this, in extreme cases, can even cause the physical landscape to change – from auspicious to inauspicious.47 The last things to go are the signs of auspiciousness as these are found in nature. And even these can actually disappear. This, in any case, is the emic view. But as long as such signs remain, Tibetans believe, there is hope, because it means that one’s merit has not been totally depleted, and that there remains a “ground” for the possibility of goodness. And so long as there exists the possibility of goodness, so long is there reason to hope that the results of goodness will once again emerge in their fullness.


[16] Tibetans have a word for map, saptrasa bkra. The etymology of the word is obscure – it is a compound combining the word for “earth” (sasa) and the word for “auspiciousness” (trabkra) – but the compilers of the Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo (2888) tell us that one of the meanings of the word saptrasa bkra is “the signs of the goodness of a place” (sa bzang ngan gyi rtags mtshan). The contemporary Tibetan word for map, then, may originally derive from geomancy, and specifically from pictorial forms used to depict, or perhaps to classify, auspicious or inauspicious places (e.g., for building or for performing rituals). I know of no indigenous Tibetan maps of SeraSe ra, unless of course we see the paintings that follow as kinds of Tibetans maps.
[17] B. Alan Wallace, transl. and ed., The Life and Teachings of Geshé Rabten: A Tibetan Lama’s Search for Truth (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980, 50).
[18] As a contemporary historian of SeraSe ra states, “Along the outer border of the site there runs a perimeter wall. It has three great entryways. In the front, there are the “three stone brothers,” and to the west there is a path that is the abode of the two younger brothers – Meaningful and Accomplished.” Dge bshes ye shes dbang phyug, Ser smad thos bsam nor gling grwa tshang gi chos ‘byung lo rgyus nor bu phreng ba (Bylakuppe: Sera Mey Press, nd, 32): mtha’ lcags ris ’khor yug tu bskor zhing/ rgyal sgo chen po gsum/ mdun du rdo spun gsum dang/ nub ngos su gcung don yod dang/ don grub gnyis kyi bzhungs gnas kyi shul/
[19] This is not to say that Tibetans do not have measures of distance, for there exists a variety of units of spatial expanse, some derived from nature, like the somasro ma (one-seventh the size of a lice egg!), some from the body, like the kumdombskum ’dom (about 1.5m, the length of the expanse of two outstretched arms), and others inherited from Indian sciences, like the paktsédpag tshad (= yojana, about 8 km.).
[20] Dge bshes ye shes dbang phyug, Ser smad thos bsam nor gling grwa tshang gi chos ‘byung lo rgyus nor bu phreng ba, 32: glang chen ri zur nas/ nam mkha’ lding ri bar yod cing /
[21] See, for example, Champa Thupten Zongtse, History of the Monastic University of Se-ra-theg-chen-gling (Göttingen, 1991, 13): se ba’i rwa ba yod pa’i gnas kyi ming las dgon pa’i mtshan yang de ltar du grags pa/
[22] One can imagine alternative etymologies. The word rarwa can also mean peak, and so one wonders whether Sera Monastery might not have been built at the base of a mountain known for its wild roses, or at the base of a mountain known as “wild rose peak.” As Candra Das points out, sewa rati(k)se ba ra ti(g) can also mean “a grain (a specific measure),” e.g., of gold, and again one can speculate whether or not the word SeraSe ra might not derive from this. Or alternatively, one wonders whether it might not be an abbreviation for sewé rakorse ba’i ra skor, “the place surrounded by wild roses,” or “the courtyard of wild roses,” an etymology that I have seen confirmed only by Waddell; Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, 372.
[23] It is not inconceivable that it was originally this hermitage alone that bore the name SeraSe ra, and that the monastery inherited its name from the name of the hermitage.
[24] GandenDga’ ldan is the Tibetan translation of the name of the paradise of Maitreya, the future buddha. Drepung’Bras spungs is the Tibetan translation of the name of a famous stupa associated with the Buddhist tantras, and the name of a famous monastery in Orissa, India.
[25] Dung dkar rin blo bzang ’phrin las, in Tshe dbang rin chen, ed., Se ra theg chen gling (1995):

gdan sa ’di nyid ni lha sa grong ’khyer gyi phyogs bzhi mtshams brgyad du rang byung gi ri brag bkra shis rtags brgyad kyi rnam pa gsal bar ’dod pa’i nang gses/ rgyab ri’i dbus kyi ri ’bur rgyal mtshan gyi dbyibs ’dra ba/ de’i ri sna g.yas ngos dung dkar g.yas ’khyil gyi rnam pa/ g.yas ngos chu bzang ri khrod kyi rgyab rir gdugs kyi rnam pa/ g.yon ri sne’u chung gi ri ngos g.yas brag gser nya kha sprod kyi rnam pa bcas gsal ba’ī ri dpyad phun sum tshogs shing /

[26] This characterization of self-arisen images as already present in the very stuff of reality -– as requiring no separate creation because they emerge naturally from reality itself –- is common in the work of Jamgön Kongtrül. See his Thugs kyi gnas mchog chen po de vi ko tri tsa ‘dra rin chen drak gi rtogs pa brjod pa yid kyi rgya mtsho’i rol mo, in Collected Works (Dilgo Khyentse edition), vol. 11, 477-546; Pilgrimage Guide to Tsadra Rinchen Drak trans. by Ngawang Zangpo in Sacred Ground: Jamgon Kongtrul on “Pilgrimage and Sacred Geography” (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2001, 171).
[27] As cited in Si tu pan chen (1699/1700-1774), Sde dge’i bka’ ’gyur dkar chag, The Catalogue of the Derge Kangyur (Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1988, 283-284). It is interesting that neither DungkarDung dkar nor SituSi tu depict the mountains anthropo- or theo-morphically. That is to say, they see them in the shapes of auspicious symbols (parasols, conch shells, etc.) and in the shapes of animals (dragons, lions, etc.) but not in the shapes of human beings, gods, or buddhas. What is more, both authors use words like dra’dra (“like”) to make it clear that they are claiming similitude, and not identity. The mountains are like dragons; they are not actual dragons. And perhaps there is a reason for this. The anthropomorphic or theomorphic reading of landscape, and the stronger rhetoric that there is an identity between land and beings, favor a more animistic worldview – one in which nature itself is alive and divine. Buddhists, it seems to me, are staunchly anti-animist. The physical world may be the abode for spirits and deities, but it is not itself sentient or divine. See, however, Jamgön Kongtrül’s characterization of a mountain as a meditator below.
[28] Ngawang Zangpo, Pilgrimage Guide, 173.
[29] Toni Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999, 21).
[30] Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain, 47-57.
[31] Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo (1438) identifies dochurdo chu as “a river in ’Jo mda’ rdzong in the Tibetan Autonomous Region ” ; bod rang skyong ljongs kyi ’jo mda’ rdzong khong kyi ’bab chu zhi/. Hence, the line might also read, “And the great precious Rdo river was also there.”
[32] As cited in Si tu pan chen, Sde dge’i bka’ ’gyur dkar chag, 282.
[33] The implied parallel to the doctrine of buddha nature is here intentional. Much in the same way that the innate purity (kadakka dag) of the mind serves as the ground or basis (zhigzhi) upon which enlightenment is achieved, the flourishing of goodness at the institutional level also requires an explanatory framework, a metaphysical grounding that can be inferred from the physical geography. See Jamgön Kongtrül’s proofs for the sacredness of Tsadra in Ngawang Zangpo, Pilgrimage Guide, 176-183.
[34] Dalai Lama, Answers: Discussions with Western Buddhists, ed. by José I. Cabezón (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2001, 55-56).
[35] Dung dkar rin blo bzang ’phrin las, Se ra theg chen gling.
[36] Prophecy is an important part of the discourse of sacredness. Jamgön Kongtrül also resorts to prophecy as proof for the sacredness of the site of his monastery. In Kongtrül’s case, it was MarpaMar pa who prophecied the future importance of the site; Ngawang Zangpo, Pilgrimage Guide, 180-181.
[37] For a slightly different account of this event see the extensive biography of the TsongkhapaTsong kha pa by the Se ra smad bla ma blo bzang phrin las rnam rgyal, the ’Jam mgon chos kyi rgyal po chen tsong kha pa chen po rnam thar thub bstan mdzas pa’i rgyan gcig ngo mtshar nor bu’i ’phreng ba (Indian edition, 1967, 285).
[38] Dge bshes ye shes dbang phyug, Ser smad thos bsam nor gling grwa tshang gi chos ‘byung lo rgyus nor bu phreng ba, 34: sa ’bungs ’di ni sngar chos rgyal mya ngan med kyis nyin gcig bzhengs pa’i kras yin/
[39] Compare to Jamgön Kongtrül’s discussion of the signs around Tsadra, which are often more sexual in nature; Ngawang Zangpo, Pilgrimage Guide, 181.
[40] Ngawang Zangpo, Pilgrimage Guide, 34:

gzhi bdag dge brnyan ’di ni ’jam dgon bla ma se ra chos ldings du bzhugs nas chos kyi ’khor lo bskor ba’i tshe rje bla ma’i zhabs tog tshul bzhin bsgrub te chos ’khor skyong ba zhal kyis bzhes pas na/ rje bla mas kyang bka’ bsgos gnyed du btad pa de yin/

[41] In the section on Architecture, you will see that my own discourse is predominantly etic.
[42] Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain, 31, my insertion and emphasis.
[43] Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain, 22, my emphasis.
[44] Or, in some instances, we can say that they are interested in legitimating their choice of site -– showing why a particular place can serve as the ground for religious activity, e.g., the success of a new institution that is about to be founded there. This seems to be the concern of Jamgön Kongtrül; see Ngawang Zangpo, Pilgrimage Guide, 181.
[45] A philosopher would put it this way: an auspicious place is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for goodness to flourish.
[46] See Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain, 47, for other instances in which informants reported this to have taken place.
[47] An inauspicious environment or landscape is described in a variety of Buddhist textual sources, especially those that depict the lower realms of rebirth (ngendrongan ’gro).
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The Space of Sera (se ra'i khor yug), by José Ignacio Cabezón