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

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.).

[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.
The Space of Sera (se ra'i khor yug), by José Ignacio Cabezón