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

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.

[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/

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