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 6 of 6


[1] Some schools – for example, the madhyamaka – would go so far as to say that all phenomena can be characterized in this way.
[2] L. Augustine Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries: With a Record of the British Tibetan Expedition of 1903-1904 (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1988, 372).
[3] That SeraSe ra is a Chinese institution is something that is stressed not only in this plaque, but in many Chinese tourist websites, like www.chinawesttour.net: “Sera has been listed as one of the P.R. China’s national cultural relic of P.R. China since 1982.”
[4] Knud Larsen and Amund Sinding-Larsen, The Lhasa Atlas: Traditional Tibetan Architecture and Townscape (Boston: Shambhala, 2001, 9).
[5] Larsen and Sinding-Larsen, The Lhasa Atlas, 20.
[6] As regards the name, in Tibetan, the word SeraSe ra looks like this (སེ་ར་). In this map, the “e” (drengbugreng bu) vowel marker that sits on top of the “s” (ས་) letter in the Tibetan has been rendered as “á,” giving the appearance that the mapmaker has mastery over a system of arcane transliteration in which “e”s as accents graves are transmuted by the cognoscenti into accents aigus.
[7] This is in contrast to other sites in LhasaLha sa on the same map, where buildings, structures and other natural and architectural details are depicted.
[8] Like all genres, the boundaries between visual genres sometimes blur, and it becomes difficult to say where precisely the category “map” ends, and where the category “painting” begins, and it might be argued that both the Tibetan and the Lahuli paintings are kinds of maps.
[9] Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, 372.
[10] This photograph has been in circulation in the Tibetan refugee community since the mid 1970s. A print in the possession of Geshe Lhundub Sopa was scanned for use here.
[11] To give an example, it was only when the multispectral (the color) layers of the satellite image were added to the panchromatic (B&W) that it became evident where the tree-filled debate courtyards were located on the image.
[12] Despite the apparent scientificity of the enterprise of geo-referencing, the imprint (the presuppositions and agenda) of the investigator are ubiquitous. First, the limits of an area to be investigated must be determined. This is an act of choice. And when the features to be coded are chosen, this introduces an even greater degree of idiosyncracy. Of course, this is not a bad thing, but it is something worth noting.
[13] Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, vii.
[14] See Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy, eds., Rethinking Visual Anthropology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
[15] Take, for example, a 17th century text composed (and still used) at SeraSe ra. Onto what spatial point shall we map it? Shall we link it to the site where the author lived, where the text was composed, where it was printed, where it is taught today, where it is debated, where it is stored? Of course one could argue that it should be linked to all of these sites. But this does not resolve the issue because the purpose of “linking” is to give users ease of access. In this case, I would claim that the best way to give users access is not by linking the text to a spatial point at all, but by creating another (nonspatial) category – perhaps “text archive” or “education” – that better facilitates retrieval of the text, or information about it.
[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).
[48] The following studies all focus on the technology of construction to greater or lesser degrees: Philip Denwood, “Introduction to Tibetan Architecture,” Tibet News Review (I, 2), pp. 3-12 (1980); Anne Chayet, Art et Archéologie du Tibet (Paris: Picard, 1994), especially chapter IV; Paola Mortari Vergara and Gilles Béguin, eds., Dimore Umane, Santuari Divini (Origini sviluppo e diffusione dell’architettura tibetana), bilingual Italian-French (Rome: Dept. of Oriental Studies, University of Rome La Sapienza, 1987); and Knud Larsen and Amund Sinding-Larsen, The Lhasa Atlas: Traditional Tibetan Architecture and Townscape (Boston: Shambhala, 2001). For a brief and more general introduction to Tibetan architecture, see Stephen White, “The Flowering of Tibetan Architecture,” in Carole Elchert and Philip Sugden, eds., White Lotus: An Introduction to Tibetan Culture (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1990).
[49] Kitchens are usually painted yellow in SeraSe ra because the protector deity of wealth (Namtösérnam thos sras) is yellow in color, and kitchens were generally associated with wealth/prosperity/food.
[50] As the smallest of the three colleges, with only one thousand monks before 1959, this smallish kitchen may have been sufficient for the needs of the monks.
[51] These include murals of monastic artifacts and rituals, religious word diagrams (künzang khorlokun bzang ’khor lo, trashi khorloskra shis ’khor lo), “wheel of existence” murals (sipé khorlosrid pa’i ’khor lo), direction protectors, as well as inscriptions.
[52] The words “inner chapel” (lhakhang pukmalha khang spug ma or bukmasbug ma), and “offering room” (chökhangmchod khang) are also used to refer to these ancillary chapels.
[53] Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, 192. It is unclear whether Waddell actually saw this, or whether it is a second-hand account. In any case, it rings true.
[54] This is no longer the case in either SeraSe ra-Tibet or SeraSe ra-India. In SeraSe ra-Tibet lay women construction workers, for example, live for extended periods of time within the monastery. In SeraSe ra-India, women visitors to the monastery, and relatives of the monks, frequently remain overnight.
[55] See José Ignacio Cabezón, ed., Scholasticism: Cross Cultural and Comparative Perspectives (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).
[56] As already mentioned, there are a few apartment buildings that today have no perimeter walls. Some of these may have been enclosed before 1959. In any case, completely freestanding buildings are rare at SeraSe ra.
[57] See Larsen and Sinding-Larsen, The Lhasa Atlas, 43.
[58] Even before 1959 it had no monastic residential quarters of its own, and its monks lived in the various regional houses of the philosophical colleges. Today, however, it does have one apartment building, located directly behind the Tantric College temple. This building may have originally belonged to one of the regional houses of Jé or Mé College.
The Space of Sera (se ra'i khor yug), by José Ignacio Cabezón