Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
An Introduction to the Hermitages of Sera
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 6 of 6


[1] Ser smad spom ra dge bshes ye shes dbang phyug, Ser smad thos bsam nor gling grwa tshang gi chos ’byung lo rgyus nor bu’i phreng ba [A History of the Sermé Tösam Norling College: A Garland of Jewels] (Bylakuppe: Sermey Printing Press, 1984), 35-36.
[2] Lists of the SeraSe ra hermitages vary. For a list from 1820 (found in the Extensive Explanation of the World [Dzamling Gyeshé’Dzam gling rgyas bshad]), see Turrell Wylie, The Geography of Tibet According to the ’Dzam-gling-rgyas-bshad (Rome: IsMEO, 1962), 82-83.
[3] Other words are also used – for example, ensadben sa or enédben gnas, literally “solitary place” or “solitary site”; see the discussion that follows.
[4] Among the SeraSe ra hermitages, it appears that only one (GaruGa ru) was not originally the meditational retreat of an individual monk but was instead founded as an institution – in this case as a nunnery – from the beginning. See, for example, Bshes gnyen tshul khrims, Lha sa’i dgon tho rin chen spungs rgyan [A Catalogue of the Monasteries of Lhasa: A Heap of Jewels] (Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 2001), 30-31.
[5] Nuns tended to be more wary about living alone in isolated locations for fear that they might be attacked or robbed; at least that is the rhetoric that we find in both the oral and written sources. Hence, when nuns retreated to the mountains, they tended to do so in groups. None of the hermitages we study here, even those that are nunneries, were founded by women.
[6] This includes such things as prostrations, ritual offerings of the universe (maṇḍala offerings), recitations of the hundred-syllable mantra (ngaksngags) of Vajrasattva (Dorjé SempaRdo rje sems dpa’), water-bowl offerings, guru devotion practices, and so forth.
[7] These are retreats that involve mantra (ngaksngags) accumulation of a specific deity and that allow one to subsequently engage in a variety of ritual actions with respect to that deity.
[8] At least two variant spellings of the word commonly pronounced dodé exist: dog bde and rdo gter. The spelling rdo gter is also preferred by Lha sa dgon tho, passim. Phun tshogs rab rgyas, Phur lcog rigs gsum byang chub gling gi byung ba mdo tsam brjod pa dad gsum ’dren pa’i lcags kyu [A Brief History of Purchok Riksum Jangchup Ling: A Hook to Draw in the Three Types of Faith; hereafter Phur byung], Bod ljongs nang bstan [Tibetan Buddhism] 1 (2004), 55, gives the etymology: dang po ltar na phu dog cing mda’ bde bas na dog bde dang / phyi ma ni yul ’dir rdo rigs sna tshogs kyi gter kha yod pa’i cha nas rdo gter zhes ’bod srol yod/. The author prefers the first spelling and etymology. He also states that excavations have shown that this was an area of “several tens of thousands of households during the imperial period,” but cites no source for this other than oral tradition.
[9] Dung dkar blo bzang ’phrin las, Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo [The Great Dungkar Dictionary] (Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2002), 92.
[10] This entitled them, for example, to the money offering to monks (gep’gyed) made to the college and regional-house monks.
[11] In 1959 there were only two nunneries: GaruGa ru and NegodongGnas sgo gdong. Today there are four nunneries (ChupzangChu bzang and TaktenRtags bstan were taken over by nuns after liberalization permitted the rebuilding of religious institutions in the 1980s).
[12] There are actually twenty hermitages on this map, but what is labeled “New Keutsang” is the newly built version of “Keutsang West.” This accounts for the discrepancy.
[13] There is a tradition that TsongkhapaTsong kha pa also meditated at PabongkhaPha bong kha, and in a small cave between Keutsang West and Keutsang East (this cave no longer exists), but these sites are not as important in the TsongkhapaTsong kha pa biographies and oral lore as the three just mentioned.
[14] Sde srid sang rgyas rgya mtsho, Dga ldan chos ’byung bai ḍūrya ser po [Yellow Lapis: A History of the Ganden (School)], 142, states that SeraSe ra had a population of 2850 monks at the time of writing this work.
[15] See Luciano Petech, China and Tibet in the Early 18th Century: History of the Establishment of Chinese Protectorate in Tibet, T’oung Pao Monographie1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972, second ed.), 13.
[16] Petech, China and Tibet, 13. See also Lha sa’i dgon tho, 75, where it states that DrongméGrong smad, the birthplace of the regent, is about two miles from SeraSe ra.
[17] Petech, China and Tibet, 24.
[18] Petech, China and Tibet, 34. This is not the first time that SeraSe ra monks had acted as soldiers. In 1639-1640 the Fifth Dalai Lama himself used SeraSe ra monks in this capacity. See Zahiruddin Ahmad, Sino-Tibetan Relations in the Seventeenth Century, Serie Orientale Roma, XL (Rome: IsMEO, 1970), 125.
[19] Petech, China and Tibet, 44.
[20] Apparently, even the monks who acted as soldiers participated in the sack of LhasaLha sa; see Petech, China and Tibet, 46.
[21] Petech, China and Tibet, 54.
[22] Petech, China and Tibet, 77.
[23] His son is credited with having built SeraSe ra’s largest regional house, the Hamdong Regional House of the Jé College (Jé Hamdong KhangtsenByes har gdong khang tshan).
[24] The account that follows is based on that found in Dung dkar tshig mdzod, 431-32, entry for Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho (Dungkar RinpochéDung dkar rin po che says that he bases his account on Yongs ’dzin ye shes rgyal mtshan’s Lamrim Lama Gyüpé NamtarLam rim bla ma brgyud pa’i rnam thar); see the same text, 735-36, for DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa.
[25] Phur byung, 59, puts the date of his departure for Ölkhar’Ol khar at the time that DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa was 59 – that is, in 1699.
[26] The biography of Purchok Ngawang JampaPhur lcog ngag dbang byams pa states that he met DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa in 1699, so perhaps DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa continued to come back to SeraSe ra even during this time of pilgrimage and retreat.
[27] Yeshé GyeltsenYe shes rgyal mtshan (1713-1793) began coming to Purchok Hermitage for retreat and instruction beginning in the year me sbrul (1737). He spent that entire year in meditation there, living very humbly and receiving instructions from Purchok RinpochéPhur lcog rin po che. He returned to Purchok Hermitage many more times over the years, and after Purchok RinpochéPhur lcog rin po che’s death he continued to look after Purchok Hermitage “as if it were his own”; Phur byung, 64.
[28] The account of KhardowaMkhar rdo ba’s life that follows is based on Dung dkar tshig mdzod, 431-32. Another account of his life based on an interview with a former monk of Khardo Hermitage can be found under the description of that hermitage. (Click here to go to the Khardo Hermitage site now.) Since I have no access to a biography of this figure, I have not tried to reconcile the two sources, which vary considerably.
[29] chu dang / rde’u dang / me tog bcud len. A text on extracting the nutritive essence from flowers is listed among his known writings.
[30] It is not inconceivable that he met DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa while both of them were at SeraSe ra, or even while on his travels, since both DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa and KhardowaMkhar rdo ba studied at SeraSe ra at about the same time, and both were doing pilgrimage and retreat in similar places at precisely the same time: from 1692-1705/6.
[31] He was a student of the great scholar and meditator Longdöl Lama Ngawang LozangKlong rdol bla ma ngag dbang blo bzang, who was in turn a student of Purchok Ngawang JampaPhur lcog ngag dbang byams pa, DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa’s chief disciple.
[32] In several instances they occupied the highest rank in the lamabla ma hierarchy, that of “Incarnation of the Great Assembly Hall (Tsokchen Trülkutshogs chen sprul sku).” This was the case with the PurchokPhur lcog, KhardoMkhar rdo and DrakriBrag ri lamas, for example.
[33] Ngag dbang sman rgyal, Gar dgon bsam gtan gling gi lo rgyus mun sel mthong ba don ldan [A History of Gargön Samten Ling: Clearing Away Darkness, Meaningful to Behold; hereafter GarloGar lo] (Lha sa?, 1997), 25-26: rgyugs chen la ha lam dpe cha shog grangs lnga brgya skor yod.
[34] The monastic confession ritual (SojongGso sbyong) takes place on the new and full moon, but monks and nuns also do additional rituals on these days.
[35] At Garu Nunnery, for example, they do a minimum of eight sets of two-day fasting rituals, and if there is a sponsor, they will spend the entire month engaged in the practice.
[36] See Stephen Beyer, The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
[37] The oral and written accounts differ here. Both of these practices were mentioned by one of the nuns in an interview, but the Gar lo, 25, mentions only the first of these on this particular date.
[38] Gar lo, 25, calls this Medicine Buddha [Ritual]: Yizhin Wanggyel (Menla Yizhin WanggyelSman bla yid bzhin dbang rgyal), perhaps a reference to the title of the actual ritual text that is used.
[39] This is according to the oral account. Gar lo, 25, states that the protector deity practices take place on the twenty-ninth.
[40] Gar lo, 25, mentions only the second of these practices – which is there called Naro Kachömé DanjukNa ro mkha’ spyod ma’i bdag ’jug – and it omits Demchok LachöBde mchog bla mchod.
[41] Gar lo, 25, calls this by the alternative name of Neten ChakchöGnas brtan phyag mchod.
[42] Whether or not all of these were considered official “textual retreats” (petsamdpe mtshams) or “doctrine retreats” (chötsamchos mtshams), by my reckoning, monks had the opportunity for such kinds of memorization retreats on six separate occasions that correspond to the following dates (all according to the Tibetan calendar): 2/17-2/26. 4/8-4/15, 5/2-5/25, 8/1-8/8, 9/7-9/16, 10/17-11/15.
[43] Nomads raised animals – yaks (or yak hybrids), sheep, goats, and cattle – for meat, dairy products, and wool.
[44] The situation at SeraSe ra is somewhat different. While there is undoubtedly attrition, it does not appear to be as high as it is in the hermitages. For one thing, SeraSe ra monks tend to enter the monastery at a slightly older age. There is also a long waiting list to become an official SeraSe ra monk, and someone who has attained this status is not likely to give it up casually. Monks who are studying at SeraSe ra also have a clear-cut goal (that of receiving a classical religious education), a goal that has an end-point, and that culminates in a socially prestigious degree – that of geshédge bshes.
[45] It should be noted that this is not only a problem for monasteries in Tibet. By some estimates about twenty percent of the monks of SeraSe ra-India are presently residing (mostly as illegal aliens) in the U.S. (principally in New York City), working menial jobs, and living “the American dream.” Anecdotally, I have heard that some of these monks are now beginning to return to SeraSe ra-India, and to their former lives as monks. This phenomenon deserves to be studied from a socio-ethnographic viewpoint. For an account of similar decisions faced by Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Nepal, see Alyson Prude’s forthcoming Masters thesis (UCSB).
[46] In SeraSe ra-India, there are several cases of former SeraSe ra monks returning to retire to the monastery. See also the essay on ChupzangChu bzang, an institution that before 1959 appears to have been a community of elderly LhasaLha sa Tibetans engaged in intensive religious practice.
An Introduction to the Hermitages of Sera, by José Ignacio Cabezón

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Location and Institutional Affiliation to SeraSe ra
  3. History
  4. Life in the SeraSe ra Hermitages
  5. Glossary
  6. Notes
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