Drepung Monastery (seven kilometers east of Lhasa) was once the largest monastery in the world. Built in the 15th century, it housed 12,000 monks at its height. During the Cultural Revolution the monastery was all but deserted. By 1988 about 500 monks had returned. In 2000, there were around 800 monks down from 10,000 before the Chinese invasion. Today, there are maybe 1,000. Drepung was a focal point of the protest that launched the 2008 riots in Lhasa. We had to go through a metal detector to enter the monastery as we did at other important sites in Lhasa.

Almost as impressive as Potala Palace, Drepung covers 250,000 square meters. is built next to a gully and steep slope of Gebeiwoze Mountain and consists of a multitude of whitewashed building scattered over a ravine. Frescoes decorate the walls and statues line many of the halls. The library houses a large collection of sutras and rare books. The kitchen has room-size pots used to feed the 6,000 monks who once lived at the monastery Drepung Monastery is called Zhaibung in Chinese and is known as Duimi or Gyimi monastery, which means "an auspicious land," in Tibetan.

In Tibetan Drepung literally means "Rice Heap". From a distance away the off-white monastery looks like a heap of rice, hence it's name. Sitting on Mount Gambo Utse in a western suburb of Lhasa, Drepung Monastery is part of a famous kora. The monastery was built in 1416 by Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden, one of Tsongkhapa’s main disciples, and is one of the Three Great Monasteries of Lhasa, along with Sera Monastery and Ganden Monastery. A 65-million-yuan (about US$10 million) restoration of Drepung was started in June 2009 and completed in early 2012.

Highlights of a visi to Drepung Monastery include unique architectures and magnificent buildings, like Ganden Palace, Coqen Hall, Four Great Dratsangs (Loseling, Gomang, Deyang, Ngagpa); the one-day Drepung Kora through the Lhasa Valley, Lalu Wetland and Potala Palace; and watching the monks debating sutras and scriptures using exaggerated gestures to make their logic arguments. A 10 minutes walk to Nechung Monastery to explore the seat of State Oracle and the most striking murals and spectacular paintings, etc. If time allows, you can combine your Drepung day trip with Sera Monastery to observe sand mandala making and monks debates in just one go.

The Drepung Shoton Festival in the summer features the enjoy the grandest Buddha Thangka unfolding ceremony in Lhasa. The Shoton — Sour Milk Drinking — Festival is held on the 30th day of the 6th month in the Tibetan calendar. During the event a huge portrait of Sakyamuni is hung from Genewoze Hill. Tens of thousands of Buddhist followers and visitors come to worship during the grandest event of the year at the monastery.

Location: Southern slope of Genpeiwuzi Mountain, Chengguan District, Lhasa; or five kilometers from the western suburb of Lhasa. Open Hours 9:00am-5:00pm; Admission: 60 yuan all year; Getting There: Bus - No. 24, 25. Get off at Drepung Monastery Station. or Taxi

Nechung Monastery (one kilometers east of Drepung Monastery) was the home of the Tibetan oracle who now lives with the Dalai Lama in India. The Oracle statue is a small doll-like figure with reaching arms, bulging eyes and an expression reminiscent of the figure in the painting The Scream. The Tar figure on the wall in one chapel is said to have appeared miraculously one day.

History of Drepung Monastery

The Drepung Monastery was built in 1416 by Jamyang Qoigyi Zhaxi Bendain, a favorite disciple of Master Tsong Khapa, founder of the Gelug (Yellow) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is one of the six Gelug monasteries in China, but with the largest area and the highest status since it is the "mother monastery" of the Dalai Lama.

In 1409, Master Tsong Khapa succeeded in pioneering the Grand Summons Ceremony, also called Molan Qenmo in Tibetan, in the Jokhang Monastery, Lhasa. In the same year, he had the Ganden Monastery built in response to the popularity of the Gelug Sect among Tibetan Buddhists. With the official rise of the Gelug Sect, the Drepung Monastery was built to accommodate the new situation.

When the Drepung Monastery was built, Mamyang Qoigyi Thaxi Bendain served as its first abbot, also called Chiba in Tibetan. The monastery has had 23 abbots. In 1464, the Drepung Monastery set up Buddhist colleges, or Zhacang in Tibetan, for monks to learn Buddhist classics. During the period of the 5th Dalai Lama, the Gelug Sect set a ceiling on the number of monks for each Gelug monastery. The number for the Drepung monastery was more than 7,700 monks, which made it the largest in Tibet — the number of lamas at Ganden Monastery was about 3,300 and 5,500 at Sera Monastery.

L.T. Doboom Tulku wrote: “The great monastery of Drepung was founded by Jamyang Choje Tashi Palden, a direct disciple of Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug Tradition. This great master had presented his disciple with a white conch, an auspicious token that he had unearthed as a hidden treasure from a hill behind Ganden Monastery. At that time, Tsongkhapa had prophesied, "You shall establish a magnificent monastery and this offspring monastery shall become more extensive than its mother one." [Source: L.T. Doboom Tulku, Translated by Alexander Berzin and Khamlung Rinpoche; Study Buddhism of Berzin Archive studybuddhism.com

“Neupon Namka Zangpo, the political leader of Central Tibet at that time, was requested to be the patron for the monastery. Thus, it was founded according to the Theravadin system of reckoning in the year 1960 after the Parinirvana of Buddha, or according to the Christian system in 1416 A. D. At that time, Jamyang Choje was 38 years of age. At first, there was only one small building, which served both as a place for giving and receiving teachings and as a residence. Gradually, more extensive newer buildings were added, including an assembly hall, tantric hall, representations of Buddha’s body, speech and mind, and monks’ quarters. Neupon Namka Zangpo donated all the materials for this at the request of Tsongkhapa. For 32 years, the founder himself maintained the monastery as a great institution by giving extensive discourses on the Three Baskets with respect to sutra studies and on the four classes of tantra with respect to tantra studies. A great assembly of monks gathered who were interested in these excellent teachings and they divided themselves into seven groups, with each having its own teacher to give discourses. Thus, were established the seven great colleges of Gomang, Loseling, Deyang, Shagkor, Gyalwa or Tosamling, Dulwa, and Ngagpa.

From time to time, Neupon Namka Zangpo made grand religious offerings and, when necessary, provided the monks with essentials such as clothing and tea. The teaching, practicing and studying there, as well as the monk population increased greatly, and thus it became one of the most famous great Gelug monasteries in the Lhasa area.

“After a while, Dulwa, Shagkor, and Gyalwa Colleges amalgamated into the others. Although they no longer existed as separate colleges, abbots holding the lineages of their thrones continued to be appointed from either Gomang or Loseling Colleges. Later, of the four remaining colleges, Gomang and Loseling came to specialize mostly in sutra studies and practice, Ngagpa mostly in tantra, and Deyang in both sutra and tantra practiced equally. Each college has an abbot who is responsible for the teaching, studying, and practice there. There is also a general abbot or throne-holder for the entire monastery, the lineage for which has come from Jamyang Choje. In later times, the custom has been that the eldest retired abbot of the individual colleges assumes the position of the throne-holder of the entire monastery.

“Although there is the popular saying that the number of monks at Drepung is 7760, there were several thousand more than that. Most of them were involved in the teachings and practice of theThree Baskets. Many strove to practice constructive actions in accordance with their mental ability. Certain others, however, occupied themselves with menial labor for the sake of the economic welfare of the monastic community. Other learned ones, after completing their studies at the main monastery, would go to offspring monasteries to serve as their abbots. Thus, there were many such offspring centers nourished by Drepung. In this way, this community functioned as a major home for the Buddha’s teachings.

“It continued to flourish as such until 1959 A. D. At that time, as Tibet as a whole suffered a terrible catastrophe, so this monastery too lost its facilities to continue existing in Tibet. Several thousand of its monks fled to India with the Tibetan refugees. No longer having conducive place, time, or conditions, they were unable to meet as a whole or to carry out only religiousactivities. Several hundred monks, however, with the assistance of the ration aid program, were able to continue practice and study for nine years at Buxaduar in West Bengal. Seeing the necessity, however, of being situated closer to the Tibetan settlement camps for the sake of stability and continuity, they moved in 1970 to Mundgod, Karnataka State, in South India. Having cleared the thick jungle, made fields for growing food, and constructed makeshift buildings during the four years since they have moved there, they are now following the traditional course of study and practice as in Tibet.

Drepung Monastery and the Dalai Lamas

L.T. Doboom Tulku wrote: “The first of the line of Dalai Lamas, Gyalwa Gendun Drub (rGyal-ba Ge-’dun grub) received many sutra and tantra teachings at Drepung from Tsongkhapa. Later, near Shigatse (gZhis-ka-rtse, Shigatse) in Tsang (gTsang) province, he founded Tashilhunpo Monastery (bKra-shis lhun-po dGon-pa). It is the fourth largest monastery in Central Tibet. The other three, including Drepung, are in U (dBus) province. Each of the next Dalai Lamas, from the second through the fifth, not only held the position of the Throne-holder of Drepung, but also made Drepung his permanent residence. [Source: L.T. Doboom Tulku, Translated by Alexander Berzin and Khamlung Rinpoche; Study Buddhism of Berzin Archive studybuddhism.com

“When the Second Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Gyatso, reached the age of four, he said, "Now it is time for us to go to Drepung. The messengers to invite me shall soon be coming." Like this example of expressing memories of the past, the succeeding members of the lineage of the Dalai Lama have had a special connection with this monastery. In those days, there were even people who referred to the Dalai Lama or Gyalwa Rinpoche (rGyal-ba Rin-po-che) as the Drepung Tulku .[His was the first line of incarnate lamas (tulkus) in the Gelug tradition. Even the name of the Tibetan Government, Ganden Podrang (dGa’-ldan pho-brang), derives from the name of the Dalai Lama’s residence at Drepung.

Although there had been a previous residence called Ganden Podrang, a new one was built at the time of the Third Dalai Lama. Likewise, at the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, the general assembly hall was also rebuilt at Drepung in accordance with his wishes. From the Great Fifth Dalai Lama onward, the Dalai Lamas assumed the position of temporal and religious ruler of Tibet and thus could no longer have their permanent residence at Drepung. Nevertheless, whenever someone of the Dalai Lama lineage formally entered the monastic community or took his Geshe examination, or whenever there was a formal function of the religious-temporal government, the Dalai Lama would customarily stay at his Ganden Podrang residence at Drepung.

Drepung Monastery and the 2008 Riots

The riots in Lhasa in 2008 that injured hundreds and left 23 dead according to Chinese authorities and 220 dead according to Tibetan sources began March 10 when hundreds of monks staged a protest at Drepung monastery to commemorate the anniversary of the March 10 revolt in 1959. Monks that marched towards Lhasa were prevented by police from entering the city. Protestors that shouted Tibetan independence slogans and unfurled a homemade Tibetan flag were quickly whisked away by police. At least 15 people were detained. On the same day students and monks staged a second protest in Lhasa, making a circle around Barkhor Square in front of Jokhang Temple, and joining hands, The square filled with police. Foreign witnesses said six or seven demonstrators were taken away by police.

After the uprising, security forces in Lhasa cleared out monasteries and jailed monks for months. About 700 were sent to a camp in Golmud, in Qinghai, for patriotic education, then ordered to return to their hometowns, said three young monks who were at the camp.Dreprung and Sera monasteries in Lhasa reopened in late April. A spokesman for the government said, “Monks have been taught legal knowledge in recent days and the monastery has resumed normal religious activities. Jokhang temple opened in mid May, two months after the riot. In July 2008, three months after the riots, Tibet was reopened to foreign tourists. Drepung monastery reopened in August 2008. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 25, 2009]

The number of monks in Lhasa's three main monasteries was slashed by authorities. At Drepung about 600 monks were sent back to their villages and homes. The 450 that were allowed to remain were watched over carefully, One Lhasa monk told the Times of London, “We have to take patriotic education classes one day a week and pledge to love the motherland and criticize the Dalai Lama. It is very painful but I want to stay a monk."

Monks no longer in the monasteries are barred from wearing their robes in public, the monk said, and the police check on the monks at home, at times hauling some off to prison. The monk said Tibetan policemen came to his home three times a month. They ask, “Where have you been?” he said. “Have you been out? What are Tibetans talking about in the society? Have you met with friends who are in prison?” [Ibid]

Buildings and Treasures at Drepung Monastery

The Drepung Monastery is composed of the Coqen Hall, four Zhacang colleges (called Losailing, Deyang, Ngaba and GomangZhacangs) and the Gandain Phodrang (Palace). They formed the management organ, which functioned under Coqen. The four colleges contain a total of 29 Kamcuns, groups of monks formed in accordance with their origins. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Located in the central part of the Drepung Monastery, the Coqen Hall covers an area of close to 4,500 square meters. In front of the hall is a square paved with stones. A 17-step stone staircase links the square with the hall. At the entrance are eight pillars. Coqen's Sutra Hall is of magnificent scale, covering an area of 1,800 square meters and propped up by 183 pillars. All the Buddha statues enshrined in the Coqen Hall are lifelike, such as the statue of the Wisdom Buddha and a statue hidden under a white umbrella in the central part of the Coqen Hall.

There are two silver dagobas in the wing chambers of the Coqen Hall. These are holy stupas for the 3rd and 4th Dalai Lamas. The Duisong Lakang (Hall) in the rear part of the Coqen Hall is the earliest of its kind in the Drepung Monastery. Jamyang Qoigyi Zhaxi Bendain used to sit in mediation and study here. Now, it is enshrined with the statues of the 3rd Dalai Lama and two of his favorite disciples.

Zhacang colleges are where Gelug monks studied Buddhism. In the early days of its construction, the Drepung boasted seven Zhacangs, all of which were put under the seven major disciples of Jamyang Qoigyi Zhaxi Bendain. With the increase in the number of monks hailing from other monasteries who studie in these Zhacangs, the seven Zhacangs were condensed into the Losailing, Gomang, Deyang and Ngaba Zhacangs in accordance with the contents of the disciplines and origins of the students. The first three Zhacangs are for the study of the open school of Tibetan Buddhism, and the fourth is the Tantric college.

Southwest of the monastery is the Gandain Phodrang Palace, the residence of the 2nd to the 5th Dalai Lamas.

All the buildings of the Drepung Monastery are closely laid out. Each building is composed of a courtyard, a Sutra hall and a Buddha hall. The terrain rises from the gate to the Buddha halls to highlight the position of these halls to highlight the position of these halls. The Coqen Hall is the largest; the Deyang Zhacang is unsophisticated in layout; the Ngaba Zhacang is compact; and the Gandain Phodrang is the most magnificent. All the buildings have golden tops, Dharma wheels and other religious objects.

The Drepung Monastery preserves close to 10,000 ancient classics, more than 100 volumes of Gangyur and 100 volumes of Dangyur, and hundreds of volumes of hand-copied works by Zongkapa and two disciples. Buddha statues enshrined in various Buddha halls, lifelike as they are, represent a high level of sculpture within Tibet. Color frescoes in these halls are elegant. All the the art is valuable for the study of Tibetan history, religion and art. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

Sera Monastery

Sera Monastery (four kilometers north of Lhasa) is one of the three largest monasteries of the Gelug Sect. It sits on the southern slope of the strangely shaped Serawoze Mountain in the northern suburbs of Lhasa, sprawled out over an area of 114,960 square meters. Sera is regarded as prestigious and important as Drepung and Ganden Monasteries, but is not as old as they are. Sera means "Wild Rose Garden" in Tibetan. It is named after the opulent wild rose woods that once grew around the monastery.

Only a few hundred of the 5,000 monks that once lived here remain. These monks, who belong to the Yellow Hat sect, are famous for their martial arts and debating skills. About 2,000 devotees visit every week. Many come to get a special mark put on their head. The monastery caters to members of all three of the main Tibetan Buddhist sects.

Since ancient times, Living Buddhas and monks have taught the Buddhist doctrines in the area surrounding Sera. Dotted with willow trees, it is also home to many small monasteries and nunneries, including the Purbujor and Zhachi Holy Maid monasteries, Myiqoinre Nunnery, the Kardoreqoi mediation area, and the Balungreqoi (If you know what this is, explain. I saw only one entry in my website search and it didn't show anything) to the east and south; Barku, Gungbasa, Pobengang, Zhaxiqoilin, and Qoisang monasteries as well as the Garil Nunnery to the west; and Zhukangreqoi and Seraqoiding monasteries to the rear.

Monks chant Buddhist scriptures in Tsochin Hall. Thousands of murals can be seen on the buildings’ walls. Sera Monastery’s library and printing facility is well known. There are some nuns at the facility and some intricate, preserved sand mandalas. Sera's collection of murals is well maintained. Its statues of Maitreya, Bodhisattvas, and arhats are noteworthy. Scriptures written in gold powder, scroll paintings, a tapestry portrait of Jamchen Chojey, and thangkas (three-dimensional artwork) can be seen throughout Sera. Hours Open: 9:00am-4:00pm; Admission: 50 yuan. all year. Getting There: Taxi or buses No. 6, 16, 20, 23 and 24 and get off at Sela Si bus station, a few minutes walk from Sera Monastery.

History of Sera Monastery

Sera monastery was founded by Sakya Yeshe (1354-1439), also known as Jamchen Choje, disciple of Tsongkhapa. It is regarded as one of Lhasa’s Three Great Gelugpa Monasteries and one of the six main Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) monasteries of Tibet Buddhism. The monastery has nurtured many eminent lamas while serving as prestigious Tibetan Buddhist educational institution. It was established by Jamchen Chojey Sakya Yeshe of Zel Gungtang, a disciple of Je Tsongkhapa, in 1419.

A legend says that Tsong Khapa and his two disciples traveled in the area, spreading Buddhism. One day, they heard a horse whinnying underground when they were taking a walk in the rose woods. They dug up a statue of Hynagriva (a horse-headed demon-god) and Tsong Khapa began construction of a monastery to enshrine Hynagriva.

However, the truth is that in 1414, Jamchen Chojey (or Sakya Yeshe), one of Tsong Khapa's disciples, visited Emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as Tsong Khapa's emissary. The Emperor Chengzu granted him a title of Dharma King of Great Mercy, a large number of sutras, a set of sandalwood arhats (statues of enlightened Buddhists), frocks, silks, gold and silver, and so on. In order to preserve them, Tsong Khapa instructed Jamchen Chojey to build a monastery to house the treasures. The Sera Monastery was completed in 1419.

Buildings at Sera Monastery

Sera is designed around a main assembly hall, or Coqen in Tibetan, which is the grandest hall of Sera, occupying a floor space of 1,000 square meters. The four-story hall has four chapels in which arhats, Manjushri, Tsong Khapa, and Chenrezi are enshrined. Later, a huge Maitreya was enshrined in the hall during the reign of the 7th Dalai Lama. The valuable Buddhist sutras that Jamchen Chojey brought back from the Ming Dynasty of Central China are kept in a sutra pigeonhole adjacent to the hall. [Source: chinaculture.org, Chinadaily.com.cn, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China, October 27, 2005]

Sera houses three Zhacangs, the colleges for studying the sutras. The first, Sera Me Zhacang, was built in 1419. It was later destroyed by a lightening strike, but restored in 1761. Its Chanting Hall is remarkable. Sera Me is prestigious for its fine, undamaged murals.

Sera Je Zhacang was first founded in 1435 and expanded by a Mongol king in 17th century. The building has five stories, covering a space of a thousand square meters. Its main hall contains 11 stupas of the Ganden and Ratreng Tripas (respectively the heads of their respective sects). The original Hynagriva statue is enshrined in the building's Hynagriva Chapel.

Ngagpa Zhacang was established in 1559. The smallest of the three Zhacangs, it houses its founder Jamchen Chojey's statue in its chanting hall. The set of sandalwood arhats granted to the monastery is housed in it. For the sake of perfect preservation, they are encased in the bellies of a set of clay arhats, which have been authenticated as the original ones.

Studying and Debating Monks at Sera Monastery

The open-air "debating courtyard" at the Sera Monastery is one of the interesting aspects of visiting Sera. The debating monks slap their arms and seem to be haranguing one another in the Sera monastery courtyard. The monks debate Buddhist teachings punctuated with highly-ritualized, often loud gestures, such as hand clapping and foot stomping. Novice monks gain admittance to Sera monastery at age 16 by memorizing 300 scriptures and passing an exam.

Debating monks Many monks spend their time debating subtle points of Buddhist theology such as "whether or not a rabbit has a horn" or "whether form has shape and color." The abbots and teachers usually stand while the monks sit on the floor. In their free time monks play soccer, wrestle and goof around. In some monasteries monks participate in debates in the main assembly hall of the monastery, observed by local spectators and tourists. This is sometimes followed by ritual music played outside. Examinations for the highest 'Lharampa Geshe' degree (a degree in Buddhist philosophy in the Geluk tradition) are held during the week-long Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa in January.

Describing debating monks in a monastery, Tim Sullivan of Associated Press wrote: “The shouts of more than a dozen Tibetan monks echo through the small classroom. Fingers are pointed. Voices collide. When an important point is made, the men smack their hands together and stomp the floor, their robes billowing around them. It's the way Tibetan Buddhist scholars have traded ideas for centuries. Among them, the debate-as-shouting match is a discipline and a joy. [Source: Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, July 3, 2012 ^/^]

“Though most studied only religious subjects after eighth grade and few learned anything but basic math, they regularly traverse highly complex concepts. Because of the way they study — focusing on debates and the memorization of long written passages, but doing comparatively little writing — few are able to take notes during classroom lectures. Many were raised to see magic as an integral part of the world around them. ^/^

“To watch them in class, though, is astonishing. No one yawns. No one dozes. Since almost no one takes notes, it's easy to think they're not paying attention. For most of the monastics, the challenges are not in the academic rigor. They see nothing astonishing about their ability to process vast amounts of information without taking notes, or to remain attentive for hours on end.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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