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Discovering Drepung Monastery: A Popular Jewel in Lhasa’s Crown

Nestled on the southern slopes of the Gephel Mountain, just west of Lhasa’s bustling city center, lies the magnificent Drepung Monastery. Its name, translating to “Rice Heap Monastic University,” (བཀྲ་ཤིས་དཔལ་ལྡན་འབྲས་སྤུངས་དགོན) hints at its grandeur and auspicious significance, often referred to as “Drepung” or “Ganden Podrang” in historical texts. Founded in 1416 by Jamyang Chöje Tashi Palden, this architectural marvel stands as one of the “Great Three” Gelug university monasteries of Tibet, recognized as a national key cultural heritage site.

History behind Drepung Monastery

In 1416, under the guidance of Tsongkhapa, the Drepung monastery emerged. It was a direct response to a celestial vision involving Maitreya Bodhisattva and Avalokiteshvara. They initiated a sacred ceremony, enriching the site with divine energy. Tsongkhapa envisioned the monastery as more than just a place of worship. Lama Tsongkhapa saw it as a community where monks could gather, learn, and grow in their spiritual journey. He stressed the importance of maintaining the purity of the teachings. He believed that this purity would transform the monastery into a living repository of dharma (spiritual law and order).

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A Hub of Spiritual and Architectural Splendor

Drepung Monastery is not just a place of spiritual significance; it’s an architectural wonder. The complex is primarily made up of the Tsokchen Hall, the Four Great College (བློ་གསལ་གླིང་གྲྭ་ཚང་དང་སྒོ་མང་གྲྭ་ཚང་། སྔགས་པ་གྲྭ་ཚང་། བདེ་ཡངས་གྲྭ་ཚང་བཅས་གྲྭ་ཚང་བཞི་རུ་བསྡུས།), and the Ganden Palace, (དགའ་ལྡན་ཕོ་བྲང་) each a feat of design and function. These buildings, along with their subsidiary monk quarters and assembly halls, create a tightly-knit architectural fabric, signifying the monastery’s organizational and spiritual hierarchy.

The monastery’s layout is meticulously planned across three levels – the courtyard, prayer hall, and sanctum sanctorum, symbolizing an ascension towards the divine. The exteriors are adorned with golden roofs, prayer wheels, and various Buddhist symbols, elevating the solemnity and grandeur of the complex. The panoramic view of the cascading buildings against the backdrop of the mountain is breathtaking, reminiscent of a beautiful mountain fortress.

A New changes and Present Time

The monastery suffered severe destruction during the Cultural Revolution, as Red Guards and the army targeted it, resulting in extensive damage to its original relics and statues. This period marked a dark age for Tibet, with a 600-year-old institution and its invaluable legacy falling victim to the turmoil. However, following the 1980s, efforts to revive the monastery transformed it into a center for religious activities accessible to monks and laypeople alike.

Despite the adversity faced in its past, today the monastery stands as a beacon of resilience and hope. With over 500 monks now calling it home, it continues to serve as a vital site for Buddhist worship and study. The monastery’s resurgence symbolizes the enduring spirit of Tibetan Buddhism and its ability to overcome adversity, offering solace and inspiration to all who visit.

Recognized in 1982 as a key national cultural heritage site, Drepung Monastery has not only retained its spiritual essence but has also opened its doors wider to the world, inviting visitors to marvel at its beauty and soak in its tranquil yet powerful atmosphere.

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Exploring the Heart of Drepung Monastery: The Tsokchen Hall

At the core of Drepung Monastery, the largest of its kind, stands the Tsokchen Hall, (ཚོགས་ཆེན་འདུ་ཁང་) an embodiment of spiritual authority and architectural grandeur. The Tsokchen Hall, serving as the central hub for monastery activities, is not just a structure but a testament to the monastery’s rich heritage and religious significance. The Tsokchen Hall, translating to “Great Assembly Hall,” is pivotal to the monastery’s daily functions. Governed by the “Khenpo,” a figure of high authority, the hall oversees the discipline of the monastic community with the assistance of two “Zhal-ngo” or “enforcers,” colloquially known as “Iron Rod Lamas.” This setup underlines the hall’s significant role in maintaining order and discipline within the monastery.

Architectural Marvel and Spiritual Haven

The Tsokchen Hall, an architectural marvel, covers about 4,500 square meters, boasting grandeur and functionality in its design. A spacious stone-paved square, extending over 2,000 square meters, leads visitors and monks to the hall. Here, a flight of 17 broad stone steps extends a warm welcome. An elegant gallery, supported by eight towering columns, adorns the entrance, hinting at the grandiosity that awaits within.

Inside, the prayer hall unfolds over an impressive 1,800 square meters, with 159 shorter pillars and 24 long pillars providing support. This design can host between 7,000 to 10,000 monks for scripture recitation, showcasing its vast scale. A large skylight overhead illuminates the hall, enhancing the spiritual ambiance. The interior dazzles the eyes with its intricately carved beams, colorful banners, and shimmering golden Buddha statues, creating an opulent and sacred atmosphere. The seating arrangement reflects the monastery’s hierarchical structure, prioritizing learning and spirituality, and accommodates different ranks, from Khenpos to Tulkus (incarnate Lamas) and Geshes (scholars).

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Artistic Excellence and Historical Significance

The Tsokchen Hall is renowned for its exquisite Buddha statues, especially the striking figures of Manjushri and the White Umbrella Goddess, which demonstrate the artistic craftsmanship of the time. The statues, with their detailed backlights, elaborate aureoles, and powerful animal motifs, are masterpieces of religious art. Behind the main hall lies the “Tsongkhapa Lhakhang,” one of the oldest shrines within the monastery, dedicated to the past, present, and future Buddhas. The shrine features unique decorations and offers a serene space for contemplation and worship.

Adjacent to Tsongkhapa Lhakhang is the “Miwang Lhakhang,” home to a towering statue of Maitreya Buddha, crafted with exquisite detail and proportion. This statue, funded by Pola Miwang, reaches from the ground floor to the second, symbolizing the Buddha’s immense presence and grace.

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The Sacred Spaces of Drepung Monastery: Lhakhangs and Their Treasures

Adjacent to the Tsongkhapa Lhakhang within Drepung Monastery lies the “Lungbung Lhakhang,” a shrine rich in history and spiritual significance. This section delves into the fascinating aspects of Lungbung Lhakhang and other pivotal areas within the monastery, each contributing to the profound spiritual atmosphere of Drepung.

Lungbung Lhakhang: A Sanctuary of Silver Stupas

Chorten Lungbung Lhakhang (ཀླུ་འབུམ་མཆོད་རྟེན) is renowned for its exquisite collection of silver stupas, particularly those dedicated to the Third and Fourth Dalai Lamas, Sonam Gyatso and Yonten Gyatso, and the Regent King. These stupas, wrapped in silver and adorned with precious jewels, are not only a testament to the artistic craftsmanship of the time but also signify the monastery’s reverence for these spiritual leaders. The stupas of the Third and Fourth Dalai Lamas alone required 14,800 taels of silver, showcasing the lavish dedication poured into these memorials.

The Kangyur Lhakhang: A Repository of Buddhist Texts

On the second floor, the “Kangyur Lhakhang” (བཀའ་འགྱུར་ལྷ་ཁང་) houses three sets of the Kangyur, the Tibetan Buddhist Canon. This collection includes a version from the Phaktu Dynasty, a woodblock print from the Ganden Phodrang Dynasty, and a set written in gold by Depa Losang Tutob in 1675 to honor the Dalai Lama. These texts underscore Drepung Monastery’s role in preserving Buddhist scripture and knowledge. གསེར་བྲིས་ཀྱི་བཀའ་འགྱུར་ལ་ཙནྡ་གྱི་གླེགས་ཤིང་། གདོང་ ivory བ་སོ་ལ་རྒྱན་སྤྲོས་དང་ལྡན་པ། འཛམ་གླིང་གཡས་བཞག་ཅེས་པ།

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Jampa Tongdrol Lhakhang: Home to the Giant Maitreya Statue

The “Jampa Tongdrol Lhakhang” (བྱམས་པ་མཐོང་སྒྲོལ་ལྷ་ཁང) on the third floor is distinguished by its colossal bronze statue of Maitreya, believed to represent the Buddha at the age of eight, crafted under the directive of King Nedong to honor Tsongkhapa’s instructions. The presence of a conch shell, a gift from Tsongkhapa, adds to the sanctity of this space, symbolizing the spread of the Buddhist teachings.

The architectural design of the monastery’s rooftops, particularly the square-shaped spire of the Buddha hall, showcases unique craftsmanship. The “Golden plaque, adorned with inscriptions from that period, reflects the importance of Drepung Monastery in Ganden Phodrang administration. གསེར་ཟངས་ཀྱི་རྒྱ་ཕིབས་གཉིས་དང་། གསེར་ཟངས་ཀྱི་གཉྫིར་རྒྱལ་མཚན་

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The Buddha Shakyamuni Hall: A Celestial Abode

At the pinnacle of the monastery, the fourth-floor Buddha Shakyamuni Hall houses a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, (ཇོ་བོ་རིན་པོ་ཆེ་དངུལ་སྐུ་སྲིད་ཞིའི་འཇིགས་སྐྱོབ་) crafted with 500 taels of silver, surrounded by thirteen silver stupas. The hall also contains a gallery of Arhats and lineage masters, including significant figures from Drepung Monastery itself. The golden rooftop, designed in the Tibetan style with elaborate brackets, draws architectural inspiration from China and India.

Jamyang Chöje Tashi Palden: The Luminary Behind Drepung Monastery

Jamyang Chöje Tashi Palden (1379–1449), (འཇམ་དབྱངས་ཆོས་རྗེ) revered as the “Sublime Voice of Dharma” and originally named Tashi Palden, stands as a towering figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in the Samye region of southern Tibet, he was the foremost disciple of Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school, and the founding abbot of Drepung Monastery.

Early Brilliance and Spiritual Journey

From a young age, people recognized Jamyang Chöje for his intelligence. He took his monastic vows at Drebung Monastery. He later went on to study the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and works on logic at Sangphu Neutok Monastery, learning from the renowned masters Nie Gön Rinchen and Danma Gönpo. His quest for knowledge took him to Jomo Monastery, where he studied the Vinaya (monastic discipline) and Abhidharma texts under Khenchen Kagyupa. His education reached its peak at Ganden Monastery, where Tsongkhapa took him as a disciple and ordained him as a bhikshu. Jamyang Chöje gained renown for his ability to memorize and understand 108 different scriptures and treatises of both the Sutra and Tantra.

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Founding of Drepung Monastery

In 1414, at Tsongkhapa’s behest, Jamyang Chöje set forth to establish a monastery that would surpass even Ganden in spiritual importance. Drepung Monastery was completed in 1416, with Tsongkhapa himself officiating the consecration ceremony. Jamyang Chöje’s leadership propelled Drepung to great heights, making it one of the most prestigious centers of learning and spirituality in Tibet. By the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the monastery housed up to 7,700 monks.

Jamyang Chöje’s legacy is marked by his profound contributions to teaching, debate, and writing. He initiated the monastery’s Great Prayer Festival and nurtured many disciples, including Shakya Yeshe and Khedrup Je, enhancing his stature within the Buddhist community.

Visiting Drepung Monastery: Tips for Travelers

For those planning to visit Drepung Monastery, be aware that photography and videography within the temple premises require a fee. The monastery plays a significant role in the annual Shoton Festival, featuring the unveiling of a giant thangka painting, which visitors can photograph. Additionally, the monastery hosts spirited debate sessions in the afternoons around 5 PM, offering a unique glimpse into the dynamic practice of monastic education and debate, another memorable experience for visitors.

Conclusion

Jamyang Chöje Tashi Palden’s visionary leadership and spiritual dedication have left an indelible mark on Drepung Monastery and the Gelug tradition. His life and works continue to inspire generations of practitioners and scholars, making Drepung not just a place of historical importance but a living legacy of Tibetan Buddhism’s rich and vibrant culture.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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