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An Introduction to Labrang Monastery by Paul Nietupski and Paul Nietupski (September 1, 2010)
Labrang (bla brang) Monastery in Amdo (a mdo) is one of Tibet's largest monasteries. It is a fully developed Gelukpa (dge lugs pa) Tibetan Buddhist institution in a historically nomadic and semi-nomadic environment. The community is located in close proximity to different ethnic groups, diverse religious traditions, and powerful civilizations. Labrang's prominence is all the more visible because of this proximity, and this proximity to other cultures was perhaps a factor in the monastery's rise to prominence in Tibet, and its assertion of its cultural identity, its religious heritages, and its unique Amdo highlands culture.
It is located on the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau in the region now called Sangchu (bsang chu) County, or in Chinese, Xiahe County. Politically, Labrang's territories are in Tibet's Amdo, but its lands were claimed by Gushri Khan (1582-1655) and the Khoshud Mongols in the sixteenth century. Labrang is also located in China's Gansu Province, claimed by the Qing Dynasty, and in later years by the Nationalist and Communist governments.
The Labrang region is primarily populated by ethnic Tibetan nomads. Eleven Mongol "arrows" or tribes under the jurisdiction of Erdeni Jinong (d. 1735) and his successors live in nearby Qinghai, with representative Mongol groups in the immediate vicinity of Labrang. Mongol monks and lamas maintained a strong presence at Labrang and in the region throughout the history of the monastery. The surrounding regions outside of the core Labrang territory are populated by groups of Hui and Salar Muslims, and Han Chinese communities. Other groups with mixed Tibetan, Mongol, Muslim, and Chinese influences evolved over time, but primarily in regions on the peripheries of Labrang's territories. In general, though it maintained its distinctive Tibetan character, the region grew more integrated over time because of increases of trade, military violence, and political diplomacy.
Labrang Monastery was formally founded in 1709, on the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Ganden (dga' ldan) Monastery in central Tibet. Ground was broken for the Main Meeting Hall in 1710, and a tent was pitched for immediate use in a summer pasture in the Khagya tsodruk region. The land was donated by Tibetan nomads from Genkya, and sponsorship provided by Mongols from Tsekhok (rtse khog), led by the Khoshud Erdeni Jinong. The primary religious founder was the First Jamyang Zhepa (’jam dbyangs bzhad pa, 1648-1721), an Amdo Tibetan educated at Drepung ('bras spungs) Monastery's Gomang (sgo mang) College in Lhasa (lha sa).
Labrang was host to some of Tibet's most respected scholars. The First and Second Jamyang Zhepas, the Third Gungtang (gung thang), Belmang Pandita (dbal mang paN+Dita), and a number of other teacher-scholars made Labrang into a regional center of Tibetan Buddhist studies comparable to the major central Tibetan monasteries. The importance of Labrang as a center for Tibetan Buddhism and for Tibetan culture should not be underestimated. The Jamyang Zhepa's central Tibetan Gelukpa political and academic background served as a model for many of Labrang's key figures. Many if not most of the prominent Labrang scholars and leaders were Amdo natives, educated at Gomang, and established in the greater Labrang community. Labrang's ongoing political relationship with central Tibet is marked by the First Jamyang Zhepa's high profile in Tibetan, Mongol, and Qing Dynasty affairs in central Tibet in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. His successors maintained close ties to the Tibetan government and the authorities in the major central Tibetan monasteries.
Curriculum and Institutions
Labrang's academic curriculum was constructed largely on the central Tibetan Gelukpa model. The six colleges at Labrang followed the text studies, debate, and esoteric ritual sequences observed in Lhasa, especially those at Gomang College. The first of the six colleges at Labrang was Tösam Ling (thos bsam gling, 1711), the largest college, with specialties in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, ethics, epistemology, and literature. The second college, like the first founded by the First Jamyang Zhepa, is the Lower Tantric College (Gyumé, rgyud smad, 1716). By 1738 these two colleges housed over one thousand monks, and in evidence of the Jamyang Zhepas' commitment to scholarship, the monastery had the beginnings of its massive library collection, which at its peak grew to over 200,000 volumes. The Gelukpa focus on philosophy and tantric Buddhism is reflected in the first two colleges founded by the First Jamyang Zhepa, and the Gelukpa focus on Kālachakra studies appeared at Labrang with the construction of the Kālachakra College, built in 1763 by the Second Jamyang Zhepa (1728-1791). The fourth college at Labrang, the Medical College, was founded in 1784 by the Second Jamyang Zhepa. To this day the Medical College is famous for its commitments to scholarship and medical service. The fifth college is the Hevajra College, founded in 1879 by the Fourth Jamyang Zhepa (1856-1916), said to be modeled on Lhasa's Namgyel (rnam rgyal) Monastery. The Fifth Jamyang Zhepa (1916-1947) founded the Upper Tantric College (Gyutö, rgyud stod), the sixth college at Labrang. In addition to these six colleges, Labrang soon was home to an enormous complex of temples, stupas, shrines, lamas' residences, and monastic housing. The monastery's population fluctuated, but was easily able to house over three thousand monks.
Labrang's religious heritage is primarily Gelukpa, but the monastery authorities have a well deserved reputation for religious tolerance. The Labrang authorities tolerated and eventually supported the construction of a Nakpa (sngags pa) College immediately outside of the monastery walls. The monastery supported first one, then a second and at this writing three nunneries. Nyingma (rnying ma) and Bön (bon) practitioners are active in the greater community, and in time the Labrang authorities allowed a Muslim mosque, a hybrid Tibetan-Chinese Amye Machen/Guandi Temple, and a Christian mission, all on its estate lands.
In addition to its most famous individuals, its "six colleges," its scores of buildings, its art treasures, library, and powerful regional heritage, the Labrang community describes itself in its own terms. Its primary revenue and corvée generating properties are called the "Eight Divine Communities," accumulated over the history of the community, all with compelling stories and rich cultural heritage. The "Eighteen Estates" are the estates of the primary Labrang lineages of reborn lamas. All have respected academic pedigrees, extensive properties, and numerous students. The "Four Golden Throne Holders" are four great Labrang lamas who are recognized for their status at Labrang, and for three of them, the Lhasa post of "Ganden Throne Holder." The "Eight Kenpos" are eight prominent abbots of exceptional influence in Labrang's history. Together these groups map Labrang's history and culture from their own perspectives.