Pelpung Monastery by Jann Ronis and Jann Ronis (November 6, 2010)
Pelpung (dpal spungs) Monastery was one of the most culturally, politically, and economically influential monasteries in all of Degé (sde dge). Its founder Situ Penchen Chökyi Jungné (si tu pan chen chos kyi byung gnas, 1700-1774) was a high-ranking lama in the Karma Kagyü (karma bka' brgyud) sect, a renowned artist, and important scholar in the fields of literary arts, medicine, and certain Madhyamaka doctrines. For two centuries the monastery maintained high standards in all areas of Tibetan religious education and the secular arts and sciences.
Pelpung is located in Pelpung Township, Menshö (sman shor) District, Degé County. Relatively speaking, Pelpung is not an especially old monastery, yet there have been religious establishments on the site for many centuries. In the early thirteenth century a disciple of the founding lama of the Drigung Kagyü ('bri gung bka 'brgyud) sect Jikten Sumgyi Gönpo ('jig rten gsum gyi mgon po, 1143-1217) founded a Drigung monastery on the spot where over 500 years later Situ would build the main temple of Pelpung. The monastery was called Pelden Jangchup Ling (dpal ldan byang chub gling) and was also known as Pe’u Jangchup Ling (spe'u byang chub gling). The study monks lived near a black-colored cliff, the meditation monks lived on the upper part of the mountain on which the monastery was situated, and an outdoor teaching venue was built at a place that has henceforth been known as Dharma Throne Plain (chos khri thang).
Conflicts - armed, doctrinal, and otherwise - between the Drigung and Sakya (sa skya) sects and their respective Mongolian supporters came to a head in 1290 with the sacking of Drigung Monastery in Central Tibet. In the aftermath of the Sakya victory many Drigung monasteries - including those in Kham (khams) - were taken over by the Sakya ecclesiastical state. Pelden Jangchup Ling was among the monasteries converted to Sakya and for the following few centuries the institution followed Sakya liturgies and doctrines. Ngari Rapjampa Tsültrim Özer (mnga' ris rab 'byams pa tshul khrims 'od zer) is the primary lama associated with the monastery’s conversion to Sakya traditions, but little is known about him. At some point after the conversion the establishment was completely destroyed by fire, after which the community was disbanded and the ruins were left to the elements. Unfortunately the precise date of this event is not recorded.
Pelpung founder Situ Penchen was the eighth in a line of reincarnate lamas dating back to the fifteenth century. The first seven Situs were based at Karma Monastery (karma dgon) in present-day Jomda ('jo mda') County. The eighth Situ was born in Degé territory and as a condition of his recognition as a high reincarnate lama, the Degé royal court demanded that when the lama reached his majority that he stay in Degé and serve the royal family. Situ grew up to be a brilliant scholar and able administrator, capable of assisting his sect and the Degé polity. In 1727 Degé king Tenpa Tsering (bstan pa tshe ring) ordered Situ to build a monastery within the heartland of Degé territory and on an inspection of potential sites Situ settled upon the location where Pelden Jangchub Ling once stood. Ground was broken in 1728 and it was built with corvée labor ordered by the king of Degé. The main structure took over two years to complete. In 1729 the king and his entourage attended a celebration at Pelpung for the completion of the foundation, at which time he decreed a monk tax (tsüntrel, btsun khral) in order to provide Pelpung with 500 recruits.
Studies flourished at Pelpung under Situ and his disciples. Situ’s Autobiography records his multiple teachings to Belo Tsewang Künkhyap ('be lo tshe dbang kun khyab) of Zurmang (zur mang), his most famous personal student. In addition to the literary studies that Situ imparted to Belo and his other disciples, Situ was also an avid teacher of the Other-Emptiness (gzhan stong) doctrine of Madhyamaka. Other-Emptiness has always been controversial and Situ favored the Jonang (jo nang) brand of explanation, which the Fifth Dalai Lama had persecuted a century earlier. In 1758 Situ sent Belo to the far flung Jonang stronghold of Takten Püntsok Ling (rtag brtan phun tshogs gling) to receive the reading transmissions for the Collected Works of the Jonang author Tāranātha 1575-1634).
For several generations Pelpung’s seminary (bshad grwa) was located somewhat behind the lower retreat center. Subsequently, the eleventh Situ Pema Wangchok Gyelpo (padma dbang mchog rgyal po; 1886-1952) moved it to a new location. Two of the luminaries of early twentieth century scholasticism in Kham taught at Pelpung: Mipam Choklé Namgyel (mi pham phyogs las rnam rgyal, 1846-1912) and Khenpo Shenga (mkhan po gzhan dga', 1871-1927). Several of Mipam’s writings were in fact written in fulfillment of requests by the Pelpung scholar Lhaksam Gyeltsen (lhag bsam rgyal mtshan, d.u.). Khenpo Shenga stayed at Pelpung for longer and left a more significant impact on the scriptural studies at Pelpung. Khenpo Shenga taught at the Pelpung shedra from ca. 1910-1918, with a return teaching appointment in 1920. Furthermore, he composed many of his commentaries on the so-called thirteen great treatises at Pelpung, and many of his writings were printed there.
It is hard to overstate the degree to which, due to Situ’s direction and talent, Pelpung was a leading center of Tibetan painting for all of the premodern period of its history. The best scholarly work on the stylistic and social dimensions of the art history of Situ Penchen and Pelpung Monastery is the catalogue to the 2009 exhibition of Situ’s artwork, Patron and Painter: Situ Panchen and the Revival of the Encampment Style by David Jackson and Karl Debreczeny. An early codification of Situ’s medical theories and practical instructions is found in the Situ’s Compendia of Medicine (si tu sman bsdus e waM) in two volumes. An important bridge between the pre- and post-Maoist periods of the study and praxis of painting and medicine at Pelpung was the influential lama Tanglha Tsewang (thang lha tshe dbang; d. ca. 1985)
Pelpung also housed one of the major printing centers in all of Kham. Among the first works published at Pelpung was the Collected Works of Situ Penchen soon after his passing in 1774. The full history of the Pelpung printing house is not yet known but a relatively complete list of works published at Pelpung through the middle of the twentieth century can be determined on the basis of a large collection of Pelpung texts housed at the National Library in Beijing. The printing house certainly featured much Kagyü religious literature but also a tremendous amount of Nyingma treasure literature and ecumenical scholastic writings, in addition to works on medicine and the literary arts. Kolmaš has determined that the Pelpung collection contains 3,316 individual titles. The corpus includes the collected works of the eighth and ninth Situ lamas (12 volumes total), the eighth and fifteenth Karmapas (24 volumes total), the writings of Kongtrül (kong sprul) in more than 20 volumes, the first edition of the great collection of revealed treasures called the Rinchen Terdzö (63 volumes), and numerous volumes of small collections and the writings of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Pelpung lamas. The printing press and its woodblocks were nearly completely destroyed and have not been restored to any significant degree.
The first retreat center at Pelpung was on the hill high above the monastery. Situ Chökyi Jungné built it and his younger brother Öntrül Wanggi Dorjé (dbon sprul dbang gi rdo rje; d.u.) later established the Lower Practice Center (sgrub sde 'og ma), below the original retreat and closer to the main temple. The tenth Situ Pema Künzang (si tu padma kun bzang; 1854-1885) expanded the Lower Practice College. Kongtrül notes in his Autobiography, which was recently translated into English, that the opening of the new retreat center led to the temporary demise of the “upper” retreat. He writes, “At the hermitage, it would seem that at the time of Lord Chökyi Jungné there had been both a meditation center and retreat huts. However, since the Öntrul incarnation Wang-gi Dorjé had later established the lower meditation center, the upper center had been allowed to fall into disrepair as though abandoned, and there was nothing but dilapidated buildings” (p. 51). The excerpt above is found in the Autobiography as part of the record of 1842, when Kongtrül was embarking on a three-year retreat for which the contemporaneous Situ incarnation had given him permission to build a hermitage on the grounds of the older retreat center. As Kongtrül was embarking on a very strict, long-term retreat he did not set out to rebuild the retreat to its former glory. Kongtrül stayed there in residence for many years.
In the late fall and winter of 1860-61 Kongtrül built another - the third - retreat center at Pelpung. This was located at Tsadra Rinchen Drak (tsA 'dra rin chen brag), Cārita-like Jeweled Cliff, which is less than an hour’s walk from the center of Pelpung and was recognized by Kongtrül in the late 1850s to be one of the major holy places in all of Kham. Initially Kongtrül built a new temple next to his retreat hut at Tsadra, and then soon after decided to build a proper retreat center on the site. Kongtrül’s Autobiography contains many details about the retreat center. After Kongtrül’s lama approved of his plans to build a retreat center, he writes in the Autobiography:
I went to Situ Rinpoché’s monastic residence to request funds that would ensure that the retreat program could begin that year... [Öntrul (the head of the Situ residence)] selected seven people - one to be the retreat master, five to be retreatants, and one to be the lama responsible for the rituals of the protective deities.... When the ritual to avert negativity had been completed, they began their three-year retreat program.... It is on this site that, over the years, eight temples of various sizes have been constructed, filled with representations of enlightened form, speech, and mind, and provided with offerings, rooms for lodgings, kitchens, and so forth.
The retreat was consecrated in early 1861 and called Distant Retreat (Yangtrö, yang khrod). Kongtrül’s regulations and instructions for the retreatants of the Tsadra retreat has been translated into English under the title Jamgon Kongtrul's Retreat Manual (tr. Ngawang Zangpo; Snow Lion, 1994)
In addition to the seminary and retreat institutions, the central monastery also had a community of monks devoted to the elaborate liturgical calendar and its attendant ritual arts. The overall monastic community was organized in terms of four major regionally based sections, the word for section (“shok,” shog) being the same as that used in nomadic parlance for segment or division of a tribe. By looking at the regions and communities associated with each section one can get a relatively clear idea of the demographics of Pelpung monastery. The first section was called Selo Shok (se lo shog) and had members from Setsa (se tsha) and Alo (a lo), and represents the vicinity around Pelpung itself. The second section at the monastery was called the Chidrok (phyi 'brog shog) and attracted monks from nomadic areas to the west of the Drichu (Yangzi) River, whose communities, incidentally, were liable to the taxes of both Lhasa and Degé. The Chidrok Shok’s monks came from Chidrok and Dzishen ('dzi gshan). The third section was Pewar Shok (dpe war shog). Pewar lies along the Drichu river and includes both sides of the river, with the eastern side being located at the opening of the long valley in which Pelpung is located much further in the interior. Pewar Shok was home to monks from Pewar, Pekha (dpe kha), and Katok (kaHtog [though this is likely does not refer to the region around Katok Monastery]). Lharu Shok (lha ru shog), the fourth regionally-based organizational division at Pelpung, covered monks from the region immediately south of Pelpung: Menshö (sman shod; the valley in which Dzongsar Monastery is located), Dzing Terlhung (‘dzing gter lhung), Tsamdo (rtsam mdo), Horpo (hor po), and others. The administrative practices of the shok section system requires further research. A recent history of Pelpung states that the exact number of residents at Pelpung for the premodern period is unknown but that there were 3,650 monks affiliated with the monastery.
Present-day Pelpung Monastery is well regarded for its library. The lamas and residents of Pelpung were able to safeguard many hundreds of manuscripts and xylograph prints during the Cultural Revolution, including many texts that some thought had been lost for centuries. Fortunately the main assembly hall was not destroyed during the turmoil and traces of ancient murals can still be seen on the walls. The seminary and retreat centers have been rebuilt and are at full capacity.