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Pelyül Monastery by Jann Ronis and Jann Ronis (November 5, 2010)

Pelyül (dpal yul) Monastery in the Degé (sde dge) region of Kham (khams), eastern Tibet, is one of the six so-called mother monasteries of the Nyingma (rnying ma) sect. The early kings of Degé founded the monastery in 1665 and appointed the lama Künzang Sherap (kun bzang shes rab,1636-1699) to lead the monastery. The monastery has not been as consistently important to the sect and region as Dzokchen (rdzogs chen) and Katok (kaHtog) but in the early twentieth century its publication and scholastic output was quite remarkable. The present-day monastery thrives despite the current political conditions, and the large Pelyül Monastery in southern India is arguably the most important Nyingma monastery in exile. 

The region of Pelyül is in the southernmost part of the kingdom of Degé, which was founded in the late 1630s. It appears that for a few decades Pelyül and its neighbors violently resisted incorporation into the new kingdom. The Royal Genealogies of Degé (1828) describes the action taken against Pelyül and its neighbor Garjé (sga rje) as follows: “The golden wheel of forceful action utterly abolished the cruel behavior of the barbaric people of the lower territories such as Garjé and Pelyül, and once again interned them within the vajra-enclosure of the law.”[1] In the aftermath of the quelled rebellion the state founded a new monastery at Namgyeltsé (rnam rgyal rtse) that was meant to be a replacement for the many religious institutions they destroyed. A recent history says that at its opening 500 monks were associated with the new monastery. Its proper name was Pelyül Namgyel Jangchup Chöling (dpal yul rnam rgyal byang chub chos gling). The Degé king behind this effort was named Sanggyé Tenpa (sangs rgyas bstan pa; r. late seventeenth century), and his interest in the Nyingma sect is also seen in his founding of Dzokchen Monastery and appointment of lamas at Katok Monastery.

Degé originally wished for the elderly lama Serlo Tönpa Gyentsen (Serlo Tönpa Gyeltsen in Central Tibetan Dialect; gser lo ston pa rgyal mtshan) to be the leader of the new Pelyül Monastery but he declined the offer because of his age. Serlo and other lamas instead proposed that the position be given to Serlo’s student Künzang Sherap. The young and popular visionary Mingyur Dorjé (mi 'gyur rdo rje; 1645-1667) – discoverer of the Namchö (gnam chos), or Sky Dharma, treasures – also supported the decision and gave Künzang Sherap a special series of teachings to prepare him to lead the monastery. It should also be noted that Künzang Sherap was a fully ordained monk, which was not very common for Nyingma lamas at the time. Künzang Sherap died in 1699 at the age of sixty-five.

Akham Lhamo (a kham lha mo) joined her brother Künzang Sherap at the new monastery. She was a lama in her own right and attracted many female disciples. Akham organized her community into a nunnery and because of the large number of female renunciants in red robes at the site the place was called "the hilltop of the red village" (grong dmar steng). The nunnery is still active at Pelyül in Kham and the Pelyül Nunnery in India has perhaps the best Nyingma seminary for nuns in the exile community. In 1987 the contemporary head of Pelyül Monastery recognized an American woman in Washington, D.C., as the reincarnation of “Akhön” Lhamo and she teaches at a Pelyül branch temple in Maryland.

Künzang Sherap is counted as the first chief abbot of Pelyül and his disciple Lhündrup Gyatso (lhun grub rgya mtsho; 1659/69-1727) as the second. The third in the abbatial line was Pema Norbu (pad+ma nor bu; 1679-1757). This lama is also counted as the first of the famous Penor Rinpoché (pad nor rin po che) reincarnate lamas. During the first Pema Norbu’s latter decades the great polymath Situ Penchen (si tu pan chen, 1699-1774) was the greatest lama in all of Degé. Situ Penchen was personally committed to increasing the number of ordained monks at Nyingma monasteries in Degé and had a large impact on Pelyül in particuar. In the early summer of 1740 Situ Penchen visited Pelyül and met with Pema Norbu. Later that summer Situ’s home monastery of Pelpung celebrated the Padmasambhava festival (the Tsechu; tshes bcu) and Situ’s Autobiography records him giving full ordination to 300 monks from Pelyül and Rakchap (rag chab) Monasteries; the latter monastery being another Nyingma monastery in southern Degé. Situ again visited Pelyül in 1741 and 1743. In 1750 some Pelyül monks traveled to Pelpung for full ordination, and later that same year Situ again visited Pelyül to give ordination. All of this took place during Pema Norbu’s tenure.

The fourth chief abbot at Pelyül was Karma Trashi (kar+ma bkra shis; d. 1790). He too was an associate of Situ Penchen and the latter’s Autobiography mentions several meetings between the two lamas. At least three actions stand out from Karma Trashi’s career. Firstly, he built a new retreat center at Pelyül called the Lower Retreat (sgrub khang 'og ma). Secondly, Karma Trashi was an adherent of the late eighteenth-century treasure tradition the Longchen Nyingtik (klong chen snying thig), and established its practice at Pelyül. Around this time the Longchen Nyingtik was embraced by many high-ranking lamas in Degé and became one of the main instruction lineages of Dzokchen. Thirdly, Karma Trashi had an effect on Pelyül through his support for the Qing army’s second “Jinchuan campaign” (its war against two kingdoms in Gyelrong – rgyal rong, and local Bönpos). Karma Trashi provided prayers and amulets for the Chinese and Tibetan troops fighting for the Qing and after the Gyelrong people were defeated and their Bön (bon) monasteries converted to Geluk (dge lugs) establishments, the Qing rewarded him with titles, seals, and silver; which doubtlessly was used to benefit Pelyül. Karma Trashi died in 1790 at the age of 63.

A century later the so-called Ecumenical or Rimé (ris med) movement – centered at Situ Penchen’s Pelpung Monastery and Dzongsar Monastery – attracted all major Degé monasteries into its orbit. The seventh chief abbot of Pelyül, Pema Dongak Tendzin (pad+ma mdo sngags bstan 'dzin, 1830-1892), was a disciple of the main Rimé lamas and was inspired to contribute to their efforts towards the compilation, editing, and publication of rare corpora of religious literature. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Pema Dongak Tendzin began to compile an edition of the Nyingma Kama (bka' ma), a collection of liturgies, contemplative manuals, and scholastic commentaries on the three inner tantras. In the mid-nineteenth century lamas at Dzokchen Monastery had made efforts to compile and disseminate an edition of the Kama and the Pelyül edition was intended to be an enlargement upon theirs. It is reported that Pelyül housed three separate printeries, with woodblocks for around fifty volumes. Pema Dongak Tendzin also built a new large temple at Pelyül and newly established many complex religious festivals involving a wide range of ritual arts and dance. Pelyül had eighteen individual temples and an additional four chapels for protector deities. By this time in its history Pelyül lamas had established branch monasteries in several areas of Kham and beyond, including Serta (gser rta), Gonjo (go ’jo), Drango (brag ’go), Golok (mgo log), and Gyelrong (rgyal rong).

The eighth chief abbot of Pelyül, Dongak Chökyi Nyima (mdo sngags chos kyi nyi ma; 1854-1906), continued the efforts of his predecessor and completed the publication of the Kama. The Pelyül edition contained 20 volumes and was used as the basis for the 58-volume expanded edition published by Dudjom Rinpoché in exile in the late 1960s. Dongak Chökyi Nyima also combined Pelyül’s two retreat centers into a community of twenty-five retreatants. Furthermore, he also founded the large and important branch monastery of Dartang (dar thang) in Golok. The ninth abbot Pelchen Düpa (dpal chen 'dus pa; 1887-1932) was another major figure at Pelyül. He was certainly a product of the Rimé movement, but was also influenced by the early twentieth century rise in scholastic learning that swept through Kham at the time. In 1921 he opened a seminary at Pelyül and its ceremonial first abbot was none other than the founder of contemporary Nyingma scholasticism Mipam Choklé Namgyel (mi pham phyogs las rnam rgyal; 1846-1912). The seminary was called Jeweled Mountain of Study and Reflection (thos bsam nor bu'i lhun po) and for the first few decades the seminary had fifty monks. It was destroyed in 1958 and rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution.

The third Penor RinpochéLekshé Chökyi Drayang (legs bshad chos kyi sgra dbyangs; 1932-2009) – fled into exile in India in the late 1950s and in 1961 took up residence on a tract of land in the jungles of Karnataka state in southern India that had been given to the Tibetan refugees to clear and settle. In 1963 Penor Rinpoché formally reestablished Pelyül Monastery at this settlement (in Bylakuppe) and over the decades tirelessly and with great ingenuity grew the initially very humble community into the largest Nyingma monastery in exile. Penor Rinpoché emphasized scholastics and the excellent seminary at Pelyül in India produced an entire generation of teachers who taught Buddhist doctrine at Nyingma monasteries in South Asia for all of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. Penor Rinpoché was also a driving force behind the rebuilding of the Pelyül Monastery in Kham after the Maoist period. Today it has large temples, vigorous study and retreat programs, and a nunnery with over one hundred nuns.

 


[1] P. 38,  las shugs gser gyi 'khor los sa smad kyi/ sga (mi bsrun pa'i sde) dpal la sogs dmu rgod 'gro ba rnams/ brlang spyod rmeg med bcil nas slar yang ni/ bka' khrims rdo rje'i ra bar 'da' med bcug/  



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