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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > History of Buddhism and Bon > A Brief History of Labrang Monastery

A Brief History of Labrang Monastery

Alexander Berzin, 1991
expanded September 2003
Original version published in "Gelug Monasteries." Chö-Yang, Year of Tibet Edition (Dharamsala, India), (1991).

Genden shaydrub-dargyey Tashi-kunnay kyilway-ling (dGe-ldan bshad-grub dar-rgyas bkra-shis kun-nas ‘khyil-ba’i gling), also known as Labrang Tashikyil Monastery (Bla-brang bKra-shis ‘khyil), or simply Labrang, was founded in 1710 by the First Jamyang-zhaypa, Ngawang-tsondru (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa Ngag-dbang brtson-‘grus) (1648-1722), in the Amdo province (A-mdo) of northeastern Tibet. It lies 250 kilometers southwest of Lanchow, and is presently included in southwestern Kansu (Gansu) Province of China, near the border of Chinghai (Qinghai) Province. It is counted among the six major monasteries of the Gelug Tradition.

The First Jamyang-zhaypa, also known as Kunkyen Jamyang-zhaypay-dorjey (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa’i rdo-rje), a disciple of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang-lozang-gyatso (rGyal-dbang lnga-pa chen-po Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho) (1617-1682), was from Amdo and had studied sutra at Gomang College (sGo-mang Grva-tshang) of Drepung Monastery (‘Bras-spungs dGon-pa) and tantra at Gyumay Lower Tantric College (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang). He authored the Kunkyen textbooks (Kun-mkhyen yig-cha) later used at Gomang, Drepung Deyang College (‘Bras-spungs bDe-dbyangs Grva-tshang), and Labrang.

When he was Abbot of Gomang, Jamyang-zhaypa was requested by Ganden Erdene Junang, the Mongol King of Kokonor (mTsho-sngon), to return to Amdo where many Mongols lived among the Tibetans. Jamyang-zhaypa accepted, and on the eve of his departure, the Gadong (dGa’-gdong) State Oracle prophesied that he would found a monastery in Amdo called Tashikyil. In establishing this monastery, Jamyang-zhaypa adopted the Drepung rules of discipline and chanting style for the main temple, and the Gomang style of debate.

Jamyang-zhaypa himself gave the name Genden-shaydrub Tashi-kunnay-kyilway-ling to his new monastery. The Second Panchen Lama, Lozang-yeshey (Pan-chen Blo-bzang ye-shes) (1663-1737), gave it a second name, Ganden Damcho-shaydrub-dargyey-ling (dGa’-ldan dam-chos bshad-grub dar-rgyas gling). "Labrang" means the residence of a great Lama. The monastery in general became known as Labrang, or Labrang Tashikyil, after the residence of Jamyang-zhaypa. The line of his reincarnations, the Jamyang-zhaypa Rinpoches, have been the traditional heads of the Labrang Monastery.

There has always been a strong connection between Labrang Tashikyil and the Mongols. Many lineages from Labrang, such as that of Kalachakra (Dus-‘khor), spread to the Mongolian monasteries. The Buryat, Kalmyk, and Tuvinian regions of Russia used exclusively the Kunkyen textbooks of Jamyang-zhaypa. Many monasteries in Inner and Outer Mongolia used them as well. In Lhasa, the Mongols mostly studied at Gomang and Gyumay, as did Jamyang-zhaypa.

Labrang has six colleges. The largest is Mayjung Tosamling (sMad-byung Thos-bsam-gling), for the study of sutra and debate, established by the First Jamyang-zhaypa in 1710 when he founded the monastery in general. It awards the Geshey Dorampa (dGe-bshes rDo-ram-pa) degree. When the First Jamyang-zhaypa received the Say lineage (Srad-brgyud) transmission at Saygyu Tantric College (Sras-rgyud grva-tshang) from Saygyu Konchog-yarpel (Srad-rgyud dKon-mchog yar-‘phel) (1602-1682), this great master asked him to establish a tantric college as part of the monastery he would found in Amdo in the future. Keeping this request in mind, the First Jamyang-zhaypa established Maygyu Dratsang (sMad-rgyud Grva-tshang), Lower Tantric College, in 1719.

The Dukor Dratsang (Dus-‘khor Grva-tshang) or Kalachakra College, Ewam-chokor-ling (E-wam chos-‘khor gling), was founded in 1763 by the Second Jamyang-zhaypa, Konchog-jigmey-wangpo (dKon-mchog ‘jigs-med dbang-po) (1728-1798), on the advice of the Third Panchen Lama, Pelden-yeshey (Pan-chen dPal-ldan ye-shes) (1738-1780). The Panchen Lama’s home monastery, Tashilhunpo (bKra-shis lhun-po), built a Buddhist temple (Dus-‘khor lha-khang) two years later, in 1765, devoted to the daily practice of the Kalachakra rituals. Since the first half of the eighteenth century, Kalachakra Colleges had already existed in Inner Mongolia. The first was at Ari-in Monastery, founded by the First Kanjurwa Gegen, Lozang-choden (bKa’-‘gyur-ba Blo-bzang chos-ldan), and the second at Badghar Monastery (Pad-dkar dGon-pa) by his disciple, Dunkhor Pandita (Dus-‘khor Pandi-ta). The Dukor Datsang at Labrang was the first of its kind in Amdo.

The Menpa Dratsang (sMan-pa Grva-tshang) or Medical College, Sorig-zhenpen-ling (gSo-rig gzhan-phen gling), was established in 1784, also by the Second Jamyang-zhaypa. The Kyedor Dratsang (Kyai-rdor Grva-tshang) or Hevajra College, Sangngag-dargyay-ling (gSang-sngags dar-rgyas gling), was started by the Fourth Jamyang-zhaypa, Kelzang-tubten-wangchug (sKal-bzang thub-bstan dbang-phyug), in 1879. The Gyuto Dratsang (rGyud-bstod Grva-tshang) or Upper Tantric College, Sangchen-dorjey-ling (gSang-chen rdo-rje gling), was established in 1943 by the Fifth Jamyang-zhaypa, Lozang-jamyang-yeshey-tenpay-gyeltsen (Blo-bzang ‘jam-dbyangs ye-shes bstan-pa’i rgyal-mtshan).

The two Tantric Colleges at Labrang, like their models in Lhasa, studied mostly the Guhyasamaja (gSang-‘dus), Chakrasamvara (bDe-mchog), and Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje ‘Jigs-byed) tantric systems. They awarded Geshe Karamapa (dGe-bshes bKa’-ram-pa) and Geshe Ngagrampa (dGe-bshes sNgags-ram-pa) degrees, as at the two Lhasa Tantric Colleges. The Kalachakra College was responsible for not only the Kalachakra rituals, but also those of Samvid (Kun-rig) and Vairochana Abhisambodhi (rNam-snang mngon-byang). The monks of the Kalachakra College also studied astronomy, astrology, and mathematics. In addition to medical studies, the monks of the Medical College were responsible for the rituals of the Medicine Buddha (sMan-lha), Akshobhya (Mi-‘khrugs-pa), and the Hiddenly Actualized (gSang-sgrub) form of Hayagriva (rTa-mgrin). The Hevajra College maintained the rituals for Hevajra and Vajrapani Mahachakra (Phyag-rdor ‘Khor-can), and prepared a calendar/almanac each year according to the Chinese-style black calculation system (nag-rtsis).

As at the Jokang (Jo-khang) in Lhasa, every year from the 3 rd to the 17 th of the first Tibetan month, Labrang held a Great Prayer Festival (sMon-lam chen-mo) with examinations for the highest grades of Geshe. At this festival, there were ritual masked dances and other rites as in Lhasa.

At its height in 1957, Labrang had nearly 4,000 monks. About 3,000 of them were at the Mayjung Tosamling College, with the rest evenly distributed among the other five colleges. Approximately three-quarters of the monks were Tibetans. The rest were mostly Outer Mongolian Mongols (phyi-sog), Inner Mongolian Mongols (smad-sog, nang-sog), Kokonor Mongols (stod-sog), Mongours (hor-pa) from northern Amdo, Yellow Yugurs (yu-gur) from Gansu (Kansu), Xinjiang Kalmyk Mongols, and ethnic Chinese. Labrang had 138 branch monasteries.

Starting in 1958, the monastery was closed for twelve years by the Chinese. During the 1970s, it was opened for tourism. It was reopened as a functioning monastery by the Seventh Panchen Lama, Chokyi-gyeltsen-trinley-lhundrub (Pan-chen Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan ‘phrin-las lhun-grub) (1938-1989), in 1980. At present there are about 500 monks, divided among the six colleges in the same proportions as before. The study program is only a fraction of what it previously had been.