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

A Brief History of Tsurpu Monastery

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

Tsurpu Monastery (Tshur-phu dGon-pa, Tshurphu) was founded in 1189 by the First Karmapa, Dusum-kyenpa (Kar-ma Dus-gsum mkhyen-pa) (1110-1193). It was rebuilt in 1263 by the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (Kar-ma Pak-shi) (1204-1283). It is the main monastery of the Karma Kamtsang Kagyu Tradition (Kar-ma Kam-tshang bKa’-brgyud), which is one of the four major Dagpo Kagyu lineages (Dvags-po bKa’-brgyud brgyud-chen bzhi) deriving from direct disciples of Gampopa (sGam-po-pa, Dvags-po Lha-rje bSod-nams rin-chen) (1079-1153). Tsurpu has been the traditional seat of the line of Karmapas. It lies to the northwest of Lhasa at Tolung (sTod-lung).

The Second through Fourth Karmapas each visited China and Mongolia, and taught the Mongol Emperors of China. They founded numerous monasteries in North China and what the Manchus many centuries later called "Inner Mongolia." The main Karma Kagyu monastery of Mongolia, Khochiti Khambo Lama Khid, located in the Shilinggol District of Inner Mongolia, was a branch of Tsurpu. It flourished until 1949, when the Chinese communist army destroyed it.

The Second through the Fourth Karmapas also established many monasteries in Mi-nyag (Mi-nyag). Mi-nyag had been the great Buddhist Tangut kingdom known as Xixia (Wade-Giles: Hsi-hsia) in Chinese. It spanned the region between the northeastern quarter of the Tibetan northeastern province of Amdo to Inner Mongolia. The Mongol ruler Chinggis Khan conquered it in 1227. Many of the people migrated to the southeastern Tibetan province of Kham, where they named their area also Mi-nyag. As the date of this migration is uncertain, it is also uncertain whether the monasteries founded by the Karmapas were in the original Mi-nyag homeland, in the Mi-nyag area of Kham, or in both.

The Third Karmapa, Rangjung-dorjey (Kar-ma Rang-‘byung rdo-rje) (1284-1339), wrote an extensive commentary to the Kalachakra Tantra (Dus-‘khor). The Tsurpu lineage of astronomy and astrology (Tshur-lugs) developed from it. Each year, the monastery prepared and published the Tsurpu calendar and almanac (Tshur-phu lo-tho), calculated according to this tradition.

The Fifth Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa (Kar-ma bDe-bzhin gshegs-pa) (1384-1415), was invited to China and taught the Chinese Ming Emperor, Yongle (Wade-Giles: Yung-lo). In 1407, the Emperor presented him with a Black Hat (zhva-nag), in accordance with an auspicious dream. Although the Mongol emperors of China had presented his predecessors with black hats, the Black Hat Ceremony of the Karmapas based itself on this black hat presented to the Fifth Karmapa. Thereafter, the ceremony was performed regularly at Tsurpu.

Tsurpu has upheld the tradition of Gampopa, which combined the two streams of the mahamudra (phyag-chen, great seal) teachings with the Kadam teachings of the lam-rim (lam-rim, graded stages of the path). Thus, the traditional course of study and practice at Tsurpu has included both sutra and tantra, with special emphasis on tantric ritual, art, music, and meditation. Five levels of degrees were awarded, with the highest being Dorjey-lobpon (rDo-rje slob-dpon, Tantric Teacher).

Many of the Mi-nyag people who had relocated in Kham later moved further south and settled in Sikkim (‘Bras-ljoms). The modern-day Sikkimese are descendents of the Mi-nyag people who intermarried with the local Lepcha population. Due to this Mi-nyag influence, Sikkim became mostly Karma Kagyu, in association with Tsurpu.

The First Chogyel (Chos-rgyal), or Dharma King of Sikkim, Puntsog-namgyel (Phun-tshog rnam-rgyal) (b. 1604), of Mi-nyag ancestry, was chosen by the settlers from Tibet as both the temporal and spiritual leader of Sikkim. Ralang Monastery (Rva-rlangs dGon-pa), the first Karma Kagyu monastery in Sikkim, was built by the Fourth Chogyel in 1730. The second Karma Kagyu monastery built was Rumtek (Rum-theg dGon-pa), in 1740.

In the mid-twentieth century, the Eleventh Tai Situ Rinpoche, Pema-wangchug-gyelpo (Tai Situ Pad-ma dbang-phyug rgyal-po), established an institute for Buddhist textual study at Pelpung Monastery (dPal-spung dGon-pa) in Dergey (sDe-dge), Kham (Khams). The First Tai Situ, Chokyi-gyeltsen (Tai Si-tu Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) (1377-1448), had been a disciple of the Fifth Karmapa, and the Eighth Tai Situ, Situ Panchen Chokyi-jungney (Si-tu Pan-chen Chos-kyi ‘byung-gnas) (1700-1774), had founded Pelpung in 1727. The Eleventh Tai Situ then requested the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung-rigpay-dorjey (Kar-ma Rang-byung rig-pa’i rdo-rje) (1924-1981), to establish a similar institute of study at Tsurpu.

Subsequent to this request, the Karmapa received a vision of the great Nyingma translator Vimalamitra (Bi-ma-la-mi-tra), who had introduced the dzogchen (rdzogs-chen, great completeness) lineage from India to Tibet. In this vision, Vimalamitra also advised the Karmapa to establish a center where the teachings could be properly transmitted and studied. If this could be done, Vimalamitra promised he would emanate among its teachers and students for thirteen lifetimes.

The Sixteenth Karmapa was in the process of preparing to found such an institute at Tsurpu when the Chinese invasion occurred. In 1959, he escaped to Sikkim. He chose Rumtek Monastery to be his seat in exile. First, the tantric rituals of Tsurpu were restarted. Then, the monastery was rebuilt in 1969, and Karma Manjushri House was founded for the young monks’ study. Finally, in 1980, the Karma Sri Nalanda Institute for Buddhist Studies was constructed as a branch of Rumtek to fulfil the requests of the previous Tai Situ and Vimalamitra. The Karma Kagyu monasteries in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim send two monks each to train at this institute in the sutra teachings through the medium of debate.

In 1959, Tsurpu had 900 monks. It was destroyed by the Chinese. In recent years, reconstruction work has begun.