The great monastery of Drepung (‘Bras-spungs dGon-pa) was founded by Jamyang Choje Tashi Palden (‘Jam-dbyangs chos-rje bKra-shis dpal-ldan), a direct disciple of Je Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa), the founder of the Gelug Tradition. This great master had presented his disciple with a white conch, an auspicious token that he had unearthed as a hidden treasure from a hill behind Ganden Monastery (dGa’-ldan dGon-pa). At that time, Tsongkhapa had prophesied, "You shall establish a magnificent monastery and this offspring monastery shall become more extensive than its mother one."
Neupon Namka Zangpo (sNe’u-dpon Nam-mkha’ bzang-po), the political leader of Central Tibet at that time, was requested to be the patron for the monastery. Thus, it was founded according to the Theravadin system of reckoning in the year 1960 after the Parinirvana of Buddha, or according to the Christian system in 1416 A. D. At that time, Jamyang Choje was 38 years of age.
At first, there was only one small building, which served both as a place for giving and receiving teachings and as a residence. Gradually, more extensive newer buildings were added, including an assembly hall, tantric hall, representations of Buddha’s body, speech and mind, and monks’ quarters. Neupon Namka Zangpo donated all the materials for this at the request of Tsongkhapa.
For 32 years, the founder himself maintained the monastery as a great institution by giving extensive discourses on the Three Baskets (sDe-snod gsum, Skt. Tripitaka) with respect to sutra studies and on the four classes of tantra with respect to tantra studies. A great assembly of monks gathered who were interested in these excellent teachings and they divided themselves into seven groups, with each having its own teacher to give discourses. Thus, were established the seven great colleges of Gomang (sGo-mang), Loseling (Blo-gsal gling), Deyang (bDe-dbyangs), Shagkor (Shag-skor), Gyalwa (rGyal-ba) or Tosamling (Thos-bsam gling), Dulwa (‘Dul-ba), and Ngagpa (sNgags-pa).
From time to time, Neupon Namka Zangpo made grand religious offerings and, when necessary, provided the monks with essentials such as clothing and tea. The teaching, practicing and studying there, as well as the monk population increased greatly, and thus it became one of the most famous great Gelug monasteries in the Lhasa area.
After a while, Dulwa, Shagkor, and Gyalwa Colleges amalgamated into the others. Although they no longer existed as separate colleges, abbots holding the lineages of their thrones continued to be appointed from either Gomang or Loseling Colleges.
Later, of the four remaining colleges, Gomang and Loseling came to specialize mostly in sutra studies and practice, Ngagpa mostly in tantra, and Deyang in both sutra and tantra practiced equally.
Each college has an abbot who is responsible for the teaching, studying, and practice there. There is also a general abbot or throne-holder for the entire monastery, the lineage for which has come from Jamyang Choje. In later times, the custom has been that the eldest retired abbot of the individual colleges assumes the position of the throne-holder of the entire monastery.
The first of the line of Dalai Lamas, Gyalwa Gendun Drub (rGyal-ba Ge-’dun grub) received many sutra and tantra teachings at Drepung from Tsongkhapa. Later, near Shigatse (gZhis-ka-rtse, Shigatse) in Tsang (gTsang) province, he founded Tashilhunpo Monastery (bKra-shis lhun-po dGon-pa). It is the fourth largest monastery in Central Tibet. The other three, including Drepung, are in U (dBus) province. Each of the next Dalai Lamas, from the second through the fifth, not only held the position of the Throne-holder of Drepung, but also made Drepung his permanent residence.
When the Second Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Gyatso (rGyal-ba dGe-’dun rgya-mtsho), reached the age of four, he said, "Now it is time for us to go to Drepung. The messengers to invite me shall soon be coming." Like this example of expressing memories of the past, the succeeding members of the lineage of the Dalai Lama have had a special connection with this monastery.
In those days, there were even people who referred to the Dalai Lama or Gyalwa Rinpoche (rGyal-ba Rin-po-che) as the Drepung Tulku (‘Bras-spungs sPrul-sku). [His was the first line of incarnate lamas (tulkus) in the Gelug tradition.] Even the name of the Tibetan Government, Ganden Podrang (dGa’-ldan pho-brang), derives from the name of the Dalai Lama’s residence at Drepung.
Although there had been a previous residence called Ganden Podrang, a new one was built at the time of the Third Dalai Lama. Likewise, at the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, the general assembly hall was also rebuilt at Drepung in accordance with his wishes.
From the Great Fifth Dalai Lama onward, the Dalai Lamas assumed the position of temporal and religious ruler of Tibet and thus could no longer have their permanent residence at Drepung. Nevertheless, whenever someone of the Dalai Lama lineage formally entered the monastic community or took his Geshe (dGe-bshes) examination, or whenever there was a formal function of the religious-temporal government, the Dalai Lama would customarily stay at his Ganden Podrang residence at Drepung.
Although there is the popular saying that the number of monks at Drepung is 7760, there were several thousand more than that. Most of them were involved in the teachings and practice of the Three Baskets. Many strove to practice constructive actions in accordance with their mental ability. Certain others, however, occupied themselves with menial labor for the sake of the economic welfare of the monastic community. Other learned ones, after completing their studies at the main monastery, would go to offspring monasteries to serve as their abbots. Thus, there were many such offspring centers nourished by Drepung. In this way, this community functioned as a major home for the Buddha’s teachings.
It continued to flourish as such until 1959 A. D. At that time, as Tibet as a whole suffered a terrible catastrophe, so this monastery, too, lost its facilities to continue existing in Tibet. Several thousand of its monks fled to India with the Tibetan refugees. No longer having conducive place, time or conditions, they were unable to meet as a whole or to carry out only religious activities.
Several hundred monks, however, with the assistance of the ration aid program, were able to continue practice and study for nine years at Buxaduar in West Bengal. Seeing the necessity, however, of being situated closer to the Tibetan settlement camps for the sake of stability and continuity, they moved in 1970 to Mundgod, Karnataka State, in South India. Having cleared the thick jungle, made fields for growing food, and constructed makeshift buildings during the four years since they have moved there, they are now following the traditional course of study and practice as in Tibet.
They have taken the responsibility for preserving the yearly religious activities, not allowing these to decline. Not only that, but they are also administering vows to those Tibetan youths who aspire to become monks, are admitting them to the monastery, and making available the opportunities for their study and practice according to their wishes.