Labrang Monastery: Tibetan Buddhism on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier

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  • 2008 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.x

    Labrang Monastery: Tibetan Buddhism on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier

    Paul K. Nietupski*John Carroll University

    AbstractLabrang Monastery was formally founded in 1709 in Amdo, today located inXiahe County, Gansu Province. It was founded and occupied by the lineage ofthe Jamyang Zhepas on the central Tibetan Gelukpa model, and grew to be oneof the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries ever built. Labrang supported the fullrange of Tibetan Buddhist studies, and in addition allowed other Tibetan andnon-Tibetan religious practices in the community at large. The monastery waslocated on an ethnic borderland, near its Mongol co-sponsors, Manchu, Chinese,Muslim, and other neighbors. Its location resulted in both assertions of Tibetanidentity and dynamic social, political, and economic interaction. The monasticauthorities owned an enormous nomadic and agricultural estate that extendedover much of southern Gansu Province and into northern Sichuan and easternQinghai. Though politically and economically much reduced, Labrang Monasterysinfluence is still important in present-day Amdo.

    Labrang Monastery was formally founded in 1709 by Tibetans andMongols in Amdo, the Northeast corner of the Tibetan Plateau, todaylocated in Xiahe County, in Chinas Gansu Province (Figure 1). In 1709,the region was sparsely populated, a high-altitude pastureland, and hometo primarily Tibetan nomads. It was on the frontier of several of Asiasgreat civilizations, including the Tibetan, the Mongol, the Chinese, theManchu, and the Muslim, to name only a few. Labrang Monastery,however, was built on the model of central Tibetan Gelukpa Buddhistmonasteries, in which reborn lamas were in charge of the monasteriesreligious and political affairs; most of Labrangs prominent lamas andteachers were educated at Drepung Monasterys Gomang College inLhasa. In terms of structure, the major monasteries in Lhasa and likewiseLabrang owned often large estates that provided the institutions withsubstantial tax revenues, corve privileges, and sponsorship, all of whichendowed the religious and political authorities with enormous wealth.The social environment in Amdo was different, but the Tibetan monasticinstitutional structures in Lhasa and Amdo were similar. In this sense,generally speaking, one can say that the center did move to the periphery,

  • 514 Paul K. Nietupski

    2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    or, the central Tibetan religious and political model was installed on theAmdo frontier.

    Otherwise, beyond the basic similarities in its institutional structure,Labrangs remote location and its complex history of conflicts and com-promises with its neighbors, for example, its location in Chinas GansuProvince, might lead one to think that Labrangs community was a hybrid,a mix of different historical and cultural influences, and to an extent, thisis true. However, even though Labrangs history is colored by directencounters with many regional civilizations, and is an excellent place forstudying how those peoples and ideas interacted, the close proximity toso many different influences had the effect of strengthening Labrangsethnic Tibetan identity. As scholars have observed in other contexts(Cohen 1985; White 1991; Horstmann & Wadley 2006) borderlands culturesare places where central identities are often defined and asserted more pow-erfully than at the centers themselves. When constantly faced with difference,in close proximity, what makes one culture different from another is oftenasserted more vigorously. The difference between us and them is oftenhighlighted and made more apparent. This, however, does not precludecross-border interaction, imitation, trade, and mutual assimilation.Labrang is a good example of a border culture, one with a powerful senseof its identity, and yet one that sought to interact and assimilate acrossboundaries at the same time asserts its Tibetan identity. At Labrang, onecan observe the building blocks of Tibetan religious and political structures,and a kaleidoscope of historical religious and political influences.

    To the Tibetans, Labrang is located in Amdo, on what was a summerpasture donated by a wealthy Tibetan nomad from nearby Ganjia, stillcelebrated yearly by Labrangs ceremonial gifts to the descendants of the

    Fig. 1. Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu

  • 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    Labrang Monastery 515

    Ganjia estate owner (Brag dgon pa dkon mchog bstan pa rab rgyas 1982,p. 547). In Manchu and Chinese eyes, it was and is located in GansuProvince, and today in Xiahe County, with properties extending intoQinghai and Sichuan Provinces. In this perspective, it was part of theQing Empire until its collapse in 1911, then the Nationalist Chinesestate, and at present it is part of the Peoples Republic of China. Theserelationships are marked at Labrang by ceremonial plaques, inscriptions,letters, anecdotes, a Daoist-Tibetan temple, by the legacies of encountersbetween Labrang and Qing Dynasty envoys, and by the modern Chinesepresence. The Mongols understood the region as the property of the LeftGroup of Khoshud Mongols under the Mongol Prince Erdeni Jinong(d. 1735), a descendant of Gushri Khan. Regional Mongol power declinedin the eighteenth century, but the local descendants of the Mongols,though largely assimilated into Tibetan culture, still consider themselvesMongol, and remember Labrangs ties to Mongol authorities (Crossley2006). The Mongol Princes descendants live and work in present-dayGansu and Qinghai. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,the Qinghai Muslim generals, notably Ma Qi and Ma Bufang, envisionedLabrang and its territories as under their jurisdiction and for a brief periodforcibly occupied Labrang, still signaled today by the presence of mosquesin Xiahe and in other regional centers. In addition, on the nearbydescending hills and valleys of the Tibetan Plateau, there are many differentethnic groups, including the Hui and Salar Muslims, the Monguors(Chinese: Tu), Han Chinese, Dongxiang, and others. Many of thesegroups have their own languages and religious heritage. Thus, LabrangMonastery, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries ever built,was located in a predominantly but contested Tibetan environment on ageographic, social, political, ethnic, and religious frontier.


    At Labrang, religion is dominated by the main Gelukpa monastery.However, at Labrang, and somewhat more than in central Tibet, therewas a tendency to tolerate or incorporate local beliefs and practices intothe religious corpus instead of trying to eliminate them. The result wasthat at Labrang religion is built around the Gelukpa monastery, but thereligious environment is rich and varied, densely populated by invisiblespirits, and inclusive of ancient heroes like Gesar, saints like Milarepa, Bnpoexperts, Nyingma lamas, and beliefs and practices of broad description.

    Labrang Monastery is one of the largest monastic communities everbuilt in Tibetan history. Its sprawling physical campus is designed to housemonks in individual residential compounds. These are sometimes groupedby monks common homeland, but are otherwise unlike the dormitories(khang tshan) in central Tibetan monasteries. On special occasions, themonastic population at Labrang expanded to as many as 5000 monks. Its

  • 516 Paul K. Nietupski

    2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

    monastic functions, academic curriculum, several of its physical structures,and its political infrastructures were loosely modeled on those of centralTibet. For example, Lhasas Gomang College at Drepung Monastery, theMedical College, and others served as prototypes at Labrang. Labrang wasa Yellow Hat, or Gelukpa institution, following the teaching of thescholar Tsongkhapa (13571419), his successors, the Dalai Lamas, andthe community of Gelukpa Tibetan Buddhist scholars. These affiliationsare central to Labrangs religious and political heritage.

    As in any academic institution and even moreso in this rugged Tibetanhighland environment at Labrang, there was a wide range of studentswith varying abilities, motivations, opportunities, and interests. There wasa broad range of intellectual ability and performance, from barely basicliteracy or even illiteracy to the highest levels of erudition. Here, likeelsewhere in Tibet, the percentage of highly educated monks was small.Having said this, however, scholarship and ritual expertise were qualitieshighly valued in the Amdo Tibetan communities at large.

    The academic curriculum at Labrang followed the central TibetanGelukpa model, as has been described by Dreyfus (2003) and others.Young monks were required to memorize the main philosophical texts ofthe system, then to debate their shades of meaning. At the same time,the monks were taught the corpus of Tibetan Buddhist liturgies andcalendrical rituals. Exceptional monks went on to mastery of philosophicaltenets and ritual practices.

    Labrang monks were ordained as novices and later as bhikus, or fullyordained monks, and followed the standard Tibetan monastic system,based on the Indian Mlasarvstivda Vinaya and Gu{aprabhas later Vinayastracorpus. The monks recognized the authority of the Indian monastic textsand models and followed rules for ethical conduct and behavior, but fewattempted to observe the full range of ancient Indian rules. In such largemonastic environments, there were likely transgressions of the m


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