Labrang Monastery: Tibetan Buddhism on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier

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<ul><li><p> 2008 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.x</p><p>Labrang Monastery: Tibetan Buddhism on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier</p><p>Paul K. Nietupski*John Carroll University</p><p>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.</p><p>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,</p></li><li><p>514 Paul K. Nietupski</p><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>or, the central Tibetan religious and political model was installed on theAmdo frontier.</p><p>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 &amp; 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.</p><p>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</p><p>Fig. 1. Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, Gansu</p></li><li><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Labrang Monastery 515</p><p>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.</p><p>Religion</p><p>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.</p><p>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</p></li><li><p>516 Paul K. Nietupski</p><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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 monasticcode, again as one might expect in a large educational institution, but onthe other hand, upholding monastic discipline was a quality valued in thecommunity at large.</p><p>The Gelukpa academic curriculum was focused on rigorous scholarship,particularly the in-depth study of historical Buddhist theories. Theseincluded especially Madhyamaka, based on the teachings of the IndiansNAgArjuna and Candrak}rti and their Tibetan commentators, Mind-Only,and Perfection of Wisdom philosophies, and theories of perception andconception formulated by the Indians DignAga and Dharmak}rti and theirTibetan commentators. The Gelukpa system uses a broad range of tantras,but four are the most common, Cakrasamvara, GuhyasamAja, Vajrab-hairava, and KAlacakra; these and some others, including Hevajra, werewidely studied and practiced at Labrang.</p><p>The study and memorization of philosophical and tantric scriptures, thecomplex tantric rituals, and daily routines occupied much of the Labrang</p></li><li><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Labrang Monastery 517</p><p>monks time. Labrang monks also spent much time reciting basic Buddhistliturgies and long-life prayers, performing calendrical rites, and much timeadvising and performing religious services for the lay community. In addition,the entire range of Buddhist sciences, arts, crafts, medicine, religious musicand drama, and book production were fully developed at Labrang. Themonastery was a fully developed religious and academic institution andvery much integrated with its lay supporters, the regional economy, andthe prevailing political authorities. Indeed, on top of this rigorous monasticregimen, the monastery was also the seat of social and political power, andthe largest estate owner in the region. As such, the monastic authoritieswere compelled to address their community, domestic and foreign politicaland legal matters, and at the same time manage their estates.</p><p>The large community of monks and the complex curriculum requireda massive physical infrastructure. There were six major monastic collegesinside the Labrang complex. The first of these, Tsam Ling (thos bsamgling), was founded by the First Jamyang Zhepa, with Mongol support,after his 1709 arrival. In 1710, it was established in a tent at the monasterysite in the Ganjia communitys summer pasture and later expanded into abuilding with eighty wood pillars. The Main Meeting Hall (tshogs chen dukhang) is located in this complex. In 1772, the Second Jamyang Zhepaexpanded it into a hall supported by 140 pillars. The second main collegeor monastery is the Lower Tantric Monastery (rgyud smad grwa tshang),built by the First Jamyang Zhepa in 1716. The third major college atLabrang is the Kalacakra Monastery, built by the Second Jamyang Zhepain 1763. The fourth college, also built by the Second Jamyang Zhepa, in1784, is the Medical Monastery (sman pa grwa tshang, gzhan phan gling),on the model of Lhasas medical college. The fifth college is the HevajraMonastery (kyai rdo grwa tshang), founded in 1879 by the Fourth JamyangZhepa, said to be inspired by Lhasas Namgyal Monastery. It was destroyedby fire and rebuilt in 1957. The sixth college is the Upper TantricMonastery (rgyud stod grwa tshang), founded during the office of the FifthJamyang Zhepa in 1928, when the Fifth was about twelve years old, andcompleted in 1942. In addition to these major structures, Labrang hadsome 48 other temples, and extensive monastic residences. The libraryand printing house at Labrang held an important collection of Tibetantexts, including ancient manuscripts collected especially by the SecondJamyang Zhepa from monasteries all over eastern Tibet (Figure 2).</p><p>The Gelukpa order was dominant at Labrang, but Labrangs religiousenvironment was nonetheless diverse. One important example is theNyingma-originated Ngakpa, or Tantric Monastery (sngags pa grwa tshang),located immediately outside of Labrang Monasterys outer walls, andhome to white, red-trimmed robed, non-celibate religious experts. Thesereligious specialists, often wearing bundled dreadlocks, represent a class ofTibetan religious experts older than Labrang Monastery. In years previous,they were often resident in family homes or nomad tents, but at Labrang</p></li><li><p>518 Paul K. Nietupski</p><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 513535, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00081.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>they were housed in a permanent, non-celibate community. They providedreligious services to the Labrang monks and lamas, including rituals forhealth and long life, for the control of regional spirits, prognostication,exorcism, and pre-emptive or protective prayer.</p><p>At Labrang, and unlike central Tibet, these persons and their functionswere tolerated, eventually adapted to fit Gelukpa ethical and religiousparameters, and their community supported and institutionalized in closeproximity and interactive with the monastic community. This phenomenonis unique to Labrang. While there are still such persons active in com-munities elsewhere in Tibet, only at Labrang are they institutionalized,included...</p></li></ul>

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