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

A Brief History of Ganden Monastery

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

The founding of Ganden Nampar-gyelway-ling Monastery (dGa'-ldan rnam-par rgyal-ba'i gling dGon-pa) by Jey Tsongkhapa Lozang-dragpa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357-1419) was prophesied by Buddha Shakyamuni. In The Manjushri Root Tantra ('Jam-dpal rtsa-rgyud), Buddha said, "After I have passed away from this world, when the earth becomes desolate, you will take the form of a child and enact the deeds of a Buddha. At that time there will be a great monastery called Rabga (Rab-dga') in the Land of Snows." "Ga" is the first syllable of "Ganden."

On the occasion of Tsongkhapa, as a small boy in a previous life, offering the Buddha a crystal rosary, the Buddha prophesied in The Sutra Taught to King Dam-ngag-bogpa (mDo-sde gDams-ngag 'bog-pa'i rgyal-po'i bstan-pa), "O Ananda. This small boy who has given me a crystal rosary will restore my teachings. At a degenerate time in the future, he will found a monastery called 'Ge' (dGe) at the border between Dri ('Bri) and Den (lDan). His name will be Lozang." "Ge" is a variant of the first syllable of "Ganden." The boy was given in return a conch shell that had been presented to the Buddha by a naga king. Buddha entrusted this shell to his disciple, Maudgalyayana, who buried it in Tibet as a treasure auspicious for the future spread of the teachings.

In 1409, Tsongkhapa instituted the Great Prayer Festival (sMon-lam chen-mo) at the Lhasa Jokang Temple (Lha-sa Jo-khang, Jokhang). Afterwards, his disciples, concerned about the effect of constant travel on their teacher's health, offered to build him a monastery at any site of his choice. Tsongkhapa accepted and chose Drogri Mountain ('Brog ri-bo-che), approximately 50 kilometers east of Lhasa. He personally consecrated the land and named the monastery Ganden, Tushita in Sanskrit, after the pure land realm of the future Buddha, Maitreya.

The main temple and over seventy buildings were completed that year, 1409, in strict adherence with the Indian monastic rules. The next year, on a hill behind Ganden, Tsongkhapa unearthed the treasure conch shell that Maudgalyayana had buried there. All the prophesies about Ganden Monastery were thus fulfilled. In 1416, Tsongkhapa gave the Ganden conch to his disciple, Jamyang Chojey ('Jam-dbyangs Chos-rje bKra-shis dpal-ldan) (1379-1449), who founded Drepung Monastery ('Bras-spungs dGon-pa) later that year. The conch has been kept at Drepung ever since. Another close disciple, Jamchen Chojey (Byams-chen Chos-rje Shakya ye-shes) (1354-1435), founded Sera Monastery (Se-ra dGon-pa) in 1419, the year Tsongkhapa passed away.

Tsongkhapa stayed frequently at Ganden until the end of his life. He passed away at this monastery and his remains were kept there. His construction of Ganden's main temple, with its large statues and three-dimensional mandalas, is counted as the fourth great deed of Tsongkhapa's life.

Since its founding, Ganden has been the seat of the Ganden Tripa (dGa'-ldan Khri-pa), the Holder of the Golden Throne of Ganden and head of the Gelug Tradition. This tradition, traced from Tsongkhapa, is also called the Ganden Tradition (dGa'-ldan lugs), named after Ganden Monastery. "Lug" means tradition, and "Gelug" is an abbreviation of "Ganden Lug."

The first Ganden Tripa was Gyeltsabjey (rGyal-tshab rJe Dar-ma rin-chen) (1364-1432), to whom Tsongkhapa gave his robe and staff before he passed away. The second was Kaydrubjey (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang) (1385-1438). The present throne holder, Tri Rinpoche Yeshey-tubten (Khri Rin-po-che Ye-shes thub-bstan), is the ninety-ninth of this line. The term of office is seven years.

Ganden Monastery is comprised of two colleges, Jangtsey (Byang-rtse Grva-tshang) and Shartsey (Shar-rtse grva-tshang), meaning North Peak and East Peak respectively. According to one tradition, they were named after their location to the north and east of Ganden's main temple.

At the time of the Second Ganden Tripa, Kaydrubjey, Ganden Monastery was divided into four colleges. Later in his term, Pelden (dPal-ldan Grva-tshang) and Yardrog Colleges (Yar-'brog Grva-tshang) merged to become Jangtsey; while Panchen Shakya-shri (Pan-chen Sha-kya-shri Grva-tshang) and Chodrag Colleges (Chos-grags Grva-tshang) merged to become Shartsey. Horton Namka-pelzang (Hor-ston Nam-mkha' dpal-bzang), the author of Attitude-Training Like the Rays of the Sun (Blo-sbyong nyi-ma'i 'od), is considered the founder of Jangtsey College. Nayten Rinchen-gyeltsen (gNas-brtan Rin-chen rgyal-mtshan) is considered the founder of Shartsey College. During the period of the Twenty-first Ganden Tripa, Sangpu Nyarong College (gSang-phu nyag-rong Grva-tshang), which had arisen later, also merged with Shartsey.

Jangtsey College, which contained Tsongkhapa's residence, at first had thirteen divisions (khang-tshan): Lubum (Klu-'bum Khang-tshan), Tsawa (Tsha-ba Khang-tshan), Samlo (bSam-blo Khang-tshan), Hardong (Har-gdong Khang-tshan, Hamdong Khamtsen), Serkong (gSer-skong Khang-tshan), Trehor (Tre-hor Khang-tshan), Gyelrong (rGyal-rong Khang-tshan), Bati (sBa-ti Khang-tshan), Ngari (mNga'-ri Khang-tshan), Dora (rDo-ra Khang-tshan), Dranyi (Bra-nyi Khang-tshan, Banyi Khamtsen), Gowo (Go-bo Khang-tshan), and Kongpo (Kong-po Khang-tshan) Kangtsens. Monks joined these divisions according to their places of origin. Monks from Mongolia, for example, joined Hardong. In later times, there were only twelve. Bati and Ngari Kangtsens were dissolved, and Para Kangtsen (Pha-ra Khang-tsan) was added. Each division had several houses (mi-tshan), also divided according to the places of origin of the monks living in them.

Shartsey College has eleven divisions: Dokang (rDo-khang Khang-tshan), Pukang (Phu-khang Khang-tshan), Nyag-re (Nyag-re Khang-tshan), Lhopa (Lho-pa Khang-tshan), Zungchu (Zung-chu Khang-tshan), Tepo (The-po Khang-tshan), Choni (Co-ni Khang-tshan), Ta-on (rTa-'on Khang-tshan, rTa-dbon Khang-tshan), Ngari (mNga'-ris Khang-tshan), Sogpa (Sog-pa Khang-tshan), and Gungru (Gung-ru Khang-tshan) Kangtsens.

Both divisions of Ganden, Jangtsey and Shartsey, have a combined study program of sutra and tantra. This is in contrast with the other two main Gelug Monasteries in the Lhasa area, Sera (Se-ra dGon-pa) and Drepung. Of the four colleges at Drepung: Losel-ling (Blo-gsal gling Grva-tshang) and Gomang Colleges (sGo-mang Grva-tshang) have only sutra studies, Ngagpa College (sNgags-pa Grva-tshang) has only tantra studies, while Deyang College (bDe-dbyangs Grva-tshang) has both. Of the three colleges at Sera: Jey (Byes Grva-tshang) and May Colleges (sMad Gvra-tshang) have only sutra studies and Ngagpa College (sNgags-pa Grva-tshang) has only tantra studies. In India, Drepung Ngagpa and Sera Ngagpa Colleges have added sutra studies to their programs. Drepung Deyang College has not been reestablished.

Jangtsey College follows the sutra textbooks (yig-cha) of Jetsunpa Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun-pa Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) (1469-1544), in common with Sera Jey and Sera Ngagpa Colleges. Shartsey College uses the textbooks of the Fifteenth Ganden Tripa, Panchen Sonam-dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) (1478-1554), as does Drepung Losel-ling and Drepung Ngagpa Tantric Colleges. As for the other colleges at the three major Gelug monasteries in the Lhasa area (gdan-sa gsum), Sera May College uses the sutra textbooks written by Kaydrub Tendarwa (mKhas-grub dGe-'dun bstan-pa dar-rgyas) (1493-1568). Drepung Gomang and Drepung Deyang Colleges use the textbooks written by Kunkyen Jamyang-zheypa the First, Ngawang-tsondru (Kun-mkhyen 'Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa Ngag-dbang brtson-'grus) (1648-1721). All the colleges follow the texts written by Tsongkhapa, Gyeltsabjey, and Kaydrubjey. Their various textbooks differ merely on fine points of interpretation.

Study is by means of memorization, logic, and debate. Monks study the preliminary subjects of logic for three years. The main study of the five major texts takes eleven further years. At the end of each year of study, monks must pass an examination (rgyugs-sprod) to go on to the next class. Those who end their sutra studies at the completion of these eleven years and present a formal debate to the mixed assembly of their entire college (gling-bsre dam-bca') receive the degree of Geshe Tsogrampa (dGe-bshes Tshogs-ram-pa). Those who study for a further five years and present a formal debate before the collected assembly of monks from all three major Gelug monasteries of the Lhasa area during the Great Prayer Festival at the Lhasa Jokang receive the title Geshe Lharampa (dGe-bshes Lha-ram-pa). Monks who merely pass examinations on memorization of the major texts, but without completing their Geshe education receive the degree Kyerimpa (bsKyed-rim-pa).

Geshe Tsogrampas and Geshe Lharampas must then pursue their tantric studies at either Gyumay Lower Tantric College (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang) or Gyuto Upper Tantric College (rGyud-stod Grva-tshang). To which one they go depends on their places of origin. Upon completion of their tantra studies, also through the medium of debate, and presentation of a tantra formal debate, they receive the degree Geshe Ngagrampa (dGe-bshes sNgags-ram-pa). They may either stay on at the Tantric College or return to Ganden. If they return, they must present another tantra formal debate at their home college.

[See: A Brief History of Gyumay and Gyuto, Lower and Upper Tantric Colleges.]

Monks with merely the Kyerimpa degree may study tantra at their own college. Those at Jangtsey follow the textbooks of Gyumay, written by rGyu Sherab-senggey (rGyud Shes-rab seng-ge) (1383-1445). Those at Shartsey follow the textbooks of Gyuto, written by Gyuchen Kunga-dondrub (rGyud-chen Kun-dga' don-grub) (1419-1486). Those from Jangtsey who present the tantra formal debate also receive the degree Geshe Ngagrampa. Those from Shartsey receive the degree Uma-shayring (dBu-ma bshad-ring).

[See: Overview of the Gelug Monastic Education System.]

Jangtsey College as a whole is responsible for maintaining the annual performance of the full rituals of the Akshobhya (Mi-bskyod-pa) form of the Guhyasamaja (gSang-ba 'dus-pa), while Shartsey for mainitaining Thirteen-Couple Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje 'Jigs-byed Lha bcu-gsum). In addition, each division within the two colleges is responsible for the annual performance of the full rituals of specific tantric deities from the four classes of tantra. At Ganden Jangtsey, within the anuttaryoga (rnal-'byor bla-med rgyud) class of tantra, Para, Kongpo, and Dranyi maintain the Akshobhya form of Guhyasamaja, while Hardong maintains the Mahachakra form of Vajrapani (Phyag-rdor 'Khor-chen). Within yoga tantra (rnal-byor rgyud), Lumbum and Tsawa maintain the rituals of Vajradhatu (rDor-dbyings). Within charya (behavior) tantra (spyod-rgyud), Serkong, Dora, and Samlo maintain Vairochana Abhisambodhi (rNam-snang mngon-byang). Within kriya (action) tantra (bya-rgyud), Gowo, Trehor, and Gyelrong maintain Akshobhya (Mi-'khrugs-pa).

At Ganden Shartsey, within the anuttaryoga class of tantra, Dokang, Ta-on, and Gungru maintain Thirteen-Couple Vajrabhairava; Tepo and Lhopa maintain the Luipa (Lu'i-pa) lineage of Chakrasamvara (bDe-mchog); and Nyag-re maintains Kalachakra (Dus-'khor). Within the yoga class, Choni and Sogpa maintain Samvid (Kun-rig). Within the kriya class, Zungchu maintains the Nine-Deity form of Amitayus (Tshe-dpag-med lha-dgu); Ngari maintains the Eight Sugata practice of Bhaishaja (Medicine Buddha) (sMan-lha bDe-gshegs-brgyad), and Pukang maintains the Sixteen Arhats (gNas-brtan phyag-spyod).

The special protector (srung-ma) of the Common Assembly of Ganden Monastery as a whole (dGa'-ldan Bla-spyi) is Chogyel (Chos-rgyal, Dharmaraja). The special protector of Ganden Jangtsey is Pelden Lhamo (dPal-ldan Lha-mo). The Jangtsey monks perform daily, and more extensively on special occasions, the rituals of this protector for the benefit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and for the Tibetan Government. His Holiness the Dalai Lama's special protectors are Pelden Lhamo and Nechung (gNas-chung), while those of the Tibetan Government are Pelden Lhamo and Jamsing ('Jam-sing). Both pairs are called the Black and Red Pair (dMar-nag gnyis) – Pelden Lhamo is black in color, while Nechung and Jamsing are both red. The special protector of Ganden Shartsey is Setrab (Se-khrab).

On the 29th and 30th of each Tibetan month, the Jangtsey monks perform for an entire day and evening the full rituals of their protector, while Shartsey does the same on the 28th and 29th. Each kangtsen division also has its own special protector. On the 15th of each Tibetan month, each khangtsen performs for an entire day and evening the full rituals of its protector.

As for the two other main Gelug monasteries in the Lhasa area, the special protector of the Common Assembly of Drepung is Nechung, that of Drepung Losel-ling is also Nechung, and that of Drepung Gomang is Six-Armed Mahakala (dGon-po phyag-drug). The special protector of the Common Assembly of Sera is Jamsing, that of Sera Jey is also Jamsing as well as the Yangsang (Yang-gsang, Especially Hidden) form of Hayagriva (rTa-mgrin), and that of Sera May is Teu (The'u).

Since the time of the Eighth Ganden Tripa, the position of Ganden Tripa has alternated between the Jangtsey Chojey (Byang-rtse Chos-rje) and the Shartsey Chojey (Shar-rtse Chos-rje). The Jangtsey Chojey, or Dharma Master of Jangtsey, is the senior-most Retired Abbot (mKhan-zur Rin-po-che) of Gyumay Lower Tantric College (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang). His seat is at Jangtsey College. The Shartsey Chojey, Dharma Master of Shartsey, is the senior-most Retired Abbot of Gyuto Upper Tantric College (rGyud-stod Grva-tshang). He has his seat at Shartsey College.

Ganden Monastery, as well as Sera and Drepung, follows the early summer retreat (dbyar-gnas snga-ma), from the 16th of the sixth Tibetan month to the 30th of the seventh month. During the retreat, a discourse is traditionally given on Tsongkhapa's Lam-rim chen-mo (Great Exposition on the Graded Stages of the Path). The initial scope teachings are given by the junior of the Jangtsey and Sharjey Chojeys, the intermediate scope by the senior of the two, and the advanced scope by the Ganden Tripa.

The monk population of Ganden was officially listed as 3,300, but by 1959 it was 7,500. The monastery was totally destroyed by the Chinese. At present, it is being partially reconstructed in Tibet. In India, Ganden Monastery has been relocated in Mundgod, Karnataka State.