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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > History of Buddhism and Bon > A Brief History of Gyumay and Gyuto Lower and Upper Tantric Colleges

A Brief History of Gyumay and Gyuto
Lower and Upper Tantric Colleges

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

In one of Tsongkhapa’s (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357-1419) previous lives, when he was a small boy, Buddha gave him a conch shell. He also presented him a mask of the Dharma protector Chogyel (Chos-rgyal) and a skull-club. Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana buried all of them in Tibet for the future. Many centuries later, Tsongkhapa unearthed them from a hill behind Ganden Monastery.

In 1419, after Tsongkhapa taught his Four Combined Commentaries to the Guhyasamaja Tantra (gSang-‘dus ‘brel-ba bzhi-sbrags) at Sera Choding (Se-ra Chos-sdings) retreat, he asked who among his disciples would take care of his tantric teachings. Gyu Sherab-senggey (rGyud Shes-rab seng-ge) (1383-1445) volunteered, and Tsongkhapa entrusted to him his copy of the text he had just taught, the mask of Chogyel, and the skull-club he had unearthed. He also entrusted him with his skull-cup inner offering bowl, a statue of Guhyasamaja (gSang-ba ‘dus-pa), and seven special tangka (thang-ka) scroll paintings. Later that year, Tsongkhapa passed away.

Following Tsongkhapa’s wishes that he spread the tantra teachings, Sherab-senggey went to Tsang (gTsang) province in Central Tibet in 1426. There, at Yagshilung (g.Yag-shi lung), he taught Dulnagpa Pelden-zangpo (‘Dul-nag-pa dPal-ldan bzang-po). According to popular account, Dulnagpa founded at this site, in 1432, Saygyu Monastery (Srad-rgyud Grva-tshang), the Tantric College of Say District. This monastery is also known as Tsang Togyu (gTsang sTod-rgyud), the Tantric College of Tsang, Upper (Central Tibet). According to scholarly research, however, Gyu Sherab-senggey himself founded Saygyu and then entrusted its care to Dulngapa Pelden-zangpo.

In 1433, Gyu Sherab-senggey returned to Lower Central Tibet (U, dBus) and founded Gyumay (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang) or Maygyu Monastery (sMad-rgyud Grva-tshang), the Tantric College of Lower Central Tibet, in the southern part of Lhasa, at Nordzin-gyeltsen (Nor-‘dzin rgyal-mtshan). At the time of the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang-gyatso (rGyal-ba bdun-pa sKal-bzang rgya-mtsho, rGyal-dbang sKal-bzang) (1708-1757), Gyumay moved to Changlochen (lCang-lo-can) in the northern part of Lhasa. In the seventh century, King Songtsen-gampo (Srong-btsan sgam-po) had prophesied there would be a great tantric monastery at this site in the future.

In 1474, Gyuchen Kunga-dondrub (rGyud-chen Kun-dga’ don-grub) (1419-1486), a disciple of Gyu Sherab-senggey, left Gyumay when he was not chosen to succeed as abbot. Subsequently, he established Uto Jampel-ling Monastery (Jampel-ling Monastery of Upper U, dBus-stod ‘Jam-dpal gling Grva-tshang), better known as Gyuto (rGyud-stod Grva-tshang), the Tantric College of Upper (U). This, and not Saygyu, is the monastery usually referred to nowadays as the Upper Tantric College. A few years after its founding, Gyuto moved to Ramoche Temple (Ra-mo-che) in Lhasa, the site of the Buddha statue brought to Tibet by the Nepalese queen of King Songtsen Gampo.

The monks of Gyumay and Saygyu met together each year at Yangpachen (Yangs-pa-can), a three days trek north of Lhasa, to observe the summer retreat. Unlike other Gelug monasteries, the Tantric Colleges observe the later summer retreat (dbyar-gnas phyi-ma), from the 16 th of the seventh Tibetan month until the 30 th of the eighth month. One year during the first half of the seventeenth century, during the civil war between Tsang and U, the monks of Gyumay and Saygyu were prevented from meeting at Yangpachen. From then on, the two tantric monasteries observed their summer retreats separately, Gyumay at Chumiglung (Chu-mig lung) and Saygyu at various locations in Tsang. Gyuto held its summer retreat at Dragyerpa (Brag-g.yer-pa).

The main study at Gyumay and Gyuto is of the tantric systems of the Akshobhya form of Guhyasamaja (gSang-‘dus Mi-skyod-pa), the Luipa tradition of Chakrasamvara (bDe-mchog Lu’i-pa), and Thirteen-Couple Vajrabhairava (‘Jigs-byed lha-bcu-gsum). Tsongkhapa taught special methods for combining the practice of the three. The textbooks followed in Gyumay and Saygyu are by Gyu Sherab-senggey, while those in Gyuto are by Gyuchen Kunga-dondrub. The monks also study tantric rituals, art, and music, and do intensive meditation retreats. The main protector of Gyumay originally was Pelden Lhamo (dPal-ldan Lha-mo), but when Gyumay was unable to maintain its rituals, Ganden Jangtsey Monastery (dGa’-ldan Byang rtse Grva-tshang) assumed the responsibility. Thereafter, the main protector of Gyume became Dorje Legpa (Dorleg) (rDo-rje legs-pa). The main protector of Gyuto is Six-Armed Mahakala (dGon-po Phyag-drug).

Tsongkhapa had two styles of chanting at different times in his life, based on visions he had, in which protectors chanted to him in these ways. The two are called the mountain-cracking voice (ri-bo ral-ba’i skad) and the ocean-rolling voice (chu-gter 'khrog-pa’i skad). Both styles are with an extremely base voice, with the former being a flat monotone and the later undulating and producing overtones. The three main Gelug monasteries (gdan-sa gsum) near Lhasa – Sera (Se-ra dGon-pa), Drepung (‘Bras-spung dGon-pa), and Ganden (dGa’- ldan dGon-pa) – all use the ocean-rolling voice. Up until the time of the Fifteenth Ganden Tripa (dGa’-ldan Khri-pa, Ganden Throne-holder), Panchen Sonam-dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) (1478-1554), both Gyumay and Gyuto used the mountain-cracking voice. Gyumay has continued this style, while Gyuto adapted the ocean-rolling voice through the influence of Panchen Sonam-dragpa.

There are several ways of entering Gyumay or Gyuto Tantric Colleges. Monks who have received one of the two higher Geshe degrees of Lharampa (dGe-bshes Lha-ram-pa) or Tsogrampa (dGe-bshes Tshogs-ram-pa) at Ganden, Drepung, or Sera Monasteries, enter either Gyumay or Gyuto as a Geshe Karampa (dGe-bshes bKa’-ram-pa). The place where monks are born, and not their monastery, determines whether they enter Gyumay or Gyuto. Mongolians and Ladakhis, for example, go to Gyumay.

Geshe Karampas engage in intense study of the tantra commentaries through the medium of logic and debate. After presenting the tantra formal debate (sngags dam-bca’) on them, they receive the title Geshe Ngagrampa (dGe-bshes sNgags-ram-pa). Afterwards, they may either stay on at the tantric college or return to their home monasteries. If they return to Ganden Monastery, for example, they must present an additional tantra formal debate. One of the reforms of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten-gyatso (rGyal-ba Thub-bstan rgya-mtsho) (1876-1933), was to make entrance into one of the two Tantric Colleges compulsory for all recipients of the two higher sutra Geshe degrees.

A monk may also enter Gyumay or Gyuto without being a sutra Geshe, but then he does not engage in tantra debate. Such monks may enter Gyumay or Gyuto either directly, starting at age seventeen, or they may come from one of the other great Gelug monasteries. They are examined on memorization of tantra ritual texts and receive the degree Kyerimpa (bsKyed-rim-pa). After receiving this degree, they may enter one of the large monasteries to study for a sutra Geshe degree if they wish. At Saygyu Tantric College, monks train only for the Kyerimpa degree. There are no Geshe Karampas and no tantra debate.

Only Geshe Ngagrampas may become Geko (dGe-skos, Disciplinarians) of the Tantric Colleges. There are three each year at Gyumay. The Lama Umdzay (Bla-ma dbu-mdzad, Vice-Abbot) is chosen from among the former Gekos. He serves for three years, after which he becomes the Kenpo (mKhan-po, Abbot) for three years. The senior-most retired Abbot (mKhan-zur) of Gyumay becomes the Jangtsey Chojey (Byang-rtse Chos-rje, Dharma Master of Jangtsey), while his counterpart from Gyuto becomes the Shartsey Chojey (Shar-rtse Chos-rje, Dharma Master of Shartsey). The Jangtsey and Shartsey Chojeys alternate in becoming the Ganden Tripa (dGa’-ldan Khri-pa, Ganden Throne-holder), the head of the Gelug Tradition. A further reform of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama is that to be Abbot of one of the three great Gelug Monasteries, or one of its colleges, or to be a Tsenzhab (mTshan-zhabs, Tsenshap), a Master Debate Partner of a Dalai Lama, a monk must be a Geshe Ngagrampa.

The Gyumay and Gyuto monks make a yearly Dharma lecture round (chos-thog) to various other monasteries. The Abbot must go each year of his tenure, to deliver the lectures, while the Lama Umdzay goes only during his first year of office. Those who are training to become Kyerimpas must go on the Dharma round for six years, while Geshe Karampas are required to participate for only one year.

The Namgyel (Namgyal) Monastery (rNam-rgyal Grva-tshang) of the Dalai Lamas follows the lineages and style of Gyumay. The tantric colleges at Sera and Drepung Monasteries, namely Sera Ngagpa (Se-ra sNgags-pa Grva-tshang) and Drepung Ngagpa (‘Bras-spungs sNgags-pa Grva-tshang), also have a close historical relationship with Gyumay. At present, Gyumay Lower Tantric Monastery has relocated in India at Hunsur, Karnataka; Gyuto Upper Tantric Monastery at Bumdilla, Arunachal Pradesh; and Saygyu Tantric Monastery in Darjeeling, West Bengal.