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

A Brief History of Kumbum Monastery

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

Kumbum Jampa-ling Monastery (sKu-‘bum Byams-pa gling) was founded in 1583 by the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam-gyatso (rGyal-ba bSod-nams rgya-mtsho) (1543-1588). It was built in Amdo (A-mdo), near Lake Kokonor (mTsho-sngon), at the site where Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelug Tradition, had been born. It was prophesied in several texts of the Kadam (bKa’-gdams) masters.

A drop of blood fell from Tsongkhapa’s umbilical cord when it was cut after his birth. From this drop grew a wondrous white sandalwood tree. It has a very broad trunk and 100,000 leaves, which it never sheds. In Tibetan, the number 100,000 merely signifies a very large number, and is not meant literally. On each leaf is an image of the Buddha Sinhanada (Seng-ge sgra). On the bark of the branches and trunk are the designs of the seed syllables and hand implements of this Buddha. In the future, Tsongkhapa will take birth as Sinhanada, the eleventh Buddha of the 1,000 who will grace the earth during this fortunate eon.

In 1379, Tsongkhapa’s mother, with the help of the local faithful, built a small temple with a stupa around this tree. It stands to this day. This was the first temple at Kumbum. In 1481, the nobility and nomads of the Kokonor region built a larger temple for making offerings at the holy tree. In 1560, the meditator Rinchen-tsondru-gyeltsen (Rin-chen brtson-‘grus rgyal-mtshan) built a small monastery there, called Gonpalung (dGon-pa lung), for intensive meditation practice. At first, it had seven monks at a time, but soon expanded to hold fifteen.

In 1576, Altan Khan (1507-1583) of the Tumed Mongols invited the future Third Dalai Lama, Sonam-gyatso, to bring Buddhism to Mongolia. At that time, Sonam-gyatso, was known as the Gyelwa Rinpoche (rGyal-ba Rin-po-che) or the Drepung Tulku (‘Bras-spungs sPrul-sku), the third incarnation in the first line of incarnate lamas in the Gelug tradition. After Altan Khan adopted Buddhism, he gave Gyelwa Sonam-gyatso the title Dalai Lama. "Dalai" is the Mongolian translation of "gyatso," meaning "ocean." Thus, Gyelwa Sonam-gyatso became the Third Dalai Lama.

On his way to meet Altan Khan near Kokonor, Gyelwa Sonam-gyatso stopped at the isolated retreat by the holy tree marking the spot where Tsongkhapa had been born. He requested Rinchen-tsondru-gyeltsen to construct a larger monastery at this site and appointed him as the head lama. The monastery was completed in 1583 and an annual Prayer Festival (sMon-lam) was inaugurated like that held in Lhasa.

The new monastery was called Kumbum Jampa-ling. "Kumbum" means 100,000 enlightening bodies of the Buddha. It is named after the 100,000 images of the Buddha Sinhanada on the leaves of the holy sandalwood tree. "Jampa-ling" means "Maitreya Cloister." This refers to the Maitreya temple built by Rinchen-tsondru-gyeltsen to the right of the precious tree. Furthermore, Tsongkhapa is considered inseparable in nature from Maitreya Buddha, and whatever spiritual practices one does at this site are said to bring rebirth in Maitreya’s Pure Land.

The First Throne Holder of Kumbum was Duldzin Ozer-gyatso (‘Dul-‘dzin ‘Od-zer rgya-mtsho), born in 1557. In 1603, the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten-gyatso (rGyal-ba Yon-tan rgya-mtsho) (1589-1616), stopped at Kumbum on his way from his native Mongolia to Central Tibet. At that time, he proclaimed the need for a study division to be built and for Duldzin Ozer-gyatso to be appointed as the head of the entire monastery. At Kumbum’s Monlam Prayer Festival of 1612, Duldzin Ozer-gyatso first ascended to the throne of Abbot and opened the Debate College, Pelden Shaydrubling Dratsang (dPal-ldan bShad-grub gling Grva-tshang).

Kumbum has four monastic colleges. The largest is the Debate College. Most of its divisions use the textbooks of Jetsunpa Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun-pa Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) (1469-1544), as at Ganden Jangtsey (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse Grva-tshang) and Sera Jey Colleges (Se-ra Byes Grva-tshang) near Lhasa. A few of the divisons follow the textbooks of Kunkyen Jamyang-zhaypa Ngawang-tsondru (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa Ngag-dbang brtson-‘grus) (1648-1722), as at Gomang College (sGo-mang Grva-tshang) of Drepung Monastery (‘Bras-spungs dGon-pa) and Labrang Monastery (Bla-brang dGon-pa). The highest degrees of Geshe Rabjampa (dGe-bshes Rab-‘byams-pa) and Geshe Shayrampa (dGe-bshes bShad-ram-pa) are awarded at the Kumbum Monlam Prayer Festival each year.

The Tantric College, Gyu (rGyud) or Sangngag Dechenling Datsang (gSang-sngags bDe-chen gling Grva-tshang), was founded by Chojey Legpa-gyatso (Chos-rje Legs-pa rgya-mtsho) in 1649. The curriculum follows that of Gyumay Lower Tantric College (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang) of Lhasa. After study of the major texts and commentaries of the Guhyasamaja (gSang-‘dus), Chakrasamvara (bDe-mchog), and Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje ‘jigs-byed) systems, monks receive the Geshe Ngagrampa (dGe-bshes sNgags-ram-pa) degree.

In 1711, Chuzang Lozang-tenpay-gyeltsen (Chu-bzang Blo-bzang btsan-pa’i rgyal-mtshan) built a new Tantric College, Ngagpa Dratsang (sNgags-pa Grva-tshang). In 1723, the combined Manchu and Chinese armies severely damaged the four great monasteries of the Kokonor region – Kumbum, Gonlung (dGon-lung dGon-pa), Serkog (gSer-khog dGon-pa), and Chuzang (Chu-bzang dGon-pa) – and many monks fled. Soon afterwards, the Manchu commander asked the Twenty-first Throne Holder to convert the new Ngagpa Dratsang into a Medical College, and this was done. With the appointment of several famous doctors, the Medical College, Menpa Dratsang Sorig-dargyey-zhenpen-norbuling (sMan-pa Grva-tshang gSo-rig dar-rgyas gzhan-phen nor-bu gling), was opened in 1725. It became a separate college during the time of the Twenty-second Throne Holder. The doctors who are graduated receive the Menrampa (sMan-ram-pa) degree.

The fourth college at Kumbum is the Kalachakra College, Dukor Dratsang Rigden Losel-ling (Dus-‘khor Grva-tshang Rigs-ldan Blo-gsal gling). It was founded in 1820 by Ngawang-shaydrub-tenpay-nyima (Ngag-dbang bshad-grub bstan-pa’i nyi-ma). Monks at this college also study astrology and receive the Tsirampa (rTsis-ram-pa) degree upon completion of their education.

Before 1958, Kumbum had 3,600 monks. At present, there are 400. Of these, 300 are at the Debate College and the rest are distributed evenly among the other three colleges. Traditionally, the majority of the Kumbum monks have been Tibetans from Amdo. As at Labrang Monastery, the rest have been Outer Mongolian Mongols (phyi-sog), Inner Mongolian Mongols (smad-sog, nang-sog), Kokonor Mongols (stod-sog) from the Amdo region east of Kumbum, Mongours (hor-pa) from the Amdo region north of Kumbum, Yellow Yugurs (yu-gur) from Gansu (Kansu), Xinjiang Kalmyk Mongols, and ethnic Chinese.