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

A Brief History of Sakya Monastery

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

In the Manjushri Root Tantra (‘Jam-dpal rtsa-rgyud), Buddha had prophesied that a Sakya Monastery would cause his teachings to flourish in the Land of Snows. The site of this monastery was also prophesied by Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava (Gur-ru Rin-po-che Pad-ma ‘byung-gnas). Several stupas had already been built at the monastery’s future location, when Atisha (Jo-bo-rje dPal-ldan A-ti-sha) (982-1053) stopped there in 1040. He saw on the mountainside a syllable "Hrih," seven "Dhih," and one "Hung," and prophesied that an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, seven of Manjushri, and one of Vajrapani would grace this site.

In 1073, Konchog-gyelpo (dKon-mchog rgyal-po) (1034-1102) of the Kon (‘Khon) family established the Pelden Sakya Monastery (dPal-ldan Sa-skya dGon-pa) in Tsang (gTsang) province of Central Tibet. The monastery, and subsequently the tradition he founded, derived its name from the color of the soil of its location. "Sakya" means literally "gray earth."

After Kon Konchog-gyelpo had completed his studies with such masters as the translator Drogmi Lotsawa (‘Brog-mi Lo-tsa-ba), he developed the strong wish to establish a monastery. He chose the present site and inquired of its owners if he could offer them some of his family’s possessions as payment for the land upon which to build the monastery. The owners declined any payment and presented him the land as an offering.

The succession of Sakya Abbots passed from Kon Konchog-gyelpo to Bari Lotsawa (Ba-ri Lo-tsa-ba Rin-chen grags), and from him through the line of the Five Sakya Masters (Sa-skya gong-ma lnga), namely the Three White and Two Red Masters of Sakya (Sa-skya dkar-po rnam-gsum dmar-po rnam-gnyis). The Three White Masters were all laymen: Sachen Kunga-nyingpo (Sa-chen Kun-dga’ snying-po) (1092-1158), Sonam-tsemo (bSod-nams rtse-mo) (1142-1182), and Dragpa-gyeltsen (Grags-pa rgyal-mtshan) (1147-1216). The Two Red Masters were monks: Sakya Pandita Kunga-gyeltsen (Sa-pan Kun-dga’ rgyal-mtshan) (1182-1251) and Chogyel Pagpa (Chos-rgyal ‘Phags-pa) (1235-1280). Sakya Pandita brought Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia at the request of Godan Khan. Previously, Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) had wished to invite Sakya Pandita, but wrote that the time was not yet right since his work was not finished. Chogyel Pagpa was the Imperial Tutor of Kublai Khan (Se-chen rGyal-po, Khublai Khan, Qublai Khan). Kublai, grandson of Chinggis, was the founder of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of China (1280-1367).

As an offering for having been conferred the Hevajra (Kyai-rdo) empowerment, Kublai Khan presented Chogyel Pagpa the rule of the thirteen districts (khri-skor bcu-gsum) of Tibet. From 1265 to 1358, Tibet was administered by a Ponchen (dPon-chen) Grand Minister at Sakya Monastery, under whom served thirteen Tripon (Khri-dpon) District Ministers, one for each district. The First Ponchen was Shakya-zangpo (Sha-kya bzang-po). After 1358, the rule of Tibet passed to the Pagmodrupa clan (Phag-mo gru-pa), associated with the Kagyu lineage, and Sakya Monastery returned to its simply spiritual role.

The course of sutra study at Sakya Monastery began with the memorization of texts. If monks passed the memorization examination, they received the degree Kachupa (dKa’-bcu-pa) and were permitted to study to become a Geshe (dGe-bshes). This study was of six topics, involving eighteen major Indian texts, and was done through the medium of debate. Upon mastery of these subjects, monks were awarded the Geshe Rabjampa (dGe-bshes rab-‘byams-pa) degree. They could then enter Dechenling Tantric College (bDe-chen gling) to study mostly the Hevajra Tantra (Kyai-rdo-rje). The degree granted was Lama Bentsangpa (Bla-ma ‘Ben-tshang-pa).

The tantra tradition studied and practiced in Sakya Monastery derives from Drogmi Lotsawa’s Indian teachers, Naropa and Gayadhara. From the latter, Drogmi Lotsawa received the transmission of the "lamdray" (lam-‘bras; path and its results) teachings concerning the Hevajra Tantra that derived from Virupa.

The Sakya Monastery was little damaged during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its enormous library is one of the rare few that survived the destruction. The course of study and practice at the monastery, however, has been severely curtailed. In India, the traditions of Sakya Monastery have been continued at the Sakya College in Rajpur, Himachal Pradesh. This was founded by the present, Forty-first Abbot of Sakya Monastery and Holder of the Sakya Throne, Sakya Tridzin, Ngawang-kunga-tegchen-pelbar-trinley-sampel-wanggi-gyelpo (Sa-skya Khri-‘dzin Ngag-dbang kun-dga’ theg-chen dpal-‘bar ‘phrin-las bsam-phel dbang-gi rgyal-po) (b. 1945).