Mega Monasteries in Tibet


A review of The Mother of All Monasteries: Gönlung Jampa Ling and the Rise of Mega Monasteries in Northeastern Tibet, by Brenton Sullivan.

In The Mother of All Monasteries, Brenton Sullivan explores the origin and development of one of the largest (to be precise, the fourth largest) Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau. Gönlung Jampa Ling (Dgon lung byams pa gling), founded in 1604, was home to populations of up to two thousand monks of the Geluk tradition (Dge lugs) of Tibetan Buddhism between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is considered “the mother of all the monasteries north of the Huang River” in Amdo (A mdo)—northeastern Tibet—owing to its far-reaching influence in Inner Asia (p. 17). But it was not the size, Sullivan argues, that qualified it as a “mega monastery.” Rather, its vigorous curriculum made it an instrumental agent of the Geluk Buddhists’ highly systematized and mobile intellectual network. This shift of focus from external factors—such as patronage of the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Podrang government (Dga’ ldan pho brang) in Central Tibet and Qing China to the east—to the internal dynamics of a mega monastery sets Sullivan’s work apart from the predominant research on Tibetan Buddhist monasticism. As such it points to a new direction for research into the social and institutional history of Buddhist monasticism.

The dissertation is organized thematically and divided into two parts, each of which consists of three chapters, along with a seventh chapter spotlighting the 1723-24 Lubsang-Danzin Rebellion. This was the watershed moment that led to the monastery’s decline in influence, if not in size. Sullivan concludes in this final chapter that it was internal rather than external factors that made and unmade mega monasteries, such as Gönlung Jampa Ling

Part I attends to the historical circumstances under which Gönlung Jampa Ling was founded and developed into a mega monastery in the seventeenth century. Chapter 1 examines Gönlung Jampa Ling’s early patrons, including influential local Mongol headmen (nang so or tusi) who had held power in Amdo since the thirteenth century, the rising Fifth Dalai Lama regime in Lhasa, and the expanding Qing Empire to the east. Through studying the managerial mechanisms and financial sources of the monastery and its forty-odd branch monasteries in Inner Asia, Sullivan demonstrates that it was the local leaders and/or locally originated powerful monks who deserved credit for founding and developing it into an influential mega monastery. One of the strengths shown in Sullivan’s work is his attention to detail. In the case of reaching out for support from Qing emperors, this chapter centers on diplomatically skilled Geluk reincarnates, whose personal ties to Qing emperors brought not only wealth but also prestige to Gönlung Jampa Ling (p. 49). In addition, while addressing the underplayed local patrons’ role in conventional research, he rightly acknowledges that the Fifth Dalai Lama’s ascending political power attracted the Amdo headmen to seek his support for founding the monastery.

However, previous studies of this kind of support have resulted in overshadowing one important historical mediator—the Kyishö family of Central Tibet—who feature in Chapter 2. Through tracing the Kyishö family’s interactions with Amdo Mongols, the traffic of Buddhists from/to Central Tibet, and the trajectory of the statue Ārya Lokeśvara or “Noble Lord of the World”—one of the most important and venerated icons in Tibet (pp. 96-98)—this chapter reifies the monastery’s connections with political power in Central Tibet, including but not limited to the Fifth Dalai Lama. Moreover, contrary to previous scholarship that attributes the monastery’s establishment to the Fifth Dalai Lama, Chapter 2 evidently illustrates that its tie to the Dalai Lama lineage started from the Third Dalai Lama’s prophecy and the Fourth’s instructions on founding the monastery (p. 114). Apart from identifying these earlier or little-known connections to figures other than the Fifth Dalai Lama, the greater achievement of this chapter is to elucidate the reasons behind the Fifth Dalai Lama’s centrality in historical sources and research, that is, the Geluk tradition’s dominance in historical writing in these crucial centuries. In this sense, Sullivan’s research addresses the importance of using textual materials with caution.

Besides these familiar participants in the development of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism, Chapter 3 also introduces someone new: the Manchu Qing emperors to the east. In the course of a century, two successive generations of Changkya (Lcang skya) reincarnates—the second and the third—brokered with the Mongols for Qing China, ensuring Gönlung Jampa Ling a place in history. However, the monastery’s political connections with the Qing imperial family did not save the monastery from being demolished by the latter. The eighteenth century witnessed the waxing and waning of the once powerful mega monastery before its influence retreated into local politics, in spite of having two thousand monks in residence. This chapter once again addresses the project’s key argument: it is the quality rather than the quantity that made Gönlung Jampa Ling a mega monastery.

How to sustain such quality is Part II’s main concern. In Sullivan’s view, the dynamic internal governing system of Gönlung Jampa Ling contributed to its prosperity. Each of the three chapters in this part addresses one aspect of the internal system that shows how the monastery operated. Chapter 4 details its administrative system by studying a 1737 monastic customary (bca’ yig) of Gönlung Jampa Ling. This customary intended to expound the roles and duties of managerial offices and their respective staff; in addition, it also aimed at regulating monks’ behavior within and beyond the monastery, especially their interactions with lay patrons (pp. 156-59). In doing so, this chapter indicates that Gönlung Jampa Ling’s success as a mega monastery lay precisely in this deliberate regulatory codification of monastic operations so as not to cede control of the monastery to its proprietors, i.e. these lay patrons (pp. 191-92, 201). Circulating these highly formulated monastic customaries was also helpful on a much larger scale. Sullivan suggests that Gönlung Jampa Ling bridged Central Tibet’s mega monasteries and regional monasteries by imitating the customaries of the former and setting the tone for the latter. This practice “promoted social mobility” and fostered the regional spread of the Geluk tradition’s monastic networks (p. 159).

It is at this point that Sullivan addresses a key reason behind Gönlung Jampa Ling’s development: the monastery’s internal operations were independent but not isolated from the political turmoil in Tibet or Qing China. The visionary abbots of Gönlung Jampa Ling institutionalized not only the monastic bodies but also the monastic activities. Chapter 5 describes how Sumpa Khenpo (Sum pa mkhan po) codified and disseminated the study of doctrine and the practice of rituals in Gönlung Jampa Ling (p. 203). Similar to Chapter 4, this chapter emphasizes that the monastery was diligent in maintaining the Geluk sect’s monastic networks by standardizing ritual practices and texts. This made it possible for monks of different institutions to “reside at and participate in the routines of other monasteries” (p. 247).

Chapter 6 delineates the efforts undertaken by notable abbots to promote the Geluk tradition’s scholasticism in the late eighteenth century. Through prescribing scriptural study and debates at Gönlung Jampa Ling, the Fourth Wang Khutugtu strove to revive the monastery from ruins. Despite the struggles to sustain this important Geluk learning center, Wang IV had not forgotten the monastery’s instrumental role in promoting the Geluk School’s scholasticism, and he traveled to Mongolia to write monastic customaries for monasteries there. Yet these efforts did not yield the expected result, and Gönlung Jampa Ling slowly ceded influence to other rising Amdo monasteries, such as Labrang Trashi Khyil (Bla brang bkra shis ’khyil) and Kumbum (Sku ’bum). The decline was evident as early as 1723-24 when the Qing troops destroyed the monastery after squelching the Lubsang-Danzin Rebellon.

Chapter 7 revolves around the rebellion and the Qing’s subsequent policies toward the region. Through examination of the statutory encyclopedia (Chin. huidian), memorials (Chin. zouzhe), and gazetteers (Chin. zhi) of the Qing, Sullivan relates the Qing central government’s plans for the newly annexed border region. Fearing that these mega monasteries would be involved in political uprisings in the future, the central government toughened its regulations on the monastic community, and effectively turned Gönlung Jampa Ling into an “imperial monastery.” The monastery, though still massive in scale, failed to recover after being overseen by the Qing government. Sullivan attributes the failure to the monastery’s lack of robust internal governing systems that “managed, socialized, trained, supported, and mobilized hundreds or thousands of monks” (p. 385), a recurring theme in his massive dissertation.

For scholars of Tibetan Buddhism as well as social and cultural historians of Buddhist monasticism, Sullivan’s dissertation sheds new light on how an influential monastery came into being and developed over time. Beyond these fields, this project will also speak to historians whose research interests lie in the interaction of Qing China with peripheral communities, as well as cultural anthropologists interested in rituals in a monastic sitting. This textually rich project points out what has hitherto been missing in historical research of  Tibetan Buddhist monasticism.

Lan Wu
Ph.D. Candidate in East Asian History
Columbia University

Primary Sources

Customaries of Pelnarthang, Reting, Gönlung Monasteries and Branches (Dpal snar thang dang [/ rwa sgreng / dgon lung byams pa gling dgon ma lag bcas kyi] gi bca’ yig ’dul khrims dngos brgya ’bar ba’i gzi ’od)
Profound and Secret Golden Key of a Hundred Doors to [Buddhist] Treatises (Bstan bcos sgo brgya ’byed pa’i zab zing gser gyi sde mig)
Collected Works of Changkya II Ngawang Lozang Chöden (Lcang skya II Ngag dbang blo bzang chos ldan, Gsung ’bum)
Precedents of the Collected Statutes of the Guangxu Reign (Da Qing huidian shili 大清會典事例)
Xunhua Gazetteer (Xunhua Ting zhi 循化廳志)

Dissertation Information

University of Virginia. 2013. 443 pp. Primary Advisor: Kurtis Schaeffer.

Image: Photograph by author.

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