Dagpo Shedrub Ling Monastery, also called Dagpo Dratsang, is a monastic university for the study of Buddhist philosophy founded in the mid 15th century in South-Eastern Tibet by Je Lodrö Tenpa (1402-1478).
Creation of Dagpo Shedrub Ling
Buddhism originated in approximately 500 BCE in India and spread in Tibet from 600 CE. From the eleventh century onwards various schools formed, the most recent being the Gelugpa school, founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419).
This extraordinary Buddhist scholar and teacher composed a work that he entitled “The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment” (also known as The Great Lamrim) in which he summarized the Buddha’s entire teaching. When his student, Je Lodrö Tenpa, paid him a visit shortly after its completion, the author blessed him by touching his head with a copy of it, which he then gave him, exhorting him to establish a monastery in southern Tibet where the teachings it contained would be taught, studied, and meditated.
Je Lodrö Tenpa gathered a number of students around him and gradually created a monastic community in the Dagpo district in southern Tibet, which was later named Dagpo Shedrub Ling Monastery. Because of its connection with the Lamrim teachings of Je Tsongkhapa, Dagpo Shedrub Ling is also known as the Lamrim Dratsang.
Je Lodrö Tenpa was born in a small village in Tsang, in Western Tibet. It was clear from an early age that he was an intelligent and gifted child. At the age of eleven he took monastic ordination and embarked on a traditional monastic training. His main teacher was Gyeltsab Je (1364-1431), one of Je Tsongkhapa’s prime students and his successor at the head of the Gelugpa School, but he was Je Tsongkhapa’s student as well. He studied all the major treatises on Buddhist philosophy.
Once Je Tsongkhapa had entrusted him with the transmission and preservation of the Lamrim teaching, Je Lodrö Tenpa first stayed at Sangphu Monastery for several years. When he left it, he decided that the time had come to fulfil the task he had been given. With that idea in mind he travelled to south-eastern Tibet, staying in various hermitages in Dagpo and Lhokha to meditate. As more and more people came to know of him as a true scholar and accomplished meditator, they came to him to request instruction and guidance. Soon he had a following that included Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa who was to become his successor. Thus a monastic community called Dagpo Dratsang took form. Originally it had no fixed location: the monks travelled from one monastery to another, holding their classes and prayer assemblies, and engaging their fellow monks in debate wherever they were. They spent some time in a small monastery called Trakteng in Dagpo but continued nevertheless to wander from place, begging for their food wherever they went.
Once when they were travelling the in the Eay district they met a nobleman called Lord Lhagyari, whose family descended from the kings of Tibet. Impressed with the community, he promised that his family would provide for its basic needs from then on for it is the tradition in Buddhist societies for laypeople to support monastics who in exchange provide spiritual services for laypeople. In turn the Dagpo Dratsang monks promised by their prayers to ensure that the Lhagyari family line would never be broken for lack of a male heir. For that purpose they recited The Praise to Tara several times daily.
Indeed, the family continued to assist the monastery until 1959 and in every generation a male heir was born. (When the new Dagpo Shedrub Ling was inaugurated in 2005 in India the heir of the Lhagyari family, aged 15 at the time, was present in traditional royal dress. However the family’s present financial situation makes it impossible for them to continue supporting the monastery.)
Some years later Je Lodrö Tenpa was called to Lhasa to become the sixth Ganden Tripa, Je Tsongkhapa’s successor at the head of the Gelugpa School. On that occasion, he appointed the chanting master, Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa, abbot of Dagpo Dratsang. Over the years many masters of the monastery were to become Ganden Tripas.
Under Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa’s abbotship the community settled in an old Kagyu monastery at Gyatsa in Dagpo. Thus, under the name of Thösamling, the first monastic university for advanced studies in Buddhist philosophy was created in Dagpo.
By the time Shenyen Chöpelwa, who had been the community’s first master of discipline, became the third abbot, the monastery had grown to include 300 members. When the abbot heard that the Second Dalai Lama, Gendün Gyatso, (1476-1542) was in southern Tibet, he invited him to teach at Thösamling and eventually offered him the monastery. In this way Gendün Gyatso became the fourth abbot and the close connection which still exists today was established between the Dalai Lamas and Dagpo Dratsang.
Sometime in the seventeenth century, the communities of Trakteng and Thösamling were consolidated and settled in another abandoned Kagyu monastery on the right bank of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet opposite Trakteng. Dagpo Shedrup Ling, as the community was renamed then by adding part of the Kagyu monastery’s name, has been located there ever since. Some new buildings were constructed on the remains of the old, taking the original architectural features into account. For example on the roof of the temple the monks placed a dharma wheel flanked by two standing deer, as opposed to the sitting deer usually found, as the founder of the Kagyu monastery, a former Karmapa Rinpoche, had done. (A similar dharma wheel with standing deer can is found on the temple roof of the new monastery in India.)
Over time Dagpo Shedrub Ling grew further to over 600 members. It became one of three most important monasteries of south-eastern Tibet. It produced many important scholars of Buddhist philosophy and great meditators who through their efforts achieved the highest spiritual realizations. The community continued to respect its founder’s original commitment by transmitting the Lamrim teachings in an unbroken line until 1959. However with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in that year the situation changed radically.
From 1959 until today
The peaceful existence of the monks in Dagpo Dratsang came to an abrupt end in 1959 due to the Chinese take-over. A few of monks fled to India , and of those that remained many were imprisoned and subjected to hard labour. Struggle sessions and so-called re-education created an atmosphere of distrust and turmoil in the monastery. During the Cultural Revolution in the sixties, the remaining monks were forced to abandon the monastery and it was razed to the ground. In the course of the next twenty years, the community faced great difficulties. Heroically, they managed to preserve a few important Buddhist scriptures and statues.
Around 1983 the Chinese government gave permission to rebuild a small monastery in a corner of the previous site and gradually the number of monks grew to eighty. However, in 1995 a new wave of repression began and once more many were forced to leave. At the moment about fifty monks are doing the best they can under the circumstances to maintain their monastic tradition of study and practice, despite constant pressure from the Chinese administration.
Survival – The Years in India
About 15 monks, including Dagpo Rinpoche Jhampa Gyamtshog, managed to flee to India in 1959 and settle in northwest India near the Tibetan border. Dagpo Rinpoche on the other hand was invited to France in 1960 to assist Tibetologists in their research. He next worked teaching Tibetan language and civilisation at I.Na.L.C.O., affiliated with Paris’s Sorbonne University, for thirty years. Dagpo Rinpoche has been an inexhaustible source of support and inspiration for Dagpo Shedrub Ling’s monks in Tibet and in India from 1959 until today.
In 1979 small monastery in Bomdila in north-east India was made available to the monks, and their wanderings came to an end. The community grew to 50 and in 1981 the government in exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama offered it the use a small monastery at the Tibetan Settlement of Mainpat in central India.
There they were able to take up their old ways of study and practice. However, due to the isolation of the settlement, its endemic malaria and other problems, it was decided in 1996 to search for a more favourable location in which to build a new monastery. On May 11, 2005, at Kais in the Kullu Valley of northern India, His Holiness consecrated the monastic complex and accepted the title of its abbot. Some 140 monks now live and study at Kais on the monastery’s grounds.
In Tibet as part of its training to overcome attachment to one place as in the Buddha’s time, the monastic community travelled several months of the year on foot to other locations, continuing their prayers and studies wherever they went. Today in India for several months a year the monastery in Mainpat is still used by Dagpo Dratsang’s monks who thereby maintain that ancient tradition and by the same to continue provide religious services to the local Tibetan community.