WHAT AND WHERE?
Dagpo Dratsang (or Dagpo Shedrup Ling) is a Tibetan buddhist monastic university founded in the 15th century. The original Dagpo Monastery is located in the Dagpo region in the South East of Tibet. Since 2005, there is a new Dagpo Monastery in Himachal Pradesh, in the Kullu valley in the north of India, where there are now about 180 monks living and studying.
Dagpo Shedrup Ling has been founded upon the request of the exceptional master Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) by Je Lodrö Tenpa (1402-1476) in the middle of the 15th century in South East Tibet.
CREATION OF DAGPO SHEDRUP 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 Shedrup Ling Monastery. Because of its connection with the Lamrim teachings of Je Tsongkhapa, Dagpo Shedrup 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.
15TH – 20TH CENTURY
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.
Sometime in the seventeenth century, the community settled in an abandoned monastery on the right bank of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet. Dagpo Shedrub Ling, as the community was renamed at that time, has been located there ever since.
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.
THE YEARS IN INDIA
About 15 monks, including Venerable Dagpo Rinpoche, decided to go to India in 1959 and they settle in northwest India near the Tibetan border. Dagpo Rinpoche was soon 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 Shedrup Ling’s monks in Tibet and in India from 1959 until today. In 1979 a small monastery in Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh 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 they were offered the use of 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, a new monastic complex was consecrated. Some 180 monks now (2019) live and study at Kais and 100 young boys and girls attend the boarding school built 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 continue provide religious services to the local Tibetan community.
The monastery Dagpo Shedrup Ling was and is famous amongst the Tibetans because of several remarkable traits. For example, the instructions of the Great Lamrim by Je Tsonkhapa form the core practice of this monastic community, and as a result the monastery is also known as Lamrim Dratsang.
Moreover, the monastery is known for the way that knowledge is tested, the special chants and the beauty of the melodies, and its strict monastic discipline.
THE SUBJECTS STUDIED
In Tibet every spring a special session was dedicated to the study and practice of the Lamrim, and once every three years the abbot taught the complete of the Great Lamrim (800 pages).Buddhist philosophy is taught and studied with reference to five major treatises, as well as Je Tsongkhapa’s Great Lamrim. Teaching and meditating the instructions the latter contains form its core practice that earned the monastery the name of Lamrim Dratsang. Thanks to these efforts the Lamrim teaching was widespread in Dagpo region. Numerous monks achieved high realizations through meditating on the Lamrim’s topics; as a result the Lamrim teaching lineage includes many spiritual teachers from Dagpo Shedrub Ling.
Stated very simply, the Lamrim is a step-by-step training in the three principal qualities of the spiritual path: renunciation from attachment and the wish for freedom, the altruistic aspiration to Buddhahood (bodhicitta) and insight into the emptiness of inherent existence through the understanding of everything’s interdependence (correct view).
In 2000 an English translation of the Great Lamrim of Je Tsongkhapa was printed by Snow Lion Publications. In the notes on the back of the book Professor Robert A.F. Thurman called this book “…one of the greatest religious or secular works in the library of our human heritage” and Professor D.S. Ruegg of the University of London commented, “The Great Treatise is one of the world’s great monuments of philosophy and spirituality as well as one of the most renowned works of Buddhist thought and practice to have been composed in Tibet”.
HOW KNOWLEDGE IS TESTED
During the long period of their studies, the monks’ ability to memorize the works they are studying is regularly tested, as is their ability to apply that knowledge in dialectic debate. Once they have covered the curriculum and passed the final examinations, they receive the title of Rabjam, the equivalent of Geshe in other monastic institutions. They may then enter a college specialized in the study of tantra, the esoteric branch of Buddhism.
Dagpo Dratsang is famous for its beautiful chanting and melodies. They are mentioned in many biographies of spiritual teachers. A large number of the melodies still used during prayers and rituals today were created by the 2nd Dalai Lama. Most of them were composed spontaneously subsequent to a practitioner’s exceptional spiritual experience.
STRICT MONASTIC DISCIPLINE
Dagpo Shedrub Ling is renowned for its strict application of the vinaya (the rules of monastic discipline), as set forth by the Buddha in the fifth century BCE. For example in Tibet wearing shoes in the monastery was forbidden, even in the depths of winter, and at all times travelling on horseback was prohibited. To avoid greed and desire, no one, not even the abbot, was allowed to use utensils made of valuable materials such as silver, copper, porcelain or even aluminium. Only those made from materials such as clay, stone, iron or wood could be used.