Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the principal monastery of the U-Tsang Province in Tibet, is one of the Great Six centres of the Gelugpa tradition. Tashi Lhunpo was founded by His Holiness the 1st Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gedun Drup in 1447, and became the largest, most vibrant monastery in Tibet.

The monastery grew in importance in the 16th Century, when Tashi Lhunpo’s Abbot, Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662) was recognised by the Fifth Dalai Lama as an incarnation of Amitabha, the spiritual teacher of Chenrezig and the patron saint of Tibet, and was given the title ‘Panchen Lama’. ‘Panchen’ is the shortened form of Pandita Chenpo, meaning Great Scholar. The Panchen Lamas became - together with the Dalai Lamas - the most important religious leaders in Tibet. In the same way as the Dalai Lamas, three previous Abbots of Tashi Lhunpo were retrospectively given the title Panchen Lama, making Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen the fourth in the line.

The relationship between the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas is unique. Each Lama in their lifetime is not only involved in the search for the other’s reincarnation, but also assumes the role, first as the disciple and later in life as the master, of the other.

Under the 4th Panchen Lama, Tashi Lhunpo became an integrated society where monks from Tibet, Bhutan, India, Nepal and China lived in harmony, providing a community where monks received education as well as the warmth and love of a family. Over the years the monastery flourished as a centre of learning, and played a vital role in the preservation of Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy.  

By 1959, 5,000 monks were resident in the Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet, with a further 2,000 monks outside Tibet itself. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and the destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India.  During the 1960s, many senior Lamas and monks left Tibet because of the difficulties they faced in practising Buddhism under the Chinese occupation. Many of them helped to re-establish monasteries in India, Bhutan and Nepal. The 10th Panchen Lama was unable to leave, and underwent nearly ten years of imprisonment before his death in Tibet in 1989,and as a result many of the senior lamas from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery remained inside Tibet.  Meanwhile the study of Buddhism in Tibet and in Tashi Lhunpo monastery became more and more restricted.  

Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in India

The First Temple and Tantric College

In the early 1970s, five monks from Tibet who had been given permission by HH the Tenth Panchen Lama to leave Shigatse, petitioned successfully, with the support of Trijang Rinpoche, the Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for permission to re-establish Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in exile.  His Holiness advised that the monastery should be built near a settlement where there were already a number of lay people to offer the best chance for the monastery to grow and succeed.  It was decided that land should be made avaialble in Bylakuppe Settlement, in Karnataka State, South India.

Work began in 1972 on the construction - the first building in Bylakuppe settlement to be built of concrete.  The monks from Tibet carried out the work themselves, living in tents under a tree near the present entrance gate, under the guidance of the head of the monastery, Sokpo Rinpoche from Mongolia.  Much of the area consisted of bush and jungle which had to be cut down and cleared, and everything had to be done by hand.  While the monks did most of the work, they were soon joined by local people who came to help, and the lower floor was completed in 1975.

Another storey was added under the auspices of the first Abbot of the monastery in India, Khen Rinpoche Kachen Yeshi Dhundup, who travelled all over the Indian sub-continent gathering donations.  Under the second Abbot, Khen Rinpoche Kachen Lobzang Zotpa, the monastery reintroduced the tradition of cham dance, taught to a new generation of students by Kachen Lhakdor, and the education of the young monks improved with the construction of the monastery's first school. The school buidling was built mostly by the children themselves, who carried bags of sand and concrete to the building site before attending lessons under the trees.  A new school was completed in 2003, sponsored by the Tibet Relief Fund of the UK and he Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust.

Inside the Temple is a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, Jhe Tsong Khapa and Gyalwa Gedun Drupe, the First Dalai Lama and founder of the Monastery in the 15th Century, and of Tara.  Above the torma (butter sculpture) cabinet are statues of the monastery's Protectors. There is a central throne for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  As the community of monks increased in number, the small temple became too small, and in December 2019, a new Temple was inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the original building became home to the Nagpa Tratsang or Tantric College. 

Tashi Lhunpo Maha Tantric College was founded in the monastery in Tibet in 1615 by the 4th Panchen Lama.  The College became famous throughout Tibet for the quality of its teaching.  The present Tantric College was inaugurated in the exiled monastery in South India in 1983.

Tantra is a life-long study begun after the student has achieved the qualification of Kachen (Doctor of Divinity, equivalent to Geshe in other monasteries).  The course covers Action Tantra, Performance tantra, Yoga Tantra and Highest Yoga Tantra, as well as the study of the mudras or hand gestures of the deities, making of torma-cake offerings, the drawing of mandalas in paint, stone or carved in wood and the art of music and melodic voice.  Each year the monks of the Tantric College perform the Gutor Garcham (Lama Dance) to mark the final days before Tibetan New Year or Losar.  

The Choera - Debate Hall

The principal study in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is achieved through the practise of Taksel or dialectical debate in which the monks, having memorised many pages of sacred scripture, test themselves on their understanding of the texts.  The system was developed first in Nalanda Monastery in India, and involves long study and an intimate knowledge of the meaning of the philosophical writings of learned teachers both of the Gelug and other Tibetan Buddhist traditions.  Debates are held every morning and evening in the Choera - the main Debate Hall.  This was built as the first stage of the new temple complex and was inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2004. 

The cost of the construction was provided largely by Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust supported by His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Office, along with donations from local people.  Debate is the core of Tashi Lhunpo's study and as such - along with the Prayer Hall - is at the very heart of the monastery.  The full community of monks attend Choera every evening in the Debate Hall, even the youngest of the monks, as soon as they have memorised enough texts, supervised by their Philosophy teachers.

The Main Temple or Dukhang

The campaign to build a larger prayer hall to accommodate the full community began in 2007, led by the then Abbot, Khen Rinpoche Kachen Lobzang Tsetan.  The irst phase of the project was completed in 2010 with the construction of the purpose-built Choera (Debate Hall), largely funded by Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust.  Building of the new temple commenced in 2009, and was completed in 2015. 

The new assembly hall includes apartments for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Panchen Lama, the main administrative offices and, on the ground floor, a Museum offering a visual history of the monastery in Tibet and in exile. 

On 19th December 2019, His Holiness the Dalai Lama inaugurated the new Main Temple in a ceremony attended by many thousands of people from all over the world, followed by four days of teachings by His Holiness.  

The Library

Tashi Lhunpo's Library completes the main complex around the Temple.  With funds raised largely from America through the Abbot, Khensur Rinpoche Kachen Lobzang Tsetan, and with seed funding through the UK Trust with a generous donation from Paul Getty, the building was completed in 2018.  It is now one of the largest and most complrehensive library in the South Indian settlements containing not only traditional Buddhist scriptures, but also books relating to all the religious traditions, with a wide ranging English section.  The Library is open for all to study, and has hosted a number of conferences in the modern Conference Hall.  It is becoming an invaluable source of knowledge not only for the monks from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery but also for visitors and students from many different places.