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The Monks of Drepung

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Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416 by Jamyang Chöje Tashi Pelden, a disciple of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug tradition. The monastery's name, meaning 'heap of rice', describes the appearance of the shining white buildings of its colleges and temples as they sparkled in the sun against the hills of the Kyi-Chu river valley, about 8km from the old city of Lhasa.

Drepung Monastery was once the biggest religious institution on earth; at its zenith it housed 10,000 monks, comparable to any of the great universities in the world. The monks' training could take as much as 20 years of intense study and debate, in order to earn the Geshe degree, akin to a Doctorate of Metaphysics. Loseling is the largest of Drepung's four colleges; the others are Gomang, Deyang, and Ngagpa colleges.

Drepung's Ganden Palace, built in 1530 for the Second Dalai Lama, was the home of the Dalai Lamas until The Great Fifth built the Potala in 1645.

Death and Rebirth

The Chinese invasion brought widespread suffering and privation to Tibet and disaster to the great monasteries. Tibet's oldest monastery, Samye (779), was obliterated during the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976); and the great three, Drepung, Ganden (1409), and Sera (1419) were reduced to rubble. In all, more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. Samye was rebuilt and is now a significant tourist attraction. Restoration work on the others continues, mainly through the efforts of volunteer labourers.

Following the exodus from Tibet in 1959, many of the country's institutions were rebuilt in exile. Monks from Drepung, the living repositories of centuries-old traditions, brought their knowledge, skills, and whatever texts and artefacts they could carry to Mundgod, in India's southern state of Karnataka. Drepung Loseling and Drepung Gomang have both been reconstructed, in miniature, in this community.

Drepung Loseling also has an American affiliate, based in Atlanta, Georgia. The Drepung Loseling Institute, under the patronage of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, promotes knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture through various programmes held at the Institute and at nearby Emory University. It also serves as a fund raising organ for the monastery in India.

Sacred Music, Sacred Dance

The Mystical Arts of Tibet is a cultural link to Tibet presented by touring monks from Drepung Loseling. There is also a Gomang Monastery Tour, bringing a taste of Tibet to audiences of all descriptions, from major concert venues to university auditoria.

Each performance includes sacred and secular music and dramatic costumed dances, such as the Dance of the Skeleton Lords, which reminds us of the transitory nature of all things... including us.

  • Snow Lions - The Snow Lion Dance is performed by two monks in an elaborate costume with rolling eyes and twitching ears. The expression and sensitivity is remarkable, as the snow lion jumps and rolls about the stage, then collapses panting, its sides heaving as it tries to catch its breath. When it stops to scratch its ear with a back leg (an amazing feat if you remember the two monks inside), you can almost see the pesky flies swirling around its head.

  • Debates - A fascinating part of each programme is the monks' debate. This is a traditional aspect of the monks' education, in which a seated monk must answer questions posed by an adversary pacing in front of him1. Each point in the challenger's argument is emphasized by clapping in a dramatic sweeping motion. This is serious stuff... but it's also a lot of fun; and monks are known to get carried away with a good bout. They are always spontaneous; and even though the debate is in Tibetan, no translation or explanation is necessary; it's always easy to see who's winning.

  • Multiphonic chants - Also known as 'overtone singing', multiphonic chanting is unique to the Tibetan monastic tradition. Each monk is able to produce three notes at the same time, resulting in a strange and hauntingly beautiful effect. A trained singer would understand the level of skill required to accomplish this; and those of us who can only manage to croak a line or two in the shower are absolutely in awe of it!

The performances sometimes lack the degree of polish which regular patrons of concerts and theatrical productions may have come to expect. But it should be remembered that the music and dance is being presented by monks who have honed their skills in the normal religious ritual and routine of their monasteries... they are not performers, acting as monks; they are the genuine article. As such, they sometimes look a little uncomfortable on stage. This adds to the charm of the performances - the reactions of the monks is as genuine as the giggles in the primary school play. Despite the artificiality of the setting, the audience finds itself somehow transported to a Buddhaverse as intimate, tangible, and downright good as a cheese sandwich shared on a construction site.

Part of the programme is light-hearted entertainment, but other parts involve the performance of prayers. This is for our entertainment, but it is also for our benefit. The monks take our welfare very seriously, and genuinely wish to help us when they perform prayers on stage. They believe that the performance of the rituals transforms the ordinary setting of a theatre into a sacred environment... and you'd have to be a very cynical person indeed not to feel blessed.


The friendship, kindness, and generosity of the Indian people have given the Tibetan refugees an opportunity to rebuild that which was stolen from them, and enabled the monks of Drepung to preserve their traditions for the benefit of the whole world. But the humid conditions of South India are difficult for people adapted to living in the pure, thin air of Tibet. Respiratory infections, including tuberculosis, and gastro-intestinal problems are quite common in the refugee communities. In addition, the steady flow of new refugees wishing to become monks, many of whom are orphans, places a great strain on very limited resources.

The material needs of the monks are very modest; all they really need is food, shelter, basic medicine, and a safe environment. The work they do is really for the benefit of all beings. Whether you are a Buddhist or not, it can't be a bad thing to have someone praying for your welfare.

Drepung Loseling provides the opportunity to sponsor a monk through the The Drepung Loseling Educational Fund. Although contributions are made in the name of a specific monk, the benefits are shared by all, so that there are no inequities between those monks with sponsors and those without. In addition to the satisfaction of having helped where help is needed, sponsorship is a good way to establish a personal relationship with a monk via correspondence.

Drepung Gomang offers us the opportunity to help the monks by donating money towards their specific needs or by making a general contribution. They also give us the chance to sponsor a monk directly.

1This style of ritual debate has recently been included in the training of nuns.

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