Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pangsa Monastery Closure Report

The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy has just today made a news release, not yet verified by other sources, about the closing of a monastery in Tibet by the authorities. The name of the monastery is Pangsa.

I have no way of knowing if their information about the monastery closure is accurate, although I imagine it is, just because it fits in with the general patterns of the current PRC psyche war against His Holiness the Dalai Lama (whom they often call, with irritating breeziness, and of course disrespect, simply "Dalai," as if that were enough).

I am not a journalist, but as a historian I have some serious problems with what they say about Pangsa Monastery and its relics. First let me quote a paragraph from the news report verbatim. Then I will state my problems with the distortion of 'history' that it presents.
"Pangsa Monastery belongs to the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery's chief relic is a mummified reliquary body of the highly realized Yogi Jampal Gyatso. Je Tsongapa Chenpo (1357-1419), the exalted master and the founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism brought the holy reliquary statue of Yogi Jampal Gyatso from his birthplace, Tsonga in Amdo Province along with him when he came to Lhasa, during the 14th century. Since then the reliquary statue of Yogi was housed in the Pangsa Monastery as a chief relic."

The word that is here translated as 'Yogi' is Togden (Rtogs-ldan), which in modern times is most likely to refer to Drugpa Kagyü lay practitioners, who wear their long hair up in a topknot rather in the style of Hindu sadhus. I doubt if this modern usage of the term was current in the 15th century, however, and would prefer to translate Togden simply as '[Spiritually] Realized One.' Togden Jampal Gyatso's dates are 1356 through 1428. Of course, these dates immediately present us with a problem. If Tsongkhapa (which is who they mean by "Je Tsongapa Chenpo") died in 1419, and Jampal Gyatso died in 1428, then how could Tsongkhapa have brought his relics with him when he came to Central Tibet from his Amdo homeland of Tsongkha, an event which occurred in 1373-1374? This is clearly impossible.

In fact, we may know from the biography of Jampal Gyatso that he, like Tsongkhapa, was a native of Tsongkha, and like Tsongkhapa he traveled to Central Tibet in or around the year 1373. Rather like the younger Tsongkhapa, he also traveled to a large number of different monasteries of different traditions rather than studying in only one. He eventually became one of Tsongkhapa's main disciples, and accompanied him on meditation retreats in caves or in improvised grass huts. During these retreats, Jampal Gyatso was given the nickname 'Juniper Berry' (Shug-'bru-ba) because he lived for 3 years on a diet of pills made primarily of
juniper berries (not generally considered edible, although some European ethnic cuisines use them for spice).

The most important event from traditional perspective, Tsongkhapa gave especially secret 'Cutting' practices to the very limited group of retreatants, and to Jampal Gyatso alone he gave the Emanation Volume (Sprul-pa'i Glegs-bam), a miraculous book. It's very content and nature are an enormous mystery. Some say that it disappeared into the divine realms at some point and no longer exists. Some say it never really existed as a physical book, but was a miraculous apparition made of light. I recently heard rumors that a copy of it had been found in Bhutan, so Who knows? The gift of this book marked the beginning of the main esoteric current of the Gelugpa School known either as the Genden Nyengyü or the Ensa Nyengyü, which continues still today, although it may be impossible to find out too much about it. The very name Nyengyü means it is 'whispered from mouth to ear.' It is said that it is not normally taught to more than one person at a time. So I wish you luck locating that person.

Later on the abbot of Pangsa Monastery (Spang-sa) invited him, and he stayed in the Rosehip Valley (Se-ba Rong) close to Pangsa. Pangsa had been founded originally in the decades surrounding the year 1200 by a student of the Kadampa teacher Se Chilbupa (Se Spyil-bu-pa). He meditated for a very long time, accomplishing visions of Manjushri. News of his sanctity spread throughout Tibet, and many people found their way to his hermitage to seek his guidance. Before he passed away in his 73rd year, he passed on the teachings of the Emanation Volume to his own disciple Baso Chökyi Gyaltsen. After his death, the residents of Pangsa placed his remains inside a golden reliquary.

I hope the people at TCHRD will not take this criticism badly. I do not intend to pick on them in particular, or even on journalism in general.
Bad history can be found everywhere. Most of us know from experience that the most usual place to find it is in the history books.

Read more:

The absolutely best thing to read, in English, about the life of Jampal Gyatso is this: Janice D. Willis, Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Transmission, Wisdom (Boston 1995), pp. 32-40.

Pangsa Monastery has been rebuilt following its destruction in the Cultural Revolution, and probably never had a very large number of monks. It is located northeast of Lhasa, on the way to Drigung Monastery.

For more on Pangsa Monastery, check the Knowledge Base at TBRC (Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center) by searching for "Spang sa" or look directly here. Here we can learn that in 1959 there were 30 monks staying there.
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