Sunday, December 30, 2018

Quingentenary of the Ganden Podrang Nearly Passes Unobserved

Ganden Phodang, the building, as it exists today at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa

It’s one of those mysteries in the history of history making why some major events get memorialized over the course of time with centennial observances, while others are overlooked.* A case in point: Even though the year 2018 is probably already over as you read this, it would be a pity if 2019 arrived before anyone thought to recall a significant development in Tibetan history that occurred in 1518, just 500 years ago. You heard me right, but allow me to explain.

(*To be sure, the idea of a centennial never occurred in earlier centuries in Tibet, where time was marked not by 100-year, but by 60-year cycles. But we’re not back there right now, we’re in the 21st century world, where things are seen a little different by us all.)

Well, with the deadline rapidly approaching, I’ll squeeze in a few words about why the restoration to the Gelugpa monasteries of a major annual festival and the presentation of a ‘palace’ to the Second Dalai Lama ought to be recalled half a millennium later. In a true sense, the past hasn’t even really passed, since the results of those events carry on in what is done and thought today, even given the twists and turns that occurred in the interval. I’m told dull-minded people do exist, and they along with certain politicians are the ones who when it suits them assert that the past counts for nothing for us in the present. I’d say the supposed irrelevance of history is just an artefact of our lack of attention to it, or an excuse for a more general apathy or antipathy.

The Zhang dictionary describes the events very succinctly:
"[In 1519] the Victor Gendun Gyatso was head of the assembly of the Mönlam.  This was the year the Great Mönlam was reinstituted in accordance with the earlier traditions of Sera, Drepung and Ganden."   
༼ rgyal ba dge 'dun rgya mtshos smon lam gyi tshogs dbu mdzad / 'di lo nas se 'bras dga' gsum slar yang sngar rgyun ltar smon lam chen mo tshugs 

"The Nedong ruler Tashi Dragpa offered the Blue Stone House (Rdo-khang Sngon-mo) of Drepung Monastery to the Victor Gendun Gyatso, and its name was changed to Ganden Podrang."   
༼ sne gdong mi dbang bkra shis grags pas 'bras spungs rdo khang sngon mo rgyal ba dge 'dun rgya mtshor phul ming dga' ldan pho brang du bsgyur

From 1498 up to and including the year 1517, Gelugpa monks were not allowed to participate in the annual observances that follow the Tibetan New Year, even though this “Great Prayer Festival”* had been instituted by none other than Tsongkhapa himself in 1409 CE, the same year he founded Ganden Monastery. At first the school was called Gandenpa, after the name of the monastery. This -pa construction in Tibetan would have us understand that Gandenpa just means [an] inhabitant[s] of Ganden. I believe the Ganden in Ganden Phodrang, too, is meant as a reference to Ganden Monastery, even if not entirely sure of it.**  
(*Mönlam isn’t well served by the translation prayer since that might imply a petitionary type of prayer. It’s more like a prayer of hope, an aspiration for a distant but achievable goal of the most positive kind, particularly Complete Enlightenment.) (**Ganden is also the Tibetan translation of Sanskrit Tuita, a paradise for the Future Buddha. I’d like to go into this another time, but the prominent New England professors Leonard W.J. van der Kuijp and Georges Dreyfus have drawn some interesting conclusions about the emergence of the name and early institution of the Gelugpa School that go against the grain of the usual conceptions. It may be needful to say that institutions scarcely ever sprout up fully grown at the fiat of a single Great Person with a singularity of purpose, but that’s how institutions often come to portray themselves later on, perhaps a result of efforts to promote unity within their ranks.)

The Victor Gendun Gyatso (1476-1542) would today be called  the Second Dalai Lama even though the title “Dalai Lama” was first awarded in the year 1578 CE, thirty-six years after His death.

So, to keep things short since I’m writing against the clock: I always tell people I’m stuck in the 12th century. There is truth in this, I freely admit. It could explain why I’ve found myself clueless to fathom the shock on people’s faces when you tell them that the Gelugpa school and more particularly the Dalai Lamas haven’t always ruled Tibet from the beginning of time.* 
(*Someone should also inform them of a much broader truth, which is that nothing in the present world was or is inevitable, that there have been forces at work in the past that helped bring about, and other forces that very well could have prevented, today’s institutions. We live, as we always have lived, in a permanent state of precariousness.)

Those shocked faces reveal an assumption, that Tibet remained always the way it was at the verge of the 1950’s. For them it was a culture wedded to immutability from time immemorial, so stuck in place as to be practically lifeless. But pay attention while I say that rule by the Ganden Podrang, the same name that was given to a building five centuries ago and the name that would eventually be found on Tibet-minted coins and currency notes, only effectively began in 1642, when the Fifth Dalai Lama rose to power with the indispensable backing of Mongolian patrons. 

I would say that I hate to disillusion people, but I neither love nor hate it. Buddhism is always there poised and ready to raise in us the consciousness that whatever gets put together through combinations of conditions is bound to come apart eventually. For readers of Tibetan, I can just remind you, འདུས་བྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་མི་རྟག་པའོ།། Eternity never happens. Contingencies happen.

Who could be better to quote than His Holiness the present Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has often in recent years suggested, to the shock and dismay of many of his closest followers and admirers, that He may be the last Dalai Lama, that it depends on how the institution continues to serve the Tibetan people. But then we have to underline how He emphasized on the same occasion that Tibetan Buddhism will in any case continue. I wanted to quote His words directly, but every single news story from the early-to-mid 2010’s seems to paraphrase and mis-hear as much as it quotes, so I’m waiting on a more authoritative source, if you could be so kind as to suggest one.

I know a lot of people haven’t been keeping up with the news, thinking the Dalai Lama still rules just as before. In His 2015 CNN interview by Amanpour, He said, as transcribed by myself:
“In 2011 I totally retired from political responsibility, not only myself retired but also [the] four-century-old tradition [of the] Dalai Lama institution, particularly being head of both spiritual and temporal. That formally, voluntarily, happily ended.”

Clearly, important changes have already taken place. As far as the future roles of the Dalai Lamas are concerned, just as in the past, there are forces at work pushing this way and that. How things will play out in the end is anybody’s guess. No historian can know the outcome in advance, and it’s first and foremost the fools and political prophets who claim to have that kind of knowledge.

Meanwhile, I think we should all join the Tibetan community around the world on the last day of 2018 by celebrating the long life of His Holiness. Every single Tibetan I’ve met inside or outside Tibet thinks the world of Him. And Gallup released a poll of Americans showing His Holiness still ranking highly—one of the top ten—among the most admired men. There are precious few humans with the ability to engage and inspire humanity in humans as He does. So if it is up to me we will end the old year and open the new with hopes for the best of all possible futures for Him and for all us sentient beings in the years ahead. That’s my Mönlam.

§   §   §

Read when and if you like:

There is a fairly good Wikipedia article on the Ganden Podrang that I recommend for those who feel need of an introduction to the subject.

Matthew T. Kapstein, The Tibetans, Blackwell Publishing (Oxford 2006), pp. 130-131.

Vincent Lemire, Jerusalem 1900: The Holy City in the Age of Possibilities, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 2018), particularly the section entitled “The Causes of Forgetting,” on pp. 7-10. Putting the many differences aside, it may be worthwhile to ponder why the Ottoman Empire, which lasted through roughly the same centuries as the Ganden Podrang, is also drably painted as dreadfully stagnant and unproductive. I see it as a failure of the historical imagination, which cannot find the life in these periods because of cultural and ideological presuppositions and biases.* Our lack of interest does not translate into the absence of events.

(*And, although I don’t intend to go into it right now, in both the Ottoman and Ganden Podrang cases, [1] the difficulty of access to sources due to limitations placed on their access or [2] our difficulties in reading and interpreting them.)

Pankaj Mishra, “The Last Dalai Lama?” The New York Times (December 1, 2015). You might not be able to procure it without a digital subscription to the newspaper, but go ahead and try. I suggest taking time to read the whole long essay, since it does have an important message about the variety of points of view available among exiles in India.

Glenn H. Mullin, The Second Dalai Lama: His Life and Teachings, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2005). Previously published under the interesting title Mystical Verses of a Mad Dalai Lama. There is a section on the reestablishment of the Great Prayer Festival on pp. 94-98.  Besides this work by G.M. I know of only a couple of studies and translations connected to the Second Dalai Lama, which is a pity. He wrote about a lot of fascinating subjects in fields of poetics, alchemy, philosophy, Buddhism and the Vajra Vehicle.

Hugh RichardsonCeremonies of the Lhasa Year, Serindia (London 1993), pp. 11-59. This is still by far the best account of the events in Lhasa during the first month of the Tibetan-style year, which include among other things the observance of the Great Prayer. It is illustrated with black-and-white photographs.

Tsepon Wangchuk Deden ShakabpaOne Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet, translated by Derek F. Maher, Brill (Leiden 2010), vol. 1, pp. 269, 295. An excerpt follows: 
“In 1518, the Nedong King Tashi Drakpa offered his home at Drepung Monastery to the second Dalai Lama Gendün Gyatso. Renamed Ganden Podrang, it served as a sort of monastic estate of the Dalai Lamas. When the Fifth Dalai Lama came to political power in 1642, he named his government after this institution.”

Turrell V. Wylie, “Monastic Patronage in Fifteenth-Century Tibet,” contained in: Gray Tuttle and Kurtis R. Schaeffer, The Tibetan History Reader, Columbia University Press (New York 2013), pp. 266-277, especially p. 271.

Zhang Yisun (1893-1983), et al., Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo, Mi rigs Dpe skrun khang (Beijing 1985),  in the chronological table in the back of its third and final volume. This has been reprinted several times, in 3, 2 or just one volume. By now every serious student of Tibetan knows and uses it in one form or another. If you like or need an introduction to this and other important lexical resources, look at this earlier blog.

§ § §

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  

—Wm. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun.

And I want to add, quoting from who knows who:  

A little more knowledge is always a great thing.

A Tibetan banknote. The legend in the two yellow fields can be translated, “100-Srang currency note of the heavens-appointed Ganden Podrang, victorious over all directions, in both religious and political affairs.” From its serial number we may know that it was printed in around 1958. I apologize that the photograph is not reproduced here in the correct scale or dimensions. The printed field ought to measure 18.25 by 11.85 centimeters.

NEW YEAR postscript:

Have a look at the biography of the Second Dalai Lama by Miranda Adams, posted at The Treasury of Lives website ten years ago. The site has grown impressively in depth and coverage in recent years, and it relies on donations. That was a subtle hint.

Oh, and it came to my attention, since I was paying attention, that Martin A. Mills has written an essay entitled “The Last Gift of the God-King: Narrating the Dalai Lama’s Resignation,” for a new book entitled Tibetan Subjectivities on the Global Stage, edited by Shelly Bhoil and Enrique Galvan-Alvarez, and published by Lexington Books (Lanham 2018?). It has several quotes from His Holiness I wish I had used, especially in this one, dated March 19, 2011, that you can find at the link he supplied. I think also well done and relevant is an article by Emmi Okada, “Constructing the Secular: The Changing Relationship between Religion and Politics in the Tibetan Exile Community,” Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, vol. 36, no. 1 (May 2016), pp. 80-95, perhaps available online (try here). There are other interesting things to read, just do a Schmoogle search for “Dalai Lama retirement.”

For the Tibeto-logically obsessed:  In case you tried getting to Tibetan Vocabulary when it wasn't entirely there, you can try again, this time with success. Click here to find the Tibetan Vocabulary.  The URL remains unchanged, but click on the links called "Continuation" and "Bibliographical Key" in order to see all three parts of it.


  1. Dear Dan,
    Thank you, thank you so much - for this - and all your warming and refreshing writings during the year 2018! You may rest assured that many hearts of sentient Tibeto-logicians are kept from withering simply by reading them! Joining your Mönlam, with all kinds of Tashi Deleks,
    Yours, Tantan

  2. Nice to hear you're still around, TanTan,
    I wondered if you caught the Quin-Genten-ary pun (more like a sound echo, I guess), or if I should have even bothered attempting a bit of poetic effect. I did want to announce that I succeeded in putting up Tibetan Vocabulary, but I had to do it in two parts. The first half is here:
    But if you scroll down to the bottom you ought to (but right now cannot) find the link to the second half. There may be an overlap between the two (at the moment the letter "TSHA" is in both halves, and I'm trying to fix these little problems. Meanwhile, you can find the 2nd half here:
    The first day of 2019 is great, I don't even know why I was so concerned about it. The sun is shining after all.
    Yours, D.

  3. Just an update on what I said about Tibetan Vocabulary in that New Year comment — I'm happy to say that it is now all there and in a shape I'm satisfied with. You can just start here:
    and go from there. It should be entirely possible to use it offline, all you have to do is cut and paste it into a format of your choice. That way, also, it could be all in a single searchable document.


Please write what you think. But please think about what you write. What's not accepted here? No ads, no links to ads, no back-links to commercial pages, no libel against 3rd parties. These comments won't go up, so no need to even try. What's accepted? Everything else, even 1st- & 2nd-person libel, if you think they have it coming.

Follow me on