The Mother of All Monasteries: Gonlung Jampa Ling and the Rise of Mega Monasteries in Northeastern Tibet

Sullivan, Brenton, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

“Mass monasticism,” defined as “an emphasis on recruiting and sustaining very large numbers of celibate monks for their entire lives,” has been called one of “Tibet’s unique contribution[s] to humanity and the world” (Goldstein 1998 and 2009). The number of monks residing in some of the largest institutions swelled into the thousands, making them the largest monasteries in the world. Nonetheless, to date there has been no study that accounts for the origin and development of these monasteries. The current study begins to address this lacuna in our knowledge by looking at the largest monastery in seventeenth-century Northeastern Tibet (or Amdo), Gönlung Jampa Ling (dgon lung byams pa gling). Although Gönlung Monastery was not as early as some of the more famous institutions found in Central Tibet, it did house the first Geluk sect seminary in Northeastern Tibet, an essential feature of most mass or “mega monasteries.” The monastery also boasted a rich and regimented liturgical calendar, a strict and consistent system of governance and discipline, an extensive network of local patrons and subsidiary and allied monasteries, and, finally, political and economic connections with both the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa and the newly established Qing Dynasty in Beijing. Gönlung’s size and influence waned beginning in the mid-eighteenth century after it was implicated in a major Mongol rebellion and the monastery was subsumed within the Qing empire’s system of regulating the Buddhist clergy. Nonetheless, it paved the way for the political and religious rise of the Geluk sect in Inner Asia and for the establishment of other mega monasteries. This work’s argument is twofold. First, the history of the rise of these sizeable and complex institutions is more complicated than what others have previously suggested. That is, their origin can be placed before the reign of the renowned and influential “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama, and their development took place apart from his direct influence. Second, and more importantly, these monasteries were characterized by much more than the mere agglomeration of a massive number of monks: the strategic institutionalization of all monastic enterprises--scholastic, ritual, administrative--and the development of local and regional monastic networks defined mega monasteries.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
monasticism, Tibetan Buddhism, Qing Dynasty, Sino-Tibetan relations, Amdo, Gansu, Qinghai, religion, history, Tibet, Buddhism
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