The following article is from the Summer, 1990 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Of all the monasteries of Tibet, Namgyal Monastery is unique. As the personal monastery of the Dalai Lamas, it is nonsectarian and responsible for maintaining ritual practices and teachings of the four main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Because it was established to assist the Dalai Lama in his temporal as well as spiritual activities, Namgyal has served the Tibetan government and people by performing public ceremonies and offering prayers for the welfare of Tibet.


Although the exact details of the beginning of Namgyal are unclear, it was officially founded in A.D. 1564-5 as Pende Lekshe Ling by the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso (1543-88) . The original number of monks is unknown, but most of them are thought to have come from Drepung Tantric College. Their responsibilities included studying the five major topics and performing such rituals as that of the four-faced Mahakala (which the Third Dalai Lama took from the Sakya tradition), and the Dalai Lama's Long-Life Ceremony, which was requested by the Mongolian Emperor, Altan Khan, in 1571.

The monastery continued to serve the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617). He-made no changes in its pattern of rituals, but the great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-82), made many improvements. He gave initiations from the Nyingma and Gelugpa traditions, including the Nyingma transmissions of Red Manjushri, and of Vajra Bhairava, for the achievement of the four activities of pacification, increase, control and force. He also gave the initiations of the Practice of the Eight Pronouncements, the Ritual Dagger of the Northern Treasure tradition, and the Thirteen Deity Vajra Bhairava as well as the transmissions of various protectors. He revived the chanting tradition of the Third Dalai Lama (which had declined) and instituted new traditions of sacred dance and chanting.

In 1717, during the minority of the Seventh Dalai Lama Kelsang Gyatso (1708-57), all Nyingmapa institutions in Tibet were attacked by the Dzungar Mongols. Although Namgyal was nonsectarian, it did maintain many Nyingma traditions and was therefore subject to the Mongol persecution.

Later, the monastery was reestablished in Amdo by the Seventh Dalai Lama (who was in exile from Lhasa at the same time) as a purely Gelugpa institution with a particular emphasis on the practice of Kalachakra. He named it Namgyal Monastery then and in 1735, when conditions were right, he and the monks returned to Lhasa to take up residence in the Potala. As there were 175 monk and lay officials in the Tibetan government at the time, the number of monks at Namgyal was set at a corresponding 175. Of these, 36 had official responsibilities for running the monastery and caretaking the various chambers and chapels located at the Potala, the Norbulingka and other sites in and around Lhasa.

Under his guidance, the monastery adopted the ritual traditions of Gyume Tantric College, but with some subtle adjustments. The Seventh Dalai Lama gave explanations of the practices and rituals of the major tantric deities, and expanded the self-initiation practices of Chakrasamvara, Guhyasamaja and Vajra Bhairava (which had been performed at Namgyal since the time of the Third Dalai Lama) to full ritual cycles. He composed a new set of monastic rules called the Golden Yoke and gave the complete set of Kalachakra initiations following the tradition of Budon Rinpoche, Tsongkhapa, and Khedrup-je. This transmission included the self-generation rite (sadhana) that he had composed, which is still employed today. To prevent a degeneration of the Kalachakra tradition, he appointed a group of 65 monks to maintain the monthly practices and an annual seven-day ritual based on the creation of a sand mandala. Assisted by four masters from Zha-lu, he taught the Earth and Offering dances which are performed during the annual Kalachakra ritual.

From Tibet to India

The Namgyal monks have assisted His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama with the many spiritual and temporal responsibilities he assumed from a very early age. Besides giving a wide range of teachings and initiations, His Holiness travelled to China (1954) and India (1956), each time accompanied by a substantial group of monks from Namgyal Monastery. In 1958, when he took his Geshe examinations at the Great Seats of Learning, he was joined by monks from Namgyal and Drepung.

With the Chinese invasion of Lhasa and the shelling of the Potala on March 20, 1959, 52 of the 175 Namgyal monks managed to escape to India. Despite the trauma of their arduous journey over the Himalayas and the shock of adjusting to a radically new climate and culture, the monks eventually regrouped in Dalhousie, where they worked oil road construction crews with other Tibetan refugees.

In 1961, they moved to Dharamsala, where they were temporarily housed in Nowrojee Cottage, a rambling old house left over from the British raj. Many of them did not have robes, but they enthusiastically began to re-establish their traditional routines. 1962 saw the first opportunity to perform the rituals of Guhyasamaja, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajra Bhairava. The following year they added the Kalachakra. When they performed the ritual of Vajra Kilaya (Dorje Phurba), it was led by His Holiness and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

In 1963, His Holiness appointed Khensur Samten Chophel Abbot and Kyabje Rato Rinpoche Ritual Master. Khensur Samten Chophel was the first Abbot of Namgyal Monastery. Later, Lati Rinpoche of Ganden Shartse and Geshe Rabten of Sera-je were invited to teach debate at the monastery. In 1968 the Tibetan government-in-exile began to build the main temple of Thekchen Choling, and at Namgyal Monastery's own expense quarters were also built for their monks. It was not until August, 1974, that the monks were able to leave Nowrojee's and move into the new monastery.

In 1969, following an announcement in the Tibetan schools, the first 28 boys were admitted to Namgyal. As in Tibet, they proceeded through a series of four examinations, which involved the recitation of various texts and liturgies, first in the presence of the boys' teachers, then the Kalachakra Master, and finally in His Holiness's chapel. At the end, His Holiness presented them with copies of Tsongkhapa's Essence of Eloquent Explanation. This system lasted for ten years until 1979 when an examination committee began to hear the recitations.The new entrants were also examined for the quality of their voices. If they were good, they were trained in chanting; the others were trained in the preparation of offerings. Of those selected to play musical instruments, the tallest would learn to play the long horn (dung chen) and the shorter ones would learn to play the reed instruments called gyaling.

In 1976 nine new students were taught sacred dance and they performed the Black Hat dance for the first time in India. Early in 1979, on His Holiness' order the monastery received the initiation of Vajra Kilaya and transmission of its ritual texts from Ven. Trulshi Rinpoche. In keeping with its nonsectarian nature, the monastery has received initiations over the years from such great Lamas as Kalu Rinpoche (Kargyu), Jogye Trichen Rinpoche (Sakya), Taglung Tsetrul Rinpoche (Nyingma) and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (Kargyu). They have also received teachings and transmissions from the Nyingma Lama Khamtrul Rinpoche.

Namgyal Today

As they did in Tibet, the Namgyal monks maintain a very busy schedule throughout the year. There are two levels of study in the monastery: primary education for the youngest entrants and the main course of study which includes Buddhist education and ritual training. The primary qualification to embark on the latter are an ability to read and write, intelligence, good behavior and an ability to memorize. The last is tested over a period of one month during which at least ten pages must be memorized. Only when a monk has memorized the entire liturgical collection of the monastery is he said to become a member of the community.

Simultaneous with this process of memorization, which can take from three to seven years to complete, students begin to study Buddhist philosophy. This was an innovation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who felt that students should understand the context and philosophical background of the rituals they perform. If they do, the rituals will be both personally and generally more efficacious. The curriculum, which lasts thirteen years, was drawn up by the second Abbot, Ven. Lobsang Nyima. By the end, the students will have received instruction in basic literary skills in Tibetan and English as well as a broad and intensive program in both sutra and tantra.

In addition to his general course of studies, each monk is required to complete a two to three month mediational retreat for each of the principal deities and protectors, in order to be properly qualified to perform their rituals. Prior to entering such a retreat, the monks receive individual instruction from the Abbot, Geshes and elder monks. The cycle of retreats might take up to five or six years to complete. After this a monks is free to pursue whatever personal retreat practice he chooses.

In their travels to the West with the His Holiness, the monks have had many opportunities to serve as cultural ambassadors, contributing to a growing appreciation of the sacred art and dance of Tibet, and of the monastic educational system itself. A few of the Namgyal monks have spent extended periods of time in the West, helping to promote understanding and friendship through their activities as teachers and artists. The Ven. Lobsang Samten, for example, came to the U.S. in the Spring of 1988 under the auspices of the Samaya Foundation to create a Guhyasamaja sand mandala painting. In the Summer of that year, he and Ven. Lobsang Chogyen, another Namgyal monk, created a Kalachakra mandala at the American Museum of Natural History. Thousands of people visited them during the weeks of these demonstrations, drawn by the quiet intensity of their work, and the seemingly magical appearance of the delicate mandalas. Since then, Lobsang Samten has gone on to give other sand mandala demonstrations, lectures and slide presentations. Two study groups have been established under his guidanceone in New York and one in Philadelphiaand he has been invited to serve as the first Scholar-in-Residence at the New York Open Center where he will give classes on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and ritual dance this Fall.

Lobsang Chogyen went to Ithaca to work on a very innovative project at the Department of Computer Graphics at Cornell University. Over a period of a year and a half, he used the advanced computer software being developed at Cornell to create a striking three-dimensional computer model of the Vajra Bhairava mandala. The results are most successful and his pioneering work holds much promise for the future transmission of tantric visualization practice.

Another Namgyal monk who has done much to increase understanding in the West is Ven. Thubten Wangchen. He has lived and taught in Spain, appearing on Spanish television to talk about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. In 1987, he took a group of Spanish people on a tour of Tibet, where they saw first hand the harsh, repressive measures of the Chinese. While they were there, Wangchen was arrested and narrowly escaped imprisonment. He is currently the Coordinator of the Lama Project for the Meridian Trust (London). The Trust has been working for many years to document on video the teachings of the remaining older Lamas who live in India and the West.

In the Summer of 1989, nineteen monks assisted His Holiness with a Kalachakra initiation in Los Angeles, sponsored by Thubten Dhargyey Ling. While they were performing the preliminary rituals, including the creation of a sand mandala and the performance of two ritual dances, another group of four Namgyal monks created a duplicate mandala at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. This demonstration was organized by the Samaya Foundation to enable members of the public to witness a process that is normally carried out privately in the course of the preparatory ritual. After the demonstration was completed, Ven. Tenzin Yignyen went to New York to provide the

Samaya Foundation with authoritative translations and background material for the book, Journey through the Wheel of Time, to be published by Doubleday, Inc. (Lobsang Samten also participated in the writing of this book by conducting research, and providing guidance and translation in 1988.)

The Namgyal Young Monks Fund was established in 1989; many people around the U.S. who attended the sacred dance program became sponsors of monks. Their support has made a great difference in the quality of the food and medical care the sponsored monks receive, but with the increased enrollment, the housing, dining facilities and classrooms are proving to be far too inadequate. With two and three monks sharing rooms originally built for one, there are urgent health problems, as well as a need for privacy, memorization and solitary meditation. The dining hall is too small and many of the monks must eat their meals outside, even during the rainy season.

Under these circumstances, Namgyal has decided to construct new facilities, expanding the dining hall, kitchen and storage rooms and adding classrooms, bathrooms and 54 private rooms. Due to its proximity to His Holiness' residence and the main temple, Namgyal frequently provides temporary housing to Tibetans and Westerners who come to Dharamsala for teachings and special events. The new facilities will help somewhat to alleviate this pressure.

Because the monastery has dedicated itself to His Holiness, the Tibetan government and people, it has not been able to develop outside sources of support, such as farming, or participation in carpet-weaving cooperatives. Thus, Namgyal and its young monks depend almost entirely on the contributions of the lay community in order to maintain the excellent course they have set in exile, preserving the unique tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and sharing it with the West, and most of all, serving His Holiness the Dalai Lama in transmitting the Buddha's teachings and promoting world peace.

For further information about the Namgyal Monastery Young Monks Fund and Building Project, write c/o Brentano, 71 East 3rd St. #10, New York, NY 10003 or call (212) 677-3377.