Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Weekly Calendar of Activities > Week 9

Samyé (bsam yas) Monastery

by Ben Deitle and Luke Wagner (last modified 5/7/07--this is a work in progress…any suggestions are welcome!)

General Overview

Samyé (bsam yas) was the first Buddhist monastery established in Tibet. The monastery is located in the Chimpu (Mchims phu) valley (Kapstein, 26) south of Lhasa (lha sa) in the cultural regions of Lhokha (Lho kha) and Yarlung (Yar lung) and the present administrative region of Dranang (gra nang) (THDL: HSCT: Samyé, has po ri). Kapstein translates the full name of this monastery, Bsam yas mi ’gyur lhun grub gtsug lag khang, as the Temple of Unchanging Spontaneous Presence (Dudjom, 515).

It was constructed in the late 8th century under the patronage of King Trisong Détsen (khri srong lde btsan). According to the Blue Annals, construction of the complex took place between 787 and 791 A.D., though other sources indicate that it was founded a decade or more before that (Kapstein, 25). The complex is a representation of the Buddhist universe with the main temple and its surrounding branch temples representing Mt. Meru and the continents that surround it. It was based on the Indian monastery of Otantapurī and functions as a three dimensional mandala. The mandala is evidently that of the Buddha Vairocana, who may have been a preeminent figure to the imperial cult.

An especially interesting feature is the central temple. It was constructed with three main stories, each of which was done in a different traditional architectural style—Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan. This can be seen as symbolic of the international breadth of imperial power and prestige as the empire reached as far as the Chinese capital in the years prior to the construction of Samyé. Furthermore, later accounts of the establishment of the monastery are illustrative of the issues of historical legitimacy and issues of the synthesis of various forms of Buddhism that were taking place. This point is underscored by the forms practiced by the two primary figures associated with the construction of the temple: the Indian teacher Śāntarakṣita and Padmasambhava. As Snellgrove and Richardson point out, “(t)hese two teachers represent two rather different forms of Buddhist practice, the one conventionally academic and monastic, and the other mystical and ritual” (78). While there is skepticism regarding the account provided in the Blue Annals (similar versions of which are common in overviews of Samyé’s history), it reports that, once the powerful minister Mazhang (ma zhang)—who was responsible for the persecution of Buddhism in the early years of King Trisong Détsen’s reign—was sealed (alive) in a tomb, the king invited Śāntarakṣita to Tibet to teach. However, the “great gods and demons became wrathful” and were too disruptive for him to carry out his teachings. So, Śāntarakṣita went to Nepal to invite Padmasambhava to Tibet so that the latter could use his tantric powers to subdue the spirits in Tibet and convert them to Buddhism. Once this was accomplished, construction of the monastery began. Its establishment and the construction marked the beginning of the period in which monasticism took hold in Tibet and the doctrine continued to spread in the remaining years of the King’s life (Roerich 41-44).

Aside from being the first monastery in Tibet, Samyé is of further historical importance because it was the location of the debate between Kamalaśīla (a disciple of Śāntarakṣita) and the Chinese master Mohoyen (Tib. ha shang ma hA yA na). Whether there was actually a singular event presided over by the emperor and whether that event took place at Samyé is not entirely clear. Some have argued that Indian and Chinese Buddhists rivaled each other for influence in Tibet over an extended period and no single debate ever took place (van der Kuijp). Regardless, it is frequently referred to as the point at which there was a clear rejection of Chinese practices and when legitimacy became firmly fixed in Indian sources. Moreover, the event—or, at least, the issues that it represents—has been interpreted as an articulation of the organizational structure of Tibetan society advocated by the state and its adoption of the political foundations derived from Indian Buddhist cosmology. This event, as Jackson points out, continued to have resonance centuries later as indicated by Sakya Pandita’s rejection of Great Seal practices, in part on the grounds that they were of Chinese origin and, therefore, had already been proven to be false (Jackson, 80).

It is clear that the physical place of the monastery was especially important throughout the Renaissance period, as indicated by contestation over it and the legitimacy it provided to various figures and ideas. Early in the period, the renovation of Samyé and the revitalization of Buddhism were evidently closely intertwined. Davidson explains that Jangchub-Ö, the “monk-king” successor of Lha lama, was concerned with the legitimacy of monastic life, especially in response to the growing movement in Central Tibet during his reign. He further argues that this may have been driven by the fear that such groups were appropriating all of the royal dynastic sites. To address his concerns, he sent Nagtso Tsültrim Gyelwa to India to invite Atiśa, who arrived at Samyé in 1047 (Davidson, 108-109). In this way Samyé became a symbol not just of the imperial past (though this is clearly no less important) but equally as a symbol of the “later spread.” So great was its symbolic power that portions of it were damaged in a physical contests over control of it at the beginning of the 12th century between monks of Lumé’s faction and the Ba-Rag group (Davidson, 327; also Roerich, 387). In addition, it is notable that the monastery was controlled and patronized by such varying figures as Lama Zhang, Sakya Pandita and the Dharmasvāmin of Drikung (Jackson, 73; Roerich, 570).

Samyé in the Blue Annals

Samyé appears throughout the Blue Annals and the way in which it is presented may shed light on not only its history, but also on the many of the issues and tensions that occurred during the Rennaissance period in central Tibet.

Samyé first appears in Chapter One, which discusses the early spread of Buddhism in Tibet. It is first mentioned when King Trisong Détsen agrees to invite Śāntarakṣita to Samyé in order to receive teachings, and it is obviously included to verify that the king was the first to institutionalize Buddhism in Tibet. What is especially interesting about the passage relating the event of the initial invitation of Śāntarakṣita is that the King invited Śāntarakṣita, who was residing in Lhasa at the time, only after the King’s ministers examined “the doctrine and character of the teacher,” both of which were evidently proven with his declaration: “My doctrine is to follow whatever was proved correct after examining it by reason, and to avoid all that does not agree with reason” (R 42). While the veracity of this story could obviously be contested, the important point is that it is included in the Blue Annals. Perhaps it is included to confirm that Tibetan Buddhism is, and has been since before the time of the first monastery, firmly grounded in reason.

Of further interest in this chapter is the narrative of the construction of Samyé. The Blue Annals seems to indicate that attempts at construction did not take place until after Padmasambhava arrived, which runs counter to the story that construction efforts were impeded by local spirits. What the Blue Annals relates is that Śāntarakṣita was simply unable to teach the doctrine because of the malignant response to his teachings by local spirits. In the wake of ministerial objections to his teachings, Śāntarakṣita traveled to Nepal to invite Padmasambhava who was capable of subduing the local spirits and guardian deities. It was only after this that the King and Padmasambhava “laid the foundation of the great vihāra of bsam yas” (R 43-44). It is interesting that the tantric figure of Padmasambhava is so clearly associated with the literal foundation of the monastery in this way. What is of further interest is the fact that the three figures: King Trisong Détsen, Śāntarakṣita, and Padmasambhava all appear as integral figures in the establishment of Samyé. If one considers them as representations of (respectively) secular/political power; intellectual/doctrinal/Indic authority; and tantric power, then the narrative of the establishment of the first monastery in Tibet is an interesting representation of the combination of these three features in Tibetan Buddhism.

One notable omission in the Blue Annals account of the imperial period is an account of the famous debate at Samyé between the Indian Kamalaśīla and the Chinese Heshang Moheyan. Given the importance of this debate for later Tibetan historians and thinkers, it is surprising that such an important and colossal work of history as the Blue Annals would not include it. Since an account of the debate is included in Testament of Ba (sba bzhed), in which it is said that after the debate all Chinese texts in Tibet were sealed in a treasury at Samyé (Kapstein, 35), it is likely that the story of the debate would most certainly have been known, probably widely, at the time of the writing of the Blue Annals. However, the debate is only mentioned indirectly and in reference to the doctrinal position taken by the Nyingmapa tradition. If it were not for the addition of a footnote this passage may be missed altogether (R 41). Does Gö Lotsawa's omission tell us anything about the debate? It would be interesting to take a closer look at Gö Lotsawa's source materials to see if they contain accounts of the debate, which would more clearly indicate a conscious omission by Gö Lotsawa.

The Blue Annals provides evidence that there was activity at Samyé even during the dark period and that it was an important enough place to protect and maintain. Not only are “Tibetan laymen” mentioned as important figures in ensuring that the monastery escaped destruction during the reign of Lang Darma (glang dar ma), but the Blue Annals points out that they practiced religion privately and hid śāstras and sūtras (R 60). Furthermore, it is later indicated that Śākyaśrībhadra discovered the Sanskrit text of Sangwa Nyingpo (gsang ba snying po; Skt., Guhyagarbha; Eng., The Secret Essence) which is a pre-7th century tantra and a fundamental tantra of mahayoga scripture (R 103). If this text were “discovered” there it would mean that it had been there long enough to have been forgotten, which would indicate that Samyé served as an important archive.

As illustrated above, several important figures are associated with Samyé, including Atīśa. The Blue Annals provides the year of his arrival at Samyé as 1047, when he was 72. Before he arrived, he was apparently impressed with Samyé and the general state of Buddhism in Central Tibet as he is reported as declaring: “Such a great number of brahmacārins does not exist even in India! There must be many arhats also!” Once he arrived at the monastery, it is reported that he was impressed with the numerous manuscripts housed there, including many manuscripts that were not to be found in India, which he identified as being obtained by “Padma from the abode of the asuras” (R 257). However, there is indication that there was at least some tension regarding his residence at Samyé, as the reported reason for his departure was the fact that the Lady ‘chims mo (jo mo ‘chims mo), who must have been somewhat influential, “was teaching children many wicked words” about Atīśa (R 258).

Tension also arises between a priest of royal decent named Zhiwa Ö (zhi ba ’od) and Chennga Drakpa Jungné (spyan snga grags pa ’byung gnas, 1175-1255). This is a rather funny story in which Zhiwa Ö, who is also referred to as “the king of Samyé” (bsam yas btsad po), at the advice and guidance of an astrologer, Drusha (bru sha), tried to transfer some supernatural misfortune threatening his family to Chenngawa (spyan snga ba). But Chenngawa was able to reverse their attempt with his own powers and the king and astrologer die (Roerich, 575-77). From this and the previous account of trouble between Atiśa and Lady Chimmo it seems that the local aristocracy of the area around Samyé were not always comfortable with the abundance of religious personalities that had emerged in the renaissance period. These aristocrats, with ties to the Tibetan Empire and their own religious lineages, probably felt threatened by the increasing number of charismatic and popular figures making their way to Samyé to teach and to help themselves to look through (and possibly claim/snatch) the religious and material treasures that were obviously held there and dated back to imperial times. These aristocrats probably had an imperial clan affiliation too. The Lady Chim almost certainly is a member of the Chim (mchims or ’chims) clan. Another clan mentioned in association with Samyé is the Nyen (gnyan) clan, which also is an ancient clan (Roerich, 568).

Samyé certainly held a great deal of material wealth in its collection of texts and sacred objects from the imperial time. Given Atīśa’s response to the collection of manuscripts, it appears that Samyé housed a significant amount of Sanskrit texts, and it probably held a large amount of Tibetan translations as well, which would only have increased with the translation activity that again took place there in the renaissance period. Apart from texts, there was also artwork, including the architecture itself and the wall murals, as well as relics and other religiously significant objects. When Trashi Peltsek (bkra shis dpal brtsegs, b. 1359) goes to Samyé, his main concern is to take in all the sacred objects, including the skull cup of Śāntarakṣita (Roerich, 642).

Two repairs of Samyé are mentioned in the Blue Annals. Both were undertaken by Kagyüpas, one in the 12th century and another in the fifteenth century. The first rebuilding of Samyé mentioned seems to have taken place sometime around 1200 CE, when there was a dispute between two kings that made the abbot of Densatel (gdan sa thel), Drigung Jikten Gönpo (’bri gung ’jig rten mgon po, 1143-1217) remove wealth from that monastery for the purpose of rebuilding Samyé, among other things (Roerich, 570). The other renovation took place under Trimkhang Lotsawa Sönam Gyatso (khrims khang lo tsA ba bsod nams rgya mtsho, 1424-1482).

Generally, when Samyé is talked about in the later sections of the Blue Annals, it is within the context of the life story of a figure, such as we have seen with Atīśa. However, almost none of the figures discussed live or reside at Samyé, but only visit the monastery complex on the way to other places. One of the most popular reasons for spending time at Samyé, or in the vicinity of Samyé, is for solitary meditation in the nearby retreat areas. This focus on meditation practice may reflect the fact that the Blue Annals is heavily weighted to the Kagyü school, which emphasizes meditation retreat. This needs more investigation to see if there is a particular association of Samyé with such practice relative to other sites. There are also several mentions of people having visions at Samyé, occasionally leading to treasure revelation (Roerich, 241, 663, 942, 957).

While the Blue Annals often mentions visits to Samyé during the renaissance period, there is little information on who might have been the permanent residents of the monastery complex. Only rarely does Gö Lotsawa mention people staying at Samyé for extended periods, such as Sakya Pandita (sa skya paN Di ta) (Roerich, 606), and there is no mention of any abbatial line as is given for so many other monasteries. There is mention of an ordination ceremony taking place at Samyé, that of Trimkhang Lotsawa Sönam Gyatso (Roerich 807). Given the variety of figures from different schools visiting Samyé, it is difficult to tell exactly what the permanent community of Samyé (if there was one) was like, if it had a specific sectarian affiliation, how big it was, and so forth.

Questions for Further Investigation

  • Who actually controlled Samyé at different periods of time? It seems as though every major sect had a hand in the restoration and operation of the monastery and virtually all turn to it in some form to seek legitimacy. Does this indicate that it was something of a “melting pot”?
  • What is the relationship of the main Samyé complex to the various retreat areas that are in the vicinity, the prominent one being Chimpu (’chims phu)?
  • Why is there no account of the debate between Kamalaśīla and Heshang Moheyan in the Blue Annals?


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