Situated just north of Lhasa, is one of the “great three” Gelug university monasteries, Sera Monastery. It is dedicated to the Gelug (or Yellow Hat Sect) of Tibetan Buddhism, along with Drepung Monastery and Ganden Monastery. This magnificent complex sits at the foot of Tatipu Hill, and the monastery’s name translates into “wild rose” in the Tibetan language. With a rich history spanning centuries, coupled with extraordinary cultural significance and relics, Sera Monastery is a must-see attraction.
- Sera Monastery encompasses about 28 acres (11 ha) in total area, housing several institutions within the complex.
- The main buildings include the Coqen Hall (Great Assembly Hall), three Zhacangs (colleges) and Kamcun (a dormitory).
- The highlight of visiting Sera Monastery is the renowned spectacle of monks debating that occurs in the courtyard behind the main temple.
- The original Sera Monastery is responsible for 19 hermitages, including four nunneries, which are all located north of Lhasa in the foothills.
History Of Sera Monastery
Sera Monastery was founded in 1419, by Jamchen Chojey (1355-1435), a disciple of Je Tsongkhapa. Prior to the monastery being constructed, Tsongkhapa had founded several hermitages located in the foothills surrounding the site. According to legend, Tsongkhapa experienced a vision for where the monastery site must be located. One day during a deep prayer and meditation, he saw the full text of Prajnyapara-mitta's 20 slokas on Shunyata spread across the sky. This moment of supreme clarity gave him full insight into the complete knowledge of the Tsawasehrab (Fundamentals of Madhyamikka or Shunyata) text. Furthermore, he also witnessed the “"vision of a rain-like "AA" characters descending from the sky", as the legend goes. Within a dozen years, Jamchen Chojey had fulfilled his guru’s prophecy by building the monastery complex.
Because of Tsongkhapa revered status, the then ruler of the region, King Nedong Dagpa Gyaltsen gave full financial support of the endeavor. He even personally performed the foundation-laying ceremony on the site. Construction development strictly adhered to the wishes of Tsongkhapa, including installing sacred images and other objects of reverence and worship. In the subsequent decades of the 15th century, Sera Monastery became greatly renowned as a seat of learning for the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. At its peak, the complex housed over 6,000 monks.
During the 1959 revolt in Lhasa, unfortunately the monastery complex suffered extensive damage, including the destruction of many of the colleges. However, over the subsequent decades, restoration initiatives have repaired and rebuilt Sera Monastery to its previous glory.
Culture Of Sera Monastery
This exquisite monastery complex covers an expansive total area of 114,946 square meters. The main structures located with Sera are the Great Assembly Hall (Coqen Hall), the three Zhacangs (colleges,) and Kamcuns (dormitories) also referred to as Homdong Kangtsang. Some of the cultural relics contained within the complex include magnificent texts written in gold powder, ornate statues, and beautiful murals on the walls.
Coqen Hall: Located in the northeast section of the complex, this hall was first constructed in 1710. It covers 2,000 square meters (22,000 sq ft), supported with 125 pillars of varying lengths (86 tall and 39 short columns). There are five chapels in this structure, each with ornate statues of various deities. The most important cultural relic housed at Sera is located within this hall: ‘the Gangyur of Tripitaka’. Dating from approximately 1410, this incredible written text contains 105 volumes, written in the Tibetan language. Each of the volumes is printed on wooden boards engraved in red lacquer. It is believed that Emperor Yongle (1360-1424) of the Ming dynasty presented this treasure as a gift to the founder of Sera Monastery, Jamchen Chojey.
Zhacangs: Meaning Buddhist college in Tibetan, there are three Zhacangs in the monastery complex: Me Zhacang, Je Zhacang and Ngaba Zhacang. Built in 1419, Me Zhacang is the oldest of the three. There are several chapels located within this structure, all housing exceptional frescos and sculptures. Je Zhacang is the largest of the colleges in the complex, and enshrined within it is a famous statue of the Hayagriva. The smallest is Ngaba Zhacang, which is the college, dedicated to the study of esoteric Buddhism at Sera.
Kamcuns: Meaning domitory in the Tibetan language, there are a total of 33 Kamcuns situated around the central courtyard at Sera. They range in size and likewise, in the number of monks dwelling within them. Monks from the same village are housed in the same Kamcun, however, each is given a separate dwelling space, or cell. The Kamcuns all have prayer halls and teahouses located within.
- The monks debating Buddhist doctrine is a must-see highlight at Sera Monastery. From Monday to Saturday at 3 PM, the monks from the three Zhacangs gather in the central courtyard for this incredible spectacle. This practice is unique amongst the “great three” monasteries in Tibet.
- The most impressive festival held at the monastery is the Sera Bengqin Festival held in February (December 27th of the Tibetan calendar). On e the given day, a Dorje Pestle is carried to the world-renowned Potala Palace. The Dalai Lama offers prayers to the Buddha, requesting strength and blesses the Pestle. Thereafter, the Pestle is placed upon the heads of devotees by the president of Ngaba Zhacang. Tens of thousands of the faithful come to witness this event, as it only occurs at Sera Monastery.
- Visitors must always remember that this is a religious site, therefore must be respectful.