“After I pass away,
And my pure doctrine is absent,
You will appear as an ordinary being,
Performing the deeds of a Buddha
And establishing the Joyful Land, the great Protector,
In the Land of the Snows.”
-Sakyamuni’s prophecy on the reincarnation of Manjushri as Je Tsongkapa (the founder of Ganden)-
Ganden Namgyal Ling, or popularly known as Ganden Monastery is of great significance to the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. When you are near Ganden, there is a word to define the sensation of being overwhelmed by something powerful in Tibet- spirituality. If you venture beyond the well-deserved trail of the Tibetan Plateau’s rugged wilderness, not only do you find subtle beauty in monasteries like Ganden, you will encounter the mysteries of the impressive history and spiritual background that these monasteries offer. A visit to Tibet lets you know that monasteries and temples abound in this region, and the experience of seeing or visiting them is inextricably connected to understanding the rich culture of the region and its deep-seated devotion to spiritual life, beliefs and philosophy that have touched the world today. From a distance, Ganden looks like a lotus, towering above an ocean of dense white clouds that glide, and then glisten to amplify the beauty and vastness of the entire landscape with hues of white and red emanating from its mystical structures and which open to a magnificent view of the Kyichu valley below. The entire ridge upon which it sits, pulses as the rising sun passes across it. It is a rare sight that exhilarates a pilgrim and a tourist with equal fervor; and equally exudes grandeur and a spiritual sensations that are matchless and undefinable.
Ganden is located at 40 kilometers to the northeast of Lhasa on a less trampled hill that is a natural amphitheater. The structures of Ganden sit along the highway where you actually first move to the South and then wind up to the north east to meet a ridge called Drok Ri where the monastery sits at an altitude of about 4,750m. There, the monastery complex is spread in an endless pile of structures. Most of these structures had clearly lost the struggle to the imposing harsh weather and political upheavals but have now been resorted to their original glory and can be seen glinting in the sun. The Tibetans have chosen places with a natural flow of energy for religious sites. Visiting Ganden, therefore, gives you a sense of being within a natural “Mandala”, a surge of energies channelizing from nature into you. Ganden Monastery stands as Tibet’s crown jewel that advocates the graduated path to enlightenment, a beacon for all those who seek the ultimate route to wisdom and salvation. Ganden was founded by Je Tsongkapa in 1409, after the celebration of the Monlam festival of prayer for the first time on the Drok Ri Ridge. The main temple and over seventy buildings were completed that year. Je Tsongkapa, also referred to as Losang Drakpa was a 14th century Tibetan Buddhist Master who disseminated and developed Kadampa Buddhism that the Bengali monk Atisha had introduced in Tibet. Je Tsongkapa is also known to have propagated Lamrim and Ngakrim teachings (the graduated path to enlightenment) which are the foundations of the Gelug school of thought. Ganden was the first of the three great Gelug monasteries in Tibet. The other two are Drepung and Sera monasteries. Ganden means "joyful" and is the Tibetan name for Tuṣita, the heaven where the Bodhisattva Maitreya is believed to reside. Namgyal Ling means "victorious temple”. Since its inception, the monastery structures have seen many upheavals, both spiritual and political, but has managed to remain boldly and graciously rooted. Despite the fray within Tibet’s political and social environment, the temples within Ganden are not subdued by any means. On the contrary, everything about the monastery’s setting is perpetually firm. It’s built with the use of garish kaleidoscopic colors, amazing history and soaring architecture. Tsongkapa’s intention of constructing and establishing Ganden was motivated by his yearning to have a center of learning and monastic discipline that were otherwise elusive in the Red Hat School of Buddhism. Relatively unruffled by the politics of Buddhist monks during the time of its construction, Ganden remained an intensive school of learning. Its abbots, venerated as the Ganden Tripa Rinpoche, are elected from amongst the scholars within the college and serve a tenure of seven years. This means that the portfolio is based on appointment and not on reincarnation. This position is nominated on the basis of a hierarchical progression based on merit and the appointee does not necessarily have to have any direct connection with Ganden Monastery. This appointment is automatic but is apparently confirmed by the Dalai Lama who, being the pre-eminent spiritual leader, publicly announces the appointment or nomination at the time of changeover. The 101st Ganden Tripa's announcement was nominated by Central Tibetan Administration in 2003.
There are two significant colleges in Ganden - Jangtse and Shartse symbolizing the North Peak and East Peak respectively. Jangtse was classified into thirteen divisions initially and served as a school of learning respective to a monk’s place of origin. Shartse College has eleven divisions. Contrary to other Gelug colleges like Sera or Drepung which only allow the study of scriptures, both divisions of Ganden, Jangtse and Shartse, have a combined study program of sutra (study of scriptures) and Tantra (spiritual practices). Ganden originally comprised of more than twenty major chapels. The largest chapel was capable of accommodating 3,500 monks. The three main complexes within the Ganden Monastery are the Serdung, which contains the tomb of Tsongkapa, the Tsokchen Assembly Hall and the Ngam Cho Khang the chapel where Tsongkapa traditionally taught. The monastery houses artifacts that belonged to Tsongkapa. The red, fortress like structure at the center of the buildings which is also Tsongkapa’s mausoleum, is Ganden’s sanctum sanctorum. The entrance leads to a prayer hall and an inner chapel dedicated to Sakyamuni Buddha. The entry is restricted to women. The upper floors house a chapel and Tsongkapa’s funeral Chorten called the Tongwa Donden which means meaningful to behold. Ganden's main assembly hall is a white building with gold-capped roofs, near a huge square. A maroon and ochre chapel adjacent to the prime assembly hall has a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha,and a section used for hand-printing scriptural texts using wooden blocks.
Ganden offers endless things to see and feel. No amount of anticipation or study can match its unpredictable allure- one that casts its structures in a harmony of different lights and angles. It is instantly majestic in its appearance against the sky but while it looks regal for its beauty to a foreigner, it holds more meaning to an insider. Ganden encapsulates the birth of enlightenment in Tibet, one that can be achieved with study and discipline. It is a site that is intensely venerated which is why it is imperative for a pilgrim to circumambulate the monastery structures as a part of a worship ritual. Hence the term Ganden Lingkor or Kora is what essentially fulfills a pilgrim’s devotion when he visits the monastery. The lingkor begins by ascending the hill at the south of the amphitheater and various power points are to be followed in succession. At first, a pilgrim comes across the image of Padampa Sangye (Parambuddha, in India) who taught various lessons in Tibet in the 11th century. Then the pilgrim comes across the imprint of Tsongkapa Rosary and the images of Tamche Chogyel who is also the protective deity of Tsongkapa himself along with the Sixteen Arhats. Then there are rock paintings of the protectors of Jangtse College and the Shartse College. Then one invariably come across a rock upon which Tsarina Kandroma (she who traverses the sky) is believed to have danced. She is the Tibetan Dakini (female sacred spirit) and this rock must be circumambulated three times. Other than that there are many other Tsongkapa memorabilia that one has to pass through. At the end of the Kora, there is Tsongkapa’s house also known as the Woser Puk meaning the cave of light. Unlike other replications in an around Ganden, this present site is considered to be absolutely authentic. The chief images within are five self-manifest images all of which are talking Buddhas: Gyelwa Dumtompa, Pelden Lhamo, Jowo Atisha, Sakyamuni and Tsepama.
Many travelers claim an epiphany when the visit Ganden. It is a site that is holy to also those who understand the value of wisdom through education and not just through worship. For those who want to explore the further reaches of the world, to stumble about in the unfamiliar and learn about cultures and beliefs and what essentially makes the world worth living for, Ganden stands as a beacon. But even for a simpler traveler who seek the exotic experience, Ganden offers its grand ceremonies to behold. There is the Ganden Tantric Ceremony which is observed from the third day through the fifteenth day of the second Tibetan month. This is a grand ceremony venerating the highest and powerful Vajrayana deities like Chakrasamvara, Kalchakra and Vajrapani, who were all tantric masters. Monks create mandalas during the ceremony. This tradition was started by Tsongkapa and is considered to be one of the four great deeds of the master. The other important festival held here is the Ganden Siu Thang. This takes place on the fifteenth day of the sixth Tibetan month. People from all parts of Tibet flock to Ganden on this day to witness the unveiling of a gigantic hand woven Thangka, featuring a Buddha figure surrounded by symbols of religious significance. The Thangka is over 200 feet wide by 150 feet tall. Also twenty-five precious articles belonging to Ganden Monastery, normally locked in their treasure house are displayed in the main shrine hall. A grand offering ceremony accompanies the display. These articles consists of the images of the sixteen Arhats, Akshobya, the Secret Assembly, the Four Great Kings, the Upasaka and the Hashang image.
At Ganden there were as much as 2000 monks in 1959. Ganden took a severe hit in 1966 by the Red Guard artillery shelling and many monks had to abandon the complexes. By 1986, sixteen of the apocryphal 108 temples of Ganden had been rebuilt and resorted to its former glory but it took many years for monks to come back and restore its original purpose, and the founder’s initial principles. Tsongkapa spent most of his life at Ganden and was devoted to developing and propagating principles of learning that shaped Tibet. The tradition that began at Samye finds it’s meaning at Ganden. Tsongkapa passed away in this monastery and his remains were kept there. His construction of Ganden's main temple, its enormous statues and three-dimensional mandalas, is considered the fourth great deed of Tsongkapa's life. Ganden, today, is the reservoir of the unembellished spiritual beauty of Tibet. It is reserved for those who understand the power of learning and the uninhibited power of positive trans-Himalayan energies. The 14th and current Dalai Lama graduated from Ganden in 1958 which is a testament to the significance of this monastery. To appreciate Ganden and to surrender to its charm, it takes a willingness to consciously open your mind, find a bit of an explorer within yourself, and dig deep into your own vulnerability. When you have surpassed that, Ganden makes you feel like you’ve just uncovered a hidden treasure. Maybe Tsongkapa had been aiming at that all along!