The hermitages above Sera Monastery in Tibet form a major center for contemplative practice in the Geluk tradition. The community of around 19 hermitages grew haphazardly, mostly in the early eighteenth century, as masters chose caves and ruins of isolated meditation huts to gather disciples for teaching and practice. Drubkhang Gelek Gyatso established the hermitage tradition there in 1705, returning from travel to resettle the area.
Born in Ladakh in 1641, Gelek Gyatso journeyed to central Tibet as a youth in search of dharma. On his way to full ordination, he studied at several monasteries, including Dakpo, where he spent 16 years training in their philosophical curriculum. The leadership of Dakpo tried to appoint him to an administrative post, but he left the monastery rather than accepting it—having studied, he was now intent on practicing. Following the death of the monk who ordained him, he went to Tashilhunpo and then on to Sera, where he met with its abbot Joten Sonam Gyeltsen. The abbot pointed him to the mountains above the monastery, suggesting he find a place to sit.
Gelek Gyatso spent around a decade there, reaching the age of 50 before leaving to wander as an itinerant monk, visiting holy places in southern Tibet such as the sacred mountain of Tsari. He returned to the Sera Monastery area outside of Lhasa in 1705, and began to develop hermitages.
The first of these was Sera Utse, a small hut where Tsongkhapa had meditated 300 years earlier and composed some of his major works. Gelek Gyatso built a structure with space to accommodate 17 monks around the remains of the hut.
While at Utse, Gelek Gyatso recalled a dream he had while wandering southern Tibet in which Machik Labdron‘s (1055–1149) grandson, Tonyon Samdrub, instructed him to build a house in a place called Dode. Gelek Gyatso identified Dode as a nearby area with a narrow pinnacle called Purchok (or Purbuchok), meaning “dagger pinnacle.” He built a small temple to the Three Protectors—Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani—and later, at a nearby mountain location associated with Tsongkhapa, built his second hermitage, called Rakadrak, where 12 monks would take up residence.
Two of Drubkhang Gelek Gyatso’s disciples continued the development of the Sera hermitages. The first, Ngawang Jampa, became so closely associated with the second of Gelek Gyatso’s hermitages that his line of incarnations became known as the Purchok line. Ngawang Jampa was born in Chamdo and received monastic vows and initial training from the Fifth Pakpa Lha, Gyelwa Gyatso (1644–1713), one of the hierarchs of the major Geluk monastery there. At 15, he went to Sera to study, graduating with the degree of Geshe Kazhipa, which indicates that he completed only four of the five subjects in the traditional curriculum. He received full ordination shortly thereafter from the Fifth Panchen Lama, Lobzang Yeshe (1663–1737), at Tashilhunpo. He then went to study with Gelek Gyatso, who gave him extensive teachings in Lamrim, Lojong, and other Geluk traditions. Ngawang Jampa assisted Gelek Gyatso with the construction of the temples and residences at Purchok, including the manual labor, and took charge of the hermitage after Gelek Gyatso passed in 1713.
Ngawang Jampa secured the patronage of both Polhane Sonam Tobgye (1689–1747), the ruler of Tibet for much of the mid 18th century, and the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso (1708–1757), under whose sponsorship Ngawang Jampa expanded several buildings and added an assembly hall. Although he travelled widely, Ngawang Jampa had an extensive teaching schedule at Purchok and Sera, and the list of his disciples reads like a who’s who of 18th-century Tibet: the Sixth Pakpa Lha (1714–1754), the Fourth Zhiwa Lha (1720–1799), the Second Jamyang Zhepa (1728–1791), the Third Tukwan (1737–1802), and the Third Changkya (1717–1786), to name a few.
Ngawang Jampa’s fellow Gelek Gyatso disciple, Zopa Gyatso, was born in Lhasa and joined Sera Monastery as a novice at the age of 13. As a young man he showed great promise as a future yogi, mastering the technique of sustaining off non-food items such as rocks and flowers. In 1699, at the age of 27, Zopa Gyatso received Lamrim and Lojong teachings from Gelek Gyatso at Sera Utse. After Gelek Gyatso directed him to find a place for practice, the local protector deity Khardo Songtsen is said to have revealed to Zopa Gyatso a cave that would later to be known by the name “Great Heap of Light.” Zopa Gyatso had nothing to offer the deity save a single butter lamp, but when lit it illuminated the entire mountainside.
After some wandering around central Tibet Zopa Gyatso returned to the cave with some disciples, and together they began constructing a residence. Under the patronage of the Seventh Dalai Lama, who Zopa Gyatso tutored, he built the first temple there: Temple of the Sixteen Arhats. After Zopa Gyatso’s death, his mummified remains were interred in a silver stupa at the hermitage named after the local deity Khardo.
Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing.
Shri Devi – Magzor Gyalmo (Zopa Gyatso detail. Central Tibet, 1700–1799. Gelug Lineage. 83.82×57.79cm (33×22.75in). Ground mineral pigment, fine gold line, black background on cotton. Collection of Shelley & Donald Rubin.
Painting of Purchok Hermitage and photograph both courtesy of José Cabezón.