Sera Monastery

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José Cabezón, Penpa Dorjee
  • Somerville, MA: 
    Wisdom Publications
    , November
     648 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Despite the popular image of Buddhists as solitary meditators, every Buddhist living in the past or present has engaged with Buddhist institutions. Sera Monastery, founded near Lhasa in 1419, has been a major institution in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. It is part of the Geluk tradition, and because the Dalai Lama is the head of the order is perhaps the most widely recognized of the different Tibetan Buddhist sects in the present global mediascape. Sera Monastery is a narrative history of this university written by Penpa Dorjee, formerly one of the monastery administrators of Sera in India, and José Cabezón, a Western academic who had lived and practiced as a monk there.

Beginning with the establishment of the order by the Buddha Śākyamuni, this work extends its scope beyond the history of Sera Monastery as such. It includes the history of Buddhist monasticism from its very start through to the medieval establishment of Sera in Tibet, up to the modern refounding of a separate Sera in India. In the opening chapters the authors discuss the establishment of different categories of Buddhist adherents, and the rules regarding their behavior. These rules, the vinaya, are foundational for monastic life, though different monasteries also developed their own unique sets of rules, practices and customs over time. Central to the Buddhist monastic institution is the culture of learning, the topic of their second chapter. Debate is an important part of this culture, and Sera monks are well known internationally for the elaborately stylized manner of their debate sessions. As presented in the third chapter, Buddhist monasteries were established in Tibet as early as the 7th century, when the kingdom was at its most expansive.

For the training of Geluk monks, Sera is one of the “three great seats of learning,” densas, along with Ganden and Drepung. The fourth chapter, “The Founding of Sera and the Rise of Its Colleges,” describes the growth of the institution, including its internal administrative units. This discussion extends into the present with information regarding which of these administrative units continue in India and which do not. The Geluk educational system is the topic of chapter 5, with its scholastic focus on five strains of Indian Buddhist thought, potis, and the selected exemplary texts for each of the five.

The 17th century saw major disruptions as Tibet was invaded by Mongol armies on several occasions, and was entangled in the conflicts between Mongols, and the Manchus in China. As discussed in chapter 6, while these conflicts caused hardships and political contestation within Tibet, there was also expansion and by the 18th century new construction within Sera. The variety of reincarnate lineages, tulkus, and the several hermitages associated with Sera comprise chapter 7. Continuing conflict led to the installation by the Qing court of a series of regents who ruled for 130 years. Several of these regents were from Sera, and this history is reported in chapter 8. While the end of the regency meant that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama came into authority, this is the same time that the Chinese Communist Party began its efforts to extend direct control over Tibet.

The administration of this large and complex institution in the decade of the 1950s is documented in chapter 9. Next, the continuation of the monastery under Chinese rule, referred to as “Sera in Tibet,” is the topic of chapter 10. As is well known, many thousands of Tibetans, including monks from Sera which had been extensively damaged during the Chinese invasion of 1959, went into exile in India. These monks eventually reestablished Sera, “Sera in India,” moving from their first refuge in northern India to Bylakuppe in southern India. The story of this refounding is told in chapter 11, which includes discussion of institutional adaptations into the present.

This work is a welcome addition to the available studies on Buddhist monastic institutions, such as Paul Kocot Nietupski’s two volumes on Labrang monastery, Labrang Monastery: A Tibetan Buddhist Community on the Inner Asian Borderlands, 1709–1958 (Lexington Books, 2011), and his earlier fascinating study based on an early 20th-century collection of photographs, Labrang: A Tibetan Monastery at the Crossroads of Four Civilizations (Snow Lion, 1999), as well as Holmes Welch’s three volume study of modern Chinese monasteries: The Practice of Chinese Buddhism, 1900–1950 (Harvard University Press, 1967); The Buddhist Revival in China (Harvard University Press, 1968); and Buddhism Under Mao (Harvard University Press, 1972); and, though less of an institutional history, and more of an informative overview of the institutional sites, Philip L. Nicoloff’s Sacred Koyasan: A Pilgrimage to the Mountain Temple of Kobo Daishi and the Great Sun Buddha (State University of New York Press, 2007).

Despite the rise of the study of lived religion, religious studies still tends to give pride of place to the study of doctrine and doctrinal texts. This is consistent with its intellectual foundations in theology. In contrast to the abstractions of doctrine or the application of doctrinal concepts to morality, institutional history provides an important perspective for understanding lived Buddhism in both the past and the present.

This is an instance of the style of narrative history characterized by Fernand Braudel as histoire événementielle, history as a series of events, rather than an analysis of historical trends of change that take place over long periods of time, referred to as the longue durée. Although some topics overlap chronologically, the events are organized into a single, though multifaceted, story. Being written as a straight-forward narrative, the work is easily accessible—though Tibetan titles and names may initially require additional effort for those unfamiliar with the language. It will be of interest to anyone wanting to understand the actualities of life as a monk in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. There is no specific theoretical agenda informing the work, which leaves it to us—its readers—to determine what this history means in relation to our own intellectual projects.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies.

Date of Review: 
June 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

José Cabezón is XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. He studied physics as an undergraduate at Caltech, trained as a monk at Sera Monastery in India, translated for the Dalai Lama into Spanish, and in 1987 earned his PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Penpa Dorjee is associate professor and head librarian of Shantarakshita Library of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, India. He received the acharya degree from Sampurnanada Sanskrit University in Varanasi and his PhD from the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies.


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