Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Crossroads of Four Civilizations

Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Crossroads of Four Civilizations

By Paul Kocol Nietupski
With photographs from the Griebenow Archives. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1999, Paperback, 123 pages.

The monastery of Labrang Tashi Kyil, popularly known to Tibetans simply as Labrang, has played an important role in the history of Tibetan Buddhism and its spread throughout the Mongol and Chinese regions of the north and east of Tibet. Founded between 1709 and 1711 by Jamyang Shepa, a monk from Drepung Gomang Monastery and also an important disciple of the fifth Dalai Lama, it served as a bastion of Tibetan culture over the centuries to follow.

The Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s and the ensuing assault on Tibetan culture saw the closure of Labrang (which was turned into a prison camp for high lamas). However, the wave of liberalization that sweet through China in 1979 led to the reopening of its doors. Today it is once again an active spiritual center serving the peoples of this remote and exotic corner of the world.

After his death, the founder of Labrang, Jamyang Shepa, became known as the first Jamyang Shepa, for a young child was identified as his reincarnation and installed in Labrang, a tradition that has continued until today. The second Jamyang Shepa was one of the seventh Dalai Lama's most important disciples and dharma heirs.

Part of the importance of Labrang lay in its location in Amdo, Tibet's enormous northeastern province, which was once more than two million square miles in size. The monastery served as a spiritual liaison for Lhasa with the Mongols to the north and the Manchus to the east--both of whom were devout followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Children from these two regions, as well as from Han China, came to Labrang for training, and over the generations a steady stream of translations of Tibet's ancient scriptures into Mongolian, Manchurian, and Chinese flowed forth from the pens of the monastery's great scholars.

With the rise of Manchuria to rulership of all China, Labrang became the Manchu Emperor's window onto the lands to the west. Moreover, Labrang lay on the Silk Route and was surrounded by Chinese Turkestan, so its links to the Muslim world were also significant.

Between 1922 and 1949 the Griebenow family lived in Labrang as Christian missionaries. They extensively photographed the monastery and its activities, thus creating perhaps the only extant record of traditional life in the Labrang area to survive the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Marion Griebenow returned to his native Minnesota with the photographs that the family had amassed during their two and a half decades at Labrang. Eventually those photographs were donated to Tibet House in New York, thus ensuring their preservation.

The compiler and author of this extraordinary book, Paul Nietupski of John Carroll University, Cleveland, dedicated several years to pouring over the letters and other documents left in the Griebenow estate, as well as to researching the history of Labrang. His publication of the Griebenow photographs, together with his excellent documentation of them, provides a wonderful introduction to this exquisite monastery, as well as to its people and environs.


September/October 1999