Founded in 1416, Drepung Monastery (Tibetan: Drepung Gompa; Chinese: Zhébàng Sì) on the outskirts of Lhasa was once Tibet’s largest and most influential monastery, with over 10,000 monks. Today, Drepung houses about 700 monks and attracts pilgrims and visitors from around the world.
Drepung is especially known as the site of the annual Shoton Festival, with its dramatic unfurling of a giant thangka painting on the hillside.
History of Drepung Monastery
Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416by Tsongkapa’s disciple Jamyang Choeje. It was the home of the Dalai Lamas before the Potala Palace was built in the 17th century. Resembling a heap of white rice from a distance, it was dubbed “Monastery of the Collecting-Rice” (Drepung Gompa) in Tibetan.
The monastery fared comparatively well in the Cultural Revolution (1966-77), but its involvement in pro-independence demonstrations of 1987 has led to close surveillance by the Chinese government.
On September 27, 1987, about 20 Drepung monks unfurled banners and the Tibetan flag and marched around the Barkhor in Lhasa, before being arrested in front of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Government Headquarters. Today, a Public Security Bureau compound sits below the monastery and “cadre monks” keep a close eye on day-to-day activities.
Drepung lost a major source of income with the death of the charismatic teacher Gen Lamrim in 1997, whose lectures drew devotees from all over the Tibetan world. The monastery therefore gratefully accepts donations from pilgrims and visitors, which can be made in the kitchen.
What to See at Drepung Monastery
The first floor of the Assembly Hall holds a striking statue of Dalai Lama XIII, magnificently lit by filtered sunshine and pungent yak butter lamps. Readings of the scriptures are often held here at midday, during which novices race one another to fetch tea from the kitchen for their elders.
To the left (west) of the Assembly Hall is the kitchen, where butter tea is prepared and donations are accepted.
The most revered image at Drepung is a 15m (49-ft.) tall statue of the 8-year old Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha), designed by Tsongkapa and housed on the third floor of the main building. Visitors are offered holy water; to receive it, cup your right hand above your left, take a sip, and splash the rest on your head.
The second floor houses Buddhist scriptures and the first floor contains multiple Buddha statues and other decorations. A chapel to the north of the second floor houses a sacred mirror said to cure the facial diseases of those who gaze into it.
Several courtyards in the forest around the monastery are used by the monks for debating the sutras (Buddhist scriptures). The winners of the debates can take a test to earn the senior degree of Geshi.
The pilgrim’s circuit of Drepung’s monastery runs through these sites:
The pilgrimage trail continues southeast down to the fascinating Nechung Monastery (Naiqióng Sì), home of the Nechung Oracle. The oracle was regularly consulted by the Dalai Lama on important matters of state. Admission is ¥10.
Festivals and Events
Before the 17th century, Buddhist discipline required monks to stay in their temples for weeks in the summer. This prevented them stepping on small creatures outside for a time, and taught them to live in harmony with one another. When finally allowed to leave their confinement, monks went down to the mountains, where laymen would prepare yogurt for them as alms. The monks enjoyed the yogurt and happily celebrated their newfound freedom.
This is the origin of the “Xuedun” or Shoton Festival at Drepung, which takes place every August. Today, the Shoton Festival is a time for monks to go the mountains for contemplation, after which time their families will meet them on the mountainside. Many lay Buddhists make a pilgrimage to Drepung during this time and participate in the festivities, which include performances by the Tibetan Opera.
The Shoton Festival begins with the dramatic unfurling of a giant thangka banner of the Buddha, amidst incense smoke, the sound of bugles, and scripture recitations. Devotees rush to make offerings before it is rolled up again in less than two hours.
Quick Facts on Drepung Monastery
Names: Dre-pung Gom-pa · Drepung Monastery · Zhébàng Sì
Categories: monasteries; temples
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates: 29.676876° N, 91.046922° E
Address: Lhasa, China
Hours: 9am-5pm (Nechung closes at 4pm)
Lodging: View hotels near Drepung Monastery