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Ruled by an incarnation, the Dalai Lama, and supporting a monastic seg-
ment comprising between ten and twenty percent of the eligible males, Tibet
was a state in which religious interests and priorities predominated.  “Reli-
gion’ (and the religious segment), however, was not the homogeneous entity
it is typically implied to be, even within the Gelugpa Sect, and the great
Gelugpa monasteries were often at odds with the Dalai Lama’s government.
In this paper I shall examine aspects of this discord and then present several
illustrations of such conflict from twentieth century Tibetan history.
Monasticism is fundamental to both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism
and is found wherever Buddhism exists.  However, the Tibetan form of
monasticism differed from other forms in terms of a variety of fundamental
factors such as: 1) its mass philosophy and accompanying size; 2) its theory
of recruitment; and 3) its internal organization and normative structure.
The Tibetan monastic system supported a staggering number of monks.
Surveys show that there were 97,528 monks in Central Tibet and Khams in
1694, and 319,270 monks in 1733 (Dung-dkar 1981: 109).  Assuming that
the population of these areas was about 2.5 million in 1733, monks thus con-
stituted about thirteen percent of the total population and about twenty-six
percent of the males.  The magnitude of this can be appreciated by com-
paring it to Thailand, another prominent Buddhist society, where monks
comprised only one to two percent of the total number of males (Tambiah
1976: 266-267).  A critical factor underlying this size was the Tibetan belief
that the state should foster the spiritual (religious) development of the couil-
try by making monkhood available to the largest number of persons.  The
scope of monasticism (and the cycle of religious rituals and ceremonies the
monks performed) was seen in turn as the measure of the Tibetan state’s
success.  Monasticism in Tibet, therefore, was not the otherworldly domain
of a minute elite; rather it was a mass phenomenon.
The Tibetan monastic system was also striking in that, first, the over-
whelming majority of monks were placed in monasteries by their parents
when they were between the ages of seven and ten, without particular re-
gard to their predispositions or wishes; and second, becoming a monk was
not a temporary undertaking but rather a lifelong commitment.
There were many reasons why parents made their son a monk.  For some,
it was their deep religious belief that being a monk was a great privilege
and honor.  For others, it was a culturally valued way to reduce the number
of mouths to feed, while also ensuring that their son would never have to
experience the hardships of village life.  Again, sometimes parents made a
son a monk to fulfill a solemn promise made to a deity when the son was
very ill.  Yet, in other cases, recruitment was simply the result of a corvee
tax obligation to a monastery which was their lord.
Parents sometimes broached the subject with their sons, but usually they
simply told the child of their decision.  The monastery officially asked the
young boys whether they wanted to be monks.  But this was really pro forma,
and if, for example, a newly made child monk ran away from the monastery,
this would not result in his dismissal on the grounds that he did not want to
be a monk.  A number of monks recalled that they had fled to their homes
after a few months’ initial stay in the monastery only to receive a beating
from their fathers who immediately took them back.  The monks relating
these incidents did not see this as abusive.  Rather, they laughed at how
stupid they were at the time to want to give up the opportunity of being a
monk.  Tibetans, lay and monk alike, generally feel that young boys cannot
comprehend the wonder and importance of being a monk, and that it is up
to their elders to see to it that they have the right opportunities.  Thus, the
decision to make a child a monk was predominantly the prerogative of the
parental generation rather than derived from either the wishes of the child
or some perception of a deep-seated predilection in the child for the monk’s
Once accepted, it was hoped that the novice would remain a monk for
his entire life, adhering, minimally, to a vow of celibacy.  However, monks
clearly had the right to leave the monastic community whenever they wanted.
Given the almost random selection of novice monks, powerful mechanisms
were needed to retain young monks who had to face a life of celibacy.  The
monastic system, in fact, possessed effective mechanisms for facilitating this7
including economic security, comradeship, and a very liberal (or lax) view
of monastic activities and discipline.  For example, the Tibetan monastic
system did not attempt to weed out novices who seemed unsuited for a
rigorous life of prayer, study and meditation, and monks were expelled only
for the most serious crimes of murder and heterosexual intercourse.  Similarly,
there were no exams which novices or monks had to pass in order to remain
in the monastery (although there were exams for higher statuses within the
monks’ ranks).  Monks who had no interest in studying or meditating were
as welcome as the virtuoso scholar monks.
On the other hand, monks leaving the monastery faced significant eco-
nomic problems.  Because they lost whatever rights they might otherwise
have had in their family farm (patrimony) when they entered the monastery,
departing monks had to face the task of finding a source of income.  Com-
plicating this was the fact that they reverted to their original serf status
when they departed, and were thus liable for service to their lord.  These and
other factors made it both easy and advantageous for monks to remain in
the monastery.
The elevated status of monks and monasteries was manifest also in their
treatment as semi-autonomous units within the Tibetan state 7,-th the ex-
clusive right to judge and discipline their own monks in all cases except
murder and treason.
This relative autonomy, however, did not mean that the monastic system
was disinterested in the political affairs of the country.  It wag actually very
concerned.  The reason for this derives from the fundamental ideology of
the Tibetan state and its economic and political ramifications.  Tibetans
considered their country unique by virtue of its support and patronage of
religion as its primary goal.  This was nicely phrased in a letter the Tibetan
Foreign Bureau sent Chiang Kai-shek in 1946:
There are many great nations on this earth who have achieved
unprecedented wealth and might, but there is only one nation
which is dedicated to the well-being of humanity in the world
and that is the religious land of Tibet which cherishes a joint
spiritual and temporal system….(2)
However, this ‘joint spiritual and temporal system” ideology did not pre-
clude serious conflict between the monasteries and the government with re-
gard8 to specific actions and options, for there was no unanimity on who was
best able to determine what was in the best interests of religion and thus
Tibet.  The monks believed that the political and economic system existed
to further their ends, and that they, not the government, were the best judge
of what was in the short and long term interests of religion.  They could not
accept that decisions detrimental to their monasteries could benefit Tibet’s
unique religious system, and they believed it was the monasteries’ religious
duty and right to intervene whenever they felt the government was acting
against the interests of religion, which they generally saw as their own college
or monastery.  This, of course, brought them into the mainstream of political
affairs and into potential conflict with the Dalai Lama and the government
who also felt they were acting in the best interest of Tibet and religion.  Al-
though the great monasteries did not involve themselves in the day-to-day
operation of government administration, they played an important role in
larger issues.  For example, in the 1920s, a bitter dispute emerged over the
Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s plan to enlarge the army.  The Dalai Lama saw this
as necessary to preserve Tibet’s integrity vis-a-vis China, while the monks
saw it as a threat to their superiority with regard to both coercive force and
the institutionalization of alien British values.
One major theme of modem Tibetan history, then, was the conflict be-
tween the desire of the government to control the monastic segment, par-
ticularly the three great Gelugpa monasteries in and around Lhasa: Sera,
Drepung and Ganden.
The Three Monastic Seats
Sera, Drepung and Ganden were collectively known as the “Three Seats”
(gdan-sa gsum) of the Gelugpa Sect, because they acted as the main monas-
teries for hundreds of smaller branch monasteries.  These three monasteries
were enormous, resembling bustling towns as much as sanctuaries for the
pursuit of other-worldly studies.  Their monks were basically divided into
two groups: those who were pursuing higher studies, the ‘readers,” and
those who were not.  The former became the scholars while the latter typ-
ically could only read and chant their prayer books.(3) In the Mey College
of Sera Monastery, for example, only about 800 of the 2800 (twenty-nine                  
percent) were “readers.”(4) Of these 800, a large proportion never went be
yond the lower levels of learning.  The nonreaders worked for the monastery
(or themselves), or simply lived off the daily distributions and teas provided
by the monastery during the collective prayer sessions.  However, although
so many of the monks were engaged in non-scholarly and non-meditative
pursuits, all were (heterosexually) celibate.
Drcpung, the largest of the three monasteries, officially held 7700 monks,
but actually contained about 10,000 in 1951.  Sera officially held 5500 and
Ganden 3300, but they actually housed about 7000 and 5000 monks respec-
tively.  By contrast, the army normally present in Lhasa numbered only 1000–
1500 troops.  Moreover, as many as ten to fifteen percent of the monks housed
in the Three Seats were dobdos (ldab-ldob) or “fighting monks.” These
monks had a distinctive appearance (e.g., hair style and the manner of tying
their robes), and they belonged to clubs which held regular athletic compe-
titions.  They also typically engaged in ritualized armed combat according to
a code of chivalry, and often acted as bodyguards for the monastery.(5) The
presence of 20,000 monks in and around Lhasa, thousands of whom were
“this-worldly,” aggressive, fighting monks traditionally afforded the Three
Seats tremendous coercive leverage vis-’a-vis the government, whose army
they dwarfed before 1920.
The Three Seats somewhat resembled the classic British universities such
as Oxford in that the overall entity, the monastery, was in reality a combi-
nation of semi-autonomous sub-units, known in Tibetan as tratsang (grwa-
tshang).  By analogy with British universities, these are commonly called
“colleges” in English.  Monks belonged to a monastery only through their
membership in a college, and although there was a standing committee that
functioned with regard to monastery-wide issues, there was no abbot for the
whole monastery, only for individual colleges.
Each tratsang had its own administration and resources, and in turn was
comprised of important residential sub-units known as khamtsen (khams-
tshan) which contained the actual domiciles (apartments or cells) of their
monks.  Like the college, they had their own administration and, to a degree,
their own resources.
A potential monk could enter any of the Three Seats but within the
monastery had to enroll in a specific khamtsen depending on the region
he was from.  Membership in a khamtsen, therefore, was automatic and mu-
tually exclusive.  For example, a monk from Kham (Eastern Tibet), or more
likely, from one of a number of regions in Kham, had to enter one and only
one khamtsen.(6) Thus, khamtsen exhibited considerable internal linguistic
and cultural homogeneity.  Since different khamtsen were affiliated with dif-
ferent colleges, the college level also often had a regional flavor.  Colleges and
their khamtsen units occupied a specific spatial area within the monastery,
and were the center of ritual, educational, social and political activities for
their members.
Each of these units – the monastery, the various colleges and the khamt-
sen – were corporate entities.  They had an identity and a name which
continued across generations, owned property and wealth in the name of the
entity, and had internal organization.  While the monks came and went, the
entity and its property continued.  Moreover, it is essential to note that a
monk’s loyalties were primarily rooted at the khamtsen and college levels,
and there was often little feeling of brotherhood between monks of different
colleges despite their being from the same monastery.
Thus, there were competing units within the Three Seats.  The monastic
colleges were often at odds with each other, and even the incarnate lamas
were allied with specific monastic colleges and khamtsen.  An essential flaw
in the Tibetan politico-religious system was, therefore, that while religious
priority was universally accepted, defining what benefited religion or religious
entities was often contested.
Religion, though in one sense a homogeneous force in Tibetan politics,
was also a fragmenting and conflicting force.  Competition between the vari-
ous religious entities to increase their influence and prestige and the lack of
consensus regarding which policies were in the interests of religion plagued
modern Tibetan history during the twentieth century.  An interesting exam-
ple of such intra-religious conflict took place in 1921 between the Tibetan
government and the Loseling College of Drepung Monastery.
The Tshaja Incident
The relations between the Dalai Lama and the Loseling College of Dre-
pung Monastery had been strained for years.  The Tengyeling (Demo) Con-
spiracy and, more importantly, the support Loseling gave to the Chinese
during 1911-1912 when the Dalai Lama’s volunteer army was trying to drive
the Chinese out of LliRsa, had infuriated the Dalai Lama.  Led by Losel-
ing College’s three chantso (phyag-mdzod; business managers), the Tshaja,
Phuja and Gongja,(7) Drepung Monastery had adhered to a pro-Chinese and
anti-Dalai Lama policy.(8) When the Dalai Lama’s officials ordered them to
send monks to help fight against the Chinese, they refused, saying that they
were monks, not soldiers.  They agreed to fight only if the Chinese tried to
force their way into Drepung itself, not otherwise.  Many of the Loseling
officials such as the Tshaja were from Chinese-administered parts of Kham
and tended to have pro-Chinese leanings.  This orientation was well known
to the Manchu Amban who fled to Drepung when he feared for his life and
was sheltered by the monastic officials in a mountaintop retreat until the
fighting was over (Surkhang, interview).
Loseling’s behavior warranted punishment, but during the period 1913-
1919, the Dalai Lama was too preoccupied with the Simla talks and the
warfare in Kham to confront Loseling and teach it the lesson he felt it needed.
But by late 1920, there were no such restraints, and when a dispute arose in
Loseling College, he took the opportunity to attack its leaders.
The incident began in late 1920, when the Loseling chantso led by the
Tshaja told a former monastic official named Adala that his khamtsen (Tsha
Khamtsen) wanted him to give back an estate he was using.(9) Adala had
been holding this estate on “permanent lease” (kha-’dzin), paying Loseling
a lease-fee every year, and managing the estate as if it were his own.  Feeling
he had permanent rights to this estate so long as he paid the annual fee, he
refused to return it.  When the Loseling managers decided to take it by force,
Adala complained to an acquaintance, the powerful Dronyerchenmo.  He
immediately saw this as an opportunity to get bark at the Loseling managers,
and he told Adala to petition the government.(10)
With this petition in hand, the Dronyerchenmo summoned the three
Loseling managers to a meeting and arrested them.  The very next day they
were sentenced and punished.  Although judicial orders normally specified
the nature of the crime or misdeed, in this case the order simply said that,
“your faults are known to you so there is no need to list them.” The Tshaja
and Phuja were whipped, their private property confiscated and finally they
were exiled (Surkhang, interview; Shan-kha-ba n.d.).
When the monks in Drepung found about these acts, Loseling held
a meeting to discuss what to do.  Led by two monks named Anjanali and
Ngogar, the monks decided to go en masse to the Norbulingka Palace to
present their case to the Dalai Lama, i.e., to demand the release of the two
The monks of nearby Nechung Monastery tried to persuade the Loseling
monks not to go to Lhasa when they saw them pouring out of Drepung,
but several thousand Loseling monks went on to Norbulingka, forcing their
monastery officials to accompany them.  The guards at the Norbulingka
Palace gate also could not stop them and they pushed their way into the
palace grounds right to the “Yellow Wall” which surrounds the living area of
the Dalai Lama.  There the senior monastic officials prostrated and shouted
that they wanted to see the Dalai Lama, who was in retreat at the time.  They
yelled that their managers had done no wrong and so should be released and
their property returned.  The monks also taunted the troops on guard by the
Yellow Wall, daring them to shoot.  When they did not, the mob of monks
forcibly took away the troops’ arms and broke them.  While the senior monks
shouted and prostrated, the younger monks urinated and defecated all over
the Dalai Lama’s gardens, pulled up and trampled the flowers, broke statues
and sang especially loudly in order to disturb the Dalai Lama.(11)
The Lonchen Sholkhang came out to try to calm them.  He made the tradi-
tional thumbs-up pleading gesture and said, “Please don’t do this.  Whatever
you have to say, tell me.” But the monks treated him rudely and with dis-
dain, saying, ‘Old man, you don’t know anything.  We want to see the Dalai
Lama” (Urgyenla, interview; Surkhang, interview; Bell 1946).
Tsarong, the army’s commander-in-chief, was immediately summoned to
Norbulingka Palace, but many advisors feared that calling out the military
and opening fire on the monks could push the other colleges and monaster-
ies to support Loseling and possibly precipitate an all-out civil war.  The
government’s military position in Lhasa at this time consisted of only about
700 troops, not an adequate force to control a joint reaction by the Three
Seats, so it was ultimately decided that the most prudent course was that no
action be taken to eject the monks forcibly.  The Dalai Lama pretended he
knew nothing of what had happened, and by the afternoon the monks tired
of the protest and left Norbtilingka.  In the meantime, the Dalai Lama and
Tsarong issued orders to recall several thousand troops and Militia to Lhasa
preparation for a possible confrontation with Loseling.  Live ammunition
was also issued to the troops in Lhasa at this time.(12)
That niglit soldiers were stationed in front of Drepung where they set up
camps, and the Dalai Lama, through Tsarong, ordered Loseling to turn over
the ringleaders of the protest.  The monks, as expected, refused.  Loseling
College appealed to the monks of Sera and Ganden, as well as to the monks
of Drepung’s other major college (Gomang) to support them, and then they
posted pickets above their monastery.(13) Various lamas, such as Kundeling
and Ditru, tried to mediate the confrontation, but the monks would not
agree to turn over their ringleaders.  Sera, however, quickly refused to join
Loseling; later Ganden also refused, as did Drepung’s own Gomang College.
Loseling was on its own.  But since it contained 4000-5000 monks, it was
still a formidable opponent.  The monks threatened to attack Norbulingka
and Lhasa, and said that they would seize the Dronyerchenmo, whom they
saw as their main enemy in this fight (Bell 1946: 327).
By the second week in August, the Tibetan government had massed sev-
eral thousand troops in Lhasa and felt confident that they could handle the
monks.  Loseling College was to be taught a lesson, though without bloodshed
if possible.  With the reinforced government troops deployed in a semicircle
in front of the monastery (with strict orders from the Dalai Lama not to
fire upon it), new demands were made to the monks to turn over the lead-
ers of the demonstration (Bell 1946: loc. cit.). Loseling now found itself in
an untenable situation.  It was without support from other monasteries; it
had been unable to get the Eastern Tibetan (Khamba) community in Lhasa
to lend military support; and it was blocked by a large army force led by
Tsarong, an official who was likely to have no qualms in taking on the monks
militarily.  Loseling, therefore, backed down.  By mid-September, it had sur-
rendered eleven ringleaders of the protest,(14) and others who had run away,
such as Anjanali, were captured in caves on the mountains behind Drepung
after an all-out search, during which the government ordered all district offi-
cials to seize and hold any Loseling monks who passed their way (Urgyenla,
interview).  The government even interrupted a teaching of Taktra Rinpoche
in his hermitage north of Lhasa to see if Anjanali might be there (Khri-byang
1978: 94-95).
All told, about sixty monks were arrested, paraded around the city, lightly
flogged, shackled and had cangues placed on their necks.  They were then
put into the custody of various aristocratic families.  The Dalai Lama dis-
missed a the Drepung abbots, and passed a rule giving himself the right, for
the first time, to appoint the managers of Drepung’s khamtsen.  He also im-
posed a new rule whereby these managers were chosen only from monks who
hailed from nearby, i.e., Central Tibetan, places.  This was done to decrease
the power of the Khamba monks whom the Dalai Lama saw as more pro-
Chinese and less amenable to control by the central government (Urgyenla,
For the first time in modern Tibetan history, the government’s army had
confronted the monks directly and forced them to concede, although not a
single shot was fired.  The Loseling incident of 1921 served notice that the
monks of the Three Seats could no longer intimidate the Dalai Lama with
impunity.  The Dalai Lama later told Bell that, “it was necessary for me to
make a show of force or else the large monasteries would continually give me
trouble”; but he went on to say that he intended to show them leniency.(15)
And in a sense he did.  While the ringleaders were severely punished, the
monastery and the monks were not.  No estates were confiscated, as had
been the case with Tengyeling.(16)
The Flight of the Panchen Lama
The need to build a strong military and maintain a large army equipped
with modern British rifles on the Kham border had dramatically increased
the expenses of the Tibetan Government and resulted in the imposition of a
special tax on the great monasteries, including Tashilhunpo, the seat of the
Panchen Lama.  Outside of the central government, the Panchen Lama was
the largest estate-holder, possessing not only numerous manorial estates, but
also ten whole districts.
There was considerable ill feeling between the officials of the Dalai Lama
and the Panchen Lama due to the Panchen Lama’s behavior following the
Dalai Lama’s flights to exile in 1904 and 1910.  When the question of financial
support for the large contingent of troops on active duty arose, some remem-
bered that during a previous war with Nepal in 1791 (when the Gurkha
troops attacked Tashilhunpo), the Panchen Lama had paid one-quarter of
all the military costs.  The Dalai Lama used this as a precedent, and, after
returning to Tibet in 1912, he informed the Panchen Lama that he had to
pay one-fourth of the total military costs of the 1912-1913 Chinese war, as
well as one-fourth of the costs of the Tibeto-British wars of 1888 and 1904.
This amounted to 27,000 ke (khal) of grain.  Tashilhunpo vigorously disagreed
with this interpretation and did not pay the entire amount (Don-khang 1984:
The relations between the Dalai and Panchen Lamas deteriorated further
in 1917, when the Dalai Lama instituted a new rule called the Fire-Snake-
Year Order (me-sbrul bka’-rtsa) which made the serfs of Tashilhunpo in
Gyantse District pay one-seventh of the horse and carrying-animal corvee
tax on levies of over one hundred horses and three hundred carrying animals.
Since Tashilhunpo had written statements from past Dalai Lamas exempting
its serfs from providing such corvee services for anyone but Tashilhunpo,
the Panchen Lama viewed this as an illegal abrogation of his prerogatives.
Similarly, in 1923, the Water-Pig-Year Order (chu-phag bka’-rtsa) extended
this to all Tashilhunpo serfs in Tsang (Don-khang 1984: 35).  In 1922, the
new government “Revenue Investigation Office’ had also levied an additional
annual tax of about 30,000 ke of grain and 10,000 silver coins on Tashilhunpo
(ibid.: 57).
The Panchen Lama and his officials attacked the validity of the new taxes,
arguing that the precedent on which they were based was invalid.  They ar-
gued that they had only paid one-fourth of the Tibetan government’s mil-
itary expenses in 1791 because their own city and monastery were under
attack.  They also argued that they could not afford to make such pay-
ments and still fulfill their religious obligations to their monks, and they
presented documents which granted them tax exemptions.  Meanwhile, each
year they protested the decision, the unpaid taxes piled up.  Lungshar, a
Tsipon, played a major role in this controversy, insisting that the Pancchen
Lama could pay the new tax.  His examination of the Panchen Lama’s gov-
ernment records documented that they could easily pay the new levy and do
the corvee taxes.  He convinced the Dalai Lama that the real motive behind
the Panchen Lama’s reftisal was his ambivalence over the supreme authority
of the Dalai Lama.  Thus, increasing revenue to support the army produced
a major dispute between the Panchen Lama and the central government.
Additional details of this dispute come from the Panchen Lama’s approach
to the British in India (through MacDonald, the Gyantse Trade Agent) ask-
ing for their help.  MacDonald reported in a letter to his superiors in the
Indian Government:
I have the honour to report that His Serenity the Tashi [Panchen]
Lama sent a messenger to me yesterday with a private letter
(which he requested me to return to him) stating as follows:
… That the Lhasa Government has demanded that the Tashi
Lhunpo Government should contribute one fourth of the total
expenditure for the upkeep of the Tibetan Army, which consists
of the following:
(a) Rs. 650,000/- approximately,
(b) 10,000 mounds of grain valued at Rs. 80,000/-,
(c) 2,000 boxes of Chinese brick-tea, valued at Rs. 85,000/-.
(d) In addition to the above, they have asked for other liberal
concessions (not mentioned in the above letter).
… In default of complying with the above demands, I have
been informed that the officials of the Tashi Lhunpo Government
who are undergoing imprisonment at the Potala Palace will not
be released and others will also be imprisoned.
… His Serenity the Tashi Lama states that he is unable to
meet the demands made upon him and he proposes to submit
a representation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the subject.
If his request is granted, things will then of course be all right;
but if not, His Serenity wishes to know whether the Government
of India will mediate between himself and His Holiness the Dalai
Lama as he states that his only hope is the assistance of the
Government of India.1r
The Panchen Lama, after several unsuccessful protests by his officials
and one abortive attempt to escape when he went to the hot springs of
Lhatse District (Phun-rab 1984: 130), secretly fled to Mongolia and China on
December 26, 1923, leaving the following set of instructions for his followers
in Tashilhunpo:
Be it known to all the Abbots and Assistants of the four colleges
and also to the Acting Prime Minister and the Monk and Lay
officials of the Tashi Lhunpo Government:-
With regard to the troubles of the Tashi-Lhunpo Government
and their subjects, I have submitted representations to His Holi-
nem the Dalai Lama on several occasions, but my requests have
not been granted. At the same time His Holiness has always               I
shown me kindness.  The investigating officers listened to the
advice of evil-minded persons and made it very difficult for His
Holiness to grant my requests.  In consequence, orders were issued
to all Jongpoens of the Tsang Province that they must supply free
transport, etc., to the officials of the Lhasa Government, against
the prevailing custom.  Moreover, I have been asked to make con-
tributions for the upkeep of the Tibetan Army, but the nobles
and subjects were unable to take the responsibility of meeting
these demands.  For these reasons, the subjects of the Tashi-
Lhunpo Government were disappointed and became dissatisfied.
You are all aware of these facts and these things have made it
quite impossible for us to live in peace.  I should have made fur-
ther representation, but it would have created a difficult position
for His Holiness.  I am therefore leaving Tashi-Lhunpo for a short
period to make it easier for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  I am
going to see whether I can secure anyone to mediate between
us, with the assistance of the dispensers of gifts in Kham and
Mongolia whither I have despatched messengers.  It is quite im-
possible for me to make the annual contributions to meet the
Military expenses and I am compelled to proceed to an unknown
destination to try to raise funds from the Buddhists who may be
inclined to help me voluntarily.  I may state here once and for
all that I have no desire to do anything against the wishes of His
Holiness the Dalai Lama or that will be injurious to our pres-
tige.  The letter which I have addressed to His Holiness should
be at once forwarded, so as to make matters clear to him.  After
due consideration I have appointed the Acting Prime Minister [of
Tashilhunpo] and the Abbots of the four Colleges [of Tashilhunpo]
to carry on the administration during my absence.  First of all,
you should see that the customary ceremonies are performed in
the Tashi-Lhunpo and other monasteries as usual.  You should
also see that the Lamas of the different monasteries receive their
rations; and that the monks study all the religious books and
preach the religion, and that they do not neglect the subject of
disputation; and above all, you should see that all the monas-
tic rules arc duly observed.  Finally, you should discharge your
duties faithfully and treat the poor subjects and monks with all
consideration and help them in every way possible.  You should
keep careful accounts of all receipts and expenditure from land
revenue, etc., and apply the balance for the observance of reli-
gious ceremonies.  You should carry on your duties appertaining
to the spiritual and temporal powers after due consultation; but
if you cannot decide any big question, you should refer the mat-
ter to me for orders.  You should discharge the duties of your
responsible position without fail and leave nothing undone.  I
hereby command all the monks and laymen, who are subjects of
the Tashi-Lhunpo Government, to obey the orders of the Acting
Prime Minister and Council and discharge their duties faithfully.
Let all noblemen and peasants bear these instructions in mind
and act accordingly.  I will issue necessary orders in the future
according to circumstances.  Let all the animate beings bear this
in mind.  I have issued these orders on the auspicious date –
the 18th day of the 11th month of the Water-Pig Year (26th
December, 1923).(18)
The Tibetan government sent troops to seize the Panchen Lama, but they
were too late and he escaped together with a large entourage.  The Dalai
Lama responded by appointing his own officials to take over the adminis-
tration of Tashilhunpo.  The Panchen Lama, despite subsequent attempts
at rapprochement, lived out the rest of his life in exile in China, dying in
Jyekundo in 1937.
The Toba Abbot Incident
A third well known incident occurred when Reting, the Regent, attempted
to force the retirement of the abbot of Mey College of his own Sera Monastery
so that he could appoint one of his own supporters.
Reting’s staunch supporter during his period of power consolidation in
the late 1930s was the abbot of Toba College in Sera.  Although this college
carried the title of “abbot,’ it was in reality one of the anachronistic colleges
that no longer had any monks or property.  The abbacy of this college,
however, was usually seen as a stepping stone in the monastic hierarchy, as
it was common for the Toba abbot to be made the abbot of one of the real
colleges when an opening occurred.  Reting, however, wanted to award his
ally, the Toba Abbot, immediately, so he decided to force the current abbot
of Sera Mey College to resign and then appoint the Toba Abbot in his place.
The incumbent abbot of Mey College was a learned and pious elderly
monk, admired and respected by all the monks.  He was also a Khamba, and
very close to the Pandatsang family, both of whom came from Markham.
Pandatsang, in turn, was a close supporter of Reting.  Consequently, Reting
asked Pandatsang to convey to the abbot that he wanted him to resign from
his position at once.  Reting tried to sweeten the blow by offering the old
abbot the title and rights of an ex-abbot (thereby making him eligible to
attend the government and monastic assemblies) and giving him the yield
from the estate assigned as salary to the Mey Abbot for one more year.(19)
The old abbot did not wish to disobey the Regent and immediately agreed
to resign.  However, he knew that the monks of Sera Mey were not partic-
ularly fond of Reting, who was from their rival college (Sera Che), and he
suspected that they would insist on his remaining abbot if he announced his
intentions to resign.  He requested, therefore, to be allowed to resign without
informing the monks.  Reting agreed to this and the abbot submitted his
written resignation.
The Sera Mey monks were first surprised and then incensed, as they grad-
ually discovered what had transpired.  Consequently, when the order came
from the government to submit a list of candidates for the abbacy, the monks
guessed (or were secretly told) that the reason behind the resignation was
to allow Reting to appoint the Toba Abbot.  They decided first to follow
traditional rules and submitted to the government (Regent) a list of five
unusually outstanding candidates, but they did not include the Toba Ab-
bot among them.  They also agreed internally to stage a mass walk-out if
the Toba Abbot were appointed.  Usually only a ranked list of names was
submitted, but the Mey College monks were so angered that they added a
written note:
The elimination of our good abbot has made us very sad, but
this is finished.  We are not going to make any trouble about
it. However, regarding the appointment of a new abbot, we have
submitted the names of five first-rate candidates so please pick
the new abbot from among these five.  If this is not agreeable, we
will send up other names to you.  But there is one person whose
name we will not send tip: the Toba Abbot.  He has a great wish
to be abbot but he is not knowledgeable or scholarly and will
not be a good abbot.  He is good in politics, but is not good in
religion.  If you appoint him as abbot, then we will put away the
rug on which the monks sit in the Prayer Hall and leave.  To this
all the monks have taken an oath.
                         (Surkhang, interview)

This defiance placed the Regent in an extraordinarily difficult and poten-
tially humiliating position.  If he appointed the Toba Abbot, as was his right,
the monks had already sworn that they would not accept him; and given the
volatility of monks, they might even try to kill him.  If Reting then took
action against these monks, there was no telling what kind of support they
would get from Drepung and Ganden Monasteries.
Reting turned for assistance to the most famous lama of Sera Mey, Pha-
bongka.  He was in the midst of giving religious teachings at Tashilhunpo, but
the Regent sent a special messenger who travelled night and day to ask him
to return at once.  In Lhasa, the Regent explained the situation and asked
Phabongka to persuade the monks to accept the Toba Abbot.  Because most
of them had taken teachings from him, and were thus in a student-teacher
relationship to him, Phabongka was confident they would listen to him.
Phabongka invited the more influential monks in Sera Mey to come and
see him, enjoining them to obey the Regent.  The monks replicd.  “You are
our ‘root’ lama and whatever you say we will do. If you say die, we will die.
However, agreeing to accept the Toba Abbot we will never do.”
Phabongka scolded them, “If you do not listen to what your ‘root’ lama
says, you are very bad indeed.” The Mey College monks, however, would not
yield.  They offered Phabongka a gift of money that symbolized their belief
in him, but Phabongka, angry and frustrated, threw the gift money back
at them (Surkhang, interview).  The monks, however, refused to acquiesce,
reiterating that even if they, the higher monks, agreed to accept the Toba
Abbot, the common monks would never agree.
Phabongka had to convey the monks’ resolve to Reting, who then tried to
intimidate them.  He ordered blacksmiths in Lhasa to make publicly many
arm and leg shackles and leaked the rumor that these were for the Sera Mey
monks who were to be arrested by the government.  After this public display,
Reting ordered the Mey College leaders to come to his office in Shol, fully
expecting that they, fearing arrest, would not come.  If this ploy worked, he
would have a more defensible issue to use against them if he chose to use
force.  But again he failed.  The monk leaders first asked the common monks
what they would do if the Regent arrested or killed them.  When they swore
to sacrifice their lives if necessary in support of their leaders, the Sera Mey
officials went as ordered to Shol.
As though giving them a last chance, the Regent asked the Mey College
officials what they were going to do, implying force might be used against
them.  The monks stood firm again, saying, “We have nothing to think about
at all.  If you want, you can put us all in prison but we cannot yield.  Even
if we wanted to change now, the lower monks will not let it be” (Surkhang,
interview).  Reting, though furious, now backed down rather than risk a
violent confrontation with Sera Mey, and appointed one of the five candidates
originally submitted for the abbacy.
However, Reting was not content to leave the matter as it stood.  He
decided to punish the monks of Sera Mey by venting his anger on the old
Abbot.  He expelled him from the monastery (on the grounds of fomenting
discord), causing him to lose not only all his rights and income, but also
his very home in the monastery.  This in turn again embittered the monks
who further humiliated the Regent by spreading the word that the life of the
Toba Abbot was not safe if he returned to the monastery.  Unwilling to risk
this, the Toba Abbot now also had to resign (Surkhang, interview).
From the alleged attempt on the life of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama by
Demo Hutoktu at the turn of the century to the disastrous attempt by Ret-
ing to assassinate the Regent Taktra in 1947, Tibet experienced a series of
significant clashes between the Three Seats and the government, and be-
tween key elements in the Geltigpa religious segment.  This discord, however,
was typified not by conflict over the ideology that religion must dominate
in Tibet, but rather over the monks’ belief that this meant that the inter-
ests of the monasteries should reign supreme.  The Three Seats thus had no
qualms about challenging the government when they felt their interests were
at stake, for in their view they were more important than Ganden Photrang,
the government headed by the Dalai Lunas.  During the first half of the
twentieth century, this perspective dominated the policies of the Three Seats
and severely constrained the options available to the government.  This, in
turn, clearly played a major role in the ultimate demise of Ganden Pliotrang
in Tibet in 1951-1959.

1    Parts of the research data used in this paper were collected through
grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian
Institution and the Program for Advanced Study and Research in China,
National Academy of Sciences.  I also want to express my appreciation to
Tibet House (New Delhi), the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences (Lhasa),
and the Tibetan Library and Archives (Dharamsala) for their cooperation.
2   Translation from a copy of the original document provided me by Lob-
sang Lhalungpa.
3   Although the past tense is used here, the Three Seat monasteries are
again functioning both in Tibet and in India, albeit in attenuated form.
4   Interview with Dung-dkar Rinpoche.
5   See Goldstein 1964 for a discussion of these dabdo monks.
6   Khanitsen sometimes contained sub-dorntitory units known as mitsen
(mi-tshan) which were even more specific with regard to the geographic
origin of the monks, e.g., a single region within Kham.
7   These three were the managers of Tsha Khamtsen, Gonggo (Kong-po)
Khamtsen and Phugang Khamtsen, Loseling’s three largest khamtsen.
8   Interview with the late Zur-khang Sa-dbang-chen-mo (hereafter Sur-
9    It is not clear whether they just wanted to give the estate to someone else                          
as some have suggested, or whether they intended to retake administrative
control over all such estates.
10   Shan-kha-ba n.d. The third manager, the Gongja, was released with-
out punishment, most likely because he had not been in office 1910-1913.
11   Urgyenla, interview; Surkhang, interview; Bell 1946. The Tibetan term
grwa-pa blug expresses this rushing out of the monks to protest and to intim-
idate the government.  The verb blug normally denotes a substance bursting
out of confinement, e.g., water from a hole in a dam.
12   IOR, L/PS/10/883, telegram from Bell (in Lhasa) to the Government
of India (Defhi), dated 3rd August, 1921.  Tsarong Dzasa (personal commu-
nication) contends that there were more than 700 troops in Lhasa at this
time.  He says the Bodyguard Regiment had 500, and that there were two
to three other regiments in Lhasa.  This may well be correct, but Bell was
referring to actual troops on hand, for often a sizable portion of a regiment
was on leave.  In any case, even 1200 troops was still hardly an overwhelming
force if a major confrontation developed.
13   IOR, L/PS/10/883, telegram from Bell (Lhasa) to Government of In-
dia, dated 3rd September, 1921, cited in telegram from Government of India
to His Majesty’s Government, dated 11th September, 1921.
14   IOR, L/PS/10/883, telegram of Bcll (Lhasa) to Government of Iii(lia,
dated 16th September, 1921, cited in telegram from Government of India to
His Majesty’s Government, dated 23rd September, 1921.
15   IOR, L/PS/10/883, telegram from Bell (Lha-sa) to Government of In-
dia, dated 16th September, 1921, cited in telegram from Government of India
to His Majesty’s Government, dated 23rd September, 1921.
16   In Tengyefing’s case the entire monastery had been razed to the ground
in 1913 so that not even a single stone remained.
17   IOR, L/PS/12/4174, letter from British ’1@rade Agent (Gyantse) to Po-
litical Officer Sikkim, dated 18th November, 1922.  The British refused to
18   IOR9 L/PS/12/4174 (Pz 1769/24), British Trade Agent (Gyantse) to
the Political Officer in Sikkim, circa.  March, 1924.
19   In other words, the Toba Abbot would not get the yield from the estate
for his first year.

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