Sera Monastery is one of the 'great three' Gelukpa university monasteries of Tibet, located 2km north of Lhasa. The other two are Ganden Monastery and Drepung Monastery. The origin of the name Sera is attributed to a fact that the site where the monastery was built was surrounded by wild roses in bloom. The Sera Monastery, as a complex of structures with the Great Assembly Hall and three colleges, was founded in 1419 by Jamchen Chojey of Sakya Yeshe of Zel Gungtang (13551435), a disciple of Tsongkhapa.
The Sera Monastery in Tibet and its counterpart in Mysore, India are noted for their "Monk Debates" on the teachings of Buddha and the philosophy of Buddhism. Sera Monastery developed over the centuries as a renowned place of scholarly learning, training hundreds of scholars, many of whom have attained fame in the Buddhist nations.
The monastery complex, encompassing 28 acres (11 ha) of land, housed several institutions in its precincts. The structures of notability were the Coqen Hall Tsokchen (Great Assembly Hall), the three Zhacangs (colleges) and Kamcun (dormitory) also called Homdong Kangtsang. In the main hall, scriptures (scripted with gold powder), statues, scent cloth and murals were seen in profusion. The descriptions given here relate to the scenario that existed at the monastery prior to the 1959 invasion by China but most of the monasteries are stated to be since restored, though the strength of the monks are said to be small.
The Great Assembly Hall, the Tsokchen' or 'Coqen Hall', dated to 1710, a four-storey structure to the north east of the monastery, facing east, is where several religious rituals and rites are conducted. The hall measured an area of 2,000 square metres (22,000 sq ft) built with 125 pillars (86 tall and 39 short columns) and was constructed by Lhazang Qan. The entry portico had ten columns. The five chapels in this building have statues or images of Maitreya, Shakyamuni, Arhats, Tsongkhapa, and Kwan-yin with one thousand hands and eleven faces. The ancient and delicately written scriptures the Gangyur of Tripitaka™ also spelt Kangyur (dated 1410) in 105 volumes (original 108 volumes) written in Tibetan is the treasured possession of the monastery. It is said that Chengzhu, Emperor of the Ming Dynasty presented these scriptures (printed on wood blocks with gold cover engraved in red lacquer and made in China), to Jamchen Chojey, the builder of the monastery.
Sera Me Tratsang or Sera Me Zhakan was the oldest college built here. It was established in 1419 during the Ming Dynasty reign, initially for elementary or basic education in Buddhist religion. The college adopted a step-by-step approach to the studies of Buddhist doctrines; a practice particular to the Gelukpa or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Sera Je Tretsang (College) or Zhekong, the largest college in Sera complex, measured an area of 17,000 square metres (180,000 sq ft). It was initially a three storied building; a fourth floor was added in the 18th century by strengthening the building with a total of 100 columns. It had a statue of the Hayagriva (said to have been sculpted by Lodro Rinchen himself in gilded copper) also known popularly as Chenresig or Avalokiteshwara, which was considered the protective deity of the monastery.
The Ngakpa Tratsang, also spelled Ngaba Zhacang, was the smallest of the three colleges that was set up in the complex. It was a three storied building originally built in 1419 by Jetsun Kunkhen Lodroe Rinchen Senge. It was refurbished in the 18th century by Lhazang Khan. Devoted to tantric studies, the college had an assembly hall and two chapels in the ground floor.
Homdong Khangtsang, also spelt Kamcuns™ in Tibetan language, are the main dwelling units or dormitories which house the monks of the monastery; there are thirty-three Kamcuns surrounding the central courtyard. The size of the Kamcuns varied, depending on the strength of monks housed. Monks of the same village are housed together; however each monk is given a separate cell.
Choding Khang is the hermitage located just behind the Great Assembly Hall (on the hill slope of Sera Utse). This is where Je Tsongkhapa meditated. The hermitage is accessed through a track where painted rock carvings of Tsongkhapa, Jamchen and Dharma Raja (the protector) are seen flanking the stepped approaches, along the route.
Sera Bengqin Festival
The Sera Bengqin Festival is a grand festival held in the Sera Monastery on December 27 of the Tibetan calendar (about February in the Gregorian calendar). On that day, a Dorje Pestle is carried to the Potala Palace. The Dalai Lama prays to the Buddha to confer strength and then he blesses the pestle. Following this, the Khenpo (president) of the Ngaba Zhacang will place the pestle on the monks and followers who believe that the power and support of the Buddha are transferred. Tens of thousands of believers come to witness this event as it only occurs here.