Sera Monastery is the representative monastery of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It lies on the southern slope of Serawoze Mountain in the northern suburbs of Lhasa. The monastery was built by Sagya Yexei, one of the disciples of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelugpa sect of Tibet Buddhism in 1419. It is one of the 6 main monasteries of the Gelugpa sect and one of the 3 main monasteries in all of Lhasa.
It is here that the monks’ famous daily debates take place. Sera Monastery has suffered the effects from both natural disasters and wars during its long history. When Tibet was peacefully liberated in 1951, it was dilapidated. The People’s Republic of China’s central government and the people's government of the Tibet Autonomous Region has since earmarked a large amount of money for renovations.
The monastery is grand in scale, covering an area of 114,964 square meters. Its building complex is composed of Buddha halls, sutra halls, residences for monks, Kamcuns (spaces where monks sleep and dine), and Lhadrang palace residence, residences for major living Buddhas Cermoiling and Razheng, and of course Zhacangs (Buddhist colleges).
The most important sections are Coqen Hall, Meba Zhacang, the Ngaba Zhacang, and the Gyi Zhachang. Early constructions were built around the Meba Zhachang and the Ngaba Zhachang. Zhacangs are the most necessary part of the monastery construction in Tibetan Buddhism. Sera Monastery has 3 important Zhacangs, namely the Meba Zhacang (medical college), the Ngaba Zhacang (tantric college), and the Gyi Zhacang (mantrism college).
The Meba Zhacang in the southwestern part of the monastery was once destroyed by a thunderbolt and then later rebuilt in 1761. With a construction area of 1,600 square meters, the 4-story building consists of Sutra Hall, Buddhist Guardian Hall, Arhat Hall, Sakyamuni Hall, Tsongkhapa Hall, Gangyur Hall, and the residence for the Dalai Lama. Sutra Hall is enshrined with bronze statues of bodhisattvas Sakyamuni, Maitreya, Longevity Buddha, Medicine King, Goddess of Music, Tsongkhapa and 2 of his disciples, the 7th Dalai Lama, and the 3rd Living Buddha, Cermoiling.
The Ngaba Zhacang, built in 1710, served as the earliest Coqen Hall of the Sera Monastery. The present-day Coqen Hall became a Zhacang. Covering a construction area of 1,500 square meters, the 3-story Zhacang is composed of Sutra Hall, Arhat Hall, Yamantaka-Rje Hall, Buddha of Infinite Light Hall, the residence for the Dalai Lama, and holy towers containing the bodies of dead Buddhists. It is the smallest in size of the 3 Zhacangs in the monastery. However, it is an important place for monks of the monastery to study Tantricism.
The monks here worship 3 Tantric Buddhas: Gsang-Dus-Rao-Rje, Bde-Mchog-Rdo-Rje, and Yamantaka-Rje. In Sutra Hall is the statue of Sakyamuni flanked by statues of Tsongkhapa and 2 of his disciples, and the 13th Dalai Lama. Frescoes on the 4 walls tell Buddhist and Tantric stories, and contain figures of Gsang-Dur-Rao-Rje and Bodhisattva, eminent monks in the history of Buddhism. They are all superbly painted.
Built in 1435, the Gyi Zhacang is the largest of the 3 Zhacangs with a construction area of 1,700 square meters. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was expanded.
The main buildings of Sera Monastery are Coqen Hall, the Meba Zhangcang, the Gyi Zhangcang, the Ngaba Zhangcang, and 32 Kangcuns, as well as the Hall of Buddhist Trinity, the Hall of the Horse-Necked Diamond King, Maitreya Hall, Tsongkhapa Hall, the Hall of the Goddess of Music, the Hall of the Goddess of Mercy, and Victorious Hall.
Coqen Hall, lying in the northeastern part of the monastery, was built in 1709-1710 with aid from Lha-bzang Khan, the last Khoshut-Oirat King of Tibet. Covering an area of 1,092 square meters, at that time, it was the largest hall and the religious and administrative center of the monastery.
Standing 4-stories high, it is composed of the Hall Square, Sutra Hall, Maitreya Hall, Arhat Hall, and Yamantaka-Rje Hall, as well as the residences for the Coqen abbots and the Lagyi, the management organ of the monastery. Sutra Hall has 108 columns and can hold more than 5,000 monks chanting sutras at the same time. The hall is enshrined with the statues of Sagys Yexei, creator of the monastery, and Qamba. Its Hall of the Goddess of Mercy is an exhibition of frescoes that depict the relationship between the Central Government of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the local government of Tibet at the time. The frescoes show Sagya Yexei paying homage to the Ming rulers in 1414 and 1434, receiving the title of Great Mercy Prince of Dharma, and conducting religious activities of the imperial court.
All the 5,500 monks of Sera Monastery study in Kamcuns and Myicuns under various Zhacangs (Buddhist colleges). The 3 Zhacangs of the monastery boast a total of 32 Kamcuns, with the Gyi Zhacang having 17, exceeding the 2 others. Like their counterparts in the Gandain and Zhaibung monasteries, monk students here are required to complete the study of the 5 volumes of Buddhist classics, as required by the Gelug sect. It takes them 22-24 years to study these classics. Those who pass the sutra doctrine debate held once a year during the Grand Summons Ceremony in Lhasa are honored as the Lharaba Geshi and receive the highest Buddhist degree. This qualifies them to further their study in the Lower Tantric College.
Lagyi is the supreme organ of management in Sera Monastery. Its major members include the Kampus Chiba abbot, Kampus abbots of the 3 Zhacang colleges, chief manager (called She'o in Tibetan) of Coqen Hall, bailiff (Gyisoi in Tibetan) of the monastery manor, leading sutra teacher, official stationed in the monastery by the Gaxag government of Tibet, and the secretary, all together 11 persons. The Kampus Chiba abbot is responsible for holding meetings that cover matters of importance to the monastery. Various Zhacangs have their own management organs operating under the Zhacang kampus abbot to handle day-to-day affairs.
Like other Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, Sera Monastery has a Democratic Management Committee to unify monastery management. The committee is composed of 1 director, 4 deputy directors, 7 committee members, and 1 secretary. Under the leadership of this board, there are 3 minor committees: the Cultural Management Committee, the Security Committee, and the Materials Management Committee. All the committee members are democratically elected by monks.
Sera Monastery holds its regular religious activities on the 8th, 10th, 15th, 25th, and 30th of each month. On these days, most of the Buddhist novices have a reading following morning fast tea, and participate in sutra doctrine debates following the noon fast tea. In the afternoon, they perform religious rituals, again engage in sutra doctrine debates, and listen to lectures by sutra teachers. On Sundays, sutra doctrine debates are held on a regular basis after 5 p.m. On the 15th and 30th of each month, monks of the monastery are required to retreat for spiritual refreshment and refrain from going out of the monastery until the end of the ritual.
On other days, monks couple their regular religious studies and activities with production and labor. In recent years, they have planted close to 20,000 peach and apple trees which not only increase their income but also beatify the environment of the monastery. Income from the labor is distributed every 6 months among the monks by the Democratic Management Committee. As for the aged or physically weak monks, the Central Government has special allocations for them, including tea, porridge, and butter-oil offered by donors.
Apart from its religious importance, Sera Monastery has a rich collection of precious cultural historical relics, many of which are considered to be of state class. They include statues of Buddha, Thangka paintings, frescoes, Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist objects, sutras, monks robes, silks, gold and silver, and sacrificial articles. The Hall of the Goddess of Mercy of Coqen Hall is enshrined with texts from the classic Tibetan works Dangyur and Gangyur written in gold powder ink, the Hall of the Wisdom Buddha is enshrined with the 1413 Beijing-edition of Gangyur and Tripitaka (the most famous Tibeten text), and Arhat Hall contains the sandalwood statues of 18 Arhats bestowed by Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle.
The Gyi Zhacang is enshrined with the pair of gold-silver cymbals cast during the 5th year of the reign of Ming Dynasty Emperor Xuande. The monastery also owns a brightly colored silk Thangka painting of Sagya Yexei, 109 centimeters long and 64 centimeters wide with a history of more than 500 years, which is now part of the collection of the Cultural Relics Management Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Of these cultural relics, the most important are the 108-volume Beijing-edition Gangyur printed in cinnabar in 1410. They constitute the first Tibetan part of the Tripitaka text printed with carved printing blocks in China. According to statistics, Sera Monastery has thousands of statues of Buddha made of gold and copper which were produced by local Tibetans, as well as statues of Buddha made of yellow copper from India.
Today, the Sera Monastery shines is one of the most holy places for Tibetan monks to study Buddhism and perform Buddhist rituals, and a space for common Tibetans to worship Buddha.
The full name of Sera Monastery is "Sera Thekchen-Ling Monastery." There are 2 legends about the origin of the name. One is that it was hailing when the monastery built its basement, and hailstone is pronounced "sera" in the Tibetan language. Another legend goes that the monastery was surrounded by a grove of rose trees, and roses are also pronounced "sera" in the Tibetan language.
Sera Monastery was built by Sagya Yexei, the devoted disciple of Tsongkhapa in 1419. On behalf of his master, Sagya Yexei went to Nanjing to pay homage to the Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle, who granted him the honorific title "Western Paradise Buddha Grand State Tutor," a large number of sutras, Buddhist statues, monks robes, silks, gold and silver, which were all used to build Sera Monastery.
Sera Monastery has its own noted religious festival called "Blessing of the Dagger of Exorcism." Legend goes that at the end of the 15th century, the Dagger of Exorcism was brought to Tibet from India. It was enshrined in Drepung Buddhist Guardian Hall of Sera Monastery by the Abbot of Gyi Zhacang on 27th of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar.
In the past, in the early mornings of December 27, the staff of the Gyi Zhacang attire first took the Dagger of Exorcism to Potala Palace to the Dalai Lama. After the Dalai Lama offered blessing to it, the Dagger of Exorcism was sent back to Sera Monastery. Upon their return to the Sera Monastery, a general blessing of the Dagger of Exorcism was given by the monks and lay communities. Every year on that day since, thousands of pilgrims take part in the festival.