keeping the sacred sacred
View of Reting Monastery with the palace of Reting Rinpoche



The foundation of Reting Monastery by Drom Tonpa in 1057

Statue of Drom Tonpa, founder or Reting Monastery

vBrom-ston-pa (1005-1064) was not only the forefather of the bKav-gdam-pa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, but also Atisa's last disciple in his later years and the successor of the Buddhist doctrines advocated by Atisa. After Atisa had passed away in 1054, vBrom-ston-pa held the mourning ceremony and built the brTan-ma Hall near the gNes-thang Monastery to enshrine a statue of Tara worshiped by Atisa as a Yidam. In 1057, vBrom-ston-pa was invited to preach doctrines in Rwa-sgreng and founded the Rwa-sgreng Monastery. Taking the Rwa-sgreng Monastery as the principal site for practice, he preached the doctrines taught by Atisa. Thus, the bKav-gdam-pa Sect came into being.


The Mongol attack on Reting Monastery in 1240

After the Mongol Prince Köden took control of the Kokonor region in 1239, in order to investigate the possibility of attacking Song China from the West, he sent his general Doorda Darqan on a reconissance mission into Tibet in 1240. During this expedition the Kadampa (Bka'-gdams) monasteries of Rwa-sgreng and Rgyal-lha-khang were burned, and 500 people killed., accessed 10th November 2006-11-10


The Reting Tara

The Reting Tara

Since its first publication in 1984, this thanka has acquired an "iconic" status in the history of Tibetan art. [...] The central goddess is the Green Tara, who is the female counterpart of the male Avalokiteshvara. Like him, she is said to protect the devotee from the eight great physical perils, including fire, floods, and attacks from predatory animals and bandits. On either side of the large central figure are eight identical but miniature images of the deity that represent her eight manifestations. Four attendant goddesses, also heirophanies of Tara, are grouped around her behind her lotus seat, which is supported by an elaborate stem that rises from a pool of water.

Other deities include two bodhisattvas (at the bottom of the two side columns of eight Taras, just above the consecretory register), with two more bodhisattvas flanking the central figure of the five transcendental Buddhas along the top. In the bottom register are the scenes of consecration by a Tibetan monk followed by five female deities who have been identified as the five consorts of the five transcendental Buddhas. Slightly beyond the trefoil arch above Tara's head, which seems to define the entrance of a cave, are two monks who are very likely Atisha (982-1054) and his principal disciple Dromton (1004-63), the founder of the Kadampa order.

It is tempting to associate the painting with Atisha, as Tara was his tutelary deity, and he is known to have commissioned statues and paintings of her. The style of the painting is so close to the eastern Indian tradition of Bihar and Bengal, known mostly from manuscript illuminations, that scholars are still uncertain whether this was an import from Bihar or created in Tibet by an Indian artist. It has been suggested that the painting was inspired by the eulogy of the goddess composed by the seventh-century Indian scholar Chandragomin, which was translated into Tibetan by Atisha and his assistant, the Tibetan Naktsho. If this painting was done for Atisha, then could the officiant who is performing the consecration ceremony at the bottom be Naktsho?

The problem is compounded further by the recent discovery of Tibetan inscriptions at the back (see appendix) discussed at length by Singer. Not only do these writings characterize the goddess as the "Reting deity," but they inform us that the thanka was the personal meditational image of Chason Dru-o, was consecrated by Sechilpuwa of Chakhawa, and was installed at the Chilbu monastery. Singer assumes, probably correctly in the Tibetan context, that the painting was once in the Reting monastery, founded in 1057 by Dromton; became the property of Chason Dru-o, another Kadampa teacher who died in 1175; and finally came into the possession of Sechilwupa (died 1189), who was the founder of Chilbu. It is, indeed, not unusual for Tibetan religious objects to change hands from generation to generation. However, stylistically, a date in the third quarter of the twelfth century is difficult to sustain for this thanka, and Singer concludes that it was probably painted in Tibet sometime between 1057 and 1082 at Reting.

Statue of the first Reting Rinpoche Ngawang Chokden

This dating seems to find confirmation in the presence of only Atisha and Dromton among the early teachers of the Kadam lineage. And, assuming that both were deceased when the thanka was commissioned - as seems likely from their placement - one can narrow the date further, since Dromton died in 1063. Thus, it may have been commissioned soon after his death by a ranking monk devotee of both Atisha and Dromton; and a century later it was identified as the "Reting deity" because of its association with this location, just as a particular emanation of the goddess in India came to be known as Khadiravani Tara, because her shrine was in a grove of Khadira trees. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the particular form of Tara in the painting also represents Khadiravani Tara. Singer sees in the mountainous landscape, especially the cave and the pool of water, visual reflections of Chandragomin's description of Tara dwelling "on a lake, in a jewel cavern." She further suggests that the highly stylized trees above may represent the Khadira forest (Kossak and Singer 1998). However, except for the water, the landscape elements, like the stave-like, crystalline rocks and such "Indian" trees, are ubiquitous in early central Tibetan paintings.

It may be interesting to note that among "the many marvelous things" associated with the site of Reting - prophesized by Atisha himself as an auspicious place for a monastery - were "a spring where the two (demons) Klu Dung-skyong and 'Dzin-pa-lag-mang reside separately, and a large grove of juniper trees," which are said to have sprung from the discarded hair of Dromton himself (Wylie 1962, p. 87). Furthermore, there was an image of Tara (although we are not told whether a statue or a painting) at this monastery. All this may explain the characterization of "Reting Tara."



The ransacking and desecration of Reting Monastery following the arrest of the 5th Reting Rinpoche in 1947

Reting Monastery in the 1940s
Reting Monastery prior to its destruction in 1947

The elderly Tibetan was telling me about an incident that took place in his town, not far away from Lhasa. "I heard that one day the soldiers came and surrounded the monastery. I was a little boy then. I heard that the soldiers asked to be let in so that they could meet the head lama. But the monks who were confronting them would not allow them in. Hectic argument began and the situation was becoming tense. By then the head lama, whose residence was above the monastery and so was observing the development, opened his windows and asked the monks to let the soldiers come and meet him. The monks relented."

"The soldiers went up to the residence of the head lama. After a while some of them came out with the head lama and took him on a horse, in the direction of Lhasa. Thereafter, commotion ensued. The soldiers began to ransack the monastery, breaking the sacred statues and throwing their contents on the street. Some of them were even trampling on the sacred objects." [...]

The soldiers referred to in [this] incident were not Chinese soldiers. They were Tibetans. And these Tibetan soldiers did not belong to the Chinese People's Liberation Army. They were members of independent Tibet's army, and the incident related to the storming of the Radreng Monastery in 1947. The head lama, as you may have guessed by now, was the Radreng Rinpoche, a former regent of Tibet.

Related in: - Accessed 31st October 2006



Destruction and desecration during the Cultural Revolution

Finally, Singer has pointed out, following Tucci, that the stupa (destroyed and looted during the Cultural Revolution) commissioned by Dromton at Reting for the physical remains of Atisha was built by an Indian master architect/artist called Acharya Manu.


View of Reting Monastery

The Dalai Lama's connection to Reting Monastery

When I actually arrived at Reting monastery [in 1956], and came to pay my respects before its most important statue, I remember that, for no particular reason, I became very emotional. I felt a powerful sense of having in some way been long connected with the place. Since then, I have often thought of building a hermitage at Reting and spending the rest of my life there.



© 2006
Last updated October 2006