DRIKUNG KAGYU IN LADAKH
800 years of history
by C. Luczanits
The Drikung Kagyu (’Bri-gung bKa’-brgyud) school of Tibetan Buddhism was founded at Drikung in Central Tibet by the Drikung Rinpoche Jigten Gönpo (’Bri-gung Rin-po-che ’Jig-rten-mgon-po, 1143–1217). Focusing on meditative practice, the Drikung school also concentrated its activities from its earliest days in the region around Mount Kailash in West Tibet.
While after a century of political dominance the school lost its primary position in Central Tibet, in Ladakh it has continued to be prominent to the present day. The numerous monuments pertaining to this school preserved in Ladakh date from the earliest phase of Drikung influence to the present day, making the Drikung tradition the oldest in the region and Ladakh the region preserving the major part of its cultural heritage.
During the first few decades of the Drikung order the founder of the school, Drikung Rinpoche Jigten Gönpo (1143–1217), sent pupils to the region of Mount Kailash in West Tibet for meditative practice. It is known that at the beginning of the 13th century the ’Bri-gung-pa established numerous hermitages in the Kailash-Manasarowar region where they soon succeeded in obtaining the support of the local rulers, among them the Ladakhi King dNgos-grub (Petech, 1977: 19–20].
Even during the lifetime of Drikung Rinpoche the influence of this school became manifest in the art of the region. In a lineage preserved on the third storey of the Alchi Sumtsek (gSum-brtsegs) Drikung Rinpoche is mentioned as the last in the lineage, making the temple relatively well dateable to the early 13th century (ca. 1200–1220). In addition, the later temples of the Alchi Group of monuments, at least the gSum-brtsegs and the two mchod-rten of Alchi as well as the Assembly Hall of Sumda Chung, already show some Central Tibetan influence in their iconography and the depiction of the priests (Luczanits, 1998).
During the 13th and 14th centuries the small West Tibetan kingdoms and their monasteries became part of the newly established schools of Tibetan Buddhism and their political quarrels. Although very little is known of regional history for these centuries the western Himalayas apparently served as a stronghold for the Drikung order.
Besides a temple at Lamayuru, a major centre of the school today, numerous temples were founded providing evidence that the school had established itself in the region. Important early foundations are particularly frequent in Lower Ladakh, in the region around Lamayuru, for example the early temples preserved at Wanla, Kanji, Lamayuru, Alchi, Saspol and Phyang.
Although they supported all Buddhist schools in the region the early rulers of the Namgyal (rNam-rgyal) dynasty continued their patronage of the Drikung school. In the 15th century the newly founded dGe-lugs-pa school established itself in Ladakh and became the focus of royal patronage. A number of important present-day dGe-lugs-pa centres, e.g. Spituk, Likir, and Tikse, were founded or reconstructed at that time.
The visit of an eminent Drikung teacher, chos-rje lDan-ma, during the 1550s brought the Drikung to prominence again for a short period. This teacher initiated the foundation of the second major centre of the school, the monastery of Phyang (sGang-ngon bKhra-shis-chos-rdzong in Phyi-dbang).
In the 17th century the Drukpa (’Brug-pa), another branch of the Kagyu, became more prominent and have continued their close ties with the royal family up to the present day (Petech, 1977: 166–9).
In the 17th century the 6th Togdan Rinpoche (rTogs-ldan Rin-po-che) initiated another revival of the Drikung school. His successors settled at Phyang Monastery which has remained their seat until today.