Katok Monastery by Jann Ronis
Katok (kaHtog) is one of the oldest continuously running monasteries in all of Tibet, an influential center of the Nyingma (rnying ma) sect, and one of the most important Buddhist institutions in Kham (khams). Katok’s founder Dampa Deshek (dam pa bde gshegs) established the monastery in 1159 in what is now Horpo (hor spo) township and district in Pelyül (dpal yul) county, Ganzi (Kandzé, dkar mdzes) Prefecture. Horpo is a key part of the Degé (sde dge) cultural region of Kham, known for its talented metal workers who specialize in daggers and jewelry. Katok continues to thrive in the present day, boasting numerous large temples, a renowned seminary with hundreds of students, and multiple practice colleges.
Katok was founded during the so-called Tibetan renaissance, when distinct sectarian traditions first emerged. The founder, Dampa Deshek (1122-1192), was a student of some of the most influential masters of the early Nyingma and Sarma (gsar ma) schools, including Gampopa (sgam po pa), the first Karmapa (karma pa), Pakmo Drupa (phag mo gru pa), and others. Dampa Deshek was born in a village called Belmo ('bel mo; now called Serkhang (gser khang)), close to where he would eventually found his monastery. All histories agree that Dampa Deshek was a blood relative of the important Kagyü (bka brgyud) master Pakmo Drupa, though there is disagreement as to their exact relation. The biography of Dampa composed by his close disciple Dingpowa (lding po ba; 12th cent.) says that they were born to the same parents, as do some later Nyingma-authored works. Alternately, the Blue Annals, a Kagyu-authored work, acknowledges this claim but asserts that the two masters were only maternal cousins.
At age nine Dampa moved to Pelkyi Chökhor (dpal kyi chos 'khor) monastery in Ling (gling), Kham, where Pakmo Drupa was also in residence. Between the ages of nineteen and thirty-six Dampa lived in Central Tibet and studied under many historically important lamas and learned Dzokchen (rdzogs chen), Mahamudra, Lamdré (lam bras), and Zhiché (zhi byed). Significant for Katok were his studies in the 1140s and early 50s of the Nyingma tantric traditions called the Kama (bka' ma). The Kama signifies the core scriptures belonging to the three “inner” tantras, and the commentarial, liturgical, and contemplative writings on them composed by Indian and Tibetan masters. Dampa Deshek also became a fully ordained monk. Notably, his biographies do not record him having any involvement in the treasure (Terma; gter ma) tradition, which at this time was in an early stage of development.
At the conclusion of his training in Central Tibet two of Dampa’s masters gave him a prophetic order to establish a monastery on the site of a geographic formation resembling the Tibetan letter Ka. The name Katok means, “above (the letter) ka,” as the earliest structures of the monastery were built upon a cliff that is said to have a letter ka magically inscribed upon it. Dampa’s “eclectic” training was transferred to the monastery, where he taught meditation and scriptural traditions associated with the older and newer schools. For example, in addition to Dzokchen, Mahamudra was also a prominent part of the earliest training program at Katok. It may be suggested that under Dampa Deshek Katok Monastery had a pronounced Nyingma cast but was not exclusively so. It appears that Dampa’s two main students – Tsangtön Dorjé Gyeltsen (gtsang stong rdo rje rgyal mtshan) and Jampa Bum (byams pa ’bum) – played formative roles in making Katok unambiguously Nyingma in character by elevating the Kama above all other traditions transmitted by Dampa.
At Katok the Kama was strongly linked to the two institutional trends of monasticism and scholastic study. Proof that this constellation of elements – Kama, monastic discipline, and scholastic study – was chief to Katok’s image long after its founding is found in the following quote about the monastery in the sixteenth-century classic of Tibetan history, Scholar’s Feast of Doctrinal History (chos 'byung mkhas pa'i dga' ston), composed by a Kagyü lama four centuries after Katok was first established. This profile of Katok appears at the end of the section on the Kama and is the only Nyingma monastery profiled in that section. The final statement about the monastery reads,
“As for (the tradition of) these Katok (lamas), because they primarily practiced the morality of the Vinayavastu, the monastery was kept clean and pure; because they propagated the conduct class (of scriptures), such as the Bodhicāryavatāra, they rectified (the study of) texts about the Mahāyāna path; and propagated all of the (teachings of the) authentic mantra. In particular the main (Kama) teaching of the Triad of Sūtra, Illusion, and Mind abide here (at Katok).”
Under Dampa, Tsangtön Dorjé Gyeltsen, and Jampa Bum, Katok became a regionally important monastery. Thus when it came time for the Kham-born second Karmapa to be ordained and educated his master Pomdrakpa (spom brag pa; 1170-1249) sent him to Katok for higher training. In fact, throughout much of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries Katok maintained its scholastic and monastic vitality. This can be determined, in part, through the volume and quality of the extant writings of Katok lamas from these centuries and the role of Katok in histories from this period. During this time no other Nyingma institution seems to have been as productive and well regarded as Katok.
The biography of Dampa mentioned above does not attempt any general descriptions of the monastery as it was during Dampa’s time, but many of the details it records help the reader get a picture of the size of the monastery, its study programs, and bases of patronage. For instance, the biography mentions that at one summer rains retreat (dbyar gnas) 900 fully ordained monks and 200 novice monks were in attendance. It is safe to assume that a percentage of these monks were not full-time residents of Katok but were at the monastery only for the duration of the retreat, during which Dampa Deshek would give numerous teachings for over one month. The biography also mentions in passing that every summer Dampa convened a “commentarial institute” (bshad grwa) for the study of the classics of sutra and tantra, and in the winter convened a “meditation institute” (sgom grwa) wherein Dampa bestowed tantric initiations, instructions, and oral advice. The work portrays Dampa as a tireless teacher, which was clearly true, but goes so far as to claim that he taught thirteen individual sessions each day! The list of regional leaders who made donations for Dampa’s funeral ceremony suggest that he was well known throughout all of Kham and Amdo (a mdo). The list includes the kings of Horpo, Menyak (me nyag; Tangut), Jang ('jang; ch. Lijiang), Ling, Tsongkha (tsong kha), and Gyelmorong (rgyal mo rong).
Periodization of Early and Later Periods at Katok
Over its long history, a few different periodization schemes have been formulated to chronicle Katok’s history. One explains the first few centuries as dominated by three staggered but partly overlapping lines of leading lamas: the thirteen lamas (bla rabs bcu gsum), the thirteen abbots (mkhan rabs bcu gsum), and the thirteen “Drung” (drung rabs bcu gsum). The coherence of each lineage, and even the identity of its members are sketchy, but from a thematic perspective this historical model is quite helpful. Included among the so-called thirteen lamas are the founding lamas and certain later hierarchs of the monastery. The line of abbots refers to the great scholars from the twelfth through sixteenth centuries. It appears that both of these lines of lamas were meritocratic; neither familial nor based on reincarnation. In the fifteenth century a new line of leaders emerged at Katok. They came to be known as the Drung line (drung rabs), with “drung” being an honorific title of authority. The first Drung lama lived in the fifteenth century and established at Katok a hereditary line of uncles and nephews who maintained the monastic customs but under whose reign the scholarly traditions suffered. Post-seventeenth century Katok lamas refer to the period spanned by these three lines as the “early period” (snga rabs).
The traditional, emic periodization scheme of early and later periods, based as it is on lines of ruling lamas and their associated scriptural traditions, can be augmented with reference to contemporaneous regional political conditions. During the entirety of the early period Katok does not seem to have been under the control of powerful local polities. During much of the early period there were several powerful political entities in Kham, such as Gonjo (go ’jo) and Lingtsang (gling tshang), but the histories do not place Katok within either of their domains. Thus, although the traditional Katok histories are based on internal concerns, we may note that the early period was also marked by a socio-political continuity in which Katok was never the “state monastery” of a local polity. Alternately, the beginning of the so-called later period coincides with tremendous political changes in the region; e.g., the rise of the Dalai Lama’s Ganden Palace government in Central Tibet and the local kingdom of Degé – both in the early 1640s. Degé quickly became one of the two or three most important political and cultural centers in Kham until the early twentieth century.
According to traditional histories the later period began after a decline in both the scholarly vigor of the lamas and upkeep of the temples at the monastery. Two lamas are said to have ushered in the later period: Dundül Dorjé (bdud ‘dul rdo rje, 1615-1672) and Longsel Nyingpo (klong gsal snying po, 1625-1692). Both were treasure revealers and this is significant because prior to their arrival at Katok the monastery treasure revealers had never occupied leadership positions at the monastery, although treasure traditions had been incorporated into the liturgies and contemplative practices at Katok. Dundül Dorjé only stayed at Katok a brief time whereas Longsel lived at Katok for perhaps twenty years and was by far the more consequential of the two lamas. Both Dundül and Longsel were sent to Katok by kings of the Degé kingdom. An eighteenth century document clearly states that Degé took half of Katok’s farms and left the rest with Longsel Nyingpo and Katok, and suggests that Degé was interested in imposing its own lamas on Katok because the Drung lamas were resisting paying taxes levied by the new kingdom on the monastery’s landholdings.
Several major changes ensued from the arrival of the treasure revealers at Katok and the rise of Degé. For one, there was a major administrative shakeup at the monastery such that the reign of the Drung line came to an end, replaced first by Longsel Nyingpo and his son and other descendents, and later by a number of reincarnate lamas (trülku; sprul sku). By the end of the eighteenth century, five or more reincarnate lamas originating from this period had risen to prominence at Katok. They dominated the monastery for all of the nineteenth century and beyond.
Secondly, in the early decades of the later period Dundül and Longsel’s revealed treasures eclipsed the Kama traditions that had been so prevalent at Katok during the early period. Subsequently, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth century the scholastic, liturgical, and meditative traditions of the Kama were reestablished at Katok, albeit in new arrangement alongside the treasures. Getsé Mahapandita Gyurmé Tsewang Chokdrup (dge rtse ma Ha paN+dita ‘gyur med tshe dbang mchog grub, 1761-1829) was the key agent behind this development at Katok. In brief, Getsé reformulated the overall religious program at Katok by
1) reviving the Kama-based study program at Katok (which had been more-or-less lost for over a century), and
2) composing new liturgies for Dundül and Longsel’s treasures that fully domesticated them to mainstream Nyingma monastic rituals. After Getsé, scholastic studies at Katok were dedicated to the Kama and the literary arts, the overall liturgical program was split equally between Kama- and treasure-based traditions, and the contemplative program at Katok was primarily grounded in treasure traditions (especially Longsel’s).
When the Nyakrong (nyag rong ) warlord Gönpo Namgyel (mgon po rnam rgyal, d. 1865) successfully occupied Degé in the 1860s he wrought destruction on many monasteries and executed a number lamas. Perhaps because Nyarong is home to many branch monasteries of Katok Gönpo Namgyel did not sack Katok monastery, but he did take the main Katok incarnate lamas hostage and imprisoned each one in different monasteries in Nyakkrong. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century Katok monastery fully participated in the remarkable ecumenical (ris med) “movement” that issued from nearby Pelpung (dpal spungs) and Dzongsar (rdzong sar) Monasteries. Two lamas stand out from this period, Katok Situ Chökyi Gyatso (kaHtog si tu chos kyi rgya mtsho) and Khenpo Ngakchung (mkhan po ngag chung). Katok Situ is remembered in part for helping make the library and printing house at Katok one of the main centers of Nyingma literature in all of Tibet. He was also committed to improving the state of formal seminary studies at Katok and invited the foremost scholar of his day, Mipam Choklé Namgyel (mi pham phyogs las rnam rgyal, 1846-1912), to found a seminary at Katok. Mipam lived at Katok for two years to train Situ to be the founding abbot of the seminary, which was opened in 1906. Situ’s Collected Works total 7 volumes and his literary output also includes his editorial work on several important texts in the Collected Works of Mipam.
Khenpo Ngakchung, also known as Ngakkyi Wangpo, succeeded Situ and was the abbot of the seminary for multiple terms, spending 13 years total on the abbot’s throne. Additionally, Khenpo Ngakchung served as the abbot of the seminary at Dzokchen Monastery and other institutes. Khenpo Ngakchung was also a notable teacher of Dzokchen meditation and several of his younger students lived into (or beyond) the late twentieth century and were important for keeping this tradition alive through the turmoil of the Maoist period. Khenpo Ngakchung’s widely read autobiography is one of the primary historical documents for this period, as well as an inspiring guidebook to Dzokchen practice (the latter of which has been translated into multiple languages). In the teens and twenties of the twentieth century several Euro-Americans ventured through Kham as explorers, diplomats, or missionaries, but as Katok is not on a major trade route and sits high atop a mountain, it appears that only one or two foreigners ever reached it. One of them was the missionary Dr. Albert Shelton and the lone photograph he took of Katok is now part of the permanent collection at the Newark Museum and has been reproduced in David Jackson’s A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (Wisdom, 2003).
Katok was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. It appears that the main temples were looted then dynamited, and the rubble was left to lie for perhaps two decades. When permission was granted to rebuild the monastery the rocks and salvageable materials from the old structures were reused to reconstruct the monastery. The driving force of the reconstruction efforts – which required considerable political and fundraising skills – was Moktsa Trülku (rmog rtsa sprul sku), a high-ranking reincarnate lama of the monastery. After years in prison during the Maoist period he was “rehabilitated” and made an officer in the local religious affairs bureau, as was the reincarnation of Khenpo Ngakchung, from which post he was able to secure the permits needed to rebuild the monastery to its former glory. Han Chinese disciples of Moktsa and the many other Katok lamas have donated the majority of the funds for the rebuilding and unending expansion of the monastery. At present Katok boasts an excellent seminary and more than three retreat centers, plus a vibrant festival calendar that features a very well-attended Padmasambhava celebration on the tenth day of the sixth lunar month each summer.
Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa, Scholar’s Feast, (630.7): ka thog pa 'di rnams ni gzhi 'dul ba'i tshul khrims gtso bor mdzad pas dgon pa gtsang zhing dag/ spyod 'jug sogs spyod phyogs dar bas theg chen gyi lam gyi gzhung bsrongs/ sngags mtshan nyid mtha' dag dar zhing khyad par mdo sgyu sems gsum gyi bstan pa dngos gzhi 'dir gnas pa yin no/ spyir zur che chung las 'phros pa'i sngags pas bod khams gang zhing bshad nyan shin tu dar bas sngon bod tu mdo sgyu sems gsum las dar ba'i chos ma byung ba snyam ste.