Bsam Yas (Samye)

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Founded around 779 c.e., Bsam yas (Samye) was Tibet's first monastery. Although a few temples of worship had been built earlier in Tibet, Bsam yas was the first fully functioning monastery. Upon its completion, the first seven Tibetan Buddhist monks were ordained by Śantarakṣita, the famous abbot of the Indian monastery Vikramaśīla. Soon after, the famous Bsamyas Debate was held, ostensibly to decide which form of Buddhism Tibetans would follow, that of India or that of China.

Bsam yas was built during the reign of King Khri srong lde btsan (r. 755–797), the second of the three great Buddhist kings of Tibet's early imperial period. This king had invited Śantarakṣita to Tibet to assist him in establishing Buddhism as the state religion. According to traditional accounts, when the king began work on his new monastery, local spirits who were opposed to the foreign religion created obstacles so numerous that not even the building's foundation could be laid. Śantarakṣita, whose strengths lay in monastic learning and not in battling demonic forces, could not help. The king was forced to find someone trained in the arts of Buddhist tantra. Śantarakṣita recommended the renowned master, Padmasambhava, from the kingdom of Uḍḍiyāna in northwestern India. Upon Padmasambhava's arrival, the great tāntrika quickly subdued the troublesome spirits, forcing them to take vows to forever protect Buddhism in Tibet.

Bsam yas played a central role in Khri srong lde btsan's lifelong project to make Buddhism the state religion of Tibet. At the time of its construction, the Tibetan empire was at the height of its power. In 763, Tibetans even occupied the Chinese capital of Chang'an, where they installed a puppet emperor for a brief time. Bsam yas was built as a symbol of Tibet's newfound international prestige, and the central cathedral's three stories were designed in the traditional architectural styles of India, China, and Tibet, respectively.

Bsam yas's universalism was further reflected in the layout of the whole monastic complex—a cosmogram of the Indian world system. According to this system, the central axis of Mount Sumeru is surrounded by four continents, one in each of the cardinal directions. Similarly at Bsam yas, around the central cathedral were built four buildings, their shapes corresponding to those of the continents.

The monastery was also built to represent a three-dimensional maṆḌla in a design modeled on the great Indian Buddhist monastery of Otantapuri, located in today's Bihar. The particular mandala represented by Bsam yas seems to have been that of the Buddha Vairocana. Recent scholarship has suggested that the Tibetan imperial cult may have given special prominence to this deity, and that this close association was also reflected in the arrangement of Bsam yas. According to early sources, a statue of Vairocana was originally positioned on the second floor as the central image; another Vairocana statue, this in his four-faced Sarvavid form, was installed on the top floor.

The same layout can still be observed. Bsam yas was severely damaged a number of times by fires (seventeenth century), earthquakes and more fires (nineteenth century), and Chinese invaders (twentieth century), but the restorations seem to have remained largely faithful to its original plan. The central cathedral was rebuilt in 1989 following the most recent desecrations, and renovations continued throughout the 1990s on other parts of the complex.

See also:Tibet


Chan, Victor. Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide. Chico, CA: Moon, 1994.

Kapstein, Matthew. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Snellgrove, David, and Richardson, Hugh. A Cultural History of Tibet (1968). Boston: Shambala, 1995.

Jacob P. Dalton