Origins:The Tree of Great Merit
According to one tradition, Tsongkhapa's father took the afterbirth and buried it here, and soon a sandalwood tree grew on the spot. Another version has it that the tree grew up where drops of blood from Tsongkhapa's umbilical cord had fallen on the ground. In any case this tree became known as the "Tree of Great Merit." The leaves and the bark of this tree were reputed to bear impressions of the Buddha's face and various mystic syllables and its blossoms were said to give off a peculiarly pleasing scent.
The four-storied golden-roofed temple built around the tree where Tsongkhapa is said to have been born is called Serdong or 'Golden Tree' and is considered the holiest place in Kumbum.
Two Catholic missionaries, the Abbes Huc and Gabet who arrived here in the 1840s when the tree was still living were fully prepared to dismiss "The Tree of Great Merit" as just another fanciful legend. "We were filled with an absolute consternation of astonishment," Huc noted in his famous book Travels in Tartary, "at finding that, in point of fact, there were upon each of the leaves well-formed Tibetan characters . . . Our first impression was a suspicion of fraud on the part of the lamas; but after a minute examination of every detail, we could not discover the least deception." Section of this tree are now preserved in a stupa in the Great Golden Temple .
In the 1360s Tsongkhapa's mother with the help of locals had a small temple with a stupa built on the site of his birthplace.
In 1560, the meditator Rinchen-tsondru-gyeltsen built a small monastery there, called Gonpalung for intensive meditation practice. At first, it had seven monks at a time, but soon expanded to hold fifteen.
In 1576, Altan Khan of the Tumed Mongols invited the future Third Dalai Lama, Sonam-gyatso, to bring Buddhism to Mongolia. After Altan Khan adopted Buddhism, he gave him the title Dalai Lama. "Dalai" is the Mongolian translation of "gyatso," meaning "ocean.".
On his way to meet Altan Khan near Kokonor, the Third Dalia Lama stopped at the isolated retreat by the holy tree marking the spot where Tsongkhapa had been born. He requested Rinchen-tsondru-gyeltsen to construct a larger monastery at this site and appointed him as the head lama. The monastery was founded completely in 1583 and built a fence around the "Tree of Great Merit". An annual Prayer Festival was inaugurated like that held in Lhasa.
The new monastery was called Kumbum Jampa-ling. "Kumbum" means 100,000 enlightening bodies of the Buddha. It is named after the apprarent 100,000 images of the Buddha Sinhanada on the leaves of the holy sandlewood tree. "Jampa-ling" means "Maitreya Cloister." This refers to the Maitreya temple built by Rinchen-tsondru-gyeltsen to the right of the precious tree.
The First Throne Holder of Kumbum was Duldzin Ozer-gyatso , born in 1557. In 1603, the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso , stopped at Kumbum on his way from his native Mongolia to Central Tibet. At that time, he proclaimed the need for a study division to be built and for Duldzin Ozer-gyatso to be appointed as the head of the entire monastery. At Kumbum’s Monlam Prayer Festival of 1612, Duldzin Ozer-gyatso first ascended to the throne of Abbot and opened the Debate College, Pelden Shaydrubling Dratsang .
By the middle of the 20th century, Kumbum Monastery included thirty temples and a thousand or so houses.
Kumbum has four monastic colleges or faculties . The largest is the Debate College or Faculty for Logic, the Shadupling Dratsang. Most of its divisions use the textbooks of Jetsunpa Chokyi-gyeltsen , as at Ganden Jangtsey and Sera Jey Colleges near Lhasa. A few of the divisions follow the textbooks of Kunkyen Jamyang-zhaypa Ngawang-tsondru , as at Gomang College of Drepung Monastery and Labrang Monastery. The highest degrees of Geshe Rabjampa and Geshe Shayrampa are awarded at the Kumbum Monlam Prayer Festival each year.
Gyüpa Dratsang, the Tantric College, or Sangngag Dechenling Datsang was founded by Chojey Legpa-gyatso in 1649. The curriculum follows that of Gyumay Lower Tantric College of Lhasa. After study of the major texts and commentaries of the Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara , and Vajrabhairava ( systems, monks receive the Geshe Ngagrampa degree.
In 1711, Chuzang Lozang-tenpay-gyeltsen built a new Tantric College, Ngagpa Dratsang. In 1723, the combined Manchu and Chinese armies severely damaged the four great monasteries of the Kokonor region – Kumbum, Gonlung, Serkog and Chuzang and many monks fled. Soon afterwards, the Manchu commander asked the Twenty-first Throne Holder to convert the new Ngagpa Dratsang into a Medical College, and this was done. With the appointment of several famous doctors, the Medical College, Menpa Dratsang Sorig-dargyey-zhenpen-norbuling was opened in 1725. It became a separate college during the time of the Twenty-second Throne Holder. The doctors who are graduated receive the Menrampa degree.
The fourth college at Kumbum is the Kalachakra College, Dükhor Dratsang or Dukor Dratsang Rigden Losel-ling. It was founded in 1820 by Ngawang-shaydrub-tenpay-nyima. Monks at this college also study astrology and receive the Tsirampa degree upon completion of their education.
Before 1958, Kumbum had 3,600 monks. At present, there are 400, as the monastery was affected by the PRC policies from the late 1950s. Of these, 300 are at the Debate College and the rest are distributed evenly among the other three colleges. Traditionally, the majority of the Kumbum monks have been from Amdo. As at Labrang Monastery, the rest have been Outer Mongolia Mongols , Inner Mongolia Mongols , Kokonor Mongols from the Amdo region east of Kumbum and Yellow Yugurs from Gansu.
Kumbum is now a major pilgrimage for scholars and tourism site, visited by many thousands of people a year.
Arjia Rinpoche is currently the Abbot of the monastery.
The Kumbum monastery is still very much a repository of Tibetan culture and art, including various sculptures, statues and religious artefacts.