Labrang monastery is located in Xiahe County in Gansu province, in the traditional Tibetan area of Amdo. It is currently the largest monastery on the Tibetan plateau and is a focal point of both local pilgrims and outsider travelers. It was founded by Jamyang Shipa Ngawang Tsundru in 1709 and rapidly grew to become one of the six great Gelukpa monasteries in Tibet. The main assembly hall was rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1985, but most of the other chapels survived in the Cultural Revolution relatively in recent years and some are spacious and confortable. Labrang acts as a major teaching centre and monks come from not only the 108 satellite monasteries scattered throughout nearby couties, but also from central Tibet and Mongolia too. Thus the number of monks is somewhat fluid. There is also a small nunnery and Nyingmapa sect temple on the corner of the complex.
Labrang monastery has six colleges and the largest college is Mayjung Thoisamling, for the study of sutra and debate, established by the First Jamyang-Shipa in 1710 when he founded the monastery in general. It awards the Geshey Thorampa degree. When the First Jamyang-Shipa received the Say lineage transmission at Saygyu Tantric College from Saygyu Konchog-yarpel (Srad-rgyud dKon-mchog yar-‘phel) (1602-1682), this great master asked him to establish a tantric college as part of the monastery he would found in Amdo in the future. Keeping this request in mind, the first Jamyang-Shipa established Maygyu Dratsang (sMad-rgyud Grva-tshang), Lower Tantric College, in 1719.
The Dhukor Dratsang or Kalachakra College, Ewam-chokor-ling (E-wam chos-‘khor gling), was founded in 1763 by the Second Jamyang-Shiypa, Konchog Jigme Wangpo (1728-1798), on the advice of the Third Panchen Lama, Pelden-yeshi (Pan-chen dPal-ldan ye-shes) (1738-1780). The Panchen Lama’s home monastery, Tashilhunpo, built a Kalachakra temple two years later, in 1765, devoted to the daily practice of the Kalachakra rituals. Since the first half of the eighteenth century, Kalachakra Colleges had already existed in Inner Mongolia. The first was at Ari-in Monastery, founded by the first Kanjurwa Gegen, Lozang-choden (bKa’-‘gyur-ba Blo-bzang chos-ldan), and the second at Badghar Monastery by his disciple, Dunkhor Pandita (Dus-‘khor Pandi-ta). The Dukor Datsang at Labrang was the first of its kind in Amdo.
The Menpa Dratsang or Medical College, Sorig-zhenpen-ling, was established in 1784, also by the Second Jamyang-zhaypa. The Kyedor Dratsang or Hevajra College, Sangngag-dargyay-ling, was started by the F\fourth Jamyang-Shiypa, Kelsang Thubten Wangchup or Upper Tantric College, Sangchen-dorjey-ling, was established in 1943 by the Fifth Jamyang-zhaypa, Lozang-jamyang-yeshey-tenpay-gyeltsen.
The two Tantric Colleges at Labrang, like their models in Lhasa, studied mostly the Guhyasamaja (gSang-‘dus), Chakrasamvara (bDe-mchog), and Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje ‘Jigs-byed) tantric systems. They awarded Geshe Karamapa (dGe-bshes bKa’-ram-pa) and Geshe Ngagrampa (dGe-bshes sNgags-ram-pa) degrees, as at the two Lhasa Tantric Colleges. The Kalachakra College was responsible for not only the Kalachakra rituals, but also those of Samvid (Kun-rig) and Vairochana Abhisambodhi (rNam-snang mngon-byang). The monks of the Kalachakra College also studied astronomy, astrology, and mathematics. In addition to medical studies, the monks of the Medical College were responsible for the rituals of the Medicine Buddha (sMan-lha), Akshobhya (Mi-‘khrugs-pa), and the Hiddenly Actualized (gSang-sgrub) form of Hayagriva (rTa-mgrin). The Hevajra College maintained the rituals for Hevajra and Vajrapani Mahachakra (Phyag-rdor ‘Khor-can), and prepared a calendar/almanac each year according to the Chinese-style black calculation system (nag-rtsis).
As at the Jokang (Jo-khang) in Lhasa, every year from the 3rd to the 17th of the first Tibetan month, Labrang held a Great Prayer Festival (sMon-lam chen-mo) with examinations for the highest grades of Geshe. At this festival, there were ritual masked dances and other rites as in Lhasa.
At its height in 1957, Labrang had nearly 4,000 monks. About 3,000 of them were at the Mayjung Tosamling College, with the rest evenly distributed among the other five colleges. Approximately three-quarters of the monks were Tibetans. The rest were mostly Outer Mongolian Mongols (phyi-sog), Inner Mongolian Mongols (smad-sog, nang-sog), Kokonor Mongols (stod-sog), Mongours (hor-pa) from northern Amdo, Yellow Yugurs (yu-gur) from Gansu (Kansu), Xinjiang Kalmyk Mongols, and ethnic Chinese. Labrang had 138 branch monasteries.
Starting in 1958, the monastery was closed for twelve years by the Chinese. During the 1970s, it was opened for tourism. It was reopened as a functioning monastery by the Seventh Panchen Lama, Chokyi-gyeltsen-trinley-lhundrub (Pan-chen Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan ‘phrin-las lhun-grub) (1938-1989), in 1980. At present there are about 500 monks, divided among the six colleges in the same proportions as before. The study program is only a fraction of what it previously had been.