The Role of a Tsen Khang or
The Trode Khangsar temple is classified as a tsen khang. A tsen is a type of fierce, warrior-like spirit. Most of these tsen are regional deities (yul lha) not even stable and reliable enough to be recognized as local protector deities. Yet this term only provides an etymological origin for term tsen khang, which in context should be considered a “protector house,” as the tsen khang-s in Lhasa are integrated with monastic institutions and serve multiple roles. Moreover the tsen khang-s in Lhasa are related to protectors that are not simply part of the tsen class.5
The Temples of Lhasa gives an overview of the nature and role of the tsen khang-s in Lhasa (TOL, 173):
Several Lhasa tsen khang-s became monastic institutions, usually branches of a larger community, and even participated in affairs of state. The oracle would then generally be a monk, and caretaker monks would service the shrine... They were all branches of larger Gelug communities in the Ganden Po-trang period, but their earlier history is obscure.
Although most of these tsen khang-s predate the establishment of the Gelug sect, this later transition to institutionalization and entrustment to the Gelug monasteries was culminated at the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama.6
Of the original group of four tsen khang-s mentioned earlier, each one has it own history and houses a particular protector.
- Rabsel - The Rabsel tsen khang is for Lutsen Thutob Wangchug who is the protector of the Jowo Shakyamuni statue in the Tsuklhangkhang. This naga spirit protected the Jowo Shakyamuni statue originally in India. Later, when it was transferred to China and finally to Tibet this protector followed the statue. The Rabsel tsen khang was originally managed by the Nyingma sect, but it was transferred to Sera Me monastery by the Fifth Dalai Lama (GCJ, 32).
- Karmashag - Sera Me was also entrusted by the Fifth Dalai Lama (GCJ, 32) to manage the Karmashag tsen khang although it was originally associated with the Karmapa (TOL, 183).
- Darpoling - Darpoling is associated with the Lhasa valley protector Chingkarwa, and during the Fifth Dalai Lama’s reign it was entrusted to the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery Namgyal (TOL, 175).
- Tengyeling - Finally, Tengyeling, a regency seat owned by Demo Rinpoche, contained a tsen khang for the protector Tsiu Marpo, a protector associated with Samye and bound by Padmasambhava (GDT, 115).
Although Trode Khangsar is not part of these original four, its purposes and relation to the Gelug institution, Riwo Choling (ri bo chos gling) in its particular case, does not differ. However, its relatively later origin gives a better understanding of its inception. One unresolved matter is regarding the early history of Trode Khangsar’s related tsen khang on the same plot of land. One possibility is that the previously existent tsen khang on this lot, for the tsen spirit Khache Marpo, was related to Tsiu Marpo. Khache Marpo is one of the “seven brothers” ('bar ba spun bdun) of Tsiu Marpo’s retinue (TSH, 55), and also assumed the role as Dorje Shugden’s attendant (bka' sdod) when Dorje Shugden came into existence in the 17th century.
5 There is a nominal division of eight types of spirits (lha srin sde brgyad) in Tibetan Buddhism of which one type is tsen. The protector Tsiu Marpo is sometimes considered a yaksha (gnod sbyin) and sometimes considered a tsen. It is unclear if the protector of Rabsel is a naga (klu) or tsen. Dorje Shugden is usually considered to be in the gyelpo (rgyal po) class, although there is an occasional reference to him as a tsen. This may indicate that sometimes tsen can be used more loosely as a more general term to refer to any other one of these types of spirits as a protector. Therefore, the translation of Tsen Khang as “protector house” is appropriate.
6 From Women in Tibet (WIT, 151): “It is well-known that at the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama oracle came to occupy significant positions in the establishment, since they were of primary importance in installing new reincarnations as the head of state. The prominence of high-level oracles like Nechung, Gadong and Lhamo Choyong in political and religious affairs goes back to this era... In a 1792 decree the emperor Qianlong confirmed the use of oracles in selecting the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.”