Founded around 779 C.E., Samye was Tibet’s first Monastery. Although a few temples of worship had been built earlier in Tibet, Samye was the first fully functioning Monastery.
Upon its completion, the first 7 Tibetan Buddhist monks were ordained by Śāntarakṣita (725–788), the famous abbot of the Indian monastery Vikramaśīla.
Soon after, the famous Samye Debate was held, ostensibly to decide which form of Buddhism Tibetans would follow, that of India or that of China.
Samye was built during the reign of King Trisong Detsen (755-797), the second of the 3 great Buddhist kings of Tibet’s early imperial period. This king had invited Śāntarakṣita 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.
Śāntarakṣita, 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. Śāntarakṣita recommended the renowned master, Padmasambhava, from the kingdom of Oḍḍiyāna in north-western India.
Upon Padmasambhava’s arrival, the great tantric quickly subdued the troublesome spirits, forcing them to take vows to forever protect Buddhism in Tibet.
Samye played a central role in Trisong Detsen’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.
Samye was built as a symbol of Tibet’s newfound international prestige, and the central cathedral’s 3 stories were designed in the traditional architectural styles of India, China, and Tibet, respectively.
Samye’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 Śumeru is surrounded by 4 continents, one in each of the cardinal directions. Similarly at Samye, around the central cathedral were built 4 buildings, their shapes corresponding to those of the continents.
The monastery was also built to represent a 3-dimensional Maṇḍala in a design modelled on the great Indian Buddhist monastery of Odantapuri, located in today’s Bihar.
The particular maṇḍala represented by Samye 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 Samye.
According to early sources, a statue of Vairocana was originally positioned on the 2nd floor as the central image; another Vairocana statue, this in his 4-faced Sarvavid (all-knowing) form, was installed on the top floor.
The same layout can still be observed.
Samye was severely damaged a number of times by fires (17th century), earthquakes and more fires (19th century), and Chinese invaders (20th 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.