We spent much of our time in Tibet visiting Buddhist monasteries and temples. Their beauty and spirituality was offset with the sadness of knowing that so few of them remain. After the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950, unrest among the Tibetan people escalated and culminated in the Tibetan Uprising of 1959. Many Tibetans, including the 14th Dalai Lama, sought asylum in India. In the years following 1959, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, there was wholesale destruction of Tibetan religious buildings and artifacts by the Chinese. All but a few dozen of more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed.
Drepung Monastery monastery — home of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Dalai Lamas — is one that survived. About 10 kilometers from Lhasa, Drepung was built in 1416 and was home to over 10,000 monks before what the Chinese euphemistically call the “Liberation” of Tibet. Here we saw our first prayer wheels, which people set in motion as they walk in circles around the building in a clockwise direction as a form of prayer or meditation. Our big American feet had a hard time climbing the ladders built for little Tibetan monk feet.
Since it was a hot day, I removed the leg bottoms from convertible pants. Our guide Dolma told me to put them back on before going into any of the chapels because “Buddha doesn’t want to see your legs.” We quickly learned that we’d need to pay a smallish fee (20 yuan = about $3.20 US) to take photographs inside the chapels. It was well worth it the price. The large candle below is actually made from yak butter, which people bring to the chapels as an offering.
We couldn’t get into a few of the chapels …
… so we did some souvenir shopping …
… and had lunch at the on-site restaurant, where the decor shifted from Buddha to NBA all stars.
We next visited the Sera Monastery. Founded in 1416, Sera is home of the Gelukpa Order (the Dalai Lama’s sect). Here, as at Drepung, many of the monks renounced their vows to take up arms during the Tibetan Uprising. We arrived in time to witness the action in the Debating Courtyard, where each afternoon monks debate the teachings of Buddha and Buddhist philosophy. Monks sitting on the ground are questioned by monks standing over them. The standing monks clap their hands together for emphasis, palms together if they agree with what the seated monk has said and right palm up if they disagree. It was a blast to watch them discuss issues with so much energy.
I asked Dolma about this painting at our hotel in Lhasa. She said that Tibet is in the shape of a dragon lying on the ground. At the heart of the dragon is the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred site in Tibet.
Jokhang Temple was built in 642 by King Songsten Gumpo, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Pilgrims walk for days or weeks to visit Jokhang and see the face of the Compassion Buddha inside. (Photos were not allowed.) Outside the temple, people do hundreds of sun-salutation type of movements as a form of prayer. I bought flowers from one of the many flower sellers to lay in front of the Compassion Buddha. (Note that my legs are covered.) The courtyard area adjacent to Johkang Temple houses several beautifully ornate thrones of the Dalai Lama.
Our next stop was Potala Palace, the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama. Located in the heart of Lhasa, Potala Palace is a popular site for circumambulation (fancy word for walking around a sacred object). Parts of the palace date back to 637. The “newer” portions were built by the Fifth Dalai Lama in the mid to late 1600s. The hike up the front steps gets your heart rate going, especially at Lhasa’s altitude of 12,000 feet. Pictures inside the temples weren’t permitted, but the views from outside were wonderful as well. My troll (Aurora) was happy to find a troll-sized rock with the inscription Om Mani Padme Hum, a mantra commonly used by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke compassion.
From Lhasa, we took a long bus ride to Gyantse to visit the Pelkor Chode Monastery and Kumbum Stupa. The large white wall on the hillside in the first photo below is for hanging thangkas (huge paintings of Buddha) on special occasions. Kumbum — Tibetan for “100,000 holy images” — is aptly named, with 108 art-filled chapels scattering its multiple floors. We even found a Cell Phone Buddha (fifth photo below), and Aurora rode on a dragon. (You know how trolls are: she had to outdo my yak ride.)
Our final stop was the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. Founded in 1447 by the First Dalai Lama, Tashi Lhunpo is the main seat of the Panchen Lama, the traditional teacher of the Dalai Lama. Dolma explained that the circumambulating pilgrims at Tashi Lhumpo walk as many circles as their age, using “rock calculators” (pictured below) to keep track.
In the village outside Tashi Lhunpo, we saw that young monks are like teenage boys all over the world, hanging out on street corners with their friends, enjoying a beautiful sunny day. I hope for their sake, and ours, that Tibet’s future is much brighter than its recent past.
If you’d like to learn more about Tibet and the fight for its freedom, visit FreeTibet.org.