Ganden Monastery
Tibetan monasteries, also known as lamaseries, have traditionally been centers of learning and quiet reflection as well as places where monks lived. Found as far north as Mongolia and Russia, they have also traditionally run temples, schools and other facilities and owned large chunks of land which they leased out to farmers. Monasteries usually sponsor ceremonies to bless villages. The ceremonies are day-long sessions of chanting and horn blowing.

There are currently about 1,700 monasteries in Tibet, up from 978 in 1987. Many of the monasteries are huge. The College of Esoteric Teaching in Labrang serves up meals for its monks in a kitchen with two woks, each nine feet across. Huge assembly halls, sometimes are decorated with stuffed yaks, goats and bears with stretched smiling faces, glass eyes and prayer flags pinned to them.

Many Tibetan monasteries have similar characteristics. Many are built in high locations above villages and resemble fortresses. Most had or still have walls that were used to protect the monastery and its treasures from bandits, invaders and even rival monk armies. Many have meditation areas, holy sites, walls of mani stones, and a kora, or pilgrimage route around the monastery.

Inside the walls is a central courtyard, where ceremonies are held and festivals are staged. It usually features a flag pole known as a "darchen" and is surrounded by a main assembly or prayer hall, known as a "dukhang," with side protector chapels, subsidiary chapels, monk quarters, a library, eating areas and a kitchen. Large monasteries have colleges, halls of residence, and an interior kora.

Well-off monasteries receive many donations giving the monks more time to study and pray. Some monasteries have become dependent on the generosity of tourists to survive.

Websites and Resources Monks and Lamas: Monk Life travelchinaguide.com ; Research on Tibetan Monks case.edu/affil/tibet ; New York Times article on monks studying science nytimes.com ; Monasteries and Pilgrims: Monastery Preservation asianart.com ; Wikipedia list Wikipedia ; Book: “Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage” by Steve McCurry (Phaidon Press, 2003) Mt. Kailash Wikipedia Wikipedia Sacred Sites Sacred Sites Summit Post Summit Post

Inside Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries

leftThe main prayer hall contains rows of low seats and tables, often covered with monk clothing and religious objects. On the main altar are statues of the Buddhist triad (the Present, Past and Future Buddhas) and perhaps important lamas associated with the monastery. On a smaller altar are butter lamps, seven bowls of water, and offerings.

Monasteries often contain thousands of frescoes and statues of Buddha, Boddhavistas (Buddhist saints) and Buddhist gods such as Avalokitesvara, the eleven-headed God of Mercy. Many of the frescoes depict episode from Buddha's life. They have traditionally been used to educate the illiterate masses the same way frescoes and paintings with scenes from the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints have been used in old Christian churches to educate their illiterate followers.

Inside a monastery the rooms are filled with smoke from rancid-smelling yak butter lamps and incense burners with cypress leaves. Monks beat on drums while chanting in high-pitched voices.

At the entrance to most buildings are murals of the Four Guardian Kings, sometimes with a Wheel of Life or mandala mural. Inner rooms are often flanked by protector gods such as the red Tamdrin (Hayagriva) and the blue Chana Dorje (Vajrapani). The proctor chapels are often dark and gloomy. They contain images of skulls, corpses and beasts. Sometimes the images of protector gods themselves are covered by cloth because they are regarded as too terrible to look at.

The three most important monasteries in Tibet — the "pillars of the Tibetan state" — are Ganden, Drepung and Sera, all of which are located outside of Lhasa. All three were badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution, and they are currently being restored. Drepung used to be the largest monastery in the world.

Labrang is the largest still functioning lamasery. See Places

Turning Tibetan Monasteries into Communist Propaganda Centers?

In January 2015, the top Chinese appointed official in Tibet said Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet must become Communist Party propaganda centers, where monks and nuns learn to "revere" science and appreciate the party's love. Reuters reported: Writing in the influential fortnightly party magazine Qiushi, Tibet's Communist Party boss Chen Quanguo said the more than 1,700 temples and monasteries and 46,000 monks and nuns had to be seen by the government as "friends". "Let the monks and nuns in the temples and monasteries have a personal feeling of the party and government's care and warmth; let them feel the party's benevolence, listen to the party's words and follow the party's path," Chen wrote in Qiushi, which means "seeking truth". [Source: Reuters, January 3, 2015]

“He called for temples and monasteries in the region to be outfitted with radios and televisions, as well as newspapers and reading rooms. "Monks and nuns should not have to go out of their temples or monasteries to understand the party and government's policies and social progress, or Tibet's peace, stability and good fortune, so as to be guided to follow a path of revering scientific culture." Chen has struck a similar line before, writing in late 2013 that Chinese officials in Tibet must build an "impenetrable defense" against separatism and befriend monks and nuns, who are generally revered by the devoutly Buddhist Tibetans.

Tibetan Buddhist Pilgrims


Pilgrimages to religious sites are of great importance to Tibetan Buddhists. Approached with the same religious zeal as Muslims going to Mecca, they are seen as both a religious duty and a chance to earn merit, plus a time to enjoy oneself and maybe an opportunity to seek a cure to an illness for themselves or a loved one. Pilgrimage sites generally have pilgrimage paths (koras) lined with prayer wheels and mani stones. Thus pilgrimages involve getting to the pilgrimage site itself and performing a pilgrimages around the site once there.

The status of a pilgrims can be identified by their headgear, clothes, robes, earrings or the way their hair is braided. Pilgrims used to walk or make their way on horseback to the pilgrimage sites but now they arrive in buses and trucks.

Some pilgrims travel thousands of miles in the backs of old trucks to get to pilgrimage sites. Often times much of the traffic you see on Tibetan roads is made up of trucks filled with pilgrims on their way to religious sites. They often bring their children, what little money they have and meat and vegetables to sell at a market to help pay for their trip.

Tibetans begin doing pilgrimages when they are children and do not stop doing them until they reach the end of their life. Ceasing to do pilgrimages is ceasing to engage the life on earth from the view of a Tibetan. Describing pilgrims at Potala Palace in Lhasa, Howard French wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Tibetans arrive by the thousands just as they always have dressed in crimson robes, or more often, well-worn rags, leaning on walking sticks or clutching babies. Many of them have journeyed a week or more to make the pilgrimage, often traveling from villages so remote they are not served by roads, wearing looks of beatitude upon arrival at the palace.”

Pilgrims move in a clockwise direction around temples and shrines. In addition to prostrating themselves, they also drape white and yellow gauze strips around statues, spoon yak butter into lamps, turn prayer wheels, and leave small banknotes and barley grains as offerings. Many pilgrims wear an amulet called a gau that holds a picture of the Dalai Lama or the owner’s protector god. Pilgrims visiting a lamasery customarily leave a prayer scarf to honor the monasteries founding lamas. Swathes of sheep wool are sometimes hung to ensure a good harvest. The mangy dogs found around many temples survive off of hand-outs given by pilgrims.

Begging Pilgrims in Tibet

In Tibet, begging is not seen as something poor people do to get food but rather a sacred activity for pilgrims similar to what the Buddha did when he was went through his holy man stage and was a wandering teacher. manner. Tibet has a long tradition of begging for alms. In the past, two rows of huts were built to give shelter to beggars at the end of Barkor Street in front of the present-day Tibet Hospital. Lines of blind beggars linked together by a rope were led by a dim-sighted beggar, chanting and singing in deep and low voices. Today, monks sometimes sit along the street cross-legged, chanting sutras and begging for alms. In front of each is a long horizontal piece of cloth with quotations from the Buddhist scriptures written on a particular theme. The are also some child beggars and some are pilgrims from other places, who are spinning a prayer wheel and begging for alms. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Some Tibetan pilgrims travel for months to reach Lhasa to worship at the city’s sacred temples. No matter how rich they are, they do not carry lots of money for their pilgrimage. They beg all the way to their last destination, and do the same when they return home. Even the rich monasteries send monks out to ask for alms.

Some beggars in Tibet are not begging for themselves but for sacred temples, holy mountains and lakes. After begging for tens of years, they spend thousands of yuan to plate the Buddha of Sakyamuni with gold, or throw jewelry valued tens of thousands of yuan into holy lakes. Therefore, Tibetan people never skimp on giving alms to beggars. It is considered meritorious to give alms. But tourists may sometimes find themselves being pestered by the beggars.

Tibetan Buddhist Prostration

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prostrating pilgrims

Prostration is an important expression of Tibetan devotion. To earn merit Tibetan pilgrims prostrate themselves by lying face-down on the ground and stretching out their arms and legs. In many cases they repeatedly stretch themselves completely on the ground and touch their hands to the foreheads (representing the mind), mouths (speech) and chest (body) each time.

Prostration means to lie face down on the ground as an act adoration and devotion. They raise their hands together high above their heads, take one step forward, lower their hands to the height of their forehead, take another step forward, lower their hands before their chest and take a third step forward. Then they kneel down and stretch themselves out upon the ground. After arising, they repeat this process. While they are performing prostrations, they chant sacred words, usually: Om Mani Padme Hum. Many pilgrims spend several years traveling from other provinces to Tibet performing prostrations each and every step of the way. Even though some people have died while on the road, it is never considered a pity as having traveled toward Tibet in this manner is a lifelong honor. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Prostrating is practicing one of Buddhism's three Jewels for Tibetan Buddhists. Tibetan pilgrims always perform prostrations before monasteries in Tibet and before sacred images displayed on altars or when they enter and withdraw from a room. Tibetan Buddhists also prostrate before their teachers.

Tibetans ideally are expected to prostrate themselves 100,000 times a year, which works out to almost 300 times a day, every day of the year. Not only do they prostrate themselves around temples they also do it on roads, streets and sidewalks. Some pilgrims cover the entire 33-mile route around Mount Kailis or travel from their hometowns to Lhasa, repeatedly prostrating themselves.

Tibetan Buddhist Prostrating Pilgrims

Pilgrims have spent several years making pilgrimages to Lhasa and other religious centers from distant places in Tibet, covering the entire distance in a series of prostrations. Theses pilgrims often wear rawhide knee pads, gloves and wooden planks attached to their hands and have greasy, dirty robes. They advance forward by lowering themselves to the ground and extending and stretching themselves on the ground, scrambling to their feet, taking two steps forward, and repeating the whole process all day long. Sometimes you see pilgrims on Tibet’s main roads doing this. When one such pilgrim was asked why he was doing this, he replied, “For His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”

Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims can spend several years making pilgrimages to Lhasa and other religious centers, covering the entire distance in a series of prostrations. According to Chinatravel.com: “On the roads to Lhasa, from time to time, travelers can see Buddhists prostrating . They begin their journey from their home and keep on prostrating all the way to Lhasa. They wear hand pads, kneepads, and a protective leather upper outer garment. With dust on their faces and innumerable hardships in their lives, slowly they move forward by prostrating forward every 3 steps for months or for years, toward the holy city of Lhasa. Three or 4 acquaintances may go together under the same belief and for the same direction. Many years ago, Buddhists would go empty-handed, even without food or extra clothes. When they felt hungry or cold, they would beg and beg. Things are different now. A Buddhist may be designated for taking charge of food and clothes supplies, providing convenience for his companions, but never will he be allowed to replace a prostrator. The prostrating Buddhists are very scrupulous. They won't give up no matter their exhaustion. In case of heavy traffic or other situations, they will draw a line with some pebbles instead of prostrating. With determination and strong faith, they then continue to walk and prostrate forward.” [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Pilgrims who repeatedly prostrate themselves while making the circuit of Mt. Kailas take one step, make a Tibetan prayer gesture, raise their hands in prayer, and lay down on the ground, their arms extended in front of them. Then they stand up and place their feet where their fingertips had just touched and repeat the process again. Those that do this often wear knee pads, aprons and canvas shoes on their hands and take two or three weeks to complete the journey.

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prostrating pilgrims

Tibetan Buddhist Prostration Steps

Steps for prostrating in stationary position: 1) First, stand straight with your feet slightly spread and keep your toes pointing forward. Meanwhile, put the palms together, but leave a small open space in the center of the palms. Situate your hands at heart-level. And then raise your hands just above your head, touching the crown of your head. Then touch your hands to your brow, your throat and back to your heart. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014]

2) Secondly, bend at the waist to the floor and make your arms parallel to the ground with the centers of your palms facing the earth. Place your hands at a place in front of you that will allow you to bend forward gracefully and allow you to raise up with ease. 3) Thirdly, allow your knees to touch the floor just after your hands and lie down on the ground. Form a straight line from your waist to your fingertips and keep face down.

4) Finally, touch the ground. The 5 points, hands, knees and head must touch the ground in that order. Some pilgrims put the palms together and lift them above the head. As soon as your head touches the ground, raise up. Use your hands to push up from the floor quickly. Come to standing rest with hands returned to position before your breast.

Prostrating pilgrims: 1) stand straight upright, chant sacred words, usually “Om Mani Padme Hum,” put their palms together, raise their hands up over their heads, and take a step forward; 2) lower their hands down in front of the face, take another step forward; 3) lower their hands down to the chest, separate both hands, stretch them out with the palms down, kneel down to the ground, then prostrate with the forehead knocking the ground slightly. 4) Stand up again and repeat the whole procedure. Another, simpler method is to walk around the monastery in a clockwise direction and prostrate.

Saga Dawa: Ritual Walk Season in Tibet

Saga dawa, the fourth Tibetan lunar month, is the ritual walk season in Tibet when Tibetan do ritual walks around sacred sites, like temples, holy mountains and lakes. Saga Dawa is the holiest time of the Tibetan year and a peak time for pilgrimages. Saga Dawa usually falls in April or May and lasts for about a month with the holiest day in the middle. The Saga Dawa Festival 2013 lasted from mid May to mid June with the grandest day falling on May 25 on solar calendar. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014]

The seventh day of Saga Dawa is the day of the historical Buddha's birth for Tibetans. However, the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and entry into Nirvana at his death are observed together on the 15th day of Saga Dawa. "Saga" is the 28th constellation named Di and "Dawa" means "month" in Tibetan. More Buddhist ceremonies are held in this month.

Lhasa is a centre for celebrating Saga Dawa. During the period of the Saga Dawa hundreds of thousands of believers gather in Lhasa to take ritual walks while participating in ceremonious activities including fasting, freeing captive animals, alms giving, etc.Tibetan Buddhism believers burn mulberry branches in the incense-burner in front of holy temples and mountains.

Another centre of Saga Dawa activity is Mt. Kailash. During Saga Dawa, Mt. Kailash draws tens of thousands of pilgrims. For over a thousand years pilgrims have flocked to Mt Kailash to replace the Tarboche flagpole, a huge pole that stands on the Kailash kora (hiking circuit), south of the mountain. The ceremony is led by a lama from the nearby monastery and Tibetans and Buddhists gather here to attach their prayer flags, to pray and to help erect the flagpole.

Tibetan Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites

Tibet has hundreds if not thousands of pilgrimage sites. In additions to famous monasteries and mountains, pilgrims also head to caves associated with famous yogis, power places where people meditate on mandalas and rock formations that conjure up some Buddhist image.

Certain pilgrimage sites have special attributes. Circling Lake Manasarovar is supposed increase the likelihood of spontaneous buddhahood while a circuit of Tsaro is supposed to help one gain the power to fly in their next life. Doing pilgrimages in certain places is more auspicious than others. Sometimes the merit earned from doing the same pilgrimage increases exponentially each time it is done.

At the pilgrimage sites the pilgrims do koras, visit monasteries, pray, leave offerings at alters, honor revered lama, turn prayer wheels, collect sacred rocks, drink holy water, tie prayer flags, throw tsampa into the air, chant mantras, and top off butter lamps.. Circuits of 3, 18 and 108 at sunrise and at sunset are particularly auspicious.

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Mt. Kailas

Mt. Kailas

Mt. Kailas is a 22,028-foot-high (6,714-meter-high) pyramid of ice and rock and the highest peak in the Kailas Range, a group of sacred mountains north of main Himalayan range and the source for three sacred rivers-the Indus, the Brahmaputra and Sutleh. Mt. Kailas is considered to be the center of the universe to Hindus and Buddhists, who regard the mountain an earthly image of the heavenly peak, Mt. Meru. Hindus regard it as the paradise home of Shiva, one of their most important Hindu gods. Tibetan Buddhists believe the 11th-century poet and mystic Milarepa was carried to the peak on the rays of the morning sun.

According to ancient belief, the Ganges descended from Mount Kailas to a spring called Chlimikthungtool, where it was said the sand was composed of emeralds and cat's eyes and people who drank the water became as strong as horses. From there four great rivers — the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Indus and Sutleh emerged in pipes in Lake Manasarowar and after circling Mount Kailas and the lake seven times began flowing to the east, south, west and north.

No person has ever climbed Mt. Kailas. In the late 1990s, Beijing gave permission to a Spanish expedition to make the first assault on the summit. Tibetans and others were outraged by such an overt political decision by Beijing and the possibility of the sacrilegious act to Buddhists and Hindus. In the end, the Spanish expedition didn't make the climb. The famous climber Reinhold Messner was invited to climb it in the mid-1980s. He refused.

Pilgrimage at Mt. Kailas

The 33-mile trek around Mount Kailas is one of the holiest acts for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpos. Pilgrims from all four religions do the trek. Tibetan Buddhists believe that one trek around the mountain cleanses one of his or her sins and 108 circuits (an auspicious number to Tibetan Buddhists) will lead to nirvana in this life.

Each year thousands of pilgrims complete the hike, known as the kora. Most of them follow the Buddhist custom and walk clockwise around the mountain. A few pilgrims walk counterclockwise. They are mostly followers of the animist Bon religion. The main pilgrimage season is in May. Many of them prostrate themselves at regular intervals. Along the route are discarded clothing and drops of blood left by pilgrims who cover the distance on their knees.

Those who prostrate themselves, take one step, make a Tibetan prayer gesture, raise their hands in prayer, and lay down on the ground, their arms extended in front of them. Then they stand up and place their fee where their fingertips had just touched and repeat the process again. Those that do this often wear knee pads, aprons and canvas shoes on their hands and take two three weeks to complete the journey.

The official beginning is marked by cairn of stones a couple miles out of Darchen. Along the way are yak skulls, cairns, numerous sites associated with deities, spirits and famous lamas, and great views of Mt. Kailas, barren peaks and huge rock formations.

At Tarboche there is a wooden pole smothered in prayer flags, white scarves. Some pilgrims gather around the pole to dance and sing. The pole is usually raised during the Saga Dawa festival in May or June. Nearby is a sky burial site and small walk-through stupa-like structure called Kangnyi. Bonpos leave behind ram’s heads and braided tails here. Pilgrims and Westerners alike spend the night in small guesthouses at monasteries spaced along the route. The "beds" are rough wooden planks, sometimes covered by dirty cotton mattresses.

Image Sources: Mongabay, Wason Collection, Kalachakranet.org

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2015

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