The Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace was the political center of  Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism since it was constructed under the direction of the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645. It is built on a hill, called “Red Hill” in the center of the Lhasa valley midway between the Sera and Drepung Monasteries, and near the old city and Jokhang Temple, the spiritual center of Lhasa.

View of Lhasa from the Potala Palace

View of Lhasa from the Potala Palace

Looking the other direction at Lhasa

Looking the other direction at Lhasa

It is an immense building with walls 5 meters thick at the base and 3 meters thick at the top. It is 16 stories high and has over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and about 200,000 statues. This was the home of the current Dalai Lama until he fled to India during an uprising in 1959. The palace is now a museum with only about 20 monks present to keep it up. In the past as many as 300-400 monks lived in the palace.

Potala Palace at dusk

Potala Palace at dusk

The Potala Palace at night

The Potala Palace at night

The palace is divided into two parts, the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White palace was devoted to secular things and was where the Dalai Lama had his quarters as well as offices, a seminary, and a printing house.

The White Palace

The White Palace

Courtyard in front of the White Palace

Courtyard in front of the White Palace

Side view of the palace

Side view of the palace

The white part of the palace

The white part of the palace

Potala Palace windows

Potala Palace windows

The Red Palace was devoted to all things spiritual and contains many different halls, chapels, libraries, and other places of worship. You can see the Red Palace in the center of the building above. I’m sure at one point in time the palace was on the outskirts of town, but now it sits right in the center of the city. There is a large boulevard that runs right in front of it and there is a large plaza-type park across the street. Most of the buildings all around in that area are Chinese and are not any different than any other Chinese city. Lhasa’s old town, the really interesting Tibetan part of the city, is about a 20-30 minute walk from the Potala Palace.

The street in front of the palace

The street in front of the palace

The number of visitors is restricted each day to prevent damage to the structure. I spent some time in Lhasa in May of 2012 and visited the Polala Palace. Visitors are only allowed in certain parts of the building. In fact, most of the halls are blocked to the public, including the former residence of the current Dalai Lama. The palace is a fascinating labyrinth of winding hallways, rooms, prayer halls, and so on. Tibetan pilgrims make up most of the visitors to the palace. They bring butter to add to the butter lamps as an offering; they also leave cash donations as well. Unfortunately, but understandably, photography was not allowed inside most areas of the palace. Of course, they wanted to sell you a very expensive book with photos of the interior.

Ladder in the Potala Palace

Ladder in the Potala Palace

Red door in the Potala Palace

Red door in the Potala Palace

Potala Palace frescoes

Potala Palace frescoes

Door handle

Door handle

Detail of another door handle

Detail of another door handle

One evening I strolled all the way around the hill where the palace stands. There are prayer wheels around most of the way and pilgrims regularly circumambulate the palace. At night the Palace is illuminated with bright lights. Behind the palace is a large park with a stage for performances. The evening I was there a Tibetan opera was being staged.

Prayer wheels around the Potala Palace

Prayer wheels around the Potala Palace

Looking up at the back of the Potala Palace at night

Looking up at the back of the Potala Palace at night

The back, side of the Potala Palace

The back, side of the Potala Palace

The whole time I was in the palace I had a strong desire to wander off and really explore the place. There were so many closed doors, blocked hallways, and entire buildings that we were not allowed to enter. I have read that it really is a spectacular building full of relics, art, scriptures, and so on. Who knows what mysteries lie behind those closed doors.

DSCN2004-1

The Debating Monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

The Sera Monastery is one of the three most important monasteries in Lhasa, the Holy City of Tibetan Buddhism. The others are the Drepung and Ganden Monasteries. They are dedicated to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and are, or at least were, university monasteries. In earlier times life in Tibet revolved around the monastery. The monasteries played the role of religious center, education center with schools and universities, hospitals, marketplaces, and so on. Even now, much of a young person’s education can still be had at a monastery. The Sera Monastery was built in 1419 on a hillside in the north part of Lhasa.

One of the unique things about Sera is it’s long tradition of debating. As part of the their training, monks participate in a series of debates. These debates are held in a courtyard of crushed stone. Senior monks grill junior monks on various doctrine. The junior monks are seated, while the monks questioning their knowledge of Buddhist scripture fire questions at them, accompanied by dramatic hand slapping. The hand slapping is a signal for the seated monk to respond.

Debating monks

Debating monks

20120513-DSC_8690The debates are held each day. Though it seems pretty entertaining to the visitor, it is serious business and an important part of the training of these monks. Tibetan Buddhist monks are never without their prayer beads. In fact, most lay people in Tibet also carry prayer beads.

The debates last one to one and a half hours. It was noisy and the air was charged with energy.

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Junior monk debating

Junior monk debating

The short video below best shows how these debates are conducted. I found this religious training fascinating. I have always loved Buddhist temples and monasteries for the peace and tranquility that I feel there. This was a little different because it was so noisy and lively.

The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Last year when I was in Tibet, we spent several hours wandering around in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. It was a bright sunny day. The sun is very intense on the Tibetan Plateau, which averages about 15,000′. I ducked out of the sun into a hallway that connected a couple buildings and encountered this young monk. The floors were made of crushed stone and were polished smooth and glossy. This monk was polishing the floor. His “mop” consisted of a large bag of rocks with a rope tied around the top. Under the bag was a sheepskin. He walked slowly up and down the hallway dragging the very heavy load. Click on the photo to better see the expression on his face. His skin glistens with sweat and the exhaustion is apparent in his face. To the right, outside the frame, another older monk was supervising his work.

It is not uncommon for junior monks to do a lot of the grunt work in the monasteries. Years ago I was visiting with a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Hangzhou, in Eastern China, and he told me that when he first arrived at the monastery he spent a great deal of time sweeping courtyards and doing dishes. He slowing worked his way up to less menial jobs. In a sense they must pay their dues, or prove their worth. In another Tibetan Buddhist monastery I visited with a monk who was in charge of selling trinkets to tourists. He said it was not his first choice of jobs, but that he was willing to do anything to help out the monastery. I have never heard a monk complain about anything.

Even though the harsh sunlight coming in from the left blew out the detail on the bag and floor, I do like this photo. I’m glad I stumbled on this interesting scene. I wish I would have shot more and had taken some closer, more intimate shots of him. But, at monasteries you have to be careful not to be too invasive and respect the privacy of the monks.

It was shot with a Nikon D90 with a Sigma 17-70mm lens, at 24mm, 1/80 sec. f/4.5.

Tibet’s Libraries

Tibetan scriptures in the Sera Monastery, Lhasa

For most of Tibet’s history, monasteries have been the center of society. There were not only religious and political centers but were also schools. Anyone who was literate was educated in a monastery. It is no surprise then that the monasteries housed the libraries of Tibet. In fact, even today in Tibet and other Tibetan areas of China, those who who can read and write Tibetan were most likely educated in a monastery as written Tibetan is usually not taught in regular government schools.

These libraries not only housed printed books, but also the metal plates, and woodblocks used to print books. The Sera Monastery outside Lhasa still uses these ancient plates to print the scriptures used in monasteries today.

Library of plates in the Sera Monastery

The metal plates are framed in wood

Rows and rows of plates, floor to ceiling

A typical plate

These particular plates are used to print loose-leaf scriptures that are commonly used in monasteries. They consist of long strips of paper with text written the long ways across the page. Below is a poor quality photo of these books for sale, under a glass case.

Completed scriptures ready for sale

Typically a senior monk will recite scriptures using these long loose-leaf texts, and young monks in training will chant them after him. The photos below are from the Pachu Monastery (built in 1418) in Gyantse. They are not that great as the room was very dark. The senior monk sat cross-legged on an elevated stand with the scriptures open in front of him. A group of six young monks, between the ages of 14 and 18 years old, would chant the lines after him. They did not have scriptures in front of them; they had to rely on listening and repeating what they heard. They were a lively bunch of boys. When they took a break, I had a nice time chatting with them.

Senior monk reciting scriptures

Young monks taking a break from chanting scriptures

The printing room in the Sera Monastery also produced bound books of Tibetan scripture, history, science and other books. They were for sale right there in the printing room.

Tibetan books for sale at the Sera Monastery

In nearly all the main prayer halls of the monasteries I visited, Tibetan scriptures in bound books were placed at each monk’s station. They were usually well worn.

Well worn book of scripture on top of monk’s robes

Most monasteries have libraries of printed books wrapped in silk fabric and stacked on wooden shelves. These books were usually not behind glass or anything and anyone could reach out and touch them.

A large collection of books in the Pachu Monastery

Close up of the books wrapped in silk

The library at the small Chiu Gompa Monastery in Western Tibet

As a bibliophile I was fascinated with these collections of books. Being so close to them was a great thrill, even though, out to respect, we did not handle them. Unfortunately I do not read Tibetan, but I still found myself wanting to acquire some of these beautiful books. At a street stall near Barkor Square in Lhasa I found a woman selling the long loose-leaf scriptures. I bought a volume from her wrapped and tied in a saffron cloth. I had no way of knowing what I was buying so I asked her to pick a popular volume for me. She said it dealt with health.

I cringe to think how many libraries and books were destroyed during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. It is not like you can easily replace them. I know that many of the original plates were hidden during this time, so that books that were destroyed could be reprinted.

When I was doing some linguistic research in Yunnan Province (2010) and Tibet (2012), I learned that many Tibetans could not read or write Tibetan. In most government schools, Tibetan may be used as the medium of instruction, but they are not taught how to read and write Tibetan; they are taught how to read and write Chinese. Those who were literate in Tibetan were most likely trained in a monastery school. In the past, before the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1953, it was the practice for families that had more than one son, to send one of them to the local monastery to be educated. Many of these boys stayed and became monks. The literary tradition in Tibet was closely tied to religion and monasteries. Today it is mostly monks and nuns that can read and write Tibetan, though in some areas others are attempting to learn written Tibetan as well. However, this can be dangerous as these kinds of schools are frowned upon by the Chinese.

 

 

 

 

Chiu Gompa Monastery in Western Tibet

Yak skulls

In May of this year (2012) I traveled to the small Chiu Gompa Monastery built into the cliffs on a hill on the shores of Lake Manasarovar in Western Tibet, (on the way to Mt. Kailash).  It is located a short distance from the small town of Darchen at the base of Mt. Kailash. It is about a 900 km drive from Lhasa and usually takes about four days.

Western Tibet is remote, rugged, windy, and cold. It is much more rural than Central and Eastern Tibet. The people of this rugged area dress in long thick robes to protect themselves from the constant wind and cold. The woman all wear the distinctive fuchsia scarves around their heads.

Chiu Gompa Monastery on the shores of Lake Manasarovar

The monastery is built right into the cliffs. There is an ancient shrine in a cave here dating back to the 8th Century. It is a very interesting monastery and an important stop for many pilgrims. Most Tibetan Pilgrims will come to this area for two very important pilgrimages; 1) to circumnavigate Lake Manarsarovar and visit the several monasteries around the lake, and 2) to circumnavigate holy Mt. Kailash.

The several monastery buildings are built right into the rocky hill

The monastery library; Buddhist scriptures are stored on these shelves

Modest monks quarters

We spent about 2 hours wandering around the monastery complex. While most of the others in my group descended down to the Land Cruisers, I followed some pilgrims and did a circumnavigation of the entire monastery complex.

Pilgrims circumnavigating the Chiu Gompa Monastery

Lake Manasarovar from the hilltop Chiu Gompa Monastery

There were quite a few pilgrims at this monastery on the day we were visiting. The motorcycle has practically replaced the horse in most areas of Tibet. There was a big group of motorcycles there that pilgrims had ridden. They were packed with tents, clothing, food, and all sorts of things. Tibetans like to decorate their motorcycles and trucks with colorful decorations.

The next set of photos are of the many pilgrims and shrines at the monastery.

Typical dress of women in Western Tibet

She was taking photos with her cell phone

As I wandered around this monastery I was again struck by the religious devotion of the Tibetan people. They make great sacrifices to make these pilgrimages. It made me rethink my own devotion and commitment to my beliefs. I have always felt a sense of calm, peace, and a distance from the troubles of the world whenever I am at a Buddhist monastery. Even though I am not Buddhist, I feel the sacredness of these special places. It is a blessing for the Tibetans to have these holy places of worship.

The Pilgrims of Tibet

Typical pilgrims with prayer wheels

One of the striking things about Tibet is the religious devotion of many of the people. At every temple and monastery there are throngs of Tibetan pilgrims paying their respects, praying, prostrating, replenishing the butter lamps, and making cash donations. It seems that there are more women pilgrims than men, but you see all ages, but mostly adults.

This first series of photos were taken at the various Buddhist temples and monasteries in Lhasa, Gyantze, and Sakya. Most of the women in this part of Tibet wear a colorful apron. It is common practice for pilgrims to circumnavigate the temple complexes, spinning their prayer wheels, and spinning the many large prayer wheels that are placed around the perimeter of these complexes. Pilgrims often travel long distances to various monasteries to pay their respects and gain merit for their devotion. I saw many groups of pilgrims eating picnic lunches on the grounds of these monasteries.

This woman was actually begging outside the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

Conversation with a Monk

Butter lamps (candles) found inside all Tibetan Buddhist monasteries

Back in May when I was in Tibet we visited quite a few Buddhist monasteries. I have always loved temples and monasteries as they are such a nice contrast to the hustle and bustle of life outside, especially those in China proper. They are quiet and peaceful. I have always been drawn to monks as well. I’m interested in their stories, why they decided to become monks, and if they enjoy what they do.

While in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze I had an interesting discussion with the monk pictured below. He allowed me to photograph him with my iPhone.

Monk in the Pochu Monastery in Gyantze

I had chatted with him briefly in the main prayer/meditation hall. I had asked him about some prayer beads that were in a glass case. We just exchanged a few words. A bit later as I was walking toward the door to leave, he approached me and softly touched my shoulder. I turned and he asked me if I had a few minutes to talk. It is a great blessing to be able to speak Chinese and talk with these people, even though Chinese is not their native language. Unfortunately my Tibetan skills are very rudimentary, and consist of a few phrases. He led me across the hall to the low padded benches where the monks sit in prayer, meditation, and chanting.

We sat on the low bench in the left of the photo. The benches are covered in wool carpets.

We sat down facing each other; then he asked me a question that totally took me by surprise. He said,

“There is a cell phone brand called Apple. Have you ever heard of it?”

I almost laughed. He said they are made here in China and they are very popular but also very expensive. I told him that I had heard of them and that they are very popular in the US as well and that Apple is an American company. I pulled out my iPhone and showed it to him. Then he pulled an iPhone from inside his burgundy robes and showed me his. I was not surprised that a monk had a cell phone as I had seen many monks talking on cell phones. I was surprised about his interest particularly in iPhones. He asked how much they cost in the US. Then he told me that they cost about 5000 yuan in China, which is about $800 US dollars. I was pretty surprised. I asked him if he liked his iPhone. He replied nonchalantly,

“It’s okay, I guess. But there isn’t much to do with it.”

Most of a monks income comes from their families and donations from others. I suspect someone probably gave him the phone.

I asked him about himself. He was 28 years old and had been at Pochu Monastery for the past 13 years. The monastery was built in 1418. He came from a small village about an hour outside Gyantze. One of his older brothers was also a monk and an older sister was a nun. His other brother was at home working the farm growing barley. He had another sister that lived in Lhasa. I asked him why he decided to become a monk. He told me that even as a young child he had always been attracted to the monasteries and temples in the area. He felt something different, something peaceful in these sacred places. His parents sensed this and encouraged him to become a monk. It is common for Tibetan families to have at least one family member become a monk or nun. It brings great merit and honor to a family. He said he enjoyed being a monk and had no intention of ever leaving. Another monk joined us and we chatted a bit longer. Their Chinese was not great, but good enough to communicate.

All Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have a prayer hall where all the monks can gather for instruction from the abbot, chant scriptures, pray, and meditate. The prayer hall at the Pochu Monastery was quite large. It consisted of rows of low padded benches where monks would sit crossed legged. At each of the these stations was their formal robes, a distinct gold colored hat shaped like a banana, their book of scripture, and a wooden bowl used at meal times. Below are a few photos from inside the prayer hall. These halls can be quite dark, but my Nikon P300 with it’s f/1.8 lens (on the wide end) did an okay job in these dim places, though they are not the greatest photos. The fastest lens I had on my Nikon D90 was a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5. This was not quite fast enough to get clear shots inside most monasteries. As usual, click on any photo for a larger and better view.

The main prayer hall.

Inside the prayer hall

Tools fo the trade—robes, scriptures, and a wooden bowl

Well-worn Tibetan Buddhist scriptures

Prostrating pilgrim in the main prayer hall.

Buddha figures at Pochu Monastery

In another smaller hall I met a group of teenaged monks chanting their scriptures under the direction of an older monk who was leading the group. When they took a break, they were very animated and I had a fun time teasing them. They asked where I was from and when I responded that I was an American, one of the boys pointed to another sitting next to him and said he was an American too. I looked at him and said,

“Really? He looks more like a Canadian.” Pointing to another I said, “And he looks like a German, and he a Frenchman.”

They were roaring with laughter.

Teenaged monks chanting scriptures in a smaller hall.

An older monk was leading them in their chanting with these leaves of scripture. Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are often loose-leaf like this.

Entrance to the main prayer hall at Pochu Monastery

Pochu Monastery buildings

Prayer flag pole and buildings

Pilgrims circumambulating the temple grounds

Pilgrim spinning her prayer wheel

Pilgrims exiting one of the prayer halls

The ancient Gyantze fortress rising above the city.