There are hundreds of Buddhist Monasteries in Tibet and they are an integral part of life here. We visited the Pabonka Monastery, situated at the base of the mountains which surround Lhasa, and offers panoramic views of the area and the Potala Palace. The Monastery was built in the 7th century and is one of the most ancient Buddhist sites in Lhasa.
We joined the pilgrims in their kora, the circumambulation of a sacred site which is both a type of pilgrimage and meditative practice. Smiles, stares, giggles and frequent hello’s greeted us as we joined the Tibetans of all ages, dressed predominantly in traditional clothing, carrying prayer wheels and beads. They were chanting, chatting and talking on their mobile phones as we walked.
We passed stupors, prayer flags, stray dogs and goats. Carefully we avoided the pilgrims prostrating themselves along the way, their knees padded and hands protected. The pilgrim bends forward at the waist, places their hands on the ground, walks their hands forward until they are lying flat on the ground. They mark the tip of their outstretched hands with a bone, prayer beads, rock or even keys. Then they stand and repeat the process again from the marked spot. Some pilgrims complete the whole kora in this way, including traversing stairs and steep terrain. Our guide told us his 69 year old mother walks a kora every day and apart from the spiritual benefit it provides her with exercise and community involvement.
We paused to watch as distant smoke from burning barley flower drifted skyward to alert the vultures that a sky burial was taking place. According to Buddhist beliefs the body does not need to be preserved, and so is cut up and offered to the vultures. Our guide told us that women who have not given birth and those who have been murdered or killed accidently cannot have a sky burial, though they can have a water or earth burial.
As the vultures hovered dark clouds gathered overhead and thunder echoed across the mountains, and yet Lhasa was bathed in sunlight. The sleet started just as the monk blew the conch shell to signal the start of the chanting meditation. We rapidly completed our kora and were graciously welcomed to join the monks and pilgrims chanting from the sacred texts.
The Sera Monastery was next on our list. Six hundred monks live here. That sounds impressive, but originally there were 5000 monks in residence. Our guide likened the monastery life of a monk to that of a student. Time is spent learning and seeking to understand the sacred texts each day. Daily at 3.30 pm the Sera Monastery monks “debate”.
One monk, who is standing, challenges another, who is sitting, with a question delivered with a dramatic clap of the hands. Examples of questions asked are “Does a stone have life?” and “Does water have colour?”. Some monks appeared happy with the responses and there was much laughing and joviality. Others seemed displeased, posing further questions with a forceful clap of the hands and an angry and challenging expression. I wouldn’t t have wanted to give a wrong answer!