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Monks & mayhem

16 Jun

Since I didn’t get to take many pictures in the Tibetan monasteries, I thought I would jot down a few impressions…

Kubum Monastery (35)Kubum Monastery (80)

First of all, the monasteries in Tibet seem darker and more desperate than those in Thailand – and Laos and Cambodia for that matter. The Thai Therevada Buddhism doesn’t really include the concept of a ‘God’ – although it creeps in – whereas in Tibet, the Buddhism includes gods, demons, spirits and more from the Hindu and animist elements that have been included.

Kubum Monastery (13)Kubum Monastery (33)Kubum Monastery (59)Kubum Monastery (64)Kubum Monastery (87)Kubum Monastery (94)

The temples are dark and lit with low lights and hundreds of sputtering yak butter candles. The faithful add their own contribution to the candles from flasks of melted butter, or from spoonfuls out of bags.

Tashilunpo Monastery (8)Kubum Monastery (31)

Everything is draped in felt drapes in muted yet colourful designs. The walls are lined with dozens of statues – of the Buddha (past, present and future), of gods, of guardians, of the Buddha’s scholars, of demons.. a pantheon of mythical and real characters line the walls and each has its devotees. The faithful bring wads of small denomination notes to be offered at each statue, each shrine, each image. The monks occasionally collect and count these – and sometimes one of the worshippers will, for some reason that I could not determine, take a bundle too.

Kubum Monastery (41)Kubum Monastery (15)

There is a desperation in the queues of people – gone are the Therevada offerings of incense and lotus flowers, to be replaced with money and penitence. The most extreme is the incredible 3 steps and bow procession found in many of the temples. The pilgrim raises hands above the head, then in front of the face, then in front of the heart, before kneeling and lying prostrate on the ground – leaving a small token on the floor at the extent of their reach – beads, a shell, a stone, a piece of bone. On standing, he or she will walk forward to the object, and begin again. Many wear protecting padding on knees and elbows, and hold card to protect their hands. This procession can go on for miles – many of the older people do circuits round the towns.

Jokhang Temple (22)Kubum Monastery (100)

Otherwise, hordes of people will process round the holy site – clockwise only – spinning prayer wheels and chanting. There is a sense of desperate supplication though – as if a blessing will only be conferred or a sin forgiven if the offender makes amends through his or her pilgrimage.

Kubum Monastery (89)Kubum Monastery (90)

Inside the monasteries, halls may be storerooms, assembly halls for debating, or temples for worship. Monks can be found chanting, debating, cleaning the temples, or checking on the tourists to make sure they are not taking photos where it’s not allowed. Entry to the temples is cheap – but photographic fees can be extortionate – I saw $20 charged for one room.

Drepung Monastery (10)Drepung Monastery (32)

There are items of incredible beauty – many of the statues are incredible, and the paintings that adorn the walls are beautifully executed. The sand mandalas on the floor in Kubum monastery are truly beautiful,

Kubum Monastery (17)Kubum Monastery (20)Kubum Monastery (27)

As well as the statues of the spirit world, the tombs and icons of past heads of the monasteries – the panchan lamas and dalai lamas add to the chaos and confusion. We discover that the 6th Dalai Lama was a bit of a naughty boy, absconding with funds and bedding the members of the assembly. Behind the statues, the Buddhist scriptures and commentaries line the walls in small felt boxes – thousands of them in every monastery.

Kubum Monastery (52)

Huge amounts of gold cover the statues – although the rumour is that the Chinese government removed the real gold and replaced it with gilt.

Outside the prayer drums spin – hundreds of prayer drums can be found at the entrances, spun in turn by the attendees as they pass, lubricated by the ever present yak fat.

Potala Palace (34)Sera Monastery (3)

The monasteries are shadows of their former selves – where in days gone by thousands of monks could be found, the harsher Chinese regime has seen the numbers dwindle to hundreds. The life of a Tibetan monk is permanent, too – wherease in Therevada, a monk can leave the order, in Tibet it is a lifelong decision.

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