The approach to Tsurphu is a slow winding 20+ km climb through the green Dowo valley through which the Tsurphu Chu tumbles, or should I say roars, from the higher elevations. The road has been improved a great deal in recent years, cutting the travel time from the main road by at least half and improving the comfort by more than that, I’m sure.

I was mesmerized by the stream, pouring down at a furious rate here in early July. The snows are gone for the time being, but there is plenty of rain. Except for how shallow it is generally, the stream looked like a Class III-IV river. We passed multiple streams of varying sizes feeding from the mountain above. Passing small villages, groups of yak and goats along the way, one can’t escape the sense of abundance here. Looking up the valley, a majestic snow-capped peak easily exceeding 5000 meters oversees-and feeds-the life below. The stream will slow in the coming months, the weather will turn cold and the snows will turn everything white.

Tsurphu monastery was founded in 1333. It is the original seat of the Kagyu order and home to the Karmapa lineage, built against the mountain on the north side of the stream, looking both up and down-valley from its high perch. In 1642, Tsurphu was sacked by Mongols enlisted by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama to subdue their resistance to Gelug dominance. The Karmapa was forced to flee to Bhutan.

These facts provide some insight into the reasons I wanted to come here; this location was added at the last minute to my itinerary. But they cannot communicate the feeling of being here, the unique nature of this particular monastery combined with the impact of contemplating that at least parts of this place were packed with dynamite during the Cultural Revolution and blown to smithereens. Pieces of its buildings and murals littered the grounds for years.


It has been under continuous restoration since the 80’s and largely restored to its former glory, but, as most monasteries, with only a small complement of monks compared to their pre-1960 numbers.

Viewing this 300-meter square complex requires a continuous climb from one level to the next, each housing several small meditation sanctuaries devoted to different persons or deities. These are relatively small rooms, perhaps only 150 sq.ft. They have wood flooring, aged thangkas on the walls, images enclosed in glass, sutras stored in niches and shelves in front festooned with offerings, butter lamps, a bowl for monetary donations.

There was an attending monk in each, some performing ritual or reciting sutra. Common to almost all rooms were pictures of the current XVIIth Karmapa (who resides in the Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya, India under—as I have noted elsewhere– the substantial protection of the Indian government), the XVIth Karmapa (who fled here for Sikkim during the Cultural Revolution), images of previous Karmapas as well as one of the central figures influencing Kagyu practice, Milarepa. There are small stupas, containing relics of previous Karmapas in several of the rooms.

Three doorways on the left open to small sanctuaries.

As in virtually all monasteries, no photos are permitted inside. But as we wandered from one space to the next, the sense of devotion deepened. Here, I made an offering as I have done in most other places and received a blessing from a “monk in a box.” It may seem as if I make light of it, but in truth there was nothing light about it.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is like the Chairman of the Board, the Panchen Lama (the second in the order of authority in the Gelug school), would be analogous to the CEO, and the Karmapa would be third in rank. But since there is no Panchen Lama (who in the 80s was kidnapped as a young boy with his parents by the Chinese and has never been seen since), the Karmapa would assume the second rank. To realize the current place of the Karmapa is to be continually reminded that there is no Panchen Lama.

But aside from all that, Tsurphu was more striking to me than any of the major Gelug monasteries of Amdo. It wasn’t especially the setting, the view, the stream or the architecture. It was more personal than that. Maybe it was seeing multiple hermitages further up the slope, almost vertical from the main complex, at least 150-200 meters upward, snug against the mountain, isolated, unattainable except by an arduous climb.

5 thoughts on “Tsurphu

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