Chimph’u and Samye: Expect the Unexpected

Chimp’u Nunnery

 As I planned this trip some months ago, I learned of a special event at Samye Monastery on July 9. My request to the tour agency scheduling my activities was that regardless of any other activities, they should plan for me to be at Samye on July 9. On my way to Samye  I learned there was indeed a ritual dance planned. I was excited. What I did not realize was that everyone within miles of the monastery would also be aware of this event and would plan to attend.

We arrived at Samye from Lhasa in late afternoon after detouring to visit a government office in Zedong to have our tour documents validated and to receive permission for our visits outside Lhasa. Then we had to take a detour back to Samye because we learned a bridge on the main approach road had been washed out. There is also major highway construction in this area with an extension of a super-highway opening soon, not to mention multiple other small culverts washed out along the way as well.

Chuba–Tibetan traditional dress.

There was a good deal of activity in the town surrounding the monastery, many small vendors set in temporary booths. I don’t know if this is normal or whether it was because of impending special events. Given the exertion of the day, I had little interest in further ventures.

Unlike most other locations I’ve visited, Samye is located on the flood plain of the Yalu river. Thus, it is surrounded by mountains on three sides instead of being up on top of one. Samye, though founded in 765 by King Trisong Detsen and sanctified by Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), is technically not the oldest monastery in Tibet. There are older temples, but Samye was the first to establish a monastic culture—monks in residence. It has been severely damaged multiple times in its history by fire and conquest as well as damage by the Cultural Revolution, but it has survived.

Its grounds and layout may not seem as grand as others, but the design is a symbolic representation of the mandala of the Buddhist cosmos. Mt Meru, the main temple, is at center (Buddha’s palace), surrounded by stupas representing the four continents (lakhangs) at the cardinal directions, with 8 smaller lakhangs on each side of the four. The Sun and Moon were represented by two temples (now gone) along with four chortens at the corners to the east and west of the central temple (Utse). The Dalai Lama’s teaching throne (Utse Vihara) is at the center of the complex.

Vairotsana, the first Tibetan translator and the first Dzogchenpa, was the founding abbot of Samye. There are about 300 monks here; but again, far short of the thousands residing here before 1960.

Our plan for the day was to go to the Chimph’u caves early and get back to the monastery before the dances at 12:30. Chimph’u is the location of a nunnery and a large number of caves, which were used by some of the historical Buddhist luminaries such as Guru Rinpoche himself. It is also a place where Longchenpa wrote some of his best known work and where he died in 1363. On that very ⇑day, it is said that the earth shook, that flower petals fell from the sky and roses bloomed in winter. Chimph’u has long been high on my list of places to visit.

Without using telephoto, the small shrine at Longchenpa’s cave can barely be seen far up the hillside at approximately the 1:00 position.

Silly me, I thought we were leaving early because it was far. Nope. It’s rather near Samye, and the nunnery isn’t even very far up the mountain. It’s the climb up from the nunnery to the caves that takes time. Looking up the mountain face and seeing the reality, a small building far up the mountain face above the nunnery, I was daunted, particularly since I had not fully recovered from the previous day’s climb at Gangri Tokar, I did not feel the same compulsion to go all the way up.

Full-on telephoto.

The nuns were assembled and performing ritual; we were allowed to file through. There was one notable item for viewing—a rock in which the shape of a lama had “naturally appeared.” It was painted, but the underlying image emerging from the rock was detailed enough and sufficiently improbable, with no signs of human influence, to suggest a true natural occurrence. These sorts of occurrences have been reported in multiple places throughout Tibet for centuries. Such assertions may strain credulity, but I have no reason to disbelieve them.

After touring the nunnery, we headed up the hill, again a winding stone path with many steps, passing residences, small vendors, tea shops and the occasional cow, I simply went as far as I was comfortable going. I could have exerted myself further, and may well have done so if we did not have another commitment at the monastery later. I wanted to see the dances more than I wanted to reach the top of Chimph’u.

We stopped at a small teahouse along the way, tended by a woman whose shining weathered face, like that of so many older Tibetan women, was a complex map of a deeply lived life. Every contour spoke of stories I could only imagine. The flickering light of wisdom shone from a depth behind her eyes, the labors of a long life, motherhood, the sacrifices, all in addition to the losses of three generations, the incursion of a foreign ideology and culture that, having lost its own soul, seems incapable of officially acknowledging what has taken millennia to grow here.

Perhaps it was all a projection on my part, but I was shaken out of it when a few nuns coming down the hill told us we would not be able to get into the caves today anyway because they had recently been occupied by a large number of nuns and monks for practice. Just as well. This will have to wait.

The crush waiting to get into Samye

Back at the monastery, there were signs of an impending big event. Traffic control. Streets blocked. Heavy police presence. Controlled entry. Security screening. We discovered the dances had been postponed until tomorrow because of a special visit by a high lama. Thousands of locals were arriving and already filling the monastery grounds, forming a long and circuitous queue for expected blessings. As tourists, since weren’t waiting for any special blessings and weren’t jumping the line, we were allowed in to browse.

We went straight to the main assembly hall/temple, which was filled with monks performing elaborate ritual with music, offerings, chanting and recitation. The interior is strikingly majestic, having an ostentatious grandeur befitting the stature of this place, enhanced by the presence of so many monks performing ritual. It was also filled with locals tucked into every possible niche, mostly huddled on the floor in anticipation of something, though I had no idea what. I soaked in it for awhile.

The main temple at Samye has three levels, Tibetan on the bottom, India-style above and Chinese-style above that.

Suddenly they were all on the move, circling around and lining up at a particular spot. The sanctuary was closed to further entry. We found ourselves in the midst of the first beneficiaries of the blessing process. But it could not start until the proper ceremonial preparations were completed-something locals themselves rarely witness, let alone this solitary westerner. I would miss the dancing, but this was a very special event indeed.


While it was going on, we simply waited with everyone else—for over an hour. Then the line moved and we found ourselves in an interior hallway behind and encircling the main altar. It was poorly lit, the walls were slanted and at least 6, maybe 8 meters high. There were murals on the walls all the way up to the ceiling that must have been at least 500 years old, so they must have survived the Cultural Revolution. We inched forward until we were all the way around to the other side, exiting into the assembly hall again to be met by 3-4 stages of individual blessing and received other handouts to the multitude.

As we had seen outside, people were lined up all around the grounds awaiting entry to receive what we had just received. And that was true for the rest of the afternoon, a continuous process, the line seeming to renew itself as fast as it moved.

The police presence for this event was heavy. I noticed  four different uniforms: bright orange fire control, unarmed camo soldiers inside for crowd control, outdoor regular dark blue armed police and fully loaded SWAT teams at the entrances. Other groups of camo-soldiers loitered next to their riot gear assembled on the ground: shields, batons and helmets. There’s nothing about this that says “protection.” Everything about it says intimidation. Normally, westerners are not permitted at large gatherings of Tibetans. If any conflict were to arise (and they have), the visitors would be recording it immediately. The government risks having those recordings posted on social media for all the world to see. No dice. Also, in China, one does not want to be noticed photographing police or military under any circumstances.

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