Jokhang

For a couple of days already before entering the Jokhang Temple, I had become familiar with the human traffic around it because my hotel was so close. The commercial scene, the human traffic and the security presence are all permanent fixtures. The human traffic reflects the full diversity of the local population, pilgrims, the transplanted population and the tourist population. It is constant from early until late, moving steadily and in one direction only (clockwise around the temple as is the custom everywhere) and seems more concerned with the spiritual purpose than browsing the stores. The vast majority is working their rosaries as they walk.

Yes, certainly there are Chinese tourists shopping and a smattering of other tourists more wandering than taking korra. There are shops encircling the perimeter of the temple complex, with a limited number of entry points from side streets, making it easy to regulate access to the continuous stream of people. And regulate they do, with scanners and spot body checks. But it’s mostly very relaxed.

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Outside the Jokhang is a small enclosed stone monument commemorating a treaty between China and Tibet in 822. Interpreting the treaty may be a matter of opinion: one interpretation is that the treaty marked an “alliance” between the two nations; another suggests the treaty was a mutual agreement to respect each other’s borders. Both could be true. Yet only one interpretation supports the current Chinese view that Tibet has “always” been part of China. I can’t verify that the monument hasn’t been changed in the past 50 years to shade the meaning in China’s favor.

Entry to the temple itself is conditional. A guide must accompany all foreigners. Time inside part of the inner complex is limited to 20 minutes. My guide had to surrender his license for us to be granted the 20 minutes. But once inside, it is immediately evident why this place is considered the heart and soul of the Tibetan people.

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According to treasure-texts discovered in the 13th century, the Jokhang was founded in 640 by King Songtsem Gampo. He had two wives, one a Nepali princess and the other, Wencheng, was the daughter of the Tang emperor of China. As a result of a series of ill-omens, Princess Wencheng used her powers of divination to determine that what was then regarded as the whole of Tibet was “like a Demoness who had fallen on her back.” The lake in the Plain of Milk in Lhasa was her blood and the three hills rising out of the plain were her breasts and mons.

DSC07282 It was decided that temples should be constructed in strategic locations and that the Nepali queen Bhrikuti would oversee their construction. According to a combination of Tibetan geomancy and Chinese divination, the lake was drained and the foundation of the centrally located Jokhang was laid. A series of temples describing concentric squares at increasing distances from Lhasa were then constructed whereby different body parts of the demoness were tethered and subdued and which also met Songtsem Gampo’s intention to convert Tibetans to Buddhism.

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Today, the ancient beauty of Jokhang is radiant with color, detail, space and reverence. The murals must be at least 500 years old. There is no assembly hall since Jokhang did not house monks. But there are certainly monks tending it now. The inner sanctum is an open square space, an inner korra, with small sanctuaries each housing Buddhist statuary make up the periphery. On the day I visited, this space was full of Chinese tours. Indeed, this temple would be highest on the list of sites to see in Lhasa, second only, perhaps, to the Potala Palace. If you’re wondering why I’ve had nothing to say about the Potala, it’s because I never intended to go there. To be honest, I knew that if I ever set foot inside, all I would do is cry.

Entering each small chapel around the inner space of Jokhang, one is struck by the feel of its age: the deeply worn wood and brass of the sills and frames, the smooth stone of the floors having borne the temple traffic for 1000 years. The figures behind the glass enclosures, both in the chapels and around the periphery, enhance the space and its ancient character. Yes, there was damage here from the Cultural Revolution, but areas of recent renovation are hardly noticeable.

It’s regrettable that photos are not permitted. If I could take only one, it would be of the most ornate and detailed three-dimensional rendering of the Kalachakra mandala I’ve ever seen—made entirely of gold. It was about 6 ft in diameter and about 6 ft high, enclosed in glass.

It might be easy to say that once you’ve seen some of these temples, the novelty wears off. Yes, to a degree that’s true. Yet they are each devoted to slightly different historical figures. They might be more or less elaborate in their display of devotional themes. There are a certain number of figures, historical, mythic or religious forms that are common to each. But ultimately, they are not simply about artistic display. They are about refuge, promoting practice, training and education. In terms of the ambience created for those purposes, the places that stood out for me (among a very small sample of which I am now familiar) are Samye (perhaps because I witnessed it in full glorious action), the Shongsep nunnery (site of Gangri Tokar) and Tsurphu (because of the felt presence of the living Karmapa). None of the places in Amdo, though each impressive in their own way, meet this entirely subjective personal standard.

Jokhang is not really a space for practice, as it does not house monks in training. But it does represent a historical artistic, cultural and spiritual standard that stands above all the rest.

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Potala Palace, circa 1930.

Ganden & Norbulakhang

Although Ganden is one of the six principal Gelug monasteries in Tibet (of which I have now visited 5) and the location of Tsongkapa’s burial stupa, its distinctive feature is not so much what’s inside the grounds, but what’s outside. Resting as it does on a peak with a commanding view of the Tsong valley, with many villages and cultivation below, korra at Ganden is both a 360° tour of that view, but more importantly, a chance to regard many “natural” phenomena appearing in the rock as evidence of the spiritual significance of this place.

Ganden was shelled by Chinese artillery during the Cultural Revolution.

The walk itself, which takes about an hour, extends well beyond the walls of the monastery itself, circumambulating the peak on a path that at times skirts the edge of infinity and felt very precarious to me. It is mostly quite safe, and thank goodness it was dry. Locals passed me with the aplomb of frisky mountain goats compared to my plodding placement of every step.

Stone markers on the way denote the presence of at least a dozen images that appear in the rock, Tara, a handprint, Buddhas, various religious signs. And sure enough, they are there, plain as day.

  

This is not the only place where such occurrences are known. There is the footprint in the hermitage high above Tsurphu, the image of a Karmapa at the Chimp’u nunnery, the handprint of Padmasambhava in stone at one of the caves he used. There are many more claimed across central Tibet. It’s difficult to know what exactly they are, but the ones I’ve seen show no obvious human sign of deliberate construction. I don’t know how their authenticity might be determined. They are simply taken on faith to be real, just as real as the terma (hidden teachings to be “discovered” in future lives) unearthed from stone over many centuries.

Regardless of their authenticity, they are reminders of the ultimate view of Buddhism that materiality, formlessness and time itself are all mutable. They are regarded as a sign that their creator, the one who instigated their manifestation, in this case Tsongkhapa, had authentically attained such a state of consciousness and generated proof of his attainment, perhaps even long after his physical death.

There is much more to Ganden than I was admitted—or taken–to see. The small portion I did see were temples devoted to Tsongkhapa, Maitreya Buddha, all the dharma protectors, the spiritual sons of Buddha, the Indian arhats and, of course, Tsongkhapa’s burial stupa.

Tsongkhapa’s cave

Mindroling and Norbulakhang:

The next morning, I expected to be visiting Mindroling, the only Nyingma monastery on my itinerary. But shortly after departure, we received news that Mindroling was closed to foreigners. There was a large event there just as there had been at Samye. No one but Tibetans were allowed. There really wasn’t any choice in the matter, so we headed back to Lhasa to see Norbulakhang, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas.

It’s a sprawling complex of distributed chapels and personal quarters built for a string of Dalai Lamas stretching back to the VIIth. It’s surrounded by shaded lawns, including 100 different species of trees and bamboo. The VIIIth Dalai Lama built a library here housing 36,000 sutras and philosophical treatises. The VIIth Dalai Lama surrounded himself with dozens of thangkas of his favorite subject, White Tara, every one his own creation.

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In fact, he was such an accomplished thangka painter himself, he could produce a completed White Tara in a single day. Knowing this as one views his work in his private chambers leaves one awestruck at his skill. I seriously doubt there’s a person on earth who could do that once, let alone twice.
From a second floor window overlooking a large stone patio and beyond to the shaded lawns, compartmentalized by low rock walls, on one day every year the XIVth Dalai Lama would appear at the window of his personal meditation chamber to view the ritual Opera Dance, while hundreds of adoring citizens would picnic.
It was always a sweet time of holiday spirit, an exchange of mutual admiration, a celebration of kinship in the dharma. All of that was when the Dalai Lama was still quite young. The holiday is still observed, the dance is still performed. The families still come to picnic. But the Dalai Lama has not, and will not return. He left at 9pm one night in 1959. A clock on the wall halfway up the stairs to his personal quarters stopped the moment he left the building. To this day it still says 9:00.

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.

Dissolution

1000 butter lamps

I walked inside the temple, darkened and silent, completely undisturbed; I noticed the colors, the familiar designs, the empty seats marked by the heavy woolen robes resting like ghosts on the benches, the teaching throne. Everything in its place. Only breathing.

Then, in a slow wave, all the “things” in my view became only one thing. Everything became teachings. Down to the smallest detail, the fake flowers, the decaying fresh fruit, the wooden bowls, the gold, the fading paint, it was all teaching. All the activity outside the temple space was also teaching. Everything beyond was teaching, the weather, the mountains, the pilgrims on the way. Everything in every living moment. I was inside the space of all teachings, all schools, all teachers, all of the past and stretching into an undefined future, a vast dynamic universe of infinite nuance, the tiniest ripples part of a vast ocean, having no language, no structure, no predetermined activity.

I wasn’t expecting this.

I dissolved into all of it, the heart-mind of the enlightened ones. “I” was a part of it, even as “I” no longer existed. The barrier between the perceiver and the perceived was dissolved. Everything was image. Not many images. One image. Nothing I saw had any solidity, any material quality or substance whatsoever; it was none other than teachings. I don’t mean words, not the deities on the walls, the colors on the ceilings, nor the figures by the altar; neither the hands that crafted those figures, nor the statues of teachers nor the teachers themselves. Not even the Buddha himself.

They were not words–or thoughts or concepts–at all. They were a simple and direct knowing, an all-knowing that needs no words, without a source, a wind blowing across centuries, populated by beings, know-ers who don’t know that they know, permeating everything and every one, “my” thoughts, all thought, my body of light, the light from the doorway, the sky beyond.

There was no differentiation between words and thought and knowing. There was no time. The truth lives outside of time. It permeates the construction we call time and it is not time at all. Then again, neither is it something other than time. I was not standing there at that moment—or any moment. I was standing there my entire life, without beginning or end, in every “event,” yet not separate from any other event.

The material nature of a temple, a book, a sutra, a speech or treatise, the perceptual apparatus that produces them all, the sky, the mountains rising to that sky,…it is all the same, a dynamic display of color for which we have no name, nuance beyond comprehension. It is generation itself, arising and disappearing in every instant.

There is no longer anything I can call not-teaching, anything other than truth, anything other than a bottomless knowing that cannot be spoken. The sacred may not always be apparent. But it does not lie at the edge of..or within…anything. It is already everything….without any edges, living beyond the illusion of anything being separate.

It is all mandala. It is all Buddha-field. It is all Buddha. Nothing is other than Buddha, not the suffering of the lost, the greed of the wealthy, the deceit, the derangement, manipulation or ruthlessness of the powerful, the self-delusion and striving of the seekers, the nobility of the compassionate, nor even the amorality of the violent. Every look on every face is a changing color in the ever-shifting magic mural of the living dharma. It is all Buddha. It is all perfection. There is nothing out of place. Nothing “happens” at a wrong time.

No decision we face can be postponed or avoided. We are always coming home and we are always at home. There is no place that is not home. There is no place to go. We are home. There is no remote cave of feeling that is not worth exploring. There are no chambers of the heart to be abandoned. There is no dead-end of relationship. There is no end to commitment to truth or to the invitation always present. There is no wrongdoing that cannot be faced, no darkness that remains unseen, no search for justice to be abandoned. There is no sleep that cannot be interrupted. Nothing exists outside the temple. The temple is everything. The Buddha field is everything. We cannot give everything–or anything– to it. It is already everything we are. We have nothing. Our absolute poverty is our true nature….and we have everything in every moment.

Yet we still retain will. Or at least that is what we imagine. We both exercise it and surrender it to realize essence nature. Not “our” essence. Essence does not belong to anyone or anything. It has no source. Yet, it is not other than everything. We exercise will to pursue what we do not yet believe we already are. Will, entwined with self, is both freeing and also a form of bondage. The exercise of will that releases bondage is the great surrender, the great paradox, the Two Truths in operation, inextricable, inexplicable, perpetual and ineffable, without condition or attribute. The Great Mandala.

 

The Pinnacle: Shongsep Nunnery and Gangri Tokar

 For various reasons we had to juggle my itinerary for a couple of days. But I was insistent that I would not give up Gangri Tokar, the site of Longchenpa’s (1308-1363) hermitage cave. This is one of the main reasons I am here. Little did I know what was in store. Then again, even if I did know, I wouldn’t have cared.

Once again, east from Lhasa, we turn off the main road, in this case a divided high-speed expressway, to follow a familiar scenario of winding lanes through low level villages, gradually turning up into a sparsely populated mountain slope. But here, unlike the gradual approach to Tsurphu, the road becomes steeper with more curves, sharp switchbacks too tight for the turning radius of our van.  We are taken up and up, literally into the clouds.

The land of natural perfection is free of buddhas and sentient beings;
the ground of natural perfection is free of good and bad;
the path of natural perfection has no length;
the fruition of natural perfection can neither be avoided nor attained;

It has been drizzling all morning. Visibility is very limited, but as we take the next turn, the entire valley all the way down to the Yalu river opens up. We continue our climb, eventually arriving at the monastic complex known as Shongsep Nunnery. We are at 4400 meters, 13,600 ft.

Trudging up from the parking lot, we reach the courtyard of the main assembly hall. On entering, there is a difference between this place and other places I have seen. It is  immediately apparent. All the same elements found in most other places are here, traditional art on the walls (except for one wall containing traditional-style portraits of the founder of the monastery, Longchenpa and another figure I do not recognize), the guardians of the four directions, banners hanging from above, the pillars wrapped in carpet (and then plastic to protect the carpet from being torn apart by pilgrims), the rows of seats for the nuns, the teaching thrones. Nor was there anything unusual about the altars, though the colors and details might have been more elaborate.

There was a quiet about this place, a peace. Not a dull or passive peace; it was an awakened peace, an active feeling, a sense that practice thrives here. It was alive. Very unusual and very beautiful. It was like stepping into a physical representation of a deeply fulfilling meditative space.

the body of natural perfection is neither existent nor non-existesnt;
the speech of natural perfection is neither sacred nor profane;
the mind of natural perfection has no substance nor attribute.
The space of natural perfection cannot be consumed nor voided;

Very few westerners come to this place. Perhaps that’s why I was granted permission to take photos. We, my guide and I, took our time wandering through, savoring every detail. By now we had connected with one of the nuns who guided us. I was able to express what a special place this was.

Shongsep is relatively new, founded in 1904. It was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt. It was completely destroyed again in 1983 for unknown reasons. Perhaps the Chinese simply cannot stomach the idea of women devoting themselves to the dharma. That’s truly dangerous. It was completely rebuilt again.

Now the stone and concrete pathways look and feel new. Restoration and improvements continue as elsewhere. There are 160 nuns here. Their quarters sprawl across the hillside and upwards above the temple complex. It feels clean and well-tended. Teams of construction workers are busy, using pack animals to haul materials upwards. But I also saw single workers handling ¾” sheetrock with ease, climbing the steps at this altitude without any evidence of effort.

    

Now the moment of truth: the climb to Gangri Tokar (Kang-ri Thökar) The clouds obscured the view above. It was just as well that I not see how far I had to go. We simply set out on a well-constructed stone and concrete path, winding up the hill, switching back and forth frequently. It was raining. I carried an umbrella, my eyes glued to the path, looking up occasionally to see my guide and driver putting some distance between themselves and me.

I passed four sets of steel benches, rest points that I couldn’t take advantage of because they were soaked, but I dared not sit anyway. Just focus and keep going. I wasn’t keeping track of the time. I was keeping track of my resources. But really, there was no way I was not going to go all the way up, even not knowing how far it was. After 40 minutes or so, I’m guessing, the sky cleared a little and I could see my objective, a small multi-level structure set in a niche on the hillside, another 150 meters up. The rain had been increasing the higher I got, the wind and chill as well. I also knew I was well above 14,000 ft., maybe closer to 15,000.

the status of natural perfection is neither high nor low;
the praxis of natural perfection is neither developed nor neglected;
the potency of natural perfection is neither fulfilled nor frustrated;

It took me another 10 minutes of dogged progress to get there. I walked up the last few steps, through the wooden gate and onto a small courtyard. Ahead was my guide, waiting for me, holding open a heavy curtain at the doorway. I dropped the umbrella at the threshold, pulled off my hood and hat and carefully stepped inside. A clot of pilgrims, mostly women and mostly elderly, stood just inside the door to the left, working their malas, a few more huddled on the floor next to a bench directly ahead where a half-dozen nuns were chanting sutra. All the ladies were looking at me, smiling, especially the half-blind one on the floor. Through the welling of my own eyes, theirs all said the same thing: welcome home.

This is the actual cave place of the Omniscient One, Kunken Longchen Rabjam, Drime Ozer, The revered Master of Infinite Realization, the Second Buddha, where he spent the latter part of his life and composed the greater part of his voluminous and widely known Treasury of Dzogchen texts. The space is intimate, with a small shrine up against the back wall just beyond my view. A larger one on front of that, a small clear space and the nuns sitting area. I am motioned to walk in front of the nuns if I desire. I head back into the deepest part of the cave to pay homage and make offering. (Though I was permitted to take photos, it was dark. I dared not use flash, so I’m afraid these are fuzzy. I also dared not take direct photos of anyone there.)

My heartbeat had slowed to resting rate. I was grounding in the reality of what this figure has meant to me in recent years, what he means to me now and what it has taken to get here. He clarifies every question, every struggle, every wandering misstep, every misguided effort. His poetics awaken me from every form of sleep. Some people find his style impenetrable. But for me, there is no greater clarity.

The nunnery from above.

The walk down is easier, of course. But my legs were rubber by the time I got down. The weather had cleared some. This view is worth everything, every effort, every cost, every obstacle. Every question is overcome, every knot loosened, every veil lifted, every tangled intention relaxed.

The hidden awareness of natural perfection is everywhere,
its parameters beyond indication, its actuality incommunicable;
the sovereign view of natural perfection is the here-and-now,
naturally present without speech or books, irrespective of
conceptual clarity or dullness, but as spontaneous joyful creativity.

Its reality is nothing at all.

—Longchenpa.

Tsurphu

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.

Quinghai-Lhasa Railway: Crossing the Plateau

Quinghai-Lhasa railroad: 22 hours, over 1900 km, reaching over 16,000ft. Average elevation Golmud to Lhasa is 4000m(~12,500 ft)

One of the more hilarious moments of my overnight rail journey from Xining to Lhasa happened before it started. After I was dropped at the Xining Railway Station, I approached a charging station to charge my phone. There were only 6 hookups with different connectors. I didn’t see one for my phone. There was a crowd jostling for access. Someone appeared with a power strip, connected it to the charging station and boom! Six more people had access, including me. But even more showed up. This was one of only two such charging stations in the vast waiting area filled with several hundred people. Wall outlets around the periphery of the waiting area were shut off to prevent “unauthorized” use.

Someone else showed up with another power strip. Five more people hook up.

Then—oops—the authorities realize what’s happening. They rush over in their uniforms, shouting and gesturing. Oh, no, this cannot happen–unauthorized ingenuity to meet an obvious inadequacy of the official infrastructure. Not allowed! They are literally tearing the power strips apart, all the while cursing, pointing and lecturing the electricity bandits.  Here, one must bear in mind that the purpose of a bureaucrat is to serve one’s superiors, not the public. I take my charger and head across the waiting area to the other charging station. There, at least two of the chargers are broken. I am defeated.

When I got on the train for the 19:30 departure (having had my passport and travel permit checked three times), I discovered I was assigned an upper berth in a 4-bed cubicle with 6 other people, three adults and three kids—two mothers traveling with children, one a toddler, and a dad traveling with his son. They are all going to Lhasa. Or at least I thought so. One mother and her son got off at one of the earlier stops, about 2am. They were replaced by a single man. Everything is small, of course, and my suitcase is so big the only place it fits is under the table by the window between the lower bunks. There are very bright lights above the bed, constant muzak that can’t be changed, a personal TV that I will not use.

Over my head there is an oxygen outlet to plug in a personal line or tank. This is an ominous sign. I did not prepare. There are some fold-down single seats in the passageway equipped with power outlets. I charge my phone and then my computer. There is a lot of traffic in the passageway, going one way or the other, railway officials checking tickets and passing out health forms (risk disclosure for this trip across the plateau).

Even in the misspelled alt-grammar broken English translation, it sounds pretty scary. I sign it and give it to the attendant. I tell her I am in a cabin with six people and ask if I can move to a lower berth if there’s one free. She says yes. But of course, they are all taken. It’s going to be a long ride.

Then there are the food carts: fruits and vegetables in packaged portions (a very welcome sight), beverages, individually prepared meals–back and forth they go, at least twice. I retire to the dining car to write. Upon seeing me enter, a gaggle of teenagers stop their chatter mid-sentence, mouths agape. They approach. We have a few awkward words about where we are going, take a few selfies, flash a peace sign and they take off.

The lights in the foreground are trucks on the highway.

I never score that lower berth. I finally get up and prepare for sleep. Surprise! I sleep. A little restless, but no tossing and turning due to hypoxia. No signs of altitude effects. The guy below me has a conversation with people in the passageway at 3am. But I wake at 6 feeling rested. What a gift.

I get up and hang out by the window as the sun rises on the plateau. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. OK, maybe some parts of the western US, Colorado, Wyoming. But it’s not desert. Neither is it grassland. Whatever is growing there is hugging very close to the ground. Of course, there are no trees. No other vegetation. It’s like I imagine Siberia to be–except at 12-13,000 ft. Far off in the distance are snow-capped mountains. The cloud cover is thick and will stay that way for 5-6 hours. I try to take photos from the moving train.

I go to the dining car where the same teens are having breakfast. I point. I’ll have that. Some seaweed, celery and peanuts, a flavorless bun, some spicy radish, a boiled egg. Other passengers are fixing their own food. They have brought large-size instant noodles. Over the course of the day they will eat many of these and drink enormous amounts of tea. There is a hot water dispenser across from the sinks, which may or may not work, in every car. There are two toilets for every car, one western and one hole in the floor. By the end of the journey one of them will not be working- and not just in my car- but in other cars near mine as well. Over the course of the trip, enormous amounts of trash will be created by the collective discard of over-packaging that seems to be the norm here in China. The use of as much plastic as possible seems more important than the delivery of an actual product. Facade is an appropriate metaphor for much of what I’ve seen here.

Outside my window is no facade. I spend as little time in my bunk as possible, either sitting in the passageway on a fold-down seat, sitting in the dining car where I could view the passing scenery on both sides of the train (so much so that I was kicked out once for occupying space without eating), or standing between cars going back and forth from one side to the other.

Another hilarious moment came when I went for lunch. As I sat alone with no food, none of the railway employees paid any attention to me. I was the only westerner on any of the sleeper cars and they were completely preoccupied with Chinese customers. I had to collar one of them and take her to an adjoining table and point to what I wanted. No problem; nearly instant delivery. Getting a drink was another matter. I tried to ask for a soft drink, but I wasn’t using the right words at all. Just then the teen girls drop in and say hello as they pass by. The railway attendant sees them speaking English to me so she recruits their help to serve me, explaining in front of the entire dining car full of customers. Everybody gets a laugh. The girls saunter over and ask, “What would you like?” I say “cola.” They all repeat it. The attendant and I throw it back and forth several times because she recognizes that word but her pronunciation is a bit off. They say 5 minutes. Sure enough, the drink cart comes through in a few minutes and I snag the last koh-lahhh. It’s warm, but at this point, who cares?

Even in this desolate wilderness, we pass groups of railroad workers, power linemen, isolated nomad tents with their small herds of goat and yak, uniformed security saluting (!) as we pass and the odd military outpost. One cannot but marvel at this engineering feat, the landscaping and grading of the tracks, the steel used, the equivalent of a city of concrete, the drainage systems. All obstacles are blasted or tunneled through. Parallel to the tracks is the main road across the plateau, populated mostly by trucks at all hours of the day or night.

There is a public address system on the train. Periodically we hear announcements. A few hours out of Lhasa, an English message was broadcast about the ethnic charm of the Tibetan people, their spiritual accomplishments and their long friendship with China. What China now brings to Tibet, rapid and “scientific” economic development for a harmonious future, is touted strongly. The Chinese version of this message is then broadcast, but with multiple unmistakable references to the Dalai Lama. I can only imagine what they are really saying, but did not have the presence of mind to record it. I figure we are getting total propaganda in both English and Chinese. For what purpose would the Chinese message mention the Dalai Lama except to demonize him as an obstructionist, a “splittist,” as they love to call him.

Railway personnel come through the cars loudly, and at great length, hawking tour books with detailed descriptions of (no doubt) all the proper sites and how your visit should be understood.

We go from darkness to dawn, from clouds to sunshine, from dry desolation to snowy desolation. We go from vast flat lands with mountains in the far distance to passing directly through mountains, the vistas unmarred save the power lines making their Great Leaps Forward over the mountains, bringing energy to the east, courtesy of Tibet’s great rivers.

We pass lakes, meandering rivers (two of the 5 great rivers falling from this plateau) and even swampy grassland. We climb though passes of 14,000 and 16,000 feet. As we approach Lhasa, we have a thunderstorm over the train with bright sun in the distance. Gradually, as we drop to lower elevations, the land turns green. The mountain slopes become grassland, but still with sharp peaks soaring above. Soon, both sides of the train open up to wide valleys lifting up to the heavens in stark and awesome beauty.

Villages appear, larger as we go, every home flying the five-colored prayer flags as well as the flag of China—one to declare their devotion and one to keep the authorities at bay. The Tsangpo Chu, the Lhasa river, winding with a swift and churning fury, appears intermittently. We are nearing Lhasa. The Chinese presence in Lhasa has expanded the city south across the Tsangpo and west from the old city. Even though we have come from far north-eastward, we are approaching from the west. I move to the junction between cars, the only space where I can go back and forth from one side to the other every few minutes, not wanting to miss anything.

Finally the city, at least what Lhasa has become, appears. Blocks of Chinese built high-rise apartments. I can see wide and dead-straight boulevards and all the other signs of a planned Chinese city. We make our way through the westward sprawl, finally passing huge construction encampments, batallions of heavy equipment, debris, supplies, steel, re-bar, cement slabs and rock, employee housing, three large cement plants, fuel depots, a mountain of discarded tires, a section of super-highway nearing completion.In the distance to the north, the city climbs ever upward onto the slopes of the surrounding mountains. This jewel of the world, perched for centuries with its unique view, this holy place, this refuge of the dharma, mutated by a foreign influence moving far too fast and with ruthless disregard for the fragility of its spiritual ecology. I am only one, a late arrival, among many foreigners who have seen all of this evolve over decades. But it’s fresh for me. I wouldn’t miss being here for anything. I am elated, humbled, surprised, grateful, on my knees, moved beyond words…and horrified.

Labrang

The Neichung….in yak butter.

Tenzin describes Labrang as a “modern Tibetan city.” By that he meant the Chinese influence here is not so apparent. Between my hotel and the monastery, no more than 400 meters away, there is a row of shops lining both sides of the main road. I wouldn’t say they are all Tibetan-owned, but the majority are. They are selling jewelry and religious objects, with a few small convenience stores, restaurants, small hotels, clothing stores, including a few selling monk’s apparel, thrown in.

The main entry square to Labrang–doesn’t begin to convey the size.

This is the tourist part of town, close to the monastery, where traffic includes pilgrims from all over Tibet, China and the world. For several days here, though, I saw no westerners, and very few even now. We encountered another tour group with my agency in Repkong, 8-9 Russians on a 21-day tour. Here in Labrang, other than a Canadian mother and daughter who joined my tour of the monastery yesterday, I have seen perhaps three westerners. Amdo is off the tourist track apparently–at least at this time of year. Lhasa is the attraction of Tibet.

The tour of Labrang included a few of the different monastic colleges (such as medicine, philosophy, tantra), each with their own assembly hall, and about 8 of the 21 temples. I have become accustomed now to some of the statuary, and can identify more of the figures, statues and paintings of protectors, the guardians, commonly found on the tangkas that hang in nearly every temple.

The monk guiding us is maybe 30 years old, spent 9 years in a monastery in South India before coming to Labrang 4 years ago. He is studying English, but speaks in a strong accent that is sometimes difficult to understand. Along our way I asked him what happened here during the Cultural Revolution. He declined to say, whispering that the Chinese would not be pleased to have this discussed.

We see temples dedicated to Maitreya, Tsongkapa (flanked as always by his primary disciples), Manjushri, Shakyamuni, small stupas containing relics of the first abbott here as well as the second and third, etc. There is a small stupa containing relics of the main teacher of the IVth Dalai Lama. I made an offering there.

When Tibetans do korra, they waste no time. They all pass me like I’m standing still.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Tsongkapa to this region in particular and to all of Tibetan Buddhism in general. He is a founding and guiding presence in virtually all of the monasteries in eastern Tibet. His great accomplishment, aside from his own awakening, was to flood himself in his younger years with teachers of all different threads of practice and to eventually synthesize it all into three volumes, his most famous work, the Lamrim Chenmo, Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. This is a work that has undergone no substantial revision in 700 years.

There is construction all over Labrang Monastery, improvements of walkways, roads, stairways, patios. I once asked how so many monasteries are financed. The (partial) answer, of course, is that local people have always contributed to the life of these institutions, large and small. But I suspect, despite having no solid evidence to support this idea, that many of the larger monasteries have what we would consider endowments, possibly accumulated over centuries, perhaps even established and enlarged by substantial contributions of gold from Chinese royalty.

This is how Tibet came to be known as the “western storehouse” by the Chinese. Such contributions may have been used to buy land, from which rents have been collected for centuries, and which form the basis of what the Maoists considered to be a feudal system that must be dismantled.

 (most Tibetans don’t seem to want their pictures taken)

Walking the streets of Labrang is also an education of a different sort. Everywhere one looks, there are people going about their business with a mala in one hand, reciting mantra; a young mother with a small child strapped to her back, older women and men are most likely to be doing the same. I saw a young woman performing prostrations on her personal mat outside her small shop as she opened up for the day. Young people are wearing malas.

Monks quarters are private room build around a courtyard. Some of the doors are striking.

It might be easy to dismiss such manifestations as “Buddhist chic”; I suspect this is not the case-not here. This is a culture that has taken millennia to evolve from warriors to spiritual warriors. And along the way they have accumulated a body of knowledge that, to my mind, is unsurpassed. So when one sees the average person here persisting in focusing the mind regardless of whatever else they may be doing, one is seeing an expression of centuries of practice.

Manjushri….in yak butter.

Repkong to Labrang: Drakar

 On to Labrang, the road lifts to a 3600m peak through vast open grasslands with multiple mountain ranges off in the distance. It was classic and strikingly beautiful Tibet. Continuing further, a gathering of nomads was evident in the distance, making offerings to the mountain gods.

And further, we peaked again at 3400m, stopping at a popular viewpoint with a viewing platform, a few small shops, tents for overnight guests up on the hill. Small groups of Tibetans and monks were lounging, drinking tea and picnicking on mats under portable shade.

    

Further still, we turned off the main road and went 9km, reaching a small monastery called Drakar on a remote hillside up against soaring walls of granite. The highlight of the day.

Drakar

The abbott of this location is a 75 year old woman who has been meditating in hermitage for 50 years—that’s two extremely unusual circumstances in the body of a single person.

     

There are two hundred monks here. Everything about this place, how we were warmly met, shown around, allowed into the shrines, given time to contemplate, felt inviting and friendly. In fact, my driver knew one of the lead monks here from three years ago when he brought several American filmmakers for three days.

 

  

We were invited to lunch inside the monk’s quarters and served by a young monk with tea, soup, fruit and bread. The interior was wooden flooring and cabinetry, and quarters themselves housed-as far as I can tell- three monks on snug and warm mattresses, covered with the casual beauty of Tibetan blankets. There were armchairs, a flat screen TV, kitchen, an “office area,” a small washing machine and western plumbing. I don’t assume all the monks apartments were this comfortable.

Then something else was brought to the center of the table, what looked like it must have been a yak stomach inside which were pieces of meat. The entire concoction had been cooked over hot stone. All at the table, except me, plucked pieces of meat from this organic container that smelled so very much of dead animal. Not appealing.

We couldn’t leave without giving our host a crash course in auto maintenance for his brand new 15 yr-old Lexus SUV. I have no idea how these things are financed.

But Drakar is a place I would return to. Its remote setting is spectacular, commanding a vast view across verdant grasslands to the far mountains while holding a snug position against its own soaring backdrop of vertical stone.

A word about my guide:

Tenzin is twenty-nine years old now. He was born in Tibet and was taken to India at age 11 by a family member. He entered India as an undocumented person. He attended primary and secondary school there, learning English and Chinese and even completed three years of university majoring in English literature, but was unable to complete the final year because his parents wanted him to come back. They had not seen him for 10 years. So he returned to Tibet, just as he left, without passport, in 2011.

Without government ID, you are a non-person here. He managed to get ID (I did not ask how), and to find work. His parents are indifferent to him completing his bachelor’s degree. He can do the coursework by attending a Chinese school, essentially a mail-order university, but if he signs up for a course, he has to complete it within a specified period of time and must work to support himself while studying.

It’s extremely difficult for a Tibetan to get a passport now. Just another restriction placed on the movement and activities of Tibetans.  So his prospects for employment are limited. He would not be able to find a job requiring fluent Chinese because the Chinese apparently believe that those jobs should be reserved for people for whom Chinese is their primary language. A Tibetan fluent in Chinese is simply not considered capable. (Imagine the effect of such a policy in America–or anywhere else but Tibet)

His prospects for completing his university degree are limited and his travel is limited because he doesn’t have a passport. I suspect Tenzin is much better equipped to make his own way under the present circumstances than the average Tibetan, yet even with his skills and education, there are few doors that are truly open and he is not free to seek opportunity elsewhere…except by illegal means, of course.

I found him intelligent, capable of conversing on a wide range of topics, good humored, insightful and very knowledgeable on the topics of interest to me. I was well-taken care of. I hope we can meet again sometime.

On to Labrang.

Repkong

Repkong straddles the Repkong River, mushrooming upward with the infusion of government capital in the form of high rise apartments, government buildings and hotels dedicated to future residents. It looks like a city of at least 200,000, though actual residents may only number 100,000. Still, that’s number could not have been foreseen 10 years ago when the city was only 10,000-and almost all Tibetans. All the major roads downtown are under renovation, causing widepsread inconvenience.

Here’s the rub of reality for Tibetans: development is happening so fast and on such a scale that they have no time to adapt. The government has erected barriers to full economic participation, yet insists on Tibetan assimilation. The Chinese population of Tibet long ago exceeded the six million Tibetans that remain. The future foretells much more of the same.

Rigjong Ling

My first actual stop in Repkong was an art gallery, Rigjong Ling, devoted in part to a reknowned and highly honored tangka artist Shawo Cho, displaying some of his work as well as a fabulous collection of aged thangkas, statuary and masks.

Repkong is known as a colony of highly skilled artists. I was not disappointed. These next few photos are of sub-parts of one of Shawo Cho’s works, a $500,000 tangka. Each of these shots are worthy of being central subjects in their own right, are most often depicted that way and would command high prices on their own.  But here, they are mere sideshows to the main subject.

It’s yours for 3.4M RMB

Elsewhere in the gallery was this 400 y.o. rendition of Yama.

…and another of Palden Lamo

…and for a change of pace, a peaceful version of Dorje Palmo.

On to Sengshong Gaden Phuntsok Choeling, a colorful 350 year old monastery in Repkong. On entry, one is immediately met by two large chortens, one for Kalachakra, one for Atisha containing relics of the founder of the monastery.

  

Sengsong Gaden was spared damage during the Cultural Revolution because it was turned into a grainery, something also done elsewhere in Tibet if there was time before the Red Guards appeared.

  

Outside and inside the main temple, grain was stacked up about 5 ft from the floor, covering small murals at ground level. Above 5 feet, the large wall paintings on both the outer and inner walls, perhaps six feet square, were turned backwards to face each other and pro-Communist slogans were painted on the blank backsides. This turned out to be a pretty reliable way for smaller monasteries to escape the wrath of the proletariat.

I discovered that the monk manning the ticket booth is also a painter. His work adorned the walls and was stacked on the floor. One piece of extremely fine work in particular caught my eye.

Talent and dedication can be found in the most unexpected places.

We walked around the corner from the monastery into another school where the teacher and two students were painting. First I asked how many hours per day these students worked. Twelve hours. I asked how long it takes to become an accomplished artist. Four years of daily practice to achieve a level of competency required to turn out high quality work. And with that competency comes complete fluency with all the deities of Buddhist cosmology, all the protectors of precious qualities, the Dharmapala (guardians of the dharma) all the bodhisattvas, teachers and all the Buddhas. Such is the nature of the lineage stretching down the centuries that produces images of these characters filled with the most precisely detailed symbolism and attitude. Any proficient student must master all the lesser subjects before even being permitted to paint the Buddhas.

(The young man above is painting with 24kt gold. He kept wetting the brush with his tongue.)

I visited two painting schools—both exhibiting quality beyond what I have seen in Nepal. I tried to buy one for $1200 and another for $1600 but there was no way to use a credit card. No bank except Bank of China will certify a credit card transaction and no bank will change currency except Bank of China. No Bank of China branch in Repkong.

Manjushri. The one that got away.

Note: If you are looking for a high quality tangka, bring cash.

We took a break in the middle of the day, had lunch and rested for couple of hours before going to Rongwu, the largest monastery in Repkong. We intended to time our visit with a debating session at 5pm. Unfortunately, it rained. No debate.

In each of the monasteries in Repkong, just as in Trika, there is a temple for Tsongkapa in which he is flanked by the first Dalai Lama and the first Panchen Lama, his principle disciples and the highest and second highest figures in the Gelug sect, respectively.

Rongwu Monastery (founded 1341) is large, like a village really, a maze of cobblestone pathways linking the monk quarters behind high stone walls. There are multiple temples, to Haryagriva, Tsongkapa, Manjushri, Kalachakra, Amitabha, Tara, and Palden Lamo (in which resides a full set of robes belonging to the 14th Dalai Lama, right next to the donated bottles of vodka—apparently Palden Lamo likes to drink).

Rongwu also has two dozen satellite monasteries in the Repkong area. They are not alone in this respect. Kumbum and Labrang are the same.

There are 700 monks at Rongwu, a mere 10% of what the community that once lived here before the 1960s. The number of monks at any of the large monasteries in Tibet are uniformly restricted to about 10% of what they once housed before the Cultural Revolution.