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.


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.





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.


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.


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.

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.

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.