Sunday, August 7, 2016

Back to the Yellow Hats. Labrang Monastery.

Prayer wheels at Labrang Monastery.  (Photo by Photo by Cardboardbird.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

From Xian, our first on our Silk Road route will be the town of Xiahe, an ethnically Tibetan town in Gansu Province. The name of the town in both Chinese and Tibetan, literally means, "Xia River" refering to the Daxia River. The town lies along one main street parallel to the river; the Chinese section (commercial) lies to the eastern end of the road and the Tibetan section lies at the western end. In between lies the town's most famous landmark - Labrang Monastery.

Buddhism first reached Tibet in the 7th century via the Silk Road.  Over time, six different schools of Buddhism emerged, one of them being Gelugpa.

Gelugpa is best known in the West as the school of Tibetan Buddhism associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is also often referred to as the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism after the bright yellow, mohawk style hats that the monks wear.

In the 17th century the Gelug (also spelled Geluk) school became the most powerful institution in Tibet, and it remained so until China took control of Tibet in the 1950s.

The story of Gelugpa begins with Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), a man from Amdo Province who began studying with a local Sakya lama at a very young age. At 16 he traveled to central Tibet, where the most renowned teachers and monasteries were located, to further his education.

Tsongkhapa did not study in any one place and he sought independent teachers with fresh ideas. In time, Tsongkhapa combined these teachings into a new approach to Buddhism. Throughout most of his adult life, Tsongkhapa traveled around Tibet sharing his approach to Buddhism. At the time of his death, Tsongkhapa and his students were considered to be part of the Sakya school. Then his disciples stepped up and built a new school of Tibetan Buddhism based on Tsongkhapa's teachings. They called the school "Gelug," which means "the virtuous tradition."

Ganden Monastery.
The first Gelug monastery that was established was Ganden Monastery, in Tibet.  In addition to Ganden, there are five other monasteries that are considered to be the greatest of the Gelug monasteries -  Sera and Drepung monasteries near Lhasa, Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse,  Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai province, and Labrang Monastery in Xiahe.  I had the opportunity to visit Ganden, Drepung and  Tashilhunpo Monasteries on my trip to Tibet in 2007.  I missed out on going to Sera because I wasn't feeling well. 

Each monastery is comprised of numerous chapels. Sometimes, entering some of the smaller chapels required us to climb either ladders or narrow stone steps. Either way, there was always someone to lend a hand if we needed one.

Labrang Monastery was founded in 1709 by Ngagong Tsunde, the first-generation Jamyang - a line of reincarnated Rinpoches or living Buddhas ranking third in importance after the Dalai and Panchen lama.

Despite its venerable history, many of the buildings and religious artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  What you see now was built during the late 1980s or even more recently . The buildings construction differs from others in the region, being built with stone blocks rather than rammed earth, but the whitewashed multiple-level square designs follow the typical style of Tibetan monastic buildings.

Labrang Monastery.
(Photo by Farm. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
At its peak, Labrang housed nearly 4000 monks, but their ranks greatly declined during the Cultural Revolution as  monks were sent to work in the fields, deserting Labrang.  They returned to reopen it in 1980.  Modern Labrang is again such a popular destination for young disciples that numbers are currently capped at 1800 monks with about 1600 currently in residence, drawn from Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces as well as Inner Mongolia.

Labrang is one of the largest Gelug monasteries located outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region and we will be in Xiahe to visit it.

The buildings of the monastery include the Manjushri Temple, the Serkung (Golden Temple), the Institute of Medicine, and the main Prayer Hall (Grand Sutra Hall), plus a museum of relics and yak-butter sculptures.

The only way to visit the interior of these buildings is on a tour and as I had expected, photography is not allowed inside. Supposedly the English language tours are available at 10:15a and 3:15p each day. I would hope we would all be able to make it in time for the morning tour!

The rest of the Labrang can be explored by walking the inner kora (pilgrim path). It should be noted that some of the smaller chapels and larger halls charge admission.
Some of the places worth checking out are:  

Grand Sutra Hall.  (Photo from A Minuteman in China.)
Gongtang Chorten (located near the river). A newly built golden topped Chorten that you can climb.

Manjushri Temple. Definitely the most impressive hall with several enormous, elaborately decorated, Buddha statues along the rear wall and a pair of small rooms behind. Pilgrims make a clockwise circuit, stopping to make monetary offerings to brightly colored yak-butter sculptures and pray to silver Chortens containing living Buddhas.

Prayer Wheels. Lining about half of the inner kora are brightly painted wooden drums.

Thangka  Terrace. A flat stone slope on the hillside where a giant Thangka is rolled out during the Tibetan New year. The rest of the time its a nice place to sit and get an overview of the Monastery.

In addition to the chapels, residences, golden-roofed temple halls and living quarters for the monks, Labrang is also home to six tratsang (monastic colleges or institutes), exploring esoteric Buddhism, theology, medicine, astrology and law.

We have two full days in Xiahe.  Based on what I've read so far about Labrang, I think we need one day just to explore this very large monastic complex.

In doing my pre-trip research, I did come across the following note of caution:


Initially, I discounted it but then I was watching a YouTube video.  It was an episode of a series titled,  "Lost in China".  The two brothers were kicked out of Gansu when Tibetan riots flared up in Xiahe.  The video on their visit to Labrang is  quite interesting.  Of course, they went in as journalists and were given opportunities to take photos and videos that us normal are not allowed.  Darn.


I did read that riots often take place around Tibetan festivals.  So far, I don't see information that there will be any festival taking place when we're there but I will keep my fingers crossed anyway.

The last time I visited Gelug monasteries was when I was in Sikkim in 2010. It's time for a revisit and I can't wait!