Any visit to Tibet is full, and I mean full, of visits to monasteries.
During the 11 days I spent in Tibet I spent hour upon hour wandering through ancient dark halls scented with incense and old wood, walking over creaking timber floors and looking at imposing statues behind dusty glass.
Repeatedly I heard about the important historical figures in Tibetan Buddhism, not just the Dalai Lama (Chenresig) and Buddha (Sakyamuni) but also Guru Rinpoche, Tsongkhapa, and Songtsen Gampo, all depicted in different ways depending on their particular roles at that monastery or chapel.
There’s Buddha in various forms as well; there’s past Buddha (Dipamkara) and future Buddha (Maitreya), medicine buddhas and more. Then there are the Boddhisatvas such as Tara and Manjushri and others, in different colours and postures and with a variety of props. There are protector deities Vajrapani and Shri Devi and numerous other scary-looking figures.
And that’s only the beginning. I could go on and on, and as you can see, most of them are called by several different names. It’s more than a little bit confusing.
By the time I’d visited a few monasteries and heard the stories and names again and again, I was starting to learn and remember it all, but it is truly mind-boggling and a year later I’ve forgotten most of it.
But one thing I do remember is Sera Monastery.
Sera is in a stunning location, wedged up against the side of a mountain on the outskirts of Lhasa, with hermitages and meditation caves dotted all over the hillside.
It is one of Lhasa’s two main monasteries of the Gelugpa sect, and at one time over 5000 monks lived there. The population now is much, much smaller, but Sera Monastery is still a very important centre of Buddhist learning.
As part of this study, the monks hold debates in order to help them better understand Buddhist philosophy. This happens every weekday afternoon at 3pm and the public is welcome to attend. So, along with a bunch of other tourists, I headed for the debating courtyard and found a spot along the side wall, just out of the blazing Tibetan sun.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I thought maybe there’d be just a few monks there and it would all be very quietly done. Not so.
The large space filled up with maybe 40-50 monks, some carrying cushions to sit on. They positioned themselves in crooked rows, with two or three seated for every one standing. Gradually the air filled with the sound of voices, some quiet, others loud and insistent.
It looks a bit chaotic but apparently the debates are all set up quite formally, with a questioner, a defender and a strict procedure and set of rules.
The most fascinating part for me was the gestures. Using the entire body, the monks recoil and bring their hands together in a vigorous clap each time they make a point, stressing their power and confidence in their arguments.
This is also done when a question is posed or answered correctly, and soon all you can hear is the smacking of hands from around the entire courtyard.
There are pauses while they carefully consider their next question or argument.
There are smiles and laughs, because it’s not all serious and these men are, after all, friends and colleagues. While it’s an important part of their study, there is still an atmosphere of camaraderie and good-natured competition.
So if you find yourself in Lhasa on a weekday afternoon, definitely take a break from the Buddhas and deities and go visit Sera Monastery to watch the monks debate.