Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Our visit to Labrang is going to end soon. What an incredibly beautiful place. What an incredibly beautiful people. It is sad as we enter the twenty first century knowing that this culture might not survive the encroachment of modern influence. Their culture is so closely related to their religion. I have a book about the work of a missionary family living in Labrang years ago. They did not make any headway even though they spent 20 years there. I can't imagine a Christianized faction of Tibetans might go inside the temples to destroy and deface all the images. I keep thinking how do you convert them to Christianity without destroying their cultural identity?

Monday, July 30, 2012


The white scarf is called a kata. One brings a white scarf when one is visiting. It's supposed to bring good luck. It would be even better if the scarf has been blessed by a lama or holy man. These are masks which are used in some ceremonial dance to ward off evil spirits. Tibetan Buddhism differs from other forms of Buddhism, that of the Indians and the Chinese, in that it incorporates a lot of the ancient 'Bon' practices. A monk is supposed to learn the ceremonial dances in the monastery.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Butter sculptures

These are amazing scuptures made from yak butter. They are soft to the touch because they are butter and they smell like yak butter. Once a year they make these intricate scuptures for celebration and these are stored in a temple. They melt in summer and new ones need to be made every year. Every family is supposed to donate something for the upkeep of the temple, usually yak butter for the lamps in the temple, the scuptures and for consumption by the monks in their yak butter tea. Thinking back I forgot why we didn't try some yak butter tea. I guess because I didn't know what to expect. At the last minute I changed our plans from visiting a coastal city in China to going to the interior to visit a Tibetan monastery. I'm planning a return trip for next summer. I will try some yak butter tea then.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Medical college in Labrang

There are a few important colleges besides temples within the Labrang monastery complexes. Here monks study for years about the body and medicinal plants from ancient sutra writings. They learn how to identify them in the wild, how to collect and prepare them for use. They do incorporate ancient Bon practices of 'voodoo' for healing. There is a college for the study of tantric practices, this is where they learn about magical arts and other 'voodoo' practices. In fact, the French explorer, Alexandra Neel-David is said to know a lot about the tantric art and magical practices of Bon Buddhism and has threatened bandits with it while on her secret trip to Lhasa. Our guide the English speaking monk told us that spoken Tibetan is easy but the written word is very difficult. The first king of Tibetan, Tsangsen Gampo sent people to India to come up with a written Tibetan script. Today the Tibetan script still survives. I've sent the word out that I'm looking for a Tibetan instructor. I recently learnt that we have a small Tibetan community in Southern California who were refugees of the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The outer kora

Here they are walking the outer perimeter of the monastery complex, always in a clock wise direction. Before Buddhism became the state religion, the Tibetans practised a religion called 'bon' an animistic religion. Some Tibetans still practise 'bon'. The 'bon' people does the kora in an anti clockwise direction. The first great king of Tibet, Tsongsen Gampo, though married to a Tibetan women, also marry 2 other women, a Nepalese princess and a Chinese princess. Both were Buddhist and they converted the king who then made it a state religion. This was in the seventh century. Tibetan Buddhism incorporates some of the 'bon' practices into it. Buddhism came from India.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


This man is doing 'the kora' by prostration. He slides his whole body onto the ground, stretches out, marks off where his fingers were. That will be the strating point of the next prostration. He gets up, puts his hands together over his head, then on his heart and he kneels and prostrate again. He would go round the temple a few times during the days. They could use this way to go further. Some pilgrims have been seen on roads heading for Lhasa from wherever they live and it could take months before they reach their destination.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The very faithful

Labrang is a collection of temple and other buildings. Some are more sacred than others and people prostrate here to have their wishes granted.

Circumambulating the perimeter of the monastery complex means doing 'the outer kora'. Here folks are performing 'an inner kora.' by walking round a temple. They just walk, sometimes fingering some prayer beads, or twirlling a prayer wheel and chanting,' om mani padme hum.' It translates into 'oh hail the jewel in the lotus.' No one really knows what that means. The whole idea in Buddhism is to achieve 'nirwana.' which only means to disappear into nothingness or the alternative is to keep coming back into this earth by reincarnation into something. Reincarnation is not a good thing, you don't want to come back at all. There's too much suffering in this life and if you achieved 'nirwana'. you'll never need to do it again. So they do 'koras', go on pilgrimages and other good things to gain merit and the more merit the higher the chance of 'nirwana.'

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Monks, monks and more monks

Every family is supposed to send a son into the monasteries to be a monk. There was a period in Tibetan history when numerous monasteries were built all the Tibetan empire and monks number in the tens of thousands. During the communist revolution, the Chinese army killed a lot monks, sent a lot home and destroyed numerous monasteries, destroyed a lot of Buddhist art, stole a lot of temple treasures. The memory of this is still ingrained in the hearts and minds of a lot of Tibetans. Today the Chinese has relaxed a lot of the restrictions because these monks and monasteries are a draw for tourism. But they still rule the Tibetans with a firm iron grip, not tolerating any descent at all. In spite of the intimidation Tibetans do come and riot once in a while as seen in 2008 when Lhasa erupted into a huge unrest, and this spread to other Tibetan areas in China including Labrang in Xiahe. While we did not see any military presence inside the town, there is a huge military installation just at the edge of town. Other than morning prayers, the monks are free to wander around town and hang out. They are allowed to go home to help with the farming chores. They have cell phones, wear fancy shoes, eat out and drop out of the whole shindig if they so chooses.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sacred architecture

 This picture is so beautiful, I swear, it is worthy of being in National Geographic. You need to click on it to enlarge it.
 This big chorten is inside the monastery complex.

The golden roof, the black stripes around the windows, the little white circles, the awnings all contribute to insignia of sacred Tibetan architecture. Regular houses cannot be painted this way. It is reserved for temples and sacred buildings. Labrang is a collection of a lot of sacred buildings spread over a huge area.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The main sutra hall

Every building has this deccorative awning which is not really for decoration but for protection against the sun in those high altitudes that is bright and hot.
Details of the awning that I hope to paint one of these days.
 The chorten in the central square that is used for burning juniper branches.

We had an English speaking monk as a guide. I forgot what he said these were. We weren't allowed to photograph the interior of the sutra hall. What it has are cushions set on the floor and every morning at 5 am all the monks would be sitting cross legged on them and chanting the morning prayers. The ordinary folks would gather outside and participate that way. Everybody is welcomed except we couldn't wake up early enough. Its supposed to be really calming with the sound of the murmurings of their chants.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Labrang monastery

There just wasn't enough time. This was our last afternoon and we had only arrived the previous day. This was another whistle stop to China. Its very hard to leave work for any extended period. I hate to say it but they simply cannot do without me at work. So I have to run off for 10 days, the travel time takes 3 days and the time on the ground is so short. I can't wait for the day when I don't have to worry about anything at home. In the meantime I will grab what I can. I'm full of regret seeing these pictures again because I haven't given the place the time it deserved. Labrang started as a group of tents and grown into this multi complex monastery. This is sacred Tibetan architecture and the paint work is limited to temples only. They can't paint their living quarters this way. It is an absolutely beautiful place.