Tibet III: Sertar and Larung Gar

Larung Gar  is the world’s largest Buddhist institute but the road there is terrible. It takes two days to go the distance, we should go in one –150 km off the main road, drudging through landslides and ripped up roads from the construction that follows the edges of endless mountains. In through these undulating green giants, you would never be able to tell that tucked away at 4000m (13,100ft) are more than 40,000 monks and nuns. In fact, literally sitting at its gate we can’t tell if we have the right place. The corner store selling prayer beads and monks robes next to crackers and lollipops should be a give away, but the run-down non-descript western Sichuanese town —the main road now sort of a mud river from the rain— just doesn’t really seem right.

 

After eating a full sleeve of cookies as brunch while watching minibus after minibus of monks go through the gates we deicide to go in. There is no real way to describe the way you drive into Sertar. Having seen pictures before, I knew it was overwhelming, but I didn’t know what it meant to be overwhelmed in it. Rows on rows of red wooden houses seem to topple down from the mountains in front of you, pulled in alleys that only get tighter the deeper you go. An architectural crimson tide pouring down and filling the basin, merging into multiples of main temples that surround the main square. It is by all means magnificent, unique in scale, scope and shape. You are literally engulfed by it.


We park the bikes and meet Brendan and Lucas for what turns out to be a death chant  in the main monastery, sitting down for the first extended period in a long time: cross-legged up against the wall in the shadows where the sun rom the cut-out in the ceiling doesn’t reach. I try to settle my thoughts with the chant, counting my breath with my eyes half-shut. I focus to the different levels and pitch of the intermittent canter of chanting as it reverberates from the hall of men and boys of all ages wrapped in red in a room of orange, yellow and green. My body, wrecked from waking up at five that morning, finally loosens and my mind begins to slip in and out of consciousness.

At some point the music mixes in a Chinese pop song as the chants continue. They somehow mesh perfect. It’s the closest harmony this place has had with eastern Chinese society for me.

 

My eyes open and I’m reminded that this is a place of education as well as worship. Just like schools everywhere, some students –monks— are more focused than others. Some are talking to neighbors, others aren’t chanting at all. We watch as one young monk is poked insistently by his neighbor as he sits chanting, eyes closed in deep concentration. Eventually he can’t stand it. He turns and punches his tormenter in the shoulder.

I’ve only ever pictured Sertar as just a holy place, maybe even an extra holy place in it’s full acceptance of pilgrims and existence as a space solely dedicated to religious education. However, it is most definitely an institution.  A large institution. Sometimes it feels more like boarding school than a monastery –it even has uniforms. Around the monastery at lunchtime, this place has as the same characteristics of a schoolyard, Monks clamber over red bull and ice cream at the corner store during lunchtime; nuns fill the market picking up vegetables for dinner.

 

I guess I should’ve have only assumed as much having been in Tibet this long. Religion is deeply engrained in daily life here, almost so much that it’s an assumed facet of living. Monks and nuns make up a large portion of the population –maybe about a third of people in most place we go— and act just like everyone else: eating with us in restaurants, driving motorcycles with us (and better than us), waving to us while having picnics with friends, asking us to taking weird selfies while they crack jokes. Just good people in red robes that spend a lot of time thinking and learning about Buddhism. Some of them, sent as young kids, don’t even have a choice; for them it’s just going to class.

 

In the afternoon we walk through the monastery in the rain, looking to meet people to better understand the underpinnings of how this place actually works. We end up at a seminar mostly aimed at Han tourists on “learning to live without material goods” looking for answers, but end up learning more about the reasons people visit rather than why they stay. More interesting is what follows. Hearing a commotion from the third floor of the building we’re on, we head to the main square to see what’s going on. In the courtyard, what sounds like the beginning of a riot is actually hundreds of monks have come out to debate. One monk sits on the ground explaining his ideas while the other one stands and refutes him, slapping in his face when he thinks he’s wrong. It’s a cacophony of sound, as mesmerizing as it is impressive.

 

At dinner we finally meet someone who can explain things for us, a monk named Zhaxim a 25 year old Tibetan from Garze. Below I’ve paraphrased the conversation Lucas and Jie had with him:

 

When did you get here? How have things changed?

I left home when I was 11 and came here in 2000. My oldest brother is in Labrang also, but my middle brother still has to stay home and work. I was lucky to be able to get the chance to come here.

When he first came, there was no electricity, no restaurants, and no fruit or vegetable sellers. We lived in shacks and shelters pieced together with wooden boards. From 2008, onwards there started to be buildings made of out of cement and large cords of wood; it was around that time we got electricity too. From then on, more business people started moving into Sertar, we had fresh vegetables, fruits, and there started to be restaurants.

 

Why did you come here?

It’s an honor to become a monk, it’s something that every child wants when he’s a young boy.

 

What is your schedule like here?

Around 5am: I wake up, make breakfast and go to the monastery

5:30- 7:30 chanting

730-10 Lessons

10-12 Review

12-1:30 Lunch

1:30-5:30 more reading and reviewing

5:30 -7:30 debates

7:30- 9:00 dinner

9:00 – 12 additional studying and debates

12-1:30 more food

1:30 -2 Nightly chanting

 

All the monks set their schedules for themselves. I sleep about 3 to 4 hours a night so I can get the most of each day. In winter, this schedule lasts even longer though: debates go until 9 so sometimes I can’t eat until midnight.

 

How do you feel about so much commercial activity around you? How do you feel about the increasing flow of tourists?

We get along quite well with the business people. Because when they come into Sertar they start to understand how the monks live and we begin to develop respect for each other.

With tourists though, it’s different. When I first moved to Sertar I was very curious and naïve about outsiders —I use to wave and say hello, thinking we could be friends. But over time I realized they don’t understand how we live. They would say thing that would hurt me like, “this place you’re living in is so run down” “you’re living in such bad conditions.” Sometimes they’d even look down on me. Maybe my attitude has hardened now, I don’t hate them but I wont seek you out. However if you come and question me I will answer you as truly as I possibly can,  nothing more nothing less.

 

Why do you see monks with luxury goods, and others driving Hummers and Range Rovers?

You don’t pay to be in the monastery. You also don’t receive money, not even between students and teachers. What that does is allows each person to learn at his/her own pace and in his/her own way; you can form your own opinions and philosophies. There are a lot of good teachers here because they’re not teaching for anything in return, they’re just teaching to share their opinions.

The material items you see are given. If your family is well off they can buy you these things, but sometimes outsiders will also pay (gongyang, something like being a platonic sugar daddy) teachers. Because their two worlds are different, the outsiders will try to give back to the monks if they like what they’re teaching. Usually monks don’t accept this, but sometimes they have to; if a government official or a really rich businessman gives you something, you have to say yes. Sometimes you need them to create greater good.

There are monks that get blinded by this though. They willingly accept gifts such as these.

 

 

We park the bikes and meet Brendan and Lucas for what turns out to be a death chant https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funeral_(Buddhism) in the main monastery, sitting down for the first extended period in a long time: cross-legged up against the wall in the shadows where the sun rom the cut-out in the ceiling doesn’t reach. I try to settle my thoughts with the chant, counting my breath with my eyes half-shut. I focus to the different levels and pitch of the intermittent canter of chanting as it reverberates from the hall of men and boys of all ages wrapped in red in a room of orange, yellow and green. My body, wrecked from waking up at five that morning, finally loosens and my mind begins to slip in and out of consciousness.

At some point the music mixes in a Chinese pop song as the chants continue. They somehow mesh perfect. It’s the closest harmony this place has had with eastern Chinese society for me.

 

My eyes open and I’m reminded that this is a place of education as well as worship. Just like schools everywhere, some students –monks— are more focused than others. Some are talking to neighbors, others aren’t chanting at all. We watch as one young monk is poked insistently by his neighbor as he sits chanting, eyes closed in deep concentration. Eventually he can’t stand it. He turns and punches his tormenter in the shoulder.


 

That night, we set up our tent with Brendan and Lucas in a wooden guard hut the management of a parking lot has let them use. It’s perfect to hide from the rain and keeps us warm in the cold, high-altitude night. When the sun finally fills the valley the next morning, we pack and go. In many ways too short of a stay to understand something this huge. I leave the next day not necessarily inspired, but definitely informed. Mostly with a lot of questions still unanswered. There are multiple layers to this place, a lot of them don’t really seem to make sense; it’s not as simple as I’d wanted to imagine. Despite it being far away, it’s also not completely removed from society. As Jie mentions “It’s a honor to send your children to the monastery, it’s the ‘best’ for them, but it also seems like a status symbol: you can afford to not have your kid go have a job.“ As we bump back towards the mountain roads I’m not sure what to make of this ruby city in the hills. It’s holy, but the endless unnamed monasteries that dot the grasslands are so basic they almost seem more pure. We pass a couple on the ride out, not trying to prove anything, but a spectacle in their mere existence. Small dots just being a small dots in a big open world.

Write a comment

Comments: 10
  • #1

    Julien Powaaaa (Sunday, 19 July 2015 18:37)

    Pictures are astonishing !

  • #2

    Jennifer Kamienski (Tuesday, 21 July 2015 04:32)

    Fantastic entry! I need to get a nice hot tea and re-read it slowly again! Dawesome images too! Can't wait for the next one! Be safe

  • #3

    Ok Marland (Saturday, 04 February 2017 09:33)


    If you want to grow your experience only keep visiting this site and be updated with the newest gossip posted here.

  • #4

    Treena Barrio (Sunday, 05 February 2017 17:02)


    Thanks very nice blog!

  • #5

    Berneice Vantrease (Monday, 06 February 2017 16:58)


    I'm now not certain where you are getting your information, but good topic. I must spend a while finding out more or understanding more. Thank you for excellent info I used to be looking for this info for my mission.

  • #6

    Connie Avans (Tuesday, 07 February 2017)


    I am curious to find out what blog system you have been utilizing? I'm experiencing some minor security issues with my latest blog and I'd like to find something more secure. Do you have any suggestions?

  • #7

    Mia Chabolla (Wednesday, 08 February 2017 14:35)


    I relish, lead to I discovered exactly what I was having a look for. You've ended my 4 day long hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  • #8

    Isis Rusin (Thursday, 09 February 2017 09:57)


    Thank you for some other wonderful post. The place else could anyone get that type of information in such an ideal approach of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such info.

  • #9

    Rico Dry (Thursday, 09 February 2017 14:15)


    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn't show up. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!

  • #10

    Quiana Stuhr (Thursday, 09 February 2017 20:13)


    I loved as much as you'll receive carried out right here. The sketch is tasteful, your authored material stylish. nonetheless, you command get got an impatience over that you wish be delivering the following. unwell unquestionably come more formerly again since exactly the same nearly very often inside case you shield this increase.