Kia Ora Tibet

I'm a Kiwi who's currently living on the roof of the world in Lhasa.
These are the stories and photos of my adventures in Tibet: learning the language, exploring the country, discovering the culture, and meeting so many wonderful people.
All content is original, and questions are welcome.
copyright kiaoratibet2014.
A child rests on the steps of Ngor Evam monastery, south of Shigatse

A child rests on the steps of Ngor Evam monastery, south of Shigatse

Monks debating at Ngor Evam Monastery, south of Shigatse

Black rooms in monasteries are usually reserved for tantric deities and wrathful protector gods. Compared to the rest of a monastery’s chapels these rooms are dark and rather creepy - often featuring paintings of flayed or dismembered bodies in gory detail. 

Ngor Evam Gonpa

According to our guidebooks, Ngor Evam was supposed to be mostly in ruins with only a dozen monks in residence there. As we drove up the dusty valley (when we finally found the right way after getting lost for an hour or so) we were all on the lookout for ruins. But what we found was quite the opposite: Ngor Evam has been totally rebuilt and is an active monastic university with over 300 students! 

Belonging to the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Ngor also features the characteristic deep blue, red, and white stripes on its buildings, and holds a reputation for being a great place of scholastic study. Apparently it used to be the second most important Sakya monastery in Tibet before the cultural revolution. 

We were once more escorted around the rooms by a friendly monk, who then wanted to take a photo with us on his iPhone. Many of the chapels were very similar to Sakya monastery and other monasteries we had visited, but the highlight for me was seeing the “dragon’s egg” that was kept safely on a high shelf in one of the rooms. No more explanation was available other than that it was an egg from a dragon … and all I could think of was Game of Thrones. 

We came out of the chapels just in time to see the monks debating, and it was some of the most energetic debating I’ve seen! Physical movement and gestures are a large part of religious debating, but here the young monks seemed to use it almost like exercise the way they were leaping around. 

Ngor Evam is a beautiful monastery, and we felt warmly welcomed. As frequently happens for us we were invited at the end to visit the Abbot in his office room, and were given gifts of blessed string and books. This is why we love to visit these remote very-far-out-of-the-way monasteries, because somehow it makes the experience richer and more rewarding to know that hardly any foreigners (or visitors at all) make it this far out. 

Looking out from the fortress-like walls of Sakya’s southern Monastery

More stories of magic from Sakya Monastery

I’m a child at heart and a Buddhist believer, so when a monk tells me stories of magic and mystery in a monastery I lap up every word. Here are some stories that we were told in Sakya monastery. 

Photo 1: In the first room we went into the first image I noticed was a large painting of Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha) on the back wall. After talking about some other statues and paintings along the way, we finally made our way around to this image.

Several centuries ago a devout local man returned to Sakya after a long pilgrimage journey around Tibet’s sacred sites. The first thing this man did upon returning to Sakya was to visit this chapel and make an offering here to the image of Shakyamuni. The man offered a white silk scarf to the image, which miraculously floated up out of the mans hands and wrapped itself around the Buddha’s painted shoulders! The man was awed and watched as the scarf then came down again and laid itself around his shoulders. Realising that he had just been blessed by the Buddha the man devoted the rest of his life to servicing the Sakya monastery and making offerings. 

Photo 2: In the main assembly hall of Sakya are 40 tree-trunk pillars to hold up the roof. There are special stories related to four of these pillars, and one recent story to do with all of them. 

The recent story: In the 1940’s Sakya monastery was undergoing preservation work, and it was noticed that the bottoms of many of the tree pillars were rotting, as they were placed directly in the ground with no protection all those years earlier. It was decided that something had to be put under the pillars, but this would be impossible without compromising the structure of the whole building, since any movement of the pillars would affect the ceiling and might cause a collapse. One night the Abbot sat alone in meditation in the assembly hall, and miraculously by morning all of the  pillars had large stones that had been placed beneath their bases, and the ceiling had not been moved at all! The workers hurried to add cement to the bases to secure them, and the problem was fixed for good. 

The stories of the four pillars: The four main pillars of the assembly hall each have special names and histories relating to how they came to be here in Sakya. The “Gyanag Sechen Kawa” was a gift from Kublai Khan, patron of the monastery, and was carried by hand from China. It’s the largest of the pillars at over 2m in diameter.

The “Tag Kawa” was carried here from India up and over the Himalayas on the back of a huge tiger (it would have to be a huge tiger to carry a tree this large!) who then disappeared into the tree, becoming a part of it, upon arrival in Sakya. Earlier the tiger had protected the tree from being cut down and attacked anyone who came near, but the interventions of a skilled tantric monk convinced the tiger to let them cut down the tree. The tiger then carried the trunk of its own volition all the way to Sakya. 

The “Changpo Kawa” was delivered to Sakya on the horns of a large yak. While crossing the final mountain pass to get to the monastery the yak apparently began to weep and from that spot a sacred spring appeared that cleanses the bad karma of a lifetime for those who drink from it. 

The final pillar, the “Nagpo Chashak Kawa” reportedly was once home to a naga - a water spirit - and when the tree was cut down it bled black blood for days until the correct ceremonies could be performed to appease the naga. To this day it is believed that cutting the tree will once more bring forth black blood that has medicinal properties to cure any illness. 

A story of a statue: At the far end of the main assembly hall is a large statue of Shakyamuni that is uncharacteristically uneven. Statues and paintings are always created with the greatest of care to make them symmetrical, and any imperfection means that it must be started again. However, in this case the statue was originally perfect, but when the ceiling was being constructed over it a beam fell and knocked the statue on the shoulder, denting and lowering it on one side. The statue cried out in pain “Ah Rah!” All of the monks and workmen realised that they could not now change the statue after it had spoken like that, so it was left, and now “Ah rah” has become a phrase that is used by workers when something drops or breaks. 

The Library at Sakya Monastery

The Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism are renowned for their academic abilities and have historically produced some of Tibet’s most famous scholars. It comes as little surprise then that their library is immense and possible the biggest surviving collection of texts in Tibet. 

Somehow Sakya’s southern monastery was saved from most of the destruction of the cultural revolution, so it is now regarded as having the largest collection of Tibetan Buddhist artefacts in Tibet. You can tell just by looking around how much of a difference there is between being here in a preserved ancient monastery with real ancient artefacts all around as opposed to a rebuilt one. 

Sakya’s library consists of hundreds of thousands of volumes including multiple versions of the Kangyur and Tengyur: the teachings of the Buddha and commentaries on these teachings. In a glass box at the far end of the library room is one of the largest handwritten sutras in Tibet, written in gold ink on a scroll made of leather. 

Our monk guide told us that apparently when all of the scriptures were put into these shelves they were neat and orderly, but the way that they now sit is a reflection of the state of world affairs. When the world is in a state of peace the scriptures appear straight and level, but as bad events occur the volumes tend to slip and become messy and uneven. 

Along the main wall of the library room some scriptures could even be seen protruding from the main stack by 30cm or so, which we were told happens only when a major negative world event occurs. Our monk guide pointed out a couple that date back to the world wars, and have been left sitting in that way because when at first they were pushed back in somehow the scriptures came out again the next day. The monks believed that this was an auspicious sign that they should be left like that, and have hung ceremonial silk scarves on the end of them. 

Stories of magic such as this are common in Tibet, and not a touch of doubt is held by the devotees who come here that these stories are truth. Of course the scriptures move of their own accord, why shouldn’t they? 

Note: Photography is usually not permitted in the library room, and there are several signs in multiple languages that remind visitors of this. However, I asked special permission of the monks in charge and they kindly allowed me to take photos here. 

A sand mandala and torma offerings inside Sakya monastery

A sand mandala and torma offerings inside Sakya monastery

Sakya - My Favourite Place in Tibet

I visited Sakya in 2011 on my first tour of Tibet, and I loved it. Something about being there makes me feel perfectly at home, like I belong, and I feel so happy. Since being back in Tibet this time around I’ve been dying to get back there and explore it once again so when the opportunity arose with some friends going to Shigatse - only a few hours drive away - it was perfect. 

While driving from Shigatse  to Sakya that morning a couple of members of our travelling party called some friends who had contacts at the monastery, so when we arrived we were met by a monk who had been living there since he was a boy and was excited to meet foreigners with such an interest in his monastery. He took us room by room around the huge Southern monastery, explaining every statue and every painting, and telling us many magical stories - the like of which are common in Tibet - about each image.

Our tour took hours and only managed to cover the main rooms due to the depth of information we were being told and some translation difficulties. The monk would speak in his native Shigatse-dialect Tibetan, of which I understood a good amount but not all, then a Tibetan friend who was travelling with us would translate what the monk had said into Chinese (because his English is good but not great), and then our Singaporean friend would translate from the Chinese into English for the rest of us. It was a long, sometimes tedious process, but worth it to hear all that the monk had to tell us. 

At times we attracted quite a following of locals who began by just staring at us and wondering why these foreigners had a monk as their guide, but then they too would get caught up in listening to the magical stories that the monk would tell, that were much more detailed than any tourist book or guide could explain. 

Ponderously our group made our way around the main rooms of the monastery, deciding at last to take a lunch break after several hours when our brains were starting to go into overload and an energy boost was needed. We farewelled the monk and tried to offer him money in thanks, but he refused it, saying that he was happy enough just to be able to meet foreigners with such an interest and knowledge about Buddhism, and to be able to teach them a bit about Sakya. 

The sun was shining and most of the snow gone by the time we came back out of the monastery. I honestly wished that I could have stayed there longer to check out the smaller chapels, maybe wander the northern ruins, and just explore the area, but I was happy to have just been here at all. 

Anonymous asked: Hello and Tashi Delek ! I have been enjoying your wonderful photography for some time now. However, in your recent posting, I find the watermark to be quite distracting. I do respect your desire to keep your work from unauthorized use, but could you be so kind to choose a much smaller font for the copyright that won't be obtrusive. Thank you ever so much.

Hi Anonymous, 

Unfortunately I have had to begin watermarking my photos after a couple of recent incidents that involved people stealing my work for their own sites without my permission. I found this quite upsetting, and wanted to make it very clear that just because something is posted online does not make it free to use. 

This is the first time I’ve had experience with something like this, and I’m currently trying to work out the finer details of watermarking photos. I hope you’ll understand and be patient as I try to get it right. 

Thanks for your support and suggestion, 

Becky 

noutsering asked: If you had to describe life in tibet in one word, what would it be?

མི་རྟག་པ་: This means “Impermanence” and I chose it because life here changes every day: new technology, new rules, new people to meet, new lessons to learn … From one day to the next here things are never all the same. 

A lot of people think that life in Tibet must be traditional and that people’s lives are ruled by Buddhist belief, but in reality these days all of this is changing with modern influences and exposure to Western ideas. In a way I guess my life here is changing in the opposite direction: I’m being changed by the traditions and Buddhist teachings that I’ve been exposed to, and each day something new comes along that affects me again. From one day to the next I’m an adventurer, a pilgrim, a tourist, a student, a teacher, a socialite, a hermit, an artist … Nothing is permanent. 

That was such a hard question! It’s something I’ve never really had to think about before, so thanks for the challenge. I hope you enjoy my answer, Becky. 

Sakya in the snow

We arrived in Sakya township on a snowy morning which felt quite fitting considering that “sa-kya” ས་སྐྱ་ means “white place”, named for the white clay earth on the northern hillside above the monastery. 

The snow had stopped falling when we arrived, but there was still enough around to have a few snow fights, and even the police officers and monks were getting in on the fun! 

Looking north to the mountain the snow seemed to highlight the edges of the ruins of the monastery there. Sakya used to have two monasteries: the northern sprawling one that was spread across the mountain and the southern fortress that we were about to enter. The northern monastery was destroyed by the cultural revolution, but the southern one remained untouched. 

The white of the snow also made the traditional Sakya colours stand out boldly; the stripes of deep blue/black, white, and red. Monasteries belonging to the Sakya sect and houses owned by Sakya followers are all painted in this distinctive style to represent the protector deity Phurbu Dorje (lit: dagger-thunderbolt) who has a body in the shape of a ritual dagger topped by three heads - one red, one white, one black. 

Sakya is one of the main four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Some kids help their parents at a roadside teahouse between Sakya and Shigatse

A brief speeding stop between Sakya Monastery and Shigatse. This little hermitage on a small cliff was home to only one monk, supported by a small farming village at the base of the hill. 

Yungdrungling - a Bon Monastery

For years I’d been wanting to visit a Bon Monastery. Bon is the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, but nowadays has been reduced to a minority that is little known or understood by the outside world. Even within Tibet debates go on about it: Buddhists will claim that Bon stole this-or-that tradition from them, while Bonpo claim that Buddhism appropriated much of their symbology and rituals. 

The majority of our travelling group were Buddhists, but we had one Tibetan Bonpo with us, so this should get interesting. 

From initial appearances the monastery looked like every other Buddhist monastery that we’d been to in Tibet. We had to consciously remind ourselves to visit the chapels in an anti-clockwise direction, rather than the now instinctive clockwise as Buddhists do. 

It turned out to be very lucky that we had a Bonpo in our travelling party, because our first request to be let into the main chapels was denied. The head monk said that he did not want to let in “just tourists” who had no knowledge or respect for the monastery. We tried to explain that we were pilgrims, not tourists, but it took our Bonpo friend to talk the monk around to letting us in. 

Once actually inside the chapels it was like playing a game of spot the difference: the protector gods and other statues looked extremely similar, as did the murals and thangkas, all except for a small detail - the swastika symbol (also known as a yungdrung in Tibetan) turns anti-clockwise. 

Both the Bonpo in our party and one of the more learned Buddhists tried to explain different images in the monastery, and only a couple of times got frustrated with each other’s “biased” explanations. In the end it was easier to agree to disagree regarding which religion has claim to particular traditions. 

As someone who has visited a lot of Buddhist Monasteries and knows the iconography fairly well I found it so interesting being able to discover all the minor details that tell a Bon Monastery apart, because it really was only minor details. To a casual observer they would probably look identical.