Friday, November 18, 2016

Tibetan Monks Debate at Sera Monastery

In a heated debate

I blame the altitude sickness. I was finally in Tibet, that isolated kingdom on the roof of the world, and I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm to leave the hotel. When our guide asked if we wanted to watch the monks debate at Sera Monastery, I initially declined. I pictured a stage with two podiums and a crimson robe clad monk standing behind each one droning on and on in monotone about the finer points of their religion. I don't know a word of Tibetan, and I know nothing about Tibetan Buddhism. How could it possibly interest me?

After looking at me a bit strangely, our guide explained that it's usually one of favorite places for people to visit in Lhasa. Fine. I managed to drag myself and the rest of the family out of the hotel to go and watch the debates during our last full day in Tibet. My youngest child was still having a really hard time acclimating to the altitude, so my hubby and I took turns staying in the van with her while the rest of the family explored. It seemed like a better option than attempting to carry her around since we were long past the stage of traveling with a stroller.

My boys and I at the entrance gate of Sera Monastery.
The first line of the sign is in Tibetan, the second is in Chinese, and the third line is English.

Sera Monastery, just a few miles from the center of Lhasa, is indeed a popular place for visitors. Market wagons filled with fruits and tables of brightly painted, carved wooden chests were on display by the parking lot. The broad walkway leading into the 28 acre complex was mainly a mix of Tibetan and Chinese visitors. The only other Westerners (not that I look like one) was the National Geographic Expeditions tour group.

Yellow-walled Sera √útse retreat high above the monastery

The yellow and white buildings of Sera √útse retreat are perched on the mountain above Sera Monastery, It's about an 90-minute hike up to it for those who are interested in making the pilgrimage to this hermitage. From this mountain side retreat, the Buddhist guru Tsongkhapa looked down and prophesied that a great center of Buddhist learning would be established in the area below. Ten years later, in 1419, one of his disciples founded Sera Monastery in that spot. Over the centuries, the monastery grew until as many as 6000 monks resided and were educated there. In 1959, the Tibetan people revolted against Chinese control, and the Chinese army retaliated by bombarding the monastery. The 2008 Tibetan riots caused the population to further fall from 550 monks immediately before the uprising to only 300 in 2011. Sera's decline and destruction reminded me of Ganden Monastery which we had visited the previous day.

Rock paintings above the monastery buildings

Indeed, visitors outnumbered monks on the day that we visited. We walked by whitewashed buildings and trees strewn with colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind. Corridors lined with prayer wheels branched off here and there leading to who knows where. (I'm sure that the guide told me. I just don't remember.) As we walked up steps further into the complex, a percussive sound and murmurings got louder and louder. 

The monk being questioned

As we ducked through a doorway into a walled courtyard, I suddenly realized why the monk debates were so popular. That sound I had been hearing were loud, slow claps. A senior monk stood over the younger one, questioning him about Buddhist scripture. As he finished speaking, he shifted his weight to his backfoot, raised one hand up while reaching the other one forwards. Leaning forwards towards the younger one sitting on the crushed gravel, the raised arm slowly fell until the two palms solidly slapped together, signaling that it was time for the junior monk to respond. Multiply it over and over again for each pair of monks, all going at their own pace. It was a random cacophony of claps mixed with the uttered questions and replies.

Q & A time at Sera Monastery

Even though I don't understand a word of Tibetan, I amused myself by guessing how well the junior monks were holding up to the relentless quizzing. Some seemed confident while others appeared unsure of their answers. I swear that I saw one senior monk reach down and smack a seated monk on the cheek a few times. Perhaps he was having a run of wrong answers? No one moderates these debates, and the questioner will sometimes try to trick the defender. 

Captivating the crowd

Visitors stood against the walls of the courtyard or sat on the steps that ran along the edge. Everyone was fascinated, even my own kids. A range of cameras from iPhones to huge DSLRs were trained on the monks. In no way was it as boring as I had imagined! The debates were entertaining to us, but I'm sure that it's serious business for the monks training to heighten their understanding of Buddhist philosophy. I'm so glad our guide wouldn't take no for an answer, and I'm glad that she let me be surprised by what the debates entailed. The energetic moves and exclamations were a big change from the quiet assembly rooms and the reverent pilgrims spinning their prayer wheels or prostrating themselves flat on the ground that we saw elsewhere. It's a definite must-see for anyone who has the good fortune to visit Tibet.

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  1. What an interesting trip! The monks debating about their religion must have been quite a spectacle. I'd love to visit Tibet, the land of exotic places. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  2. I can just imagine why the idea of monks debating in a language you didn't understand didn't enthrall you but I'm so glad you went and shared this with us. It sounds incredible. Tibet is such a dream if mine though I can't imagine getting there anytime soon. #wkendtravelinspiration

  3. I was intrigued by this post and I am now even more interested in doing this! I would love to go to Tibet and I will definitely be doing this when I do go so have pinned this for the future. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  4. Although a visual spectacle, I would really like to know the translation of what was said.

  5. I would absolutely love the chance to go here! Someday perhaps. #wkendtravelinspiration

  6. Wow that is a truly unique thing to see. I would be of the same thought trail as you initially though. How could a debate in an unknown language be interesting? I'm so happy you fought off your altitude lethargy. I feel sorry for your daughter being affected so badly. I bet I would be too.

  7. It would be fun to take a professional translator along to the Sera Monastery. Then you could position yourself near enough to one of the trainer/trainee pairs to hear what they're saying so you could get an idea of what they're learning. Is it obscure philosophical discussion? Or is it reciting of writings? Or just regurgitating facts?

  8. Love it and I would have tried to guess what they were saying and asking the young monks too. What a unique experience

  9. Wow this is very interesting, what a fascinating insight into the culture. I would love to know what they were saying! Did you have a guide who was able to translate anything for you? #weekendwanderlust

  10. I had never thought about the altitude affecting your sight seeing in Tibet and yet of course now that you have pointed it out, it makes sense.
    I suppose it is something you don't hear about when considering these destinations.

  11. Hi Michelle. What a great experience. I'm not so sure that I'd want to be the monk getting their face slapped. From looking at your photos it seems that the monks giving the answers are very young. I'm guessing newly ordained, or perhaps these debates are one of the steps to ordination?

  12. Oh, I hate being somewhere awesome that you've dreamt of visiting and just feeling bleh. That hit me on my first visit to Honolulu...not even Waikiki Beach was appealing that day. But I'm glad you relented! It sounds like it turned into a great experience, and we enjoyed seeing it through your eyes. Thanks for being a trooper! :) #WeekendWanderlust


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