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Buddha, Inc.

In Lhasa, I went to see several beautiful Buddhist monestaries. Mostly built in the 1400’s and expanded since then, they are temples of extraordinary beauty and serenity, seeping with gravity and a seemingly never ending past. Over the centuries, Tibet has developed its own brand of Buddhism, Gelugpa, founded on the thinking of a man called Tsongkhapa. Disciples of his founded the monasteries of Drepung and Sera that I went to see.

Here are a few photos of Drepung:

Lhasa – Drepung Monastery

What struck me most, was the money making machine put in place in the monasteries. I’m perfectly fine with paying an entry fee as a visitor and also to pay a fee for the privilege of taking some pictures, where it is appropriate. However, in the Drepung monastery in most rooms there was a separate fee to pay to take photos in that room. More importantly however, it’s the locals who do most of the paying. While they don’t pay entry fees to the monasteries of gompas, they drop wads of bills in front of all the different statues of Buddah or one of the Dalai Lamas to curry favors with the Gods, and many of these local pilgrims don’t look as if they could afford to give away much of anything. I saw monks literally stuff 50 gallon garbage bags with the bills that were dropped during a morning session.

More in keeping with my understanding of giving sacrifice to the gods were the butter lamps, big jars filled with yak butter and cords to keep the flames burning, in which pilgrims would add some yak butter from a bag they brought or pour liquid yak butter from a thermos can they had. The smell of burning yak butter is not too pleasant – think a mixture of old socks and warm butter milk. Fortunately, in most rooms of the monasteries monks were burning juniper to put the spirits at ease, a stronger smoky smell that usually covered up the smell from the yak butter.

Still, a very inspiring experience was sitting in on a study session of the monks with their teacher at Sera monastery, also founded in the 1400’s. It was a session where student monks were questioned on their knowledge of Buddhist scripture and also the teacher recounted a part of a book in rather dramatic fashion, with the senior monks looking on.

Lhasa – Sera Monastery

The most intriguing contraption was a system the monks had developed to boil water, exploiting the fact that the sun at an altitude of 15,000 ft (3,000 m) is indeed very strong. It uses two solar reflectors that focus the sunlight onto a kettle set on a stand in the center of the shield, using the energy from the reflected sunlight to heat the kettle. Ingenious, economical and environmentally friendly:

Solar water cooker

Later in the day I visited Norbulingka Park, where the Dalai Lamas used to live before the current one had to flee Tibet for India. Apparently, Wednesday Aug 15 was a holiday for Tibetans, bringing out people into parks and monasteries, having picnics and other outdoor celebrations despite the rainy weather. In general, I found Tibetans to be very water proof. I hardly saw anyone using an umbrella …

Lhasa – Norbulingka Park

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