Tibet is home to three great Gelukpa monasteries of which two are direct outside Lhasa and form a great day trip from Lhasa. They are called Drepung & Sera Monastery of which in the latter you can witness the monks debating in the afternoon. I covered the third monastery called Ganden in a previous article. I visited the monasteries with my son on the second day in Lhasa (read my full Tibet itnerary here), our first real experience with Tibet and for sure not the last!
The Drepung monastery was founded in the early 15th century at the foot of the Gephel Mountain. It has been the residence of the Dalai Lamas until the Potala Palace was built. One could say Drepung monastery is a kind of university with all the colleges and monks learning, but not like we Western people are used to. We first walked up the mountain to have a nice view over the monastery and Lhasa in the valley below.
Like most monasteries in Tibet they were for the most part destroyed in the fifties when the Chinese arrived in Tibet. Also the population of 7000-10000 monks in the early 20th century has been cut to about 300 monks today under close watch of the Chinese military. We walked down again and from there started to move upwards through the different chambers. As it was our second day on this altitude so we did everything a bit slow to have our bodies adjust better.
We explored the Dalai Lama Residence which is one of the very few remaining buildings which did not get destroyed. Inside you find beautiful artifacts, statues and lots of burning butter. We worked our way up to the highest point and explored the kitchen (photo in gallery) which is located next to the grand assembly hall. Huge kettles for preparing food for all the monks can be seen there. It’s interesting to see how food is prepared for hundreds. Next to the kitchen is the grand assembly hall where some monks were praying when we visited.
The monastery is a large complex and it took us most of the morning to explore. All the beautiful decorated rooms are worth a visit. Keep in mind you have to pay again for every room if you want to make photos. We walked back through the small alleys towards the parking lot peaking in some of the monk’s residences along the way. We went onwards to the Sera Monastery to have lunch there before we would see the monks debating.
After our lunch which was served by the nunnery at the Sera Monastery we walked through the main street of the complex towards the great assembly hall. As is the case with most monasteries in Tibet all the buildings are restored after the events in the fifties. As the Sera Monastery is similar to the Drepung monastery we looked quickly at the most important buildings before we went to the debating courtyard where the monks would be debating in the afternoon. This was the most important reason we were visiting the Sera Monastery.
Monks debating at Sera Monastery
The debating sessions of the monks take place every day at the debating courtyard and visitors can watch this spectacle. The idea behind the debating process is to get a higher understanding of Buddhism. It’s a spectacle not to miss when you are in Tibet as this is an unique experience to learn about the monks how they learn and enrich their knowledge about Buddhism.
The debate is between two monks about a topic advised by an elder monk. One is sitting on the ground, one is standing. The standing monk asks questions to the sitting monk and the sitting monk must answer them. He must do this within a specific time frame. The monks clap between questions. If an answer is wrong he makes circles around the head of the answering monk with a loud noise. Loud words and other moves by the questioner are made to try to get a wrong answer from the answering monk; to mislead him. In the end, one wins the debate.
It was a real experience to see the monks debating. They do this every day and in wintertime too; when it’s cold. They learn and learn day in day out about important matters in life. After an hour when the debate was almost over we left to avoid the crowds. We went back to our hotel for some relaxing hours after a day full of new impressions and to enjoy a nice Tibetan dinner at night. Our bodies got more and more accustomed to the altitude. Next day we would go high up the mountains to Namtso lake. Make sure to check out the 7 days Tibet itinerary from Lhasa to read about all the adventures.Stay tuned for more stories and subscribe to the newsletter or follow CTB on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram including Instagram stories; on all social media you can find CTB @christravelblog) to get updated information.
Did you visit Drepung & Sera Monastery too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!