There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 25 November 2011

Three Favourite Buddhist Temples and Monasteries: Beijing, Lhasa & Kharkhorin

I am not a believer, but I am interested in religion and I have a soft spot for Buddhism. It seems to suffer less from the false piety that often spoils other religions. Buddhists are relaxed and tolerant in their observances; you are supposed to walk clockwise round temples and other religious sites, but if you get it wrong, nobody shouts at you or tuts or even stares. I like that, and it somehow makes me try harder to do it right.

I like religious buildings.  I like their architecture, I like the history they contain and I like the sense of community they embody. Building a church, mosque, or as in this post, a Buddhist temple is somebody’s attempt at the sublime. Sometimes it is built for the greater glory of god, sometimes for the greater glory of the builder. Here I am appreciating their efforts not judging their motivation.

Yonge Gong, Beijing

Built in 1649, what is now the Yonghe Gong was originally a residence for court eunuchs. It then became the palace of Prince Yong, who turned part of the complex into a lamasery when he became emperor in 1722. On his death in 1733 Tibetan Buddhists were invited to take over the whole site. Developments since then have produced buildings which mix Tibetan and Chinese styles. 

Lynne at the Yonghe Gong

The temple complex survived the Cultural Revolution and re-opened to the public in 1981. One of the charms of the place is that after so many years of religious repression many would-be devotees do not seem sure of what they should be doing.

Uncertain worshippers, Yonghe Gong
The temple contains a remarkable 18m high statue of the Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood.

Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood

The Drepung Monastery, Lhasa

The Jokhang temple, in the centre of Lhasa, is the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a fascinating place to visit and I hope to get round to writing about it one day, but as a building it is not very photogenic. The same is not true of the Drepung Monastery.

Five kilometres outside Lhasa, Drepung is the largest monastery in Tibet. At its peak there were as many as ten thousand monks. There are now less than a thousand, and with tight Chinese control the monastery lacks the moral authority it once had, but when we visited in 2005 it was clearly a thriving community. 

Just Part of the Drepung Monastery Complex

It is a large complex on many levels on the side of Mount Gephel.  Climbing from courtyard to courtyard up steps that were more ladders than staircases was hard work. It was our second full day in Lhasa and the thin air at 3500m (11 500 ft) took its toll. Lynne leaned against a wall to get her breath and then slowly slipped down to a seated position. Leaving her in the ticket office in the care of some solicitous and friendly monks I continued alone.*

Drepung Monastry
Sadly, she missed the hall full of monks chanting sutras.....

Chanting monks, Drepung Monastery

....the monk's prayer hall near the top of the complex.....

Prayer Hall, Drepung Monastery
....and this view of a lone monk standing on a roof, surveying the world.

Waiting for his kettle to boil, Drepung Monastery
True son of Tibet that he is, he stands behind the gold encased finials waiting for his kettle to boil.

* Lynne got her own back four years later. In 2010 she went to see the palace of Tipu Sultan while I languished in our Mysore hotel suffering the after effects of a dodgy murgh makhani.

Erdene Zuu, Kharkhorin, Mongolia

Erdene Zuu is some 300 km from Ulan Bator. Getting there involves a long drive, most of it over grassy steppes - quite literally, there is no road.

Ghengis Khan built his capital of Karakorum on this site in around 1220. Not being a settling down sort of guy, Ghengis soon moved on, though the city thrived for a while before being destroyed by a Ming army in 1388. The monastery of Erdene Zuu was built in 1585, using such remnants of Karakorum as were available. The site is surrounded by a wall containing 100 stupas. 108 is a mystical number in Buddhism, so perhaps somebody miscounted when they were building the stupas.

Erdene Zuu

The modern 'city' of Kharkhorin - actually no more than a big village - is marked by the industrial looking smoke in the distance.

Stupas, Erdene Zuu

By the end of the 19th century there were over 60 temples on the site, but in 1939 it was largely destroyed by the communists.

Survivng Temple, Erdene Zuu

Inside a temple, Erdene Zuu

What remained then became a museum but in 1990 the site was handed back to the lamas and again became an active monastery.

Monk taking a prayer wheel for a walk, Erdene Zuu


  1. I liked the Thousand Buddha Monastery in Sha Tin, Hong Kong. I liked all the gold statues of the Buddha in different poses as you walk a long way up the hill. I also really liked the Taoist temple in Huizhou, because it wasn't special, or glitzy (well, enormous gilded statues not withstanding), but... I don't know, but like a church, it had atmosphere. I liked it. I always used it in visualisations when you have to choose a place you feel relaxed in when learning to meditate in preparation for childbirth.

  2. The Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery (I think you underrated it by 9000 Buddhas)was certainly on the short list. If I do 'Three More Favourite....' then it will certainly appear. The Taoist temple in Huizhou may well make the cut for 'Three Favourite Taoist Temples' when I get round to writing it - not that it is always easy to tell a Buddhist temple from a Taoist one!

  3. I'm not sure myself, but in my head there's lurking something about the prescence of bat designs meaning it's Taoist rather than Buddhist... I should do my research... What I do know is that, regardless of a reputation for peace &serenity, the Buddhist monks where we lived were the pushiest chuggers I have ever met!

  4. Ah, here you go:

    Google be thy name...