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Samye Monastery

About Samye Monastery

Samye Monastery is thought to be Tibet’s 1st monastery and its 1st university. It has been deconstructed and reconstructed a number of times. The monastery is thought to have been founded in the 8th century by King Trisong Detsen, in consultation with Indian sage Padmasambhava. The temple was destroyed during civil war in the 11th century, by fire in the 11th and 17th centuries, by earthquake in the 18th century. Today, only a fraction of its original 108 buildings survive or have been reconstructed. Adaptations for visitors within the walls include the monastery guesthouse with restaurant and monastery shop. Most Samye villagers live outside the walls.    

Samye Monastery’s layout is based on Buddhist cosmology: it is a mandalic 3D replica of the Tibetan Buddhist universe. The temple complex has been constructed according to the principles of geomancy, a concept derived from India. At the center of the Tibetan Buddhist universe lies a mythical palace on top of Mt. Meru, which at Samye is symbolized by the main temple (Utse). Surrounding this is a great “ocean”, with 4 great island-continents, and 8 subcontinents.    

The complex is bounded by an oval wall pierced by 4 gates and topped by 1,008 small chortens that represent Chakravala, a ring of mountains that surrounds the universe. The wall itself has been hastily restored, using a large amount of concrete.    

There are currently about a hundred monks attached to the main temple. The monastery was built long before the rise of the different sects in Tibet. In the late 8th century, Trisong Detsen presided over a debate at Samye between Indian Buddhists and Chinese Zen Buddhists concerning which type of Buddhism should prevail in Tibet. The Indians won. Since that time, the monastery has come under the influence of various sect, such as the Nyingma, Sakya, and Gelug traditions. Even today, influence are eclectic.    

The 3-storey temple faces to the east. The upper storeys were removed during the Cultural Revolution, but the gleaming roof was restored in 1989. To the left of the main entrance is a 5m-high stone obelisk; erected by King Songtsen Gampo, it proclaims the Indian school of Buddhism to be the state religion. Inside the main assembly hall of the Utse are statues of the early kings, and images of Padmasambhava and Atisha. The inner sanctum contains a beautiful Sakyamuni image. To the right side of the assembly hall is a Gonkhang or tantric protector chapel with odds and ends like a stuffed snake and an old musket. To the left of the assembly hall is the Avalokitesvara Chapel, with a fine bas-relief portrait of the bodhisattva.    

Upstairs you can access several chapels and might even be allowed to view the former quarters of the Dalai Lama. On the 2nd floor is an open gallery with a long string of murals, some depicting the history of Tibet; there is also a damaged mural of the fabled land of Shambhala here.

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