The quote above the photo of the Potala Palace is an expression of one of the most intriguing Mahayana/Tantric teachings: the doctrine of emptiness (an excellent course in Buddhism is offered by the Teaching Company taught by Prof. Malcolm Eckel).


We had visited Lhasa in 1998 and wanted to learn more about this fascinating country and to experience its rich cultural and religious traditions. We wanted to go even more after visiting Bhutan and Mongolia, the other two countries that still practice Tantric Buddhism.




We took a tour with Geographic Expeditions  ( that took us along the green track (our GPS recording displayed on Google Earth).


We started at the airport south of Lhasa and drove down the Yarlung valley to Bayi, from there to Lhasa, on to Gyantse and Shigatse and back to Lhasa.


We drove a total of 1243 miles mostly on new roads the government is building but sometimes under more challenging conditions.



Our tour consisted of two couples. We alternated between the Toyota Land Cruisers and drivers. Our Tibetan guide alternated between us. We had our GPS walkie-talkies which provided communications between the vehicles (above left). 


We had two additional GPS units (scientists like redundancy) and, as shown above right, they agreed remarkably even on elevation: placed on the ground at the Mi-La pass (16448’) the different units indicated  16456’, 16456’, 16454’, and 16457’ respectively.









Here is the whole group: from the left, Juergen between the two drivers, Yvonne, our excellent Tibetan guide Phudon (from Tibet Windhorse Adventures), and the other couple Susan and George Fesus. We shared the same interests and enthusiasm and it was a pleasure to travel with them.



We started our tour following the Brahmaputra River through the Yarlung valley which is considered the cradle of Tibetan culture and civilization. The early Tibetan Kings came from here and even after they moved the capital to Lhasa continued to be buried here.


According to legend, Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of compassion) assumed the appearance of a monkey and meditated in a cave that is still visited today. An ogress managed to “distract” him and their offspring were the earliest Tibetans.


What’s interesting with this story is that people who experience monkeys and apes as part of their environment recognize the close relationship between them and humans and don’t have any problem acknowledging that we’re close relatives.  The Dalai Lamas are reincarnations of Avalokiteshvara.








The Yumbu Lagang monastery is reputedly a reconstruction of Tibet’s oldest building originally built in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE as a palace. 


This is the only place Yvonne cheated: she took a horse up the mountain. We’d flown into Tibet just a couple of hours earlier and she wanted time to acclimatize before climbing above 12000’. Juergen and George walked up the zigzags which was far longer than the part shown in the photo.



An important site in the Yarlung valley is the Tradruk Temple. On the right are images of King Songsten Gampo (617-650 CE), his two Buddhist wives (from Nepal and China) and two ministers. The wives were responsible for converting the king to Buddhism and with that the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. 


Because Buddhism in Tibet didn’t take hold (probably locals stuck with Bon, their indigenous religion), the religious leaders determined the problem: the Tibetan terrain was seen as being over a supine ogress who had to be controlled. They did this by pinning her down with the construction of (geomantic) temples.


Tradruk was built to pin down the right shoulder of the ogress. We’ll see later that the Jokhang temple in Lhasa pinned down her heart.







Samye, founded in 779 CE, is the oldest Tibetan monastery.


The then ruling king Trisong Detsen invited the Indian Tantric saint Padmasambhava (also called Guru Rimpoche) to establish Samye.











A monk accompanying other chanting monks and handling donation money.








One of the many colorful stupas at the Samye complex. Note the nice eyes on four sides of the stupa’s top.









Young monks learning how to play the long horns that are used in religious ceremonies.





The roof cover of a new building consisting of gravely earth needs to be tamped down.


Rows of girls and boys perform this while alternately moving and singing (we’re told) pretty funny songs (like the boys sing “Why don’t you go out with me tonight and “… and the girls replying: “Not so fast, I’ve heard stories about you”….).


We saw this at other sites in Tibet also and it symbolizes several aspects of this society: cheerfulness, light-heartedness, gender equality, and a great attitude toward work where they share and make it rather fun.




We met this fellow on pilgrimage to Lhasa on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. He was gentle and cheerful and told us through our guide that he has been on a pilgrimage for three years and he hopes to finish in Lhasa’s Jokhang temple in about 6 months.


Below is how he moves: he walks 3 steps, then goes down completely flat with his hands stretched out, puts his forehead on the ground, then gets up and walks three steps, goes down…..


People give him food. So did we.














Weather in August in not that great (it’s still monsoon season). But we did get a few glimpses of the magnificent Himalayas.









The roads are mostly new and excellent in Tibet. However in outlying areas one has to use dirt roads and occasionally cross river beds. Our other vehicle is in front of us.




Almost all of the tourists are Chinese. They’re really fond of leather cowboy hats died bright red!! On several occasions, they asked us to pose with them. We apparently looked quite exotic to them. The train from China to Tibet opened the month before and 70,000 Chinese visited Tibet that month! We’ve since learned that the middle class in China is already as large as the entire population of the U.S. and that they’re anxious to travel! Here they come!














Archery is a local sport and Yvonne did quite well in hitting the target.




A typical new farmhouse construction out in the country financed by the Chinese.


 It was an amazing change from 1998 when we were in Tibet last when the Chinese seemed to suppress everything Tibetan. Now they support maintaining national and local styles.


The Chinese government provides all the materials and the local farmers pool their labor (for free) to help each other build as they always have.  The house costs the farmer about $3500 (we think) which has to be paid for in 3 years; they get tax-free loans and families help each other. There’s such pride of ownership – some homes have flower boxes before they’re finished.








This couple, yak breeders, invited us into their tent and served us the primary Tibetan drink: yak-buttered, salty tea. Juergen actually likes it, others can’t get it down.


It’s very practical. A typical herder drinks about 40 cups of this tea a day, which at 14,700’ (here that’s what it is) dehydration is easy. The butter gives energy and the salt makes it more satisfying.



Ganden is a very special as well as a beautiful place (30 mi east of Lhasa).

The last of the four major Tibetan sects, the Gelupka (or yellow hat) sect was founded by Tsongkhapa in 1409 CE (the Dalai Lama belongs to this sect).

Tsongkhapa  founded this monastery and named it after the paradise of Maitreya,  the future Buddha whose coming will signal the end of the world.

Other religious traditions have similar eschatologies:  the second coming of Christ in Christianity, the coming of the Messiah in Judaism, the coming of Krishna in Hinduism, the coming of Imam Mahdi in Islam.

We circumambulated this monastery (went completely around the mountain) in the correct clock-wise tradition as pilgrims do. The elevation is about 14,200’ and is noticeable when doing the climbing portions! It was a necessary experience.






This is an image of Tsongkhapa the founder of the Gelupka or Yellow Hat sect in the Ganden monastery.


There were more than 3000 monks at this monastery. Because of an uprising in the late 1990s where the monks refused to give up photos of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government bombed Ganden completely destroying it. The surviving monks dispersed.


However since then, buildings have been rebuilt and, even though the destruction is still quite visible, Ganden is coming back.







Sera monastery just outside of Lhasa has had in the past as many as 10000 monks and four different colleges. Today it’s smaller. It was founded in 1419 by one of the disciples of Tsongkhapa.


One of the unique Tibetan experiences is watching the monks in their debates. These are the most lively, theatrical and buoyant interactions imaginable. First the student monks learn something in a classroom environment. Then they head for the garden and the students take turns asking complicated questions about the subject matter. One poses a question standing on one leg and then lunges forward while clapping his hands toward the one who has to answer. The goal is to make these quiet monks think quickly under pressure. Questions like “what is the meaning of no-self?” A lively debate may follow if the two do not see the answer the same way.





Thankas are painted scroll hangings depicting sacred figures and symbols.

They’re commonly found in places of worship and also in homes.


Monasteries may have large outdoor walls onto which large appliqué thankas are unrolled during specific festivals.


The unrolling of the thanka is a lengthy and labor intensive effort requiring many monks. We attended the annual Shoton festival which is one of the largest in Tibet. It takes place at the at the Drepung monastery. Hours before sunrise thousands of faithful come, burn incense and wait for the unrolling of the thanka. We waited, initially in the dark, under umbrellas in an unusual rain waiting for it to stop because it would be difficult to dry the thanka if it got wet.














The huge thanka depicting a Buddha image has been unrolled and people are watching from all over the mountain.






Shoton means yogurt banquet. The event celebrates the end of one hundred days of the monk’s summer retreat.


In ancient times, pious people went into the mountain hermitages to do penance. The last day, yogurt was served, which was then followed by the festivities.


On the right, we see the monks with their yogurt bowls.








There was also a thanka unrolling at the Sera monastery where we had watched the lively debates previously. We went over to that one after it had been unrolled. The smoke comes from burning incense.












This is the view from the roof of the Drepung monastery.






The holiest place in all of Tibet is the Jokhang temple, the focal point of pilgrims from the entire Tibetan plateau (remember the fellow above ?).


 It’s built on the principal geomantic power-place in Tibet: the heart of the supine ogress that is Tibet.


The temple contains the Tibet’s most revered image, the Jowo Shakyamuni, an image of the Buddha at age 12 (brought to Tibet by the Chinese wife of Songsten Gampo).







This is the view from the roof of the Jokhang temple.


 In the center the common Buddhist image of the Dharma (teaching) is flanked by two deer. The golden cylindrical structures on the right and left depict many religious symbols. The fierce looking protector served as the background for this Tibetan report.






The view to the Potala palace from the roof of the Jokhang temple. The previously mentioned Prof. Eckel compares its impression to that of a Buddha image: firmly connected to the ground with lightness above.


Yvonne sees it as a tiger asleep on a limb as it wraps over the top of the hill and is so well balanced.








Tibetan opera is very colorful with beautiful dresses and masks. Here is a performance just outside the Dalai Lama’s summer palace.














Inside a monastery courtyard: an incense burner and a monk.










Stands selling watermelons grown in the countryside were along the road.



On top of the mountain above is a sky burial site. The close-up on the right shows a platform on which the cut-up body parts are placed to be consumed by vultures like the one circling above. This kind of a burial may seem shocking initially. But is it really better to have a corps rot and decompose with the help of bacteria, microbes and maggots?














Shepherds and sheep…












These little kids in a remote village don’t see tourists very often.







One of the fascinating places in Tibet is the great walled monastic Pelkhor Chode complex of Gyantse.


It is very unusual that this complex has temples and small monasteries of the four major Tibetan Tantric sects: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelupka.








The major building is the Kumbum stupa completed in 1427, essentially a three-dimensional mandala.


This site alone justifies a trip to Tibet.


It was inexplicably spared any damage during the Chinese cultural revolution.


Just below the top are pairs of eyes on all four sides.











Characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism are the enigmatic eyes of the Buddha that seem to ask a question….












Circumambulating the Kumbum and stopping at shrines at a total of nine floors is a unique experience.









The Gyantse Dzong sits majestically on top of a hill easily seen from the Gyantse monastery.


It was built in the 13th century CE.


It was severely damaged by British attacks led by Colonel Younghusband in 1904 when the British forced their way into Tibet.




Shigatse’s large Tashilumpo monastery is the seat of Tibet’s second highest incarnation, the Panchen Lama. It was founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama and at its peak housed almost 5000 monks.


We took the pilgrimage circumambulation and got this glimpse of one of the golden temple roofs through the prayer wheels.


Who is the true present (11th) incarnation of the Panchen Lama is a matter of dispute. China claims it is the one who is being trained in Beijing while the exile Tibetan government claims it’s someone else who has been missing since 1995. There was a brief visit by the one living in Beijing to Tibet during our stay.











Some of the temples in the Tashilumpo complex.




The indigenous religion in Tibet was the Bon tradition which was replaced with Buddhism in the 7th century CE by Songsten Gampo.


King Langdarma (9th century) tried to eradicate Buddhism but did not succeed in the long term. The Bon tradition still exists today and has so well assimilated Buddhism that the two are sometimes difficult to tell apart. Curious differences are: Buddhists always circumambulate clockwise, Bon-pos always counterclockwise. Their swastikas are also backwards from the Buddhist ones. On the left is one of the few Bon monasteries which we would have dearly loved to visit. However it was across the river with no bridges anywhere close to us.











Well, why not do a tourist thing. Yvonne is posing on this beautifully decked out yak at almost 16000’ overlooking the Yamdrok Yutso Lake. We were told that yaks are healthiest at this elevation!








Southwest of Lhasa on the way to the airport there is a huge painted relief image of Shakyamuni on the rock face.


Devotees throw prayer scarves at and near the image (these prayer scarves are also visible in the picture of the large thanka at the Shoton festival above).


Note the beautiful reflection in the water.













Monks chanting in a monastery.












Protector image with a vajra (thunderbolt) in his right hand.













Circumambulating a temple and spinning the prayer wheels.














Temple courtyard in Lhasa.














Buddha image.







Fire plays an important role in Mahayana Buddhism. The tradition’s founding Lotus sutra has the story of a burning house from which the father lures the unaware children by promising a “greater vehicle” (Mahayana).


Butter or oil lamps are found throughout places of worship. Flames also symbolize impermanence. Blowing out or extinguishing a flame is the meaning of nirvana.







The mantra (Om mani padme hum) used for invoking the compassion of Avalokiteshvara as written in Tibetan: