if you are in Lhasa, Tibet, do not pass up the opportunity to visit Sera Monastery. Dating to the 13th century, a visit to this lovely complex is an enriching experience. Sera, one of three great university monasteries in Tibet, along with its sister monastery in India, are known for their debate sessions which are open to the public.
Great Assembly Hall
First, we went into the monastery and were able to observe the monks at prayer and then partaking of food afterwords. I saw only a couple of other tourists in this area, so maybe we were lucky, or had an extraordinary guide. No photos are allowed inside but the monks were sitting in rows on the floor and very simple food was distributed to them after prayers, primarily a soup or broth.
Then we attended the debates which are held in an outdoor pebbled courtyard. In the Sera Monastery colleges, debates are fundamental to the learning process. These are passionate debates among monks, in the presence of their instructor. The questioner briefly presents his question pertaining to Buddhism, while the defender has to answer within a specified time period. The burden falls to the defender to prove his point of view. The questioner then responds with both demonstrative gestures and words. I suggested that my son take notes, thinking he might pick up some pointers for his discussion based university. I remain uncertain if he appreciated my humor.
Some of the gestures include clapping hands after each question which signals the defender to respond, and clapping hands loudly to emphasize the power of a defender's arguments. If a question is answered incorrectly by the defender, the opponent traces three circles with his hand around the defender's head and then screams loudly to unsettle his opponent. When a question is correctly answered, the teacher brings the back of his right hand to his left palm. If the questioner doesn't respond within the allotted time, an expression of derision is displayed.
The most senior monks are in their separate area and are much fewer in number, shown in the photo above.
Also on site, they have a small museum wherein a Mandala of Guhyasamaja is on display (photo below). It boggles my mind to think of the number of individual grains of sand and the amount of time that must go into a creation such as this.
Luci, our guide, is explaining the symbolism in the mandala. As a practice of meditation, after days or weeks of creating these intricate patterns, the sand is brushed together and poured into running water, thus, spreading the blessings of the mandala.
Mountain behind Sera Monastery.
I am fond of the Tibetan prayer flags. Traditionally, they promote peace, strength, compassion and wisdom. It is the Tibetan belief that the wind will blow the prayers and mantras and spread the good will and compassions.
We were all three happy with our day at Sera Monastery and I was personally thrilled with our entire time in Tibet. I still think of our guide Luci; she was warm, friendly and her knowledge amazed me. It was such a pleasure to spend time with her, a local Tibetan, and learn about the day to day life in Lhasa.