Buddhism is an integral part of Tibetan culture. At one point, it was custom for every family to send at least one son to study at a monastery. The tour I went on took us to two monasteries out in the outskirts of Lhasa.
Some tours have the guides practically sprinting through the sights to pack in as many places as possible. Luckily as soon as we arrived to the Drepung Monastery, our guide told us we would take our time.
We had to put our bags through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector at both monasteries. It was also hard to miss the Chinese soldiers hanging around. They didn’t bother us or follow us anywhere, but it wasn’t the most comfortable feeling.
The Drepung Monastery was historically one of the most important monasteries in all of Tibet. The guide actually said it was the most important but I don’t feel qualified to state that myself. Before the Chinese government put caps on how many monks could join a monastery, the Drepung Monastery had thousands of monks. Now, it has a few hundred.
We were able to see volumes and volumes of Buddhist texts, statues, and other sacred relics, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings. Although that never seems to stop people from sneaking out their phones when the guide isn’t looking.
Many stray dogs find their way to a monastery where they enjoy naps under the sun while annoying tourists such as myself take pictures of them.
We then went to the Sera Monastery, which took less time to explore because it was physically much smaller. The same rules applied to picture taking.
What makes visiting the Sera Monastery unique is the fact you can watch monks debate. In order to become a fully fledged monk you need to pass exams, and one of those exams involves debating your fellow monks. I had no idea what topics they were debating but the guide explained there are so many texts, philosophies, and aspects of Buddhism that they will probably always have some reason to argue.
I found it odd that we were allowed to photograph the monks debating when we weren’t allowed to take pictures of anything inside the monastery. There were a few Chinese soldiers posted around the courtyard making sure you didn’t get too close to the monks.
For me, being able to see the beautiful mountains and look at all the architecture made the day. Normally I don’t mind going to places without guides because I just enjoy the scenery. However, I learned infinitely more about how Buddhism plays a part in every day Tibetan life by actually having a Tibetan guide there teaching us.