Songzanlin is the largest Tibetan Buddhism monastery
in Yunnan Province. Covering an area of 30 hectares, it looks like
a mini Kumbum (Ta'er) Monastery. It is located on a mountain slope
five kilometers from the county town of Shangri-la. At sunset, the
lamasery is shrouded in a mysterious atmosphere - thangka paintings
line the corridors and the lamas chant sutras. Such a sacred place
seems to purify the soul.
Since the 5th Dalai Lama chose the site through
divination in 1679, the monastery has grown into the most important
community of its kind in Yunnan. Naturally, throughout its history
spanning 325 years there have been ups and downs - the Cultural
Revolution (1966-1976), for instance, saw the lamasery almost completely
destroyed - but the strong faith of the people of Shangri-La
has always prevailed, and today Songzanlin once again houses more
than 700 monks and lamas.
Built in the style of Potala Palace in Lhasa,
Tibet, the magnificent monastery complex resides on top of a hill
and consists of the two Zhacang and Jikang lamaseries ¨C which
take on the form of five-story Tibetan watchtowers ¨C five gates,
numerous sub-lamaseries and hundreds of rooms for the monks. Walking
up the 146 steps that lead to the main prayer hall is a tiring exercise
at 3,300 meters above sea level, but it allows you to trace mentally
the pilgrimage route that generations of devout Buddhists living
on the plateau take on their knees and foreheads every year.
On the way, you¡¯ll come across study
rooms where young monks who typically enter the monk hood at the
age of 5 are trained in the scriptures and foundations of monastic
life. The range of subjects that these boys have to cover is wide,
from Tibetan language, grammar and literature to sutra chanting
and prayers. Time will be spent on the Buddhist canons, yet crafts,
astrology and medicine are also on the curriculum. In addition,
the boys retreat for hours each day to reflect and meditate on the
meaning and implications of Buddhist philosophy. Having a conversation
with a young lama is indeed an interesting experience, if you are
fortunate enough to speak Mandarin or Tibetan.
The main scripture hall in the center of the compound
is the highlight of any visit, especially during prayer time in
the morning or during auspicious festivals when devotees come from
all over the province to take part in the festivities. The hall
itself can accommodate some 1,600 lamas sitting in meditation or
chanting Buddhist scriptures and features 108 imposing pillars.
As Songzanlin is affiliated with the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect
of Tibetan Buddhism, which is the order of both the Dalai Lama and
Panchen Lama, references to the sect¡¯s history and philosophy
are found throughout the lamasery.
Amongst the monastery¡¯s many treasures
are rare Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves, which have
been used by previous Dalai and Panchen Lamas, as well as the eight
famous gold-covered sculptures of Sakyamuni, the Indian prince who
in the 5th century BC founded Buddhism and is popularly known as
the ¡°Sage of the Shakya Clan¡±. Colorful
murals painted by renowned lamas show guardian deities, scenes from
the Lord Buddha¡¯s life, and the ¡°wheel of
life¡± that (held by the demon of impermanence) depicts
the six realms of existence: heaven, demigods, humankind, hell,
hungry ghosts and animals. The hub in the wheel¡¯s center
symbolizes ignorance, hatred and greed, the three poisons of life.