Larung Gar (13,120 feet/4000 meters) is a wonder of the Tibetan world – a sea of tiny, colorful log-cabin hermitages stretching up the hills on all sides of a beautiful valley near Serthar.
It is said to be the largest and most active Buddhist Institute in the world, with a population of rinpoches, khenpos, monks, nuns, lay practitioners and pilgrims numbering between 10,000 and 40,000 (depending on who you ask).
The late Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok revived it as a Buddhist center in the 80s with just a few students, on the spot that had originally held an institution founded in the late 1800s by Dudjom Lingpa. The beloved Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok is legendary in these parts – his image on every altar, and on religious pendants worn by nomads and town folk alike.
Tips for Visiting
Larung Gar has become increasingly well known on the tourist circuits, particularly among the Chinese, and even in mid-October, an off-peak season, there are fair number of Chinese tourists duded out in back-country chic – alpine jackets in an explosion of wild colors, mirror sunglasses, hikers pants and mega cameras. The good news is that the bulk of tourists gathered at the main temple and on a well-trodden path up past the huge glass-enclosed mani wheel to the mandala partway up the hill.
It’s easy to get away from the crowds by simply wandering the twisty hermitage alleyways. (Note: Your guide, if you have one, may not want to go with you for this, as it’s not clear if it is strictly allowed, but there are no guards and if you do it on your own, it seems to be fine.) Just pick any street or stairway and start climbing. Be mindful that monks and nuns have different areas so it may be more respectful to wander among the nuns if you are a woman and among the monks if you are a man.
An Audience with Tenzin Gyatso Rinpoche
Heading up one of the main side streets, I fell in with a cheerful crew of Lhasa folk who were heading as it turned out to an audience with Tenzin Gyatso Rinpoche, who I understand is one of Khemp Jigme Phuntsok’s primary students and is the highest reincarnate lama at Larung Gar. There was a line and after waiting a bit, during which time I picked up a katag for Rinpoche from my new Lhasa friends.
A group of 50 or so of us were ushered into a small sunlit room where Rinpoche was seated on a small stage. After we were all seated on the floor, the Tibetans hunched, hands folded, in reverence, he gave a short teaching and what I believe was an empowerment in which we all repeated Dharma phrases after him. After the short teaching, each person in the room filed past Rinpoche for a blessing and received a small poster of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok. At my turn, Rinpoche gave me a kind pat on the side of the head and asked in English, I think, where I was from, and motioned to his attendant, who told me to “wait for a translation.”
When the room cleared, a few Chinese pilgrims approached for photos and blessings, and a young Chinese woman motioned me to sit with her, and offered to translate. When we approached, in the now near empty room, Rinpoche said in Tibetan something like, “It seems you speak Tibetan, right?” I had said a few words to the attendant, so stammered out my usual “Ngey pogay oney duksha ray. Gonda.” Sorry, my Tibetan is very bad.
I asked a few questions, and despite the valiant efforts of the young Chinese woman, who spoke Chinese with Rinpoche, I barely understood the answers, except that he didn’t think it mattered which mantra I recite – they all being good. One question was important to me, and I asked that the answer be written down in Tibetan so I could show Tashi, my guide, when I got back to him. I had asked, as a beginner, what text did Rinpoche suggest I study? When I carried my little slip of paper, written by Rinpoche’s attendant, back to Tashi, and he told me what it said, my spine tingled. It was Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher, a text I had taken months to read and just finished in the days before leaving for Tibet. After the audience, the Chinese girl who had translated said “You are so lucky! Rinpoche is a very high lama.” There is something about being among Tibetans in Tibet that always makes me feel truly blessed, truly lucky. I think everyone feels that way.
Derek the Monk
After leaving Rinpoche’s area – and being chided by a Tibetan for holding Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s poster upside down (he righted it for me with a teacherly frown) – I was attempting to climb into one of the nuns’ hermitage areas, but took the wrong stairway and ran into a young, extremely friendly monk from Golok in Amdo, who spoke excellent English . “Where are you going?” We chatted a bit, and when I asked his name, he said “Derek.” Most Tibetans don’t have English names, but Derek seems to love all things foreign, and so Derek he is.
“Come this way,” he said, sort of apropos of nothing, and started flying up the crooked concrete and wood and dirt stairways winding between the huts and cabins built all willy nilly on the hill, dodging wires and stepping over gutters. I hustled my best, but even though I’ve been at altitude for 4-5 days, Larung Gar is over 13,000 feet and after a few flights of stairs I was gasping. After a few more, I had to stop, gasping, bent over on a railing while Derek peered down from 40 feet up the hill. When I finally recovered enough to make it to the top, there was an insanely beautiful panorama of Larung Gar spread out around and below. In the odd and wonderful way of travel, we chatted a bit more and said a friendly goodbye. He offered me a simple mala as a gift, and asked if he could call me “Mother Yoland”? Uh, sure, I said. Pointing me toward the nuns’ area on the upper road, he waved goodbye, smiling.
The Nuns from Lhasa
Now heading back down again, I passed the window of two young nuns chatting in their hut and I stopped to say hello and to ask straight up if I could see. They didn’t understand at first until I pantomimed walking up the tiny wooden stairs and knocking on the door, then their faces lit up and they popped open the door.
They were both from Lhasa – had been at Larung Gar eight years and were living in very simple but cozy quarters. Two rooms – one a beautiful shrine room with texts and images of rinpoches and their beds, and the other the kitchen with a wood-burning stove, where they hospitably gave me hot water and raisins. It was calm and peaceful and nice to chat for a little while and then wave goodbye to head out to meet up with my little crew of fellow travellers. (There are three of us, with our guide Tashi and his brother Pema the driver.)
Larung Gar has been a legend in my mind and I am so grateful that it was exactly as I imagined – alive with teachings and gentle spirits traveling together a road of study and practice of compassion and wisdom.
UPDATE: SUMMER 2016
Please see the video below for the disturbing events at Larung Gar in 2016. It is closed now (August 2016) to visitors and very likely to be closed for the rest of the year, if not longer.
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