First-time visitors to Tibet may not realize it, but some of the footpaths in Tibetan communities are actually kora, paths on which we walk around a sacred place or object. Naturally enough, kor means circle in Tibetan. And in English making kora is usually called circumambulation, from the Latin circum (around) and ambulare (to walk).
Why Make Kora?
The steps we take on a kora are meant to move us along the path toward enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. When we circumambulate with a motivation that seeks wisdom and compassion, we can purify our negative karma and generate the seeds of enlightenment.[Buddhism-Course]
In Don’t Just Sit There…Circumambulate!, Ven. Sarah Thresher recounts this story:
Lama Atisha and the Kadampa geshes used to circumambulate stupas. Dromtönpa once asked Lama Atisha, “Why don’t you relax? Why not practice virtue sitting? Why do this common practice of circumambulation?” Lama Atisha replied, “You don’t understand. When I circumambulate I accumulate all three virtuous actions of body, speech and mind. When I sit there’s only one. In terms of merit, there is no greater practice than circumambulation!”
Although Atisha was likely referring to a more sophisticated way of thinking of Buddha’s body, speech and mind, making kora is a great way for any of us to get spiritual, mental and physical benefits.
The Benefits of Circumambulation
First of all, the locations that we circumambulate – such as the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa – are considered to hold spiritual power in and of themselves and we are blessed simply by being near them. We can build upon this blessing in many ways.
One is by reciting mantras as we walk – such as om mani padme hum, om tare tuttare ture soha, or om muni muni maha muniye soha – or any number of common prayers, like the refuge prayer (Kyamdro), or Prayer for Boddhicitta. In Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Advice for Circumambulation, he encourages us to
generate a strong motivation of bodhichitta. Remember the sufferings of all the beings in the six realms and feel that you are responsible to free them from their suffering: “I must achieve enlightenment for the sake of all mother sentient beings. For that, I need to actualize the path, therefore I need to purify and accumulate merit, therefore I am going to circumambulate.”
We accumulate more and more positive karma by making our kora with a strong motivation toward awakening our minds for the sake of all beings. Even if we don’t know how to do this perfectly, our sincere, open-hearted wish brings more merit to our actions.
You will often see Tibetans counting prayers or mantra on our malas (Tibetan: trengwa) or spinning a prayer wheel as we perform koras. These all accumulate more merit. You can also multiply the spiritual merit by repeating the circuits of your kora, and by performing an auspicious number of circuits. (By making, for example, 3 or even 108 circuits of the Mount Kailash kora.) Tibetans will not commonly make an even number of circuits, with the thought of having one to do in the future as a sort of motivation. By the way, Tibetan Buddhists circumambulate in a clockwise direction while Bon practitioners walk counter-clockwise.
Prostrating Instead of Walking a Kora
In Tibet, it is quite common to prostrate along a circumambulation path. In this case, the prostrator will make a full-body prostration, then step forward to the spot where his or her hands reached, and prostrate again from that spot. As you can imagine, this takes an enormous amount of time and physical and mental effort and is considered to provide a huge increase in the spiritual benefit of the kora.
A more extreme method is to prostrate sideways rather than toward the direction you are going, so that with each full-body prostration you advance only the width of your body, rather than the extended length. While this is far less common than the “normal” way of prostrating, a pilgrim performing such an action is seen as someone who is extremely dedicated to purifying negativities and generating the seeds of enlightenment.
On a practical level, our minds are relaxed by focusing on prayers and mantras and wholesome motivations – to the best of our ability – as we make our kora. And our bodies receive some basic exercise. Traditionally, Tibetans didn’t think very much about koras as a way to get physical exercise, but today, it seems that more people are aware that our bodies can benefit at the same time that we accumulate spiritual merit and mental calm.
The experience of making kora in a Tibetan community is like an infinity of spreading and overlapping circles of prayers and spiritual benefit. Popular kora paths are commonly lined with prayer flags and prayer wheels and piles of stones marked with mantras like om mani padme hum. As we walk around the path, our minds and hearts loop through prayers, humming mantras, our fingers revolve through the circle of the prayer beads, and the prayer wheels spin. The prayers float out from the turning wheels, and stream out from the prayer flags, known as lungta, or windhorses, in Tibetan, weaving circles of blessings over the city and the world and all of us.
Where to find kora
In Tibet, and many Tibetan communities in India and Nepal, you will find kora virtually everywhere and in a vast range of sizes. The smallest tend to circle an object, like for example a large prayer wheel which we walk around, spinning it as we walk. And the largest are paths that encircle sacred mountains, like the huge, high-altitude kora around Mount Kailash. Here are some well-known kora:
- Barkhor – the outer circuit of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa
- Lingkhor – circles the whole spiritual heart of old Lhasa (5 miles long)
Mount Kailash kora – a 32 mile loop around one of Tibet’s most holy peaks, in western Tibet
- Kawa Karpo kora in Kham
- Lake Namtso kora – Circuit of gorgeous high altitude Lake Namtso in central Tibet
- Ganden Monastery kora – Traces the outer edges of Ganden Monastery on a scenic mountain ridge about 20 miles outside of Lhasa.
- Sera and Drepung Monastery koras – Both on the outskirts of Lhasa.
- Tashilumpo Monastery kora – The lovely panoramic kora around in Shigatse.
- McLeod Ganj lingkhor – Circles His Holiness’ residence and the Tsuglakhang Temple in Upper Dharamsala, India.
At any one of these spots, you can experience the practice of circumambulation in its full humming, peaceful glory, but you need not travel anywhere to make your own kora around any object or place you consider to have spiritual power. With a good motivation, your kora of a local lake could make spiritual merit, for example.
[Lama Zopa] Rinpoche suggests that even if you are just going for a walk, heading out to the shops, sitting on a bus or driving around in the car, think before you set out that you are going to circumambulate all of the holy objects in the world, then complete the circuit on your way back – that way your action becomes virtuous and you accumulate inconceivable merit.
More Resources on Koras
- Wikipedia on Kora: A well-done article on kora
- Introduction of John Powers’ Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism: Includes a description of the kora in Dharamsala
- Ven. Sarah Thresher in FPMT’s Mandala: Don’t Just There…Circumambulate!: Includes Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s advice for Circumambulation