Top 2 Gelugpa Monasteries to Enjoy Buddha Unfolding Ceremony in Tibet
The Gelugpa school of thought is one of the newest in Tibetan Buddhism, dating back only as far as the early 15th century. Yet since the 16th century, they have probably been the most well-known schools of thought in Tibet. Heading to one of the Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet will allow you to explore this fascinating beliefs system, and to see one of their most famous and interesting rituals: The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony.
The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony
The Gelugpa sect of Buddhism is responsible for the establishment of the Dalai Lamas. They stress universal compassion and spiritual development, having taking many of their doctrines from the Kadam school of Buddhism. The Gelugpa school had, for many years, been the dominant force in Tibet, yet is now preserved in Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet.
The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony
The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony is a process whereby an image of the Buddha is quite literally unfolded. The image which is unfolded is known as the Thangka. It is carried to a large open space, where sometimes hundreds of monks will gather to open it, and show it to onlookers and the heavens above. Depending on the monastery, after it has been opened, it will then be put back together and carried back, with a procession of monks and laymen in tow.
Buddha Thangka Masterpiece
Depending on which monastery is holding the ceremony, the date can change. You’ll need to make sure that you check with your tour guide, or the monastery, to see when their Buddha Unfolding Ceremony is taking place. If you’re near one of the Gelugpa Monasteries in Tibet around the time of a ceremony, you shouldn’t miss it. Whilst short, it’s incredibly interesting.
What Does It Mean
For Gelugpa Monasteries in Tibet, the unfolding of the Thangka during the Buddha Unfolding Ceremony, is believed to help in praying for the peace of all beings. It is also believed to help in prayer for good weather and auspiciousness. By unfolding the Buddha (also known as ‘sunning’), it is believed that his image will project good fortune to the heavens, which will then be reflected back upon the people below. The unfolding ceremony is accompanied by other festivities as well, including the 500-year old Vajra dance. This unique Buddhist dance imitates Buddhist warriors, and aims to pray for peace.
The 500-year Old Vajra Dance
Where to Enjoy the Buddha Unfolding Ceremony
There are two locations famed for their Buddha Unfolding Ceremonies. These are the Drepung Monastery and the Tashi lhunpo Monastery.
Drepung Monastery is the largest of all the Tibetan Monasteries and one of the most important Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet. It is located on the Gambo Utse mountain, just 5 km to the west of Lhasa. The Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416, and was at one point said to be home to over 10,000 monks. Whilst that number is somewhat less these days, it is still home to a huge number of monks as it serves as a training university.
At the center of the complex, you’ll find the Coqen Hall, in front of which in an enormous square taking up over 1,850 sq. meters. You’ll find many ornate and important ritual items and decorations within the Coqen Hall. This includes a Gangyur Tripitaka written with golden lettering, and images depicting Buddhist stories and beliefs. On the first floor, you’ll find statues of the Buddha Manjushri Bodhisattva, and the Buddha Sitatapatra. On the Third story, another statue of the Qamba Buddha can also be found.
Near to the monastery, you’ll be able to take part in some extra activities, including a Buddhist sculpture carving workshop. Drepung Monastery also happens to be near to the Sera Monastery, so you can also make a trip there afterwards. Just another incredible Tibetan monastery to add to the list of places you’ve visited.
The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony at the Drepung Monastery
The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony at the Drepung Monastery takes place annually during the Shoton Festival. This festival takes place on the final day of the sixth month of the Tibetan calendar. The unfolding will take place on the hillside behind the monastery, with pathways built into the rocky outcroppings.
Once the unveiling begins, the ropes on the Thangka will be pulled, revealing Shakyamuni Buddha.
If you want to get a good spot for taking pictures and seeing the unfolding in all its glory, you’re going to have to make an early start. Visitors frequently say that it’s important to head to the foothills of the Gebeiwotse mountain as early as possible, because the area fills with local Tibetans looking for the exact same thing. For tourists, you’ll need to pay around 60 yuan to enter the area, each. This is only for tourists and travelers. Tibetan locals do not have to pay this. Once the unveiling begins, the ropes on the Thangka will be pulled, revealing Shakyamuni Buddha. After the image is unveiled, the Buddhists who have come will begin to pray and throw their Hada (a large white scarf) at the large image in front of them (showing their respect).
Tashi Lhunpo Monastery
Located in Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama, and is both culturally and historically important for Tibetan Buddhists. It is, without a doubt, one of the most important Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet. Today, it covers over 300,000 sq. meters, including the Kelsang Temple, Maitreya Chapel, and the Panchen Lama's Palace.
Tashi Lhunpo Monastery
From the outside, you’ll notice that many of the roofs are made from shining gold. You may also notice the Thangka wall, which is nine stories high. This wall was built by the 1st Dalai Lama in 1468, and is where the monastery’s Buddha Unfolding Ceremony takes places every year. Unfortunately, one thing you should know is that the White Chapel is not open to the public. The other Chapels, however, are. If you find one locked and want to take a look inside, it shouldn’t be a problem. Just ask one of the monks nearby politely and they’ll open it for you.
The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery
The Buddha Unfolding Ceremony at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery takes place every year on the 14th, 15th and 16th days of the fifth month (based on the Tibetan calendar). As opposed to taking the Thangka outside of the monastery complex, it is instead hoisted onto the Thangka wall. This is a huge (9 stories tall) wall which was specially designed to hold the Thangka each year during this ceremony.
Thangka unfolding ceremony at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery
The wall is so tall in fact (and the image of the Buddha so large), that they can both be seen from the city of Shigatse. The Buddha shown here is that of Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. The Champa Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha are also unveiled here as well. Expect the area to also be very crowded, Tibetans are very religious at normal times. So, when a Buddha is going to be making an appearance during their annual festival, you can expect a lot of excitement.
Which One is Best
Both of the two Gelugpa monasteries in Tibet which were mentioned above are incredible locations to visit in Tibet. Moreover, their Buddha Unfolding Ceremonies are both popular and busy events. Locals from all around Tibet will make their way to these monasteries to pray and send thanks.
If you are only able to select one to visit, then the Drepung Monastery will likely be more convenient due to being located near to Lhasa. Most travelers to Tibet will at least make a stop in Lhasa as it’s the capital. If you line your journey up correctly, then you’ll easily be able to fit in the Drepung monastery’s Buddha Unfolding Ceremony.
The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, on the other hand, is incredibly beautiful. Visiting it is a great opportunity for taking some unique and memorable photos. The buildings’ golden roofs stand out in particular, especially when contrasted with the white walls. Visit the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery if you have extra time, or if you’re not planning on visiting Lhasa at all.
Where would you want to see the Buddha Unfolding Ceremony: in a monastery, or outside?