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How to Visit a Tibetan Monastery? Any Special Things to Pay Attention to…

With up to 1,700 Buddhist monasteries and temples scattered across Tibet, touring Tibet is essentially about monastery visit. So, as an overseas traveler, having some basic ideas of the right etiquettes and taboos of Tibetan monasteries would help you travel at great ease in Tibet. Please follow the expert advice from our local leaders below and get fully prepared for your journey.

What You Should Know Before Entering the Monastery

Before visiting Tibetan monasteries, the first and foremost thing is to make sure you have dressed modestly and properly. It is one of the fundamental ways to show your respect to the Buddha.

Don’ts:

Travelers are not supposed to wear skimpy outfits, exposing large parts of the body. Wearing clothes or shoes like mini skirts, and shorts that are above the knees, slippers/sandals, etc. is deemed disrespectful to the deities.

Visit Jokhang Temple in TibetWear proper clothes to visit temples/monasteries in Tibet is a good way to show your respect.

As you travel in the monastery, under no circumstances should ladies have physical contact with the monks. It’s a serious taboo to the monks practicing Buddhism in Tibet.

When entering the monastery, don’t step or stand on the threshold of the door because the threshold symbolizes the shoulders of the Buddha. If you do so, it is said to bring bad luck.

Besides, smoking is not allowed in Buddhist monasteries and temples. - Check more etiquettes and taboos for Tibet tour.

Dos:

Do remove your hats, sunglasses and switch your mobile phone to silent mode, as you enter the rooms of Tibetan monasteries and temples.

Also, Tibetan monasteries basically act as an academy of Buddhism for living monks. Visitors should keep the peace and order of it. If you travel with small and rowdy kids, do keep a close eye on them and don’t give them the chance for any vandalism.

If you want to refer to the Buddha, do use your palm instead of the finger-pointing, which is extremely disrespectful to the Buddha.

Make Proper Offerings to the Buddha in Tibetan Monasteries

Of course, no one comes to a monastery and says the prayer and then leaves right away. The biggest highlight comes when you worship the Buddha statue and make your offerings to the Buddha. So, your prayers can be heard and blessings granted. If you manage to do it right, you will receive heaps of approving smiles from the locals.

Although you can’t chant the Tibetan mantra and don’t necessarily need to prostrate yourself before the entrance of the monastery as local pilgrims do, you can make the right offerings like a local.

Bring the Right Offerings to the Buddha

In most Tibetan monasteries, burning Weisang (branches of pine trees) and adding butter oil to the lamps are some of the most orthodox ways to show your respect to Buddha when visiting Tibetan monasteries.

Take visiting Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, for example, you may buy branches of pine trees and cypresses from the local vendors on Barkhor Street. Then, put them into the burners surrounding the Jokhang Temple.

Buring Weisang in front of Jokhang TempleTibetans are burning mulberry branches in front of Jokhang Temple.

The aromatic smoke produced is taken as a great offering to the Buddha. Meanwhile, you may also buy a kettle of butter oil and gently add the oil to the wafting oil lamps inside the Jokhang Temple.

The perpetually-lit oil lamps symbolize the wisdom and light, another great offering to the Buddha. Meanwhile, you can also accumulate your merits by doing so. - Check the top tour experiences in the Lhasa tour.

While in other temples, the offering might be a twist. If you visit the Zhaji Temple, the famous temple where the god of fortune is enshrined, what you should bring is the alcohol, incense, and auspicious Hada, some of the favorite offerings of this deity.

So, it’s advisable to consult your guide about what offerings to take before the visit.

Besides, as you make the offerings to the statues or paintings of the Buddha, you are not supposed to touch holy items like Buddhist statues, rolls of Tibetan scriptures, or Thangkas, frescos and food, fruits, etc.

Key Gestures for Buddhist Praying

As you worship the Buddha, stand upright before the statue of Buddha and prostrate yourself first as a sign of respect to the Buddha and then close your eyes and say prayers or “Om Mani Padme Hum” in Tibetan as you put your palms together and gently move them from your forehead to face and chest and bow.

Praying at a Tibetan MonasteryOur clients were praying at a Tibetan monastery like locals.

So, a spiritual connection is made before you and the Buddha. And your prayers are heard. If you want to call others’ attention to the Buddha. Do remember not to point your figure to the Buddha. Instead, using your palm when needed.

Bonus Tips: Usually, you can find a donation box or a wishing well in the monastery. You also prepare some change to donate to the monastery for renovation and maintenance. And your good deeds will earn you more blessings.

Be Extremely Careful about Taking Photos in the Monastery

Masterfully-made murals, golden rooftop, and devoted prostrating pilgrims, a labyrinth of mysterious Buddhist chambers, dramatic debating monks, etc. all of the photogenic elements of Tibetan monasteries tickle every nerve of photographers to press the shutter.

However, you gotta be extremely careful about photo-taking in the monastery. In most cases, inside the Buddhist halls or rooms, photography is strictly forbidden. Never aim your camera towards the statue of Buddha enshrined inside the monastery, totally profane and unacceptable.

Whereas you can photograph the public areas of the monastery like the alleys and courtyard, monks passing by, and local pilgrims on the condition of not disturbing them. Thus, the telescope lens like 85mm, 70-200mm are more people-friendly.

If you want to take close-up shots for monks or locals, do ask their permission through the guide first. In most cases, they will be more than happy to accept the invitation from an overseas tourist like you. Look for the top destinations for photography in Tibet.

Bonus Tips:
In some scenarios, like the Gyantse Stupa inside Pelkor Monastery, photography is allowed when visitors pay a small amount of money for the maintenance of the monastery. However, flash is forbidden for it ruins the color and texture of the murals.

While you can’t use your DSLR or film camera to shoot debating monks inside Sera Monastery, the in-built cameras on your iPhone or other cell phones are accepted to capture the rarely-seen debating scene.

Don’t Miss out Hidden Treasure During Your Visit

Apart from worshipping the Buddha or marveling at Buddhist treasure, for cultural explorers, don’t miss out on the interesting facts that are worth exploring.

Climbing the long stairs to visit the Potala PalaceClimbing the long stairs to visit the Potala Palace

For example, as you hike on the long stairs of the Potala Palace, just take a closer look, you will find that parts of its red walls are not entirely made of bricks or marble.

Instead, they are made of straw that can balance the weight between the foundation and upper parts of the Potala Palace, a smart idea to keep warm while having a solid wall.

You can also take a peek at an old pit toilet inside Potala Palace, said to be one of the world’s highest toilets (3,700m) with a sheer drop of 60m from the ground or the hight of a 20-story building. Just be careful, don’t drop your phone.

Besides, Tibetan monasteries like Tashilunpo Monastery are also a great place for locals to have picnics, which locals refer to as “Linka”. It’s very common to see locals sit on the blanket and drink Chang (or home-made Tibetan wine) or eat snacks whiling playing Sho, a Tibetan dice game.

It’s a great chance to break the ice with locals. As you travel past them in the monastery, you are likely to be invited for a cup of home-made wine and lay back on the rugs for a leisurely time.

Drepung Monastery in TibetTaking a photo with huge stone painted with Buddhist mantra at Drepung Monastery.

Once in a while, you may also see huge stone painted or engraved with Buddhist mantra or religious symbols. Don’t forget to ask your local guide for an explanation.

Also, during your visit, you may get a chance to closely enjoy the monks’ chanting in the assembly hall. You can quietly join the mediation while soaking up the holy Buddhist vibes as the nerve-soothing chanting flowing into your ears.

Each monastery also has its distinctive colors and architecture and frescos, such as the unique grey, white and red strips of Sakya monastery, the tremendous Drepung Monastery resembling “a heap of rice” and working craftsmen for the Mani stone or Buddhist statues, stunning frescoes, etc

The unlimited small details are all worth your discovery, with our knowledgeable local leaders.

Insider Tips:
As you tour the monastery, try to avoid discussing the private lives of living Buddhas. Some of the monasteries like Drigung Til Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Ganden Monastery were built around “Sky Burial Site”, a place where traditional Tibetan funeral is performed. Tourists are not forbidden to visit up-close.

How to Greet Tibetan Monks in the Monastery

If you happen to meet Tibetan monks face to face in the alley of the monastery, a polite and the most common way of greeting is bow your head slightly and put your palms together before your chest while saying “Tashi Delek”.

Just remember not to shake hands or hug the monk or touch his shoulder and head. These behaviors are quite impolite and far too intimate.

You may communicate with monks through the help of our local guide. However, refrain yourself from discussing the topic like marriage, political unrest, and dining for meat and murdering.

It’s advisable to chat about the unique weather in Tibet and the daily lives of monks. You will learn much more about Tibetan Buddhism than murals and statues.

Walk the Kora in A Clockwise Manner Around Tibetan Monasteries

Interestingly, many Tibetan monasteries are surrounded by a holy kora route, by which devoted Tibetan pilgrims can make a pilgrimage around them. Such as the famous Barkhor Circuit around Jokhang Temple, the hillside routes surrounding Ganden Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Tashilhunp monastery.

Walk the Barkhor Circuit around Jokhang TempleOur clients were walking the famous Barkhor Circuit around Jokhang Temple.

The key to remind you is that when walking the kora, do it in a clockwise manner. It’s the traditional way of pilgrimage. The rule applies to turning the prayer wheels in the monastery. Only the old Bon religion does it in the opposite way.

In addition, no matter how many times you have circled the Tibetan monastery or holy mountain, it’s much better to be an odd number like 3, 7,9, 21, etc. because, in Tibetan Buddhism, the odd number is believed to be more auspicious than even number.

Time Your Monastery Visit at the Most Ideal Time

Visiting monasteries at the right time can make a huge difference. For example, if you are about to visit Sera Monastery, do visit its printing house first and time your visit to the famous monk debate at around 3:10 pm.

Then, you can avoid the crowds and find the best vantage point and use your iPhone to take photos. And later, you can travel at ease to visit the main assembly hall and enjoy a brief meditation there.

In addition, try to arrange your visit to Potala Palace on the third day of your Lhasa tour. Then you can have one more day for acclimatization, which does make it easier for you to hike the long stairs of Potala Palace (3,700m).

Besides, for other monasteries or temples, like Potala Palace or Jokhang Temple, the early morning would be the most ideal time for the visit. You can join the pious groups of pilgrims for the worship. While in the afternoon, the large tour group will be coming and form long lines.

Of course, to visit the Tibetan monasteries with the least tourists, then booking a winter Tibet tour could be the perfect option with unexpected discounts as to hotels and flights and fast travel permit processing.

Thangka unfolding ceremony during the Shoton Festival in Drepung MonasteryThangka unfolding ceremony during the Shoton Festival in Drepung Monastery

While the summertime is for you to enjoy the thrilling Tibetan festivals unfolding in various Tibetan monasteries.

Some of the most famous including the gigantic Thangka unfolding ceremony during the Shoton Festival in Drepung; Tsongkhapa Butter Lamp Festival at Jokhang Temple, etc.

Please feel free to consult our friendly travel consultants and customize your Tibetan monastery tour.

Conclusion

Having discussed so much about the etiquettes and taboos of the varied monasteries and helpful travel tips, it’s easy to see that only those who have some basic ideas of dos and don’ts of Tibet visit with full preparation can make the most of your visit and earn the respect to both yourself and from the locals. Hopefully, you can benefit from the key points we shared and enjoy your exploration in different monasteries in Tibet to your heart’s content.

Master Kungga Dundruk

About the Author - Master Kungga Dundruk

The Lhasa-born prodigy used to study business overseas, and got his Bachelor of Business in Nepal and India before moving back to his homeland.With pure passion for life and unlimited love for Tibet, Kunga started his guide career as early as 1997.

Responsible, considerate and humorous, he devoted his entire life guiding and serving international tourists travelling in Tibet.As a legendary Tibetan travel guru with 20-year pro guide experience , he once had an exclusive interview with the US media. Currently he is working in Tibet Vista as the Tour Operating Director. Whenever our clients run into troubles, he is your first call and will offer prompt support.

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