What is Kora in Tibet
All over Tibet, pilgrims travel to the holiest of places to walk a route around the site, as a ceremony of prayer to the gods of Tibetan Buddhism. These pilgrimages around the sites, known as “kora” are a huge part of Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and an integral part of any Tibetan Buddhist's life. Buddhists believe that when they walk the kora around a sacred site, it gives them merits on their journey towards enlightenment, and as a way to shield themselves from misfortune.
Circumambulating Mount Kailash
For first-timers to tour Tibet, the scene of dozens of people walking around the temples in a clockwise direction, spinning prayer wheels and chanting as they go, may seem a little strange. But the kora is as much a part of Tibetan tradition and culture as it is a part of the Buddhist religion. And there are few Tibetan Buddhists who have not walked this holy revolution around at least one site in the region.
Literal Meaning of Kora and the Cultural and Religious Significance of Kora in Tibet
“Kora” is a transliteration of the Tibetan word, “Skor ra”, which means “circumambulation” or “revolution”. The kora is performed by the pilgrim walking around the sacred site in the circumambulation in a clockwise direction, according to the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
The practice of the kora is one that began long before Buddhism came to Tibet. When Buddhism was introduced into the region from India, the kora came with it. The steps taken on the kora are meant to move a person along the path to enlightenment for all living beings. By circumambulating with a passionate motivation to seek out wisdom and compassion, a person can purify their negative karma and can generate the seeds of enlightenment.
Kora in Namtso Lake
The locations that a pilgrim walks the kora at are of significance in the amount of merit they accumulate, as is the actions taken when doing it. Locations such as Jokhang Temple, in Lhasa, are considered to be imbued with their own spiritual power, and simply to be near them is a blessing. The kora builds upon this blessing in several ways. By reciting mantras or prayers as they walk, pilgrims can be endowed with greater blessings, and the more devout the rituals performed during the kora, the more blessings they receive. Even if the pilgrim does not know how to perform the rituals perfectly, the strength of motivation and the open-hearted desire to awaken the mind for the sake of all living beings brings more merit to their actions.
It is also common for Tibetans to prostrate themselves along the route of the kora. In most cases, the pilgrim will prostrate themselves the entire length of their body, then rise to step to the spot where their hands reached. They will then prostrate again from that spot, and continue like this throughout the whole kora. This takes up a huge amount of time and energy, both physical and spiritual, and is believed to provide a massive increase in the spiritual benefits of the kora. However, this is one of the more extreme methods of prostrating, and only the most devout do this on all koras. Many people will walk and chant mantras, and prostrate at certain intervals around the circuit. The actions performed during the kora help to relax the mind by focusing on the prayers and mantras, while the body receives either basic to extreme exercise. While the idea of exercise is not a traditional one in Tibet, more modern ideas say that the body has the benefit of the kora as much as the mind.
Hanging Tibetan prayer flags in Mt. Kailash kora
The origin of the kora in all forms of Buddhism dates back to the time of the original Buddha. Many of the significant events that surround Buddha's life happened under trees, according to the written scriptures, including the tree where he regularly sat at the grove near Shravasti, in India. After his death, the four holy places of the Buddha were the first to be circumambulated by the followers of Buddha. Shortly before his death, Buddha spoke to his disciple, Ananda, saying:
“Bhikshus, after my passing away, all sons and daughters who are of good family and are faithful should, as long as they live, go to the four holy places and remember: Here at Lumbini, the enlightened one was born; here at Bodh Gaya he attained enlightenment; here at Sarnath he turned the Wheel of Dharma, and there at Kushinagar he entered Parinirvana. Bhikshus, after my passing away there will be activities such as circumambulation of these places and reverence to them.”
After he passed on, many stupas were built to enshrine the relics of his earthly creation, and were treated in much the same way as the four holy places, and circumambulated around. In Tibet, this practice became hugely widespread, and the Buddhist people would reverently perform the kora around any sacred object that would provide blessings, from the small stupas and chortens that would hold holy relics, to temples, huge monasteries, and even the massive lakes and mountains of the plateau.
Why Tibetans Do Kora as Their Daily Religious Practice
The kora is not just a religious walk around a holy place, it is also a huge part of a Tibetan person’s life. Buddhism teaches that the circumambulation of these religious objects and sites can earn the pilgrim religious merit, which is the basis for a better life in the future and is the foundation of all progress on the spiritual path to enlightenment. The practice is simple enough for anyone to be able to do it, and is a practical way of calming the mind, body, and spirit, all at the same time. By reciting the mantras as you walk, and cultivating the mental aspirations for the benefit of all life, it allows the involvement of all three fields of human action: physical; verbal; and mental. The accumulation of merit is part of the path to enlightenment, and the aim of all Buddhists is to attain spiritual and mental enlightenment, just as the Buddha did before.
Top Six Famous Kora Routes in Tibet
Kora is a type of pilgrimage or a type of meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Generally, kora is performed by making a walking circumambulation around a temple, stupa, or other sacred site. There are some traditional koras in Tibet, like walking clockwise around Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Kora, circumambulating Namtso Lake and Mount Kailash and so on. Walking kora is not limited in these places in Tibet. There are numerous sacred sites in Tibet.
Kora is mainly performed while spinning prayer wheels, chanting mantra, counting mala, or repeatedly prostrating oneself. In this way kora functions as a mind-calming meditative exercise. In accordance with Buddhist tradition and belief, kora is always performed in a clockwise direction, and is often performed 108 times.
This kora is considered to be the supreme kora, and that closest to the Sakyamuni Buddha, and the route is inside the world famous Jokhang Temple. Jokhang is known as the spiritual heart of Tibet, as it is the site of the statue of the 12-year-old Sakyamuni Buddha, which was brought to Tibet by the Princess Wencheng, in 640 AD. This kora follows a route that goes around the hall that still houses the statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. Because of its closeness to the statue, it is believed to be the holiest of koras, and there is a daily flow of Tibetan Buddhists that follow this path, spinning the 380 prayer wheels that line the route, before worshipping the Buddha inside the hall.
Kora in Jokhang Temple
Running along what is possibly the busiest street in Lhasa is the most historical kora in Tibet. The ancient circuit follows a path around the exterior of the Jokhang Temple, along Barkhor Street, which now runs all the way around the temple. Barkhor Street, a popular place for visiting foreign tourists, gets its name from the fact that it is “between” the Nangkhor Kora and the old city of Lhasa. The kora is 1,500 meters long, and starts at the main entrance to the temple. The circuit follows Barkhor Street all the way around the temple, with the smoke of burning juniper filling the air, and crowds of tourists and Tibetans following the route.
Kora in Barkhor Street
Potala Palace also has its own kora, and is one of the celebrated centers of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage. The route follows a path around the base of Moburi, the hill on which the Potala Palace stands. Potala Palace is often referred to as “Tsek Potala” by Tibetans, which means the Tsekhor kora is the “circumambulation of Potala”. Potala Palace has a long and varied history in Tibet, and is one of the oldest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. This beautiful, red and white palace holds a special place in the minds of Tibetans, and the 3km kora route is popular with pilgrims who travel to Lhasa for prayer.
Kora in Potala Palace
Lingkhor Kora forms the outer boundary of Lhasa district with the longest route. The pilgrims take nearly 4 hours to complete one circle to finish the circuit. Locals often have to take rest in their on and on journey. While circling around Lingkhor Kora, the Tibetan pilgrims spin the hand wheel and chant Buddhist scriptures. This Kora route and the journey give the pilgrims an essential sense of solace and peace.
Lake Namtso kora around one of the three holy lakes of Tibet is a very significant pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists. Namtso means “heavenly lake” in Tibetan, and it is just that. The lake is 70km long and 30km wide, and the average pilgrimage around the lake normally takes around 20-30 days.
Mt. Kailash Kora
Mt. Kailash kora is one of the most popular of all the koras in Tibet, as it circumambulates the most holy mountain in the world. The route starts at the village of Darchen, and winds along the base of the Kailash Massif, over one of the highest passes in the region, and down through a lush, sloping valley to the end. The route takes three days on foot or horseback, and stops are made overnight at the monasteries around the route.
Mt. Kailash Kora
Further Reading about Movie "Kora"
Recently, there is a movie called "Kora" releasing in Lhasa. "Kora" is about a Taiwanese college student named Zhang Shuhao who travelling to Lhasa from Lijiang alone by bike. Although Zhang encountered many difficulties and dangers which made him once decide to give up, he persevered and eventually succeeded. He presented his persistence, bravery and vigor by acting a true story about travelling from Taiwan to Lhasa by bike.