Tibetan Monasteries: top 10 must-visit monasteries for your Tibet travel
Tibetan Buddhism is very different from other forms of Buddhism that is taught in other areas around the world. In Tibet, Buddhism has split into four major schools: Nyingma, the oldest tradition in Tibet; Kagyu, or the “Oral Lineage”; Sakya, which was formed after the second translation of the Sanskrit Buddhist texts; and Gelug, which formed out of Sakya as a revival of the original Kadam School founded by Atisha.
If you are the kind of traveler that journeys to enrich not just the mind and body, but also the spirit, then Tibet is the perfect place for you. The monasteries of Tibet are incredibly beautiful, and their deep, spiritual atmosphere just adds to the unique experience. This does not mean that you have to be a religious person to appreciate the wonders of Tibet’s many monasteries. Even someone with no religion can understand and appreciate the importance of these stunning monasteries to Tibetan Buddhists.
Tibet Monasteries: The Two Must-Visits in Lhasa
Potala Palace - A UNESCO World Heritage and World’s Highest Palace
The Potala Palace was founded on Moburi in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and lies at an altitude of around 3,770 meters above sea level. It was once the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, but is now more of a museum to Tibetan Buddhism. Architecturally, the Palace closely resembles a fortress, and is indeed built on the site of an ancient fortress from the 7th century. Inside its formidable walls, you will find numerous halls, prayer rooms, and galleries.
Music fountain in front of Potala Palace in the evening
The structure is an immense architectural feat with magnificent art and artifacts inside. To understand the most spiritual meaning of the palace, visit some of the many prayer rooms and halls. These are perfect for you to get some quiet 1 hour time to contemplate and communicate with the universe. For the best options to visit the palace, you can take our amazing 4-day Lhasa Impression Small Group Tour, which covers all of the major sites around the Tibetan capital, all of which are listed here.
Jokhang Temple - The Most Sacred and Important in Tibetan Buddhism
Also in Lhasa, Jokhang Temple is located in Barkhor Square. The beauty of this building comes from its mixture of several different architectural styles, including Tibetan, Indian, and Nepalese designs. The temple was built on a former lake, which, according to legend, was converted into land just to build the temple. It is home to one of only three statues of Sakyamuni Buddha, thus giving it even deeper spiritual meaning for Tibetan Buddhists. Believed to be the most sacred temple in Tibet, the site is managed by the Gelug School, though all sects are welcomed at the temple, as it is the true heart of Buddhism in Tibet.
Tibetans prostrating in front of Jokhang Temple
In the streets surrounding the temple and inside it, you will find quite a mixture of people. Many Tibetan monks line the streets, and other devoted Buddhists from across Tibet and beyond are here to visit the site. Along with spiritually minded Tibetans, you will see tourists snapping pictures, and locals selling wares in the streets. The quiet hubbub of the city is infected with a deep tone of spirituality, making this a truly unique site. Best seen as part of our 4-day Lhasa Impression Small Group Tour, this beautiful temple requires at least half a day to explore it properly.
Tibet Monasteries: The Three Must-Visit Monasteries of Gelug Sect in Lhasa
Ganden Monastery - The Origin of the Word ‘Gelug’
Despite the painful history of this beautiful place, it still stands as a testament to the unfailing devotion of the truly spiritual. Unfortunately, this university monastery was once destroyed, but it has since been partially rebuilt. Today, it is truly a sight to behold. Every year, the annual Buddha Thangka Unfolding Festival occurs at Ganden Monastery, attracting thousands of Tibetan Buddhists, as well as visitors from all over the world. The name of the Gelug School in Tibet comes from Ganden Monastery, and is a simple abbreviation of the term “Ganden Lug”, which means Ganden Tradition.
Bird's eyes view of Ganden Monastery
Ganden Monastery was built in the 17th century and lies around 40 kilometers to the northeast of the center of Lhasa. Sitting on Wangbori Mountain, the monastery is easily reached by bus or car from the city, or as part of the 9-day Ganden to Samye Trekking Tour. At least a half day is required to get around the monastery and its long halls and corridors, preferably in the morning when there are usually less tourists, and the best time of year to visit is from May to October.
Drepung Monastery - Once The World’s Largest Monastery
Drepung Monastery was once the largest monastery in Tibet, home to the Dalai Lama as well as up to 10,000 monks. This monastery now serves as one of the main universities for Buddhist monks, and you will still find it to be bustling with activity. The monastery can be visited on the 4-day tour of the city of Lhasa, or as part of a longer tour. Our stunning 8-day Tashilhunpo Festival Tour gives you an unrivaled experience of this vast monastery.
Drepung Monastery Buddha Unfolding
Drepung Monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, is a place that was built for spiritual pursuits, and the wide open spaces of the Tibetan plateau that surround it give you a fresh perspective on your place in the world. Make sure you visit the statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is truly inspiring. Take a sip of holy water when you are there and drink in the spiritual meaning of this ancient monastery.
Sera Monastery - Noted for Tibetan Buddhism Debating
Located a short distance to the north of Lhasa, this monastery is named after the wildflowers that would bloom on the spot where the monastery was built. The monastery is another Gelug university monastery, and it is known for being the parent monastery to several hermitages and nunneries.
Monk debate in Sera Monastery
More than 3,000 monks reside at Sera Monastery, and seeing them live their lives so simply is humbling. If you want to witness the famed philosophical debates of Tibetan Buddhist monks, then Sera Monastery is the ideal place to be. The monk debates occur every afternoon in the debating courtyard, and you will walk away from the experience with a new-found appreciation for the spiritual commitment of a simple life. If you are traveling on the 5-day Lhasa Small group Tour With Three Major Monasteries, this is included, as well as Drepung and Ganden.
Tibet Monasteries: The Must-Visit for Tibetan Buddhism History Lovers
Samye Monastery - The First Monastery in Tibet
Renowned as being the first true Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Samye Monastery was built in Lhoka Prefecture, overlooking the Yarlung Tsangpo River, by the 8th-century king, Trisong Detsen. Destroyed many times over the course of the last thousand years, the monastery is a Mandala replica of the Buddhist Universe, with the main temple representing Mount Meru. Bounded by an oval wall, which has four gates at the four compass points, this unique wall is topped by 1,008 chortens representing the ring of mountains that surrounds the Universe.
Samye Monastery was built in the shape of a Mandala
An important monastery for the original Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, this unique structure can be visited at any time of year, and has come under the influence of three of the four major schools over the centuries. Getting there from Lhasa is best done as part of one of our amazing tours, and you can incorporate it into the 5 Days Short Visit to Samye Small Group Tour and 9 Days Ganden to Samye Trek Tour, or you can take a separate day trip to Samye Monastery to get the most out of your visit.
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Palcho Monastery - The Only Tibet Monastery with Three Sects in One Temple
Often referred to as the Pelkor Chode Monastery, Palcho Monastery is the only monastery in Tibet that encompasses three of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism under one roof. Built as an attempt to continue the Yarlung Dynasty of Tibetan Kings, following the assassination of King Langdarma, the monastery was originally a Sakya monastery, with parts of the main monastery being built by various local nobles. Several buildings were constructed as religious colleges of Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelugpa sects.
Palcho Monastery and Gyangtse Kunmbum
The famous Gyantse Fortress, which sits on the hill nearby, was built in the 13th century, and was an important addition to the area. The monastery is also home to the stunning Gyantse Kumbum, a nine-tiered stupa that is the only one of its kind in Tibet. If you are planning a trip to Gyantse, then you should really take a full day to explore and enjoy the monastery and its surroundings, and it can be visited at any time of year. Travel from Lhasa is best done as part of a longer tour, such as the stunning 15-day Kailash and Manasarovar Tour, which passes through the town and monastery on its way west.
Tashilhunpo Monastery - Home of Panchen Lama
Founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama of Tibet, Gedun Drupa, Tashilhunpo Monastery is one of the most historic and culturally important monasteries in Tibet. The seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest Buddhist incarnation in Tibet, the monastery contains the largest statue of the Maitreya, or Future Buddha, in China. Located on the hill in the center of Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, Tashilhunpo was perhaps the least damaged monastery in Tibet.
Inside of Tashilunpo Monastery
Getting there from Lhasa can be done easily by train from the capital to Shigatse, along the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway, or you can travel there as part of a longer tour. For the best experience at Tashilhunpo, the 5-day Shoton Festival Experience Tour gives you the unique opportunity to sit before the 26-meter gold Maitreya Buddha during one of the most important festival times in Tibet.
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Rongbuk Monastery - The World’s Highest Monastery
One of the best places from which to see the stunning sight of Mount Everest, Rongbuk Monastery is listed as being the “highest monastery in the world. The monastery lies at 4,980 meters, close to the base of the northern slopes of Everest, below the tongue of the famous Rongbuk Glacier. The hill behind the monastery is also rated as one of the few places to get the best views of the mountain as the sun comes up and paints the eastern slopes orange.
Viewing the imposing Mt.Everest from Rongbuk Monastery
One of the few monasteries where monks and nuns live under the same roof, this Nyingma monastery was once an important temple for the Sherpa people that live on the southern slopes of the world’s highest mountain. Located in Tingri County, it is best visited from May to October, when the weather is not too cold. Our amazing 8-day Lhasa to Everest Base Camp Tour is the best way to get to the monastery from Lhasa. You can also find other choices to tour Mt.Everest here.
Tibet Monasteries: The Must-Visit Monastery for Art Lovers
Sakya Monastery in Shigatse - The Dunhuang in Tibet
The principal monastery of the Sakya School, Sakya Monastery lies in Sakya County of Shigatse, on a small hillside on the road to Tingri. Constructed in the 11th century on the site where Atisha had an important vision, there was originally a small shrine at the site, which is now part of the northern part of the monastery.
Sakya Monastery is famous for its artwork
The monastery actually contains many thangka paintings and sacred statues, as well as the stupa that contains the remains of its founder, Khon Khonchong Gyalpo. Known as the “second Dunhuang”, the monastery has a collection of more than 40,000 books, including thousands of volumes of the sacred Buddhist scriptures, many thousands of scrolls and folders, as well as books bound with wood. This is also the place where you can find the world’s largest scripture, known as the Burde Gyaimalung, a sacred scripture that measures six feet long, four feet wide, and two feet thick, and weighs more than 500kg.
You can enjoy the magnificent monastery on one of our Tibet to Nepal tours.
Other Tips for Visiting Tibet Monasteries
If you are planning a visit to the monasteries of Tibet, then you should know a few rules on entering these sacred buildings. If you are walking around, walk in a clockwise direction, the same as when walking around a kora route, and refrain from taking photos of the interior of the monastery, unless you have permission from the monks. This usually comes with a monetary “donation”.
Hats, headscarves, and glasses should be removed to allow your face and head to be free of interference, and one should never point at statues, monks, and artifacts within the monasteries.
Monasteries can be found all throughout Tibet, and at the last count, there are around 85 fully functioning monasteries in the region, from around 6,000 that have been built in the entire Tibet area since the beginning of Buddhism. While these are just some of the main monasteries that can be visited, there are many that you can find on several other tours and trips to the plateau, including the monasteries that surround the sacred Mount Kailash, and many more.