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Built in the 8th century, Samye Monastery was the first Buddhist monastery to be founded in Tibet. It is also notable as the site of the "Great Debate" (792-794) between the Indian Mahayanists and Chinese Chán (Zen) Buddhists.
Samye is famous for its sacred mandala design: the central temple symbolizes the legendary Mount Meru, center of the universe. It is a popular pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists, some of whom travel on foot for weeks to reach it.
A unique monastery and village rolled into one, Samye is a highlight of a visit to Tibet. Situated amidst breathtaking scenery, the journey to Samye is splendid no matter how you arrive.
The layout of the huge monastery complex forms a giant mandala, a representation of the Buddhist universe, and is modeled after the Indian temple of Odantapuri in Bihar.
The complex is surrounded by a strong wall topped by 1008 (108 is a sacred number) tiny chortens and pierced by gates at the four cardinal points.
The main temple in the center represents Mt. Meru, the mythical mountain at the center of the Buddhist universe. The four continents in the ocean around Mt. Meru are represented by the four lingshi temples at the cardinal points, each flanked by two smaller temples (lingtren) to symbolize islands in the ocean.
There are four large chortens at the corners of the main temple in four different colors, and there is a nyima (Sun) temple in the north and a dawa (Moon) temple to the south.
The main temple, or utse, at Samye is a grand six-story building that takes a couple of hours to thoroughly explore. Bring a flashlight to see the murals hidden in the shadows. The first floor is the most impressive of the six, and is dominated by the main assembly hall, with old mandalas on the high ceiling.
Flanking the entrance to the main chapel are statues of historical figures associated with Samye's founding: Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava, Trisong Detsen and Songtsen Gampo are among those on the left.
The chapel, Jowo Khang, is accessed through three tall doorways and enshrines a statue of Buddha at the age of 38.
Left of the assembly hall is a small temple, Chenresi Lhakhang, which houses a beautiful statue of Chenresi with a eye carefully painted on the palm of each of his thousand hands. This is perhaps the artistic highlight of Samye.