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Samye Monastery: A Sacred Legacy

Samye Monastery in Chanang County, Lhoka Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is a holy site to Buddhist believers. It was jointly built in 778 by Master Padmasambhava, founder of Esoteric Buddhism, and Master Shantarakshita from India. It also can be listed on the top China tours.

The first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Samye witnessed the first group of locals to enter monkhood with shaved heads. Legend has it that since Tibetan King Trisong Detsen (755-797) was eager to construct a monastery, Buddhist Master Padmasambhava used magic to create the illusion of a small monastery appearing in the palm of his hand. “Samye!” exclaimed the king, which means “a place of illusion beyond imagination” and eventually became the name of the real thing.

A Stereoscopic Mandala

From a bird’s-eye view, Samye Monastery is shaped like a giant Vajrayana mandala (meaning “rostrum” in Sanskrit), where religious rituals were conducted in ancient India. On such occasions, a round or square altar was built. Buddhas were invited to attend the ceremony, and their images were drawn on the altar.

The monastery was built after the model of the Indian Vajrayana mandala, representing the Buddhist outlook on the universe. The three-storied Central Hall surrounded by an oval wall symbolizes Sumeru Mountain, the center of the universe in Buddhism. It is surrounded by four halls in each respective direction, each of which is flanked by two small halls. Next to the Central Hall are two halls which symbolize the sun and the moon. In each of the four corners of the Central Hall stands a pagoda which is meant to dispel evil spirits and avoid natural and man-made disasters. The structure fuses Tibetan, Han and Indian styles, which can be seen in statues on each story of the building. The four pagodas in contrasting black, green, white, and red stand out particularly in each corner of the Central Hall.

The monastery (a must-see when you are in Tibet for your popular China travel package) has been well preserved thanks to the repairs financed by the government.

Sutra Translation

Soon after completion, the monastery invited 12 Buddhist monks from India to cut the hair of seven young Tibetan men who were becoming monks. The ceremony was hosted by Master Shantarakshita. The construction of the monastery and emergence of monks marked Buddhism taking root in Tibet.

Buddhism could not spread with language barriers, so translation became even more important. According to records of the monastery, Buddhist sutras were translated heavily over the early years. “Monks sat face-to-face, with crossed legs,” reads one record. “One chanted the sutra, and the other translated it into Tibetan. The translation was written on paper with bamboo pen by a young monk after being polished by a senior monk.” Such scenes were also depicted in murals in the monastery.

To help the effort, King Trisong Detsen invited elite scholars and eminent monks from India and Han-inhabited areas to translate Sanskrit and Chinese Buddhist sutras and medical books into Tibetan. The largest effort since the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, the translation movement laid a solid foundation for the further development of Lamaism on the roof of the world. For quite a long time, Samye Monastery held the largest collection of Buddhist sutras in Tibet. Unfortunately, much of its collection was destroyed by a fire in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Samye Monastery was destroyed between 838 and 842 when tyrant king Langdarma attacked Lamaism, and afterward it served as a ritual site for the Nyingma Sect. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the monastery served as a ritual site for the Sakya Sect. After the monastery caught fire during the early Qing Dynasty, most of its structures standing today were reconstructed between 1683 and 1706, the 6th Dalai Lama’s reign. In 1996, Samye Monastery was listed as a relic under major state protection which also attracts so many tourists to explore for their last minute China travel deals. In recent years, it has been repaired through funding from the government.

Kalsang Gyal’s Comments

Samye Monastery was the first formal monastery in Tibetan Buddhist history. Today, it is jointly administered by Nyingma and Sakya Sects, with the Ge-luk-ba Sect also participating. Various halls enshrine the sects’ respective guardian gods. All sects enjoy equal rights to perform rituals. Ritual procedures are usually determined by believers. The monastery itself isn’t restricted by denomination.


Kalsang Gyal was born in 1959 in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province. He graduated from the Tibetan Studies Department of the Minzu University of China in July 1986. He serves as an associate researcher at the Institute of World Religions under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a permanent researcher at the Institute of Buddhist Studies under the CASS, and as a specially-appointed researcher at the Beijing Institute of Buddhist Cultural Studies.

If you want to know more about this monastery, you can contact with China travel agency based in Tibet.

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