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Zhongdian Monastary

The Zhongdian monastery currently houses over 800 monks and has been renovated over the past few years to gilded splendor. Its many buildings are clustered over several acres on a hillside. The entrance is patrolled by local women and kids - probably Chinese - in Tibetan costume and holding baby sheep oddly adorned with bows on their heads. They automatically strike smiling poses as you approach, but if you're unwise enough to take a photo, the smiles instantly transform into hard-faced negotiating masks as payment is demanded - especially shrilly from the kids. As you'll see, our photos were taken from a safe (and free) distance.

We sent up a few prayers to Buddha while climbing several steep flights of stairs to the main buildings at the top of the hill - help us breathe in this thin air!


The monastery is obviously rolling in yak butter and other valuable commodities - several sections were being expanded and renovated.

Gilded roofs were set off by the crystalline blue sky. That's real gold, too.
The sign on the hill proclaimed "Shangri-la" in Tibetan and Chinese script.
The monastery had hall after hall, and room after room filled with spiritual paraphernalia, including these prayer wheels. Spinning them - always clockwise - sends a prayer skyward.
Sami and Miranda wore their hats as insurance against the morning chill as they built up some spiritual insurance for their next incarnations.

Note the bills stuffed into the sides of this drum. One beat, one prayer - but obviously people think that a little financial incentive to the spirits can't hurt, either!



A young monk chanting his prayers. In this room we watched some ancient and very poor women and men prostrate themselves in front of various shrines.
I had read a bit on Buddhist iconography before the trip, but the very first tapestry left me completely befuddled. The colors are brilliant and the figures depicted in great detail - but other than obvious representations, like smiling faces on top signifying souls that have reached heaven and billious-looking folk below in the other place - I had no idea what story was being conveyed - only that it was probably complex.

It's hard to convey the atmosphere of quiet mysticism in the temple, as we did not photograph the monks in their rows as they prepared for prayers in the large temple.

When they left for a break, we took the opportunity to snap the extra robes they left behind to save their seats.

We were smilingly encouraged to wander around the temple and look at everything as the monks sat at prayer - or, in the case of the teens and little ones, goofing around! At one point, we saw a teenage monk rooting around in the sleeve of his robe, and spied two white ear-buds of an Ipod inside!

The boy-monks seemed to get as much of a kick out of watching us as we did watching them. There was a bit of clowning around for our benefit.

(You might be wondering why we have these pictures of paintings, when the text describes a bunch of monks. The reason is that we weren't allowed to take any pictures indoors. We could have easily sneaked a shot or two, but it didn't seem to be worth risking the wrath of the Gods!)

These colored offerings are all formed by hand out of yak butter. These are about two feet across.

More yak butter offerings.

Looks like play-dough.

Smells like barnyard.

Laundry? No, khata, the white silk scarves given as honorific offerings.

While walking around, I greeted several monks quietly in Chinese. They immediately stopped and asked me where I was from. When I said, "America," their fast follow-up question was, "Have you ever met the Dalai Lama?"

I said that although I had not, I knew people who had met him, and added that pretty much everyone in the US knows who he is and that he is very famous as a very special and good man. They nodded and grinned, and moved on.

Monks get recess! About twenty minutes after we arrived, a bell rang and they all raced - even the older ones -outside into the big courtyard. Turns out that the younger ones, at least, were racing over to some vendors to score ice cream and other snacks!

Toting one of the distinctive yellow hats that gave this sect its name, a lama heads into the temple.
Even if they're holy, boys will be boys. During recess we saw a lot of running around, practical joking and horseplay among the monks.
Everybody seemed to have at least one special buddy, even these two old guys.
A pushing game collapsed - into laughter.
Just like in schoolyards everywhere, a ringing bell brought everyone running.

With more laughter, pushing and shoving, the monks piled back into the temple for the next round of prayer recitations.


After recess, we followed the monks back inside.

For about twenty minutes, the younger monks finished their purchased snacks and also chowed down on tsampa, the tea and barley flour staple of the Tibetan diet. They scooped up every morsel, then wiped out their cups and stowed them in their big sleeves. What else do they keep in there?!

Pilgrims, young and old, made prayers and offerings during their visits. We saw several families of multiple generations carrying baskets of produce to give to the monks.

In one upper room, a patiently waiting group of elderly peasants was ushered into a room draped by a curtain. We passed by just as an assistant monk was lifting the curtain, and we glimpsed a monk of about 35 inside. As peasants entered, they started prostrating themselves on the floor to the monk - then the curtain fell.

"He is a living Buddha," said our guide quietly.

Next: Dressup!

Zhongdian chapters: Intro Monks Dressup Market Old City Pottery 1 Pottery 2 Pottery 3 Pottery 4
Yunnan chapter shortcuts: Intro Dali Lijiang Tiger Leaping Gorge Zhongdian

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