Homage to the founder of Tibetan Buddhism in China

by Harry Bhaskara, Jakarta Post, Dec 26, 2004

Beijing, China -- Why are there so many monasteries in China? A very long history of Buddhism is one reason. Buddhism was founded in India in 500 B.C. and came to China around 65 A.D.

<< A thanka of the revered Tibetan Buddhist master Tsong Khapa

But how did the monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism come into being? The history of the Ta'er monastery, built many centuries after Buddhism had established itself in China, can perhaps shed light on a part of the mystery.

The virtuous life of Tsong Khapa, who lived in the 14th century, inspired his followers long after his death. In 1577 his disciples built an 11-meter high pagoda at his birth place in Huangzhong county, in memory of this founder of the Yellow Hat -- or Gelugpa sect -- of Tibetan Buddhism. The county is located about 30 kilometers southwest of Xining in western Qinghai province.

After the pagoda was built other buildings followed that eventually made up the monastery. This monastery is among the six biggest of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

The road from Xining to the monastery is well-paved. It took us only about 30 minutes by bus to get to the monastery compound, a vast area filled with beautiful ancient buildings and surrounded by hills.

The Propitious Pagoda, comprising eight stupas, is the first of a number of striking buildings one encounters within the monastery. Each of the eight stupas represents one of the important phases in the life of Sidharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. Tibetan believers, often as a family, walk around the pagoda while solemnly reciting their prayers.

Other buildings include the Great Hall of Meditation, the Peace Pagoda, the Buddha Pagoda and the Great Hall of the Golden Roof, that legend says is the birthplace of Tsong Khapa.

Pilgrims stop in each of these halls, spinning prayer wheels and reciting om mani padme hum before entering them. Buddhists believe that by spinning the prayer wheels on the sides of the wall that they will purify themselves from the sins that they may have accumulated over their lifetime.

Pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of the hall as a sign of respect, touching their heads on sacred objects including the hall's pillars and the low wooden rails in front of the numerous statues of Buddha, as they make their way through the halls. qOccasionally they will place ceremonial scarves as a sign of sacrifice and respect. The halls are lit with yak butter candles.

Xining is about 1,300 kilometers southwest of Beijing and is surrounded by numerous monasteries. The Ta'er monastery, or Kumbum in the Tibetan language, is one of the most famous. The monastery is a perfect combination of Tibetan and Han architecture.

There are more than 13,000 Buddhist temples in China.

Along with Islam, Christianity and Taoism, Buddhism is one of the major religions of China. Religious Han Chinese tend to practice Buddhism, Christianity or Taoism. The Han people make up the majority of the Chinese people, comprising nine-tenths of the population of 1.3 billion.

In one part of the monastery is a hall of incredibly beautiful sculptures made of butter, including Buddha figures, flowers, trees and animals. The intricately carved sculptures are a sign of the high achievement in the arts from the ancient past.

The monastery now houses some 400 Buddhist monks. In the past, the monastery was said to house more than 1,000 monks.

"Perhaps because of economic development, fewer and fewer people now want to become monks," a Xining resident said.