Did the stars ever align today! We visited the Sera Monastery just outside of Lhasa. When I envision a
monastery it entails a secluded location, complete silence, and lots of serious meditating. The Sera monastery had
none of this going on. First, it is right outside the city of Lhasa and right on a bus route. There were even quite a
few monks riding the bus with us. Second, there was nothing silent about it. When we first entered the monastery
we began to wander around aimlessly as the signs were only posted in Tibetan and Chinese (at least we assume
those were the languages on the signs). We saw a large building on the right hand side of the grounds that looked
like it might be a temple.  By this time we have been in China for over a month and have seen our fair share of
temples, so as we walked toward this structure we were not expecting to see anything new. When we stepped
inside we were met with a massive
hall full of monks in the midst of a
prayer session. Our first thought
was “Oh crap, we’ve wandered
somewhere we’re not supposed to
be! Let’s get out of here.” But then
we noticed one or two other
westerners along the perimeter of
the hall. In the middle of the
massive prayer hall there was line
after line of monks dressed in their
brilliant red robes seated cross-
legged on cushions on the floor. The
monk leading the prayers sat at the
front of the hall, elevated above the
rest of the monks. He would chant
and then the hall full of monks
would chant back. It was a powerful
sight and went on for an hour.
Periodically the younger monks
would run out of the room and
return with large kettles of tea
to refill everyone’s cups.
When the prayer session concluded
The monks of Sera Monastery
I found myself surrounded by monks as they made their way to the door. I wondered how they felt about us
observing their prayer session. I can’t imagine going to my church back home and having a tourist come inside the
sanctuary and take my picture as I prayed. After exiting the prayer hall we talked to a girl from Israel who just
completed a multi-day trek around Lhasa, walking from monastery to monastery. She said that it is extremely rare
to be able to view an active prayer session, and despite all the monasteries she had seen in Tibet this was the first
time she had seen something like this. With just this experience Jarrod and I counted our visit to the Sera
monastery as one of our favorite experiences, but little did we know what else awaited us.
     We continued our aimless wandering throughout the monastery, peeking in courtyards and admiring the
mountains soaring in the background. Jarrod saw an open door along a stone wall. When he peeked his head in he
found two young monks filling up their water containers from a water pump. He pantomimed the motions for “is it
okay for us to come in?” and when they nodded we made our way into the interior courtyard of what we
discovered to be the living quarters of the monks. We greeted the two monks with one of the two Tibetan phrases
we have mastered, “Tashi dele” which means hello. They then asked our names and where we were from. This
seemed to be the end of our conversation, as the only other Tibetan phrase we knew was “thoo jaychay” which
means thank you, and they had come to the end of their English as well. We stood there smiling at each other for a
few seconds, and then one of the monks made the international sign for “drink”. We thought he was asking us for
a drink, so we offered him our water bottle. He laughed and shook his head, and then motioned for us to follow
him. He led us inside the living quarters to his small room. We had just seen him shoo another tourist away from
the door, so we felt especially privileged. His room was very small and didn’t have much more in it than a bed, a
bookshelf, and three posters on the wall. One was of the Dalai Lama, which we all admired together. The next was
of Potala Palace which we tried to communicate that we saw yesterday and found it extraordinary. I have no idea
what the third poster was, but he spent a lot of time pointing at it and making small bows to it and then smiling at
us. He had us sit on his bed, while he disappeared for a moment and then returned with some food that looked like
beef jerky. I was guessing it was actually yak jerky, as yak meat is the staple cuisine of Tibet. He broke a piece off
and gave it to Jarrod and I. With a small prayer of my own that this would not taste horrible, I popped it in my
mouth. Imagine my surprise when not only it was not horrible, but it was actually good! It was some sort of candy
that had a chocolate and maple sugar taste to it. The second monk then came in with a large kettle. I started to
get nervous again. The one piece of advice we received over and over again from people who had been to Tibet
was to avoid the yak butter tea. Just the name alone is enough to convince me to pass, but hearing them describe
it made my stomach turn. I was just sure that was what was inside this kettle being offered to us. But what were
we going to do, refuse the hospitality of these two extremely friendly Tibetan monks? No way. This time, imagine
my relief when there was no rancid tea being offered, only hot water. Yes, that seems a little odd itself, but much
compared to yak butter tea I felt like I had just been poured a glass of cabernet sauvignon. We saw that there
was a CD player beside the bed, so we tried to ask him if he liked music. With a big smile, he grabbed the remote
and pushed play. Instead of music, out came more chanting like we had just heard in the prayer hall. What were
we expecting Tibetan monks to listen to, the latest Maroon Five album??? We weren’t sure what he was doing
when he started digging around on his bookcase looking for something. When he found the small bag he was
looking for, he dumped the contents into his hands. They were small pendants with the face of the Dalai Lama on
both sides. We admired them and said how pretty they were, not sure of what the expected reaction was. It turns
out he was asking us to each pick one, which he then tied on a piece of long red string and put over our neck. By
this point we were just overwhelmed with the experience we were having, and were frantically whispering to each
other to find out if we had anything to offer him in return. With only a Lonely Planet guidebook, a bandana, and our
passports in our backpack we realized we were completely empty-handed. They didn’t seem to mind in the least,
as we spent a few more minutes trying to make small talk with them. As we thanked them and made our way to
the door, they just stood in the doorway of the room and smiled and waved at us.
A heated debate between two monks at the Sera monastery
A young monk getting in on the action.
Please check out these quick clips for a glimpse of the fun. It is guaranteed that we will employ this debating
technique when we return to the States. Get ready.
      As I said, the stars really aligned for us today. Who knew that visiting a monastery would be so much fun!
return to tibet overview        return to journal homepage
     Jarrod and I both emerged from the
courtyard shaking our heads and asking each
other if that really just happened. By this time it
was almost 3pm and time for the main attraction
of the Sera monastery (in our opinion). Everyday
from 3-5pm the monks congregate in a large
courtyard and debate various philosophical
questions or aspects of Buddhist doctrine. At
least this is what we believe they debate. The
whole episode is in the Tibetan language. You
would think watching a two hour debate where
we could not understand a single word would be
supremely boring. They could have been
debating whether Britney or Kevin makes a less
terrible parent for all we know. The
entertainment lies in the physicality of the
debate. After the topic of the debate is
determined by the head monk the monks pair off
in groups of two. A student monk sits on the
ground while a senior monk stands above him.
For the next two hours the senior monk drills the
student with various points and questions
relating to the debate topic. When the senior
monk feels he is about to make a particularly
salient point he starts to rub his hands together
in a ponderous way. Then, as he delivers the full
force of his important point he goes through
what looks to be the full wind-up of a baseball
pitcher. Instead of releasing a ball he brings his
“pitching” hand down as hard as he can on top
of his other outstretched hand, making a
thunderous clapping noice. Jarrod and I felt it
was the ultimate “IN YOUR FACE!” brought to
life. As if it isn’t funny enough to see two monks
fully immersed in a lively and heated debate, you
have to multiply this scene and the sound of the
hand smacking by about 200. The courtyard was
a sea of maroon with all the monks who come
out for the afternoon debate sessions. I don’t
know why I am even attempting to explain this
to you. It is 100% one of those things that has
to be seen to be believed. It is honestly almost
worth a trip to Tibet just to witness the hilarity of
it. Lucky for you we were smart enough to catch
a bit of the action on film to save you the time.
Lotsa Fun in Lhasa
The Potala Palace