Sightseeing in Shigatse, Tibet

We've spent a few days in Lhasa, the fascinating capital of Tibet. Now my friends, Cliff Malzman and Mark Field, and I pile into a van for an excursion to Shigatse, the traditional capital of Tsang province. This is no ordinary trip. Our driver does not appear to recognize his own mortality as he speeds up and down the foothills of the Himalayas at breakneck speeds on a single lane with winding roads. I have my eyes shut much of the time, hoping this is not my final trip!

Today we're going to explore the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery on the west side of town. Sponsored by the Mongols of the Gelupa order, this monastery has been the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama. I'm learning a lot about Buddhism today and a little about Chinese-Tibetan politics. My head is spinning.

Founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is considered historic and culturally important. This site was invaded and captured in 1791 by the Gorkha Kingdom. The invaders, however, were eventually driven back to the outskirts of Katmandu by a combined Tibetan and Chinese army.

The Panchen Lamas rank as the second highest tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. While asserting temporal power over several small districts in the area, they remain under the ultimate control of a dzongpon, or prefect, appointed from Lhasa.

Our driver lets us out at the bottom of a hill where this structure has an imposing appearance. As we ascend an incline on our way to the entrance of the monastery, I am well aware of a sense of serenity that is consuming me. Despite being the second largest city in Tibet, this section is relatively quiet. The temperature is cool with low humidity. There is an other-worldliness to this. We approach the door and leave our shoes outside before entering.

Consistent with Bhuddist principles, the monastery endeavors to maintain peace and harmony within individuals, as well as the world at large. The monks are taught to be good to human beings and to promote a sense of responsibility and service. This is the dogma espoused by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

We are now in the halls of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Impossible to miss is a gigantic statue of the Maitreya Buddha which stands 86 feet tall. He is situated on a lotus throne with his hands in a symbolic teaching pose. Composed of 279 kg of gold and 15,000 kg of copper and brass, this statue was crafted on a wooden frame by Tibetan and Nepalese artisans.

Drifting through the monastery, we end up in large courtyard known as Chuajling Duogang. My eye is immediately caught by a Tibetan woman standing next to her son with a bell in her right hand. The bell, or dribu, is a ritual object used in what are known as Tantric rites,  symbolic of skill and compassion, the indestructible power to cut through ignorance.

Our morning at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is reaching its conclusion. Coming from the United States, I'm well aware of my dearth of knowledge about Buddhism. It is astounding for me to wrap my arms around the fact that this is the world's fourth-largest religion, with over 500 million followers, or approximately 7% of the world's population. Almost everyone I've come in contact with today appears content. I'm quite sure the Buddhists know something that Westerners don't.