Built in the 8th century, Samye Monastery was the first Buddhist monastery to be founded in Tibet. It is also notable as the site of the "Great Debate" (792-794) between the Indian Mahayanists and Chinese Chán (Zen) Buddhists.
Samye is famous for its sacred mandala design: the central temple symbolizes the legendary Mount Meru, center of the universe. It is a popular pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists, some of whom travel on foot for weeks to reach it.
History of Samye Monastery
Samye Monastery was founded in the 8th century during the reign of King Trisong Detsen with the help of the Indian Buddhist masters Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, whom the king had invited to Tibet to help spread Buddhism. Padamasambhava is credited with subduing the local spirits and winning them over to Buddhism.
The first Tibetan monks were ordained here after examination, and are referred to as the Seven Examined Men. Over the centuries Samye has been associated with various schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Padmasambhava's involvement makes Samye important in the Nyingma school, but it was later taken over by the Sakya and Gelugpa schools. Today, Tibetans of all traditions come to worship here.
What to See at Samye Monastery
A unique monastery and village rolled into one, Samye is a highlight of a visit to Tibet. Situated amidst breathtaking scenery, the journey to Samye is splendid no matter how you arrive.
The layout of the huge monastery complex forms a giant mandala, a representation of the Buddhist universe, and is modeled after the Indian temple of Odantapuri in Bihar.
The complex is surrounded by a strong wall topped by 1008 (108 is a sacred number) tiny chortens and pierced by gates at the four cardinal points.
The main temple in the center represents Mt. Meru, the mythical mountain at the center of the Buddhist universe. The four continents in the ocean around Mt. Meru are represented by the four lingshi temples at the cardinal points, each flanked by two smaller temples (lingtren) to symbolize islands in the ocean.
There are four large chortens at the corners of the main temple in four different colors, and there is a nyima (Sun) temple in the north and a dawa (Moon) temple to the south.
The main temple, or utse, at Samye is a grand six-story building that takes a couple of hours to thoroughly explore. Bring a flashlight to see the murals hidden in the shadows. The first floor is the most impressive of the six, and is dominated by the main assembly hall, with old mandalas on the high ceiling.
Flanking the entrance to the main chapel are statuesof historical figures associated with Samye's founding: Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava, Trisong Detsen and Songtsen Gampo are among those on the left.
The chapel, Jowo Khang, is accessed through three tall doorways and enshrines a statue of Buddha at the age of 38.
Left of the assembly hall is a small temple, Chenresi Lhakhang, which houses a beautiful statue of Chenresi with a eye carefully painted on the palm of each of his thousand hands. This is perhaps the artistic highlight of Samye.
To the right of the assembly hall is the Gonkhang, a protector chapel, with eerie statues of former Bon demons that were turned into fierce Buddhist protector deities.
The second floor is an open roof area, where monks and locals carry out the craft work for the temple. The third floor contains the Quarters of the Dalai Lama, with a small anteroom, throne room and bedroom.
In the bedroom is a barred, glass-fronted case full of wonderful relics: Padmasambhava's hair and walking stick, a Tara statue that is reputed to speak, and the skull of Shantarakshita.
Naturally, this room is of utmost importance to Tibetan pilgrims so there is often a crush of bodies that makes it difficult to linger very long. The top floors have little to see in themselves, but provide excellent views from their balconies.
The four brightly-colored chortens (black, white, red and green) at the main temple's corners are modern and each one is slightly different. Inside them are stairs and tiny chapels. Most visitors either love them or hate them.
The rest of the buildings are in varying stages of renovation, with some being used as stables and others still showing the effects of the Cultural Revolution. The finest murals are in Mani Lhakhang in the northwest of the complex.
East of the complex, you can climb the sacred Hepo Ri for splendid views. It was here that Padmasambhava is said to have subdue the local spirits and won them over to Buddhism.
From Lhasa, buses for Samye Crossing, or dùko in Chinese; depart beginning at 7:30am for the 3 1/2-hour trip (¥25/$3), just south of the New Mandala restaurant.
After a chilly crossing of the Brahmaputra in an open, flat-bottomed boat (1 hr.; ¥10), tractors (40 min.; ¥3) connect with the monastery. Buses leave the monastery for Lhasa (6 hr.; ¥40) via Tsetang at 8:30am.
Basic and comfortable accommodation is available at the Samye Monastery Guesthouse (tel. 0891/736-2086) for ¥20 to ¥35 ($2.40-$4.20).
Adequate food is offered in the monastery restaurant, which has an English menu. A better option is the newer restaurant just opposite the east reception office. Several small shops in the complex are well-stocked with the basics of food and drink.
Quick Facts on Samye Monastery
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||29.327327° N, 91.502466° E|
|Hours:||Samye Utse (main temple) is open daily 8am-5:30pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Samye Monastery|
- Samye - Rough Guide to China (accessed June 2009)
- Samye Monastery - Travel China Guide
- Samye Monastery - Asia on the Matrix - short description plus slide show
- Samye Monastery - Tibet Travel
Map of Samye Monastery, China
Below is a location map and aerial view of Samye Monastery. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.