A visit to SAMYE, on the north bank of the Tsangpo River, is a highlight of Tibet. A unique monastery and walled village rolled into one, it’s situated in wonderful scenery and, however you arrive, the journey is splendid. You can climb the sacred Hepo Ri to the east of the complex for excellent views (1hr); it was here that Padmasambhava is said to have subdued the local spirits and won them over to Buddhism.
Tibet’s first monastery, Samye (桑木耶寺, sāngmùyēsì) was founded in the eighth century during King Trisong Detsen’s reign, with the help of the Indian masters Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, whom he had invited to Tibet to help spread the Buddhist faith. The first Tibetan Buddhist monks were ordained here after examination and are referred to as the “Seven Examined Men”. Over the years, Samye has been associated with several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism – Padmasambhava’s involvement in the founding of the monastery makes it important in the Nyingma school, and later it was taken over by the Sakya and Gelugpa traditions. Nowadays, followers of all traditions worship here, and Samye is a popular destination for Tibetan pilgrims, some of whom travel for weeks to reach it.
The design of the extensive monastery complex, several hundred metres in diameter, is of a giant mandala, a representation of the Buddhist universe, styled after the Indian temple of Odantapuri in Bihar. The main temple, the utse, represents Buddha’s palace on the summit of Mount Meru, the mythical mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe. The four continents in the vast ocean around Mount Meru are represented by the lingshi temples, a couple of hundred metres away at the cardinal points, each flanked by two smaller temples, lingtren, representing islands in the ocean. The utse is surrounded by four giant chortens, each several storeys high, at the corners, and there are nyima (sun) and dawa (moon) temples to the north and south, respectively. A renovated enclosing wall, topped by 1008 tiny chortens with gates at the cardinal points, flanks the whole complex. This sounds hugely ordered, but the reality is far more confusing and fun. Samye has suffered much damage and restoration over the years; today, you’ll find the temples dotted among houses, barns and animal pens, with only a few of the original 108 buildings on the site remaining in their entirety.