Tibetan Buddhism is divided into several schools that have different philosophical emphases rather than fundamental differences. The Nyingma, the Old Order, traces its origins back to Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. The Kagyupa, Sakya and Kadampa all developed during the eleventh-century revival of Buddhism, while the now-dominant Gelugpa (Virtuous School) was founded by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) and numbers the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama among its adherents. Virtually all monasteries and temples are aligned to one or other of the schools, but, apart from an abundance of statues of revered lamas of that particular school, you’ll spot little difference between the temples. Tibetan people are pretty eclectic and will worship in temples that they feel are particularly sacred and seek blessings from lamas they feel are endowed with special powers, regardless of which school they belong to.
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There is little ceremony attached to visiting temples, which are generally welcoming places. Most are open in the mornings (9am–noon), when pilgrims do the rounds, and again after lunch (around 2pm or 3pm, until 5pm). Smaller places may well be locked, but ask for the caretaker and the chances are you’ll be let in. There is no need to remove your shoes, but you should always circulate in a clockwise direction, and shouldn’t eat, drink or smoke inside. Ask before taking photographs, which isn’t always allowed, and if it is, you may be charged for the privilege. Entrance fees collected from tourists are often claimed by local authorities, so if you want to give to the institution itself, leave an offering on an altar or pay the photography charge.
The range of offerings Tibetans make to their gods is enormous: juniper smoke sent skyward in incense burners, prayer flags erected on rooftops and mountains, tiny papers printed with religious images (lungda) and cast to the wind on bridges and passes, white scarves (katag) presented to statues and lamas, butter to keep lamps burning on altars, repetitious mantras invoking the gods and the spinning of prayer wheels that have printed prayers rolled up inside are all part of religious observance. The idea of each is to gain merit in this life and hence affect karma. If you want to take part, watch what other people do and copy them; nobody is at all precious about religion in Tibet. Giving alms to beggars is another way of gaining merit, and most large Tibetan temples have a horde of beggars who survive on charity from pilgrims. Whether or not you give money is up to you, but if you do it’s wise to give a few small denomination notes or so, the same amount as Tibetans.
Gods and goddesses
Tibetan Buddhism has an overwhelming number of gods and goddesses, and each deity in turn has different manifestations or forms. For example, there are 21 forms of the favourite goddess Tara, and even the most straightforward image has both a Sanskrit and Tibetan name. Here are some of the most common you will encounter:
(Tsepame) and Vijaya (Namgyelma), often placed with White Tara to form the Three Gods of Longevity.
(Chenresi in Tibetan, Guanyin in Chinese temples), patron god of Tibet, with many forms, most noticeably with eleven faces and a thousand arms.
(Jampa), the Buddha of the Future.
(Jampelyang), the God of Wisdom.
with eight manifestations, most apparent as Guru Rinpoche. You may see him with his consorts, Yeshe Tsogyel and Mandarava.
Buddha of the Present.
(Dolma), Goddess of Compassion. Green Tara is associated with protection and White Tara with long life.
Festival dates are calculated using the Tibetan lunar calendar and as a result correspond to different dates on the Western calendar each year. There is a list of festival dates in the Western calendar at kalachakranet.org/ta_tibetan_calendar.html.
Driving out of evil spirits. Twenty-ninth day of the twelfth lunar month, the last day of the year.
Losar, Tibetan New Year. First day of the first lunar month.
Monlam, Great Prayer Festival, Lhasa. Eighth day of the first lunar month.
Butter Lamp Festival, on the final day of Monlam. Fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Birth of Buddha. Seventh day of the fourth lunar month.
Saga Dawa (Buddha’s Enlightenment). Fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month.
Gyantse Horse Festival. Fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month.
Tashilunpo Festival, Shigatse. Fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month.
Buddha’s First Sermon. Fourth day of the sixth lunar month.
Drepung Festival. Thirtieth day of the sixth lunar month.
Shotun (Yoghurt Festival), Lhasa. First to the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
Bathing Festival, Lhasa. Twenty-seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
Damxhung Horse Festival. Thirtieth day of the seventh lunar month.
Harvest Festival. First to the seventh day of the eighth lunar month.
Lhabab (Buddha’s descent from heaven). Twenty-second day of the ninth lunar month.
Palden Lhamo Festival, Lhasa. Fifteenth day of the tenth lunar month.