A Week at the Buddhist Institute Larung Gar in Sertar

In may 2016 I went to Sertar to visit a newly made friend of mine, who was studying at the buddhist institute Larung Gar. This trip is by far one of the most memorable I have ever been on, and that’s why I thought I’d share it with you.

Inside a hall of Larung Gar.

The story goes back to February 2016 when I was spending my spring vacation traveling in Sichuan. I was on my to Chengdu where I was supposed to meet up with a man that I had fallen in love with (my now husband), but he cancelled on me… Sad and very disappointed I found a hostel where I planned to spend my first evening eating Oreon cakes and watching TV-series on my phone. But sometimes life has something else planned for you, and when I entered my hostel dorm I was met with several pairs of curious eyes and then came to spend the rest of the evening chatting with my new dormitory friends. Several of them were Tibetan monks, who had come to Chengdu to study Mandarin Chinese. While some of them where very young and spent most of their time taking selfies and listening to Justin Bieber, there was one monk my age, whom I really clicked with – his name was Gesang. Gesang and I had a lot to talk about. He loved exploring the connections between classical buddhist learnings and those of modern science, and I was hooked. No need to say this led to several interesting conversations – and despite (or maybe thanks to) the fact that his Chinese was not great either, we managed to slowly express our ideas and thoughts. I found out he was studying at this buddhist institute in a place called Sertar, and he told me I should come and visit. At first I had no idea what Larung Gar was, but then he showed me pictures, and I was certain that I had seen those red huts before in some travel magazine or something.

The typical red huts where the monks and nuns reside. Somewhere in the top center is Gesang’s home.

Me and Gesang decided to keep in touch and decide on a good time for me to visit later on that same spring. Although he didn’t have a phone, we managed to decide on a time through his friends, and I got explained to me how to get there. And in May I was on my way. First I went to Chengdu, where I then took a bus towards Sertar, and got of at Larung Gar where Gesang waited for me. It was late at night (the bus from Chengdu to Larung Gar was 10 hours), and after having walked all the way up to the Academy grounds, we didn’t really have time to do much more than check me in at a hotel at a top of the mountain.

It was May, but still freezing during the nights. I had chosen the cheapest dormitory, crammed with about ten bunk beds. I curled up on my bed wearing several layers of clothes and covered myself with my thin sleeping bag and the thick blankets provided by the hotel. I slept well, but awoke early. It had snowed during the night, and that morning I got to see the grounds of Larung Gar covered in white – crisp cold mountain air and this view was probably one of the best starts of a day I’ve ever had.

The red huts and the academy on one side of the mountain, and this view on the other.

After having had breakfast and having walked around for a little bit, Gesang showed up at the hostel with breakfast almost ready. He had brought small bags of barley, butter, sugar and dried cheese. After pouring me half a bowl of boiled water, he showed me how to make tsampa, a traditional Tibetan food (usually breakfast). We let the butter melt in the hot water, and then mixed it with the barley, some sugar and a little bit of dried cheese. This dough, tsampa, was what I ate for breakfast for the rest of my stay. Some mornings I would eat with Gesang, but sometimes he was too busy studying for a big exam coming up and I’d do it my self in the hotel lobby.

Gesang made me Tsampa for breakfast!

During the days I would stroll around in the area. The frist days Gesang made an effort to tell spend his spare time with me, but due to the exam I also got a lot if time on my own. Well, at least until there was someone who discovered that there was this foreign girl walking around all on her own, and felt the need to show me around. That way I made a few other monk friends and got to see even more of the grounds, was taught some Tibetan (all I still remember is the first four letters of their alphabet, “thank you” and “how much is this?”). One morning Gesang introduced me to a nun from his home town. I thought it would be a great experience to actually spend some time with a woman after all those monks, to get a further understanding of what life is like as a nun in Larung Gar. But although she didn’t mind introducing me to buddhism and its rituals, she didn’t really seem interested in any other conversations outside of that – e.g. women in Buddhism, why the nuns in Larung Gar were not debating (all the monks are), or any of the modern science conversations I had with Gesang.

During my week in Larung Gar, I only talked to two nuns – Gesang’s friend and another university educated Han-Chinese who had become a nun in her early thirties. The latter was working working as a guide to the sky burial site. The fact that so many monks would approach me, if only to ask where I was from, but that no nuns would do so, made me a little sad, like I missed out something. I wanted to connect with another woman, but I was too shy to initiate any conversations with the female strangers in their red robes.

Part of the grounds where only nuns reside.
Birds of pray circulating just before the sky burial. Gesang and a friend of his took me to see it, although I did feel kind of strange, as if they made a funeral into a tourist attraction. It was here I met and talked to nun number two.

Every day at five in the after noons I would make my way towards the main square to listen to the monks debating the scriptures. Actually, I never needed to keep an eye on my watch, because at five the clapping of hands and the shouting would be loud enough to remind me, regardless of how far away from the square I was. I loved the debates. Gesang told me they would be debating the scriptures they had studied the same day, and each person where told which position to take. That way they are forced to look at problems from different points of view, and thus have to push their own thinking. Why don’t all schools make their students do this? I must admit the fact that many of the debaters got so excited that they slapped their partners in the face just added to my interest.

The main square twenty minutes or so after the obligatory debates are over. There would always be those monks left who just wouldn’t stop debating though, and would go on for quite a while afterwards.

When it was time I didn’t want to leave. I hadn’t showered for a week, I ate very little, I was alone most of the time, and I loved it. Life there is simple, and everyone is present. They all wear the same clothes, live in tiny spaces, and own very little. They spend their days learning, debating what they are learning, meditating and chanting. And that’s all that matters. They go all in.

I wanted to stay, and I seriously contemplated to completely change my lifestyle, to move there and just be. But here I am, sitting on a comfy double bed writing on my blog, waiting for my husband to come back from a business trip. Life didn’t put me in a monastery. Yet. Let’ see what happens to me and Yong Hong when we’re fifty.

Since summer 2016 Sertar is closed for foreign visitors, at least as far as I know. If you have been there since, or happen to know that it has now opened, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to go again, both for the place, but also to see if Gesang is still there – I haven’t been able to contact him since I left.