We are at the height of winter. There is not a drop of cloud in the blue sky over Lhasa or over most of the Tibetan Plateau.
Lobsang, the Tibetan host highlighted by the Chinese travel agency, tells us that we have arrived at the most genuine time possible, that there must not be even twenty foreigners in all of Tibet.
We soon realize that he feels annoyed at having to work for the invader. Since we arrived, he has been keen to cut the time he dedicates to us as little as possible.
This morning, sunny but icy, as each of the following ones would prove, would be no exception.
"But do you really want to go to Sera?" “You have visited so many monasteries here in Lhasa. Sera is just another one. THE architecture is the same as the others. What they will see there will make little difference to what they found in the previous ones, I assure you.”
Luckily, we had read about the place. We knew what made him distinct. We don't give in. Lobsang then opts for a non-confrontational strategy: “Well, this morning I have to go and deal with the papers of some Germans who are coming in May. If you really want to go there, I'll call you taxis and call a comrade who can accompany you”.
The Short Trip from Lhasa to Sera. In Bell-Rally Mode
Do it without appeal. A few minutes later, two modern cars with Chinese license plates and drivers appear.
That colleague is already in one of them. We got in the front. Ryan, a “valet” (in charge of parking vehicles in hotels, casinos, etc.) North American.
And Jacob, a Swedish teenage student measuring more than 1 meter and 90 who attracted around him groups of Tibetans fascinated by his height were the travel partners we had even met in Chengdu (the capital of the Chinese province of Sichuan). The two of them got into the taxi behind.
The monastery was less than 2 km away. Even so, the driver appeared fully equipped for driving, with gloves and sunglasses. He decided it was more than enough distance to challenge his colleague.
Thus, they traveled the route as if it were a rally competition, with creaky starts and jumps precipitated by the lowered slope of water pipes.
We were still struggling with a terrifying altitude sickness caused by having traveled, in just an hour and a half, from the 500 meters altitude of Chengdu to the 3650 of Lhasa.
When we got out of the taxis, with the parched mountain of Pubuchok in the background and in the vicinity of the monastery, the conversation remained centered on this theme: “These Chinese really ruin everything! complains Ryan, the only one who had skipped the Chengdu flight:
"I came three days tight on the train to get rid of the headache and it only took a few minutes in that hellish car to feel myself bursting as much or more than you guys!"
The Buttered Tour through the Interior of Sera Monastery
Lobsang's friend invites us to walk along a lane bordered by bare trees and white Tibetan buildings. At the top, we find the main entrance to the monastery, built in 1419 by Jamchen Chojey, disciple of one of the main Buddhist masters of the time.
In order not to vary, it is forbidden to photograph or film the interior and it stinks of yak butter, the fuel chosen by the Tibetans to ensure the lighting and maintenance of the flame in the candles offered by the believers.
We do the full circuit of the various rooms in the temple. And we followed the exhaustive explanations of the group's newly inducted new guide. At a certain point, we felt the justice of giving at least a partial reason for what Lobsang told us: the dissertation of the guide substitute sounds quite repetitive to us.
Like Lobsang, this friend also refrained from addressing Tibet's sensitive integration by force into the China, let alone Sera's dramatic contribution to the 1959 uprising.
The Damages of the Chinese Invasion Also in Sera Monastery
That year, the Chinese army damaged several of the monastery's colleges and murdered hundreds of the more than 5000 resident monks. after the Dalai Lama have taken refuge in India, many of the survivors took refuge in Bylakuppe, near the Indian city of Mysore, Karnataka state.
There they established a parallel Sera monastery, with its own Buddhist colleges and a Great Assembly Hall with the same architectural lines as the original.
The assistance of the Indian government has allowed them to settle in them more than 3.000 Tibetan monks who carry out Buddhist missionary activities in India and in several other countries.
Besides buddhist architecture and the compassion professed by the Buddha, the monks also took from Tibet the habit of meeting day after day in order to debate, as dialectically as possible, the teachings of their enlightened master.
From the end of the 600th century, the Gelupga (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism to which the XNUMX apprentice monks still resisting in Sera belong, became predominant in Tibet. He got used to studying Buddhist doctrines through a step-by-step process.
During their apprenticeship, even lamas should participate in these debates in order to improve their understanding and evolve to more advanced levels of study.
The Buddhist Outdoor Debate Sessions
As a rule, the sessions take place at three in the afternoon, from Monday to Friday. They last an hour and a half. They are only suspended due to a coincident religious celebration or ceremony or extreme bad weather.
When we leave the dismal interior of the Buddhist monastery, we come face to face with a door that announces “Debating Courtyard”. In this wide playground, among trees bare by the long winter of the plateau, on a floury gravel, the multiple disputes were already being heard.
Scattered across the courtyard, several nuclei of monks dressed only in their red robes and holding "juzus” (Buddhist rosaries) in their hands, they exchange argument after argument.
In certain groups, one or two of the religious took the lead. They are closely followed or challenged by small audiences huddled together with relative intimacy. To better express their arguments, these prophets of the occasion pull their interlocutors and sound their juzus.
Or, more often, they repeat the same movement of retreating, advancing and projecting the body forward that ends with an exuberant clapping of the hands.
The successive “claps” resound throughout the courtyard. They make the authors' hands as red as their costumes. They seem to help convince opponents. When they are forced to recognize the reason, they let out extended “oooooohhhhhs” in chorus.
Then, they go back to analyzing the flaws and virtues of their allegations before the injudicious scrutiny of the public, then mostly Tibetan.
The hour and a half pass. The lamas retreat to the almost spartan comfort of the Sera monastery buildings. Assistance stampedes down the lane.
According to telephone instructions from Lobsang, we return to the center of Lhasa by bus.
The one we climbed is still full.
Among the passengers intrigued by the presence of foreigners and already dressed for another chilling evening, we find the Tibetans' unconditional smiles and their familiar aroma of yak butter.