Located at the foot of Mt. Hepo Ri, on the north bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo River of Dranang County, Shannan Prefecture, the Samye Monastery is the first monastery built in Tibet. The monastery is famous for its layout that resembles the Mandala in the Esoteric Buddhism, and it is also notable as the site of the famous debate of the doctrines between ancient Indian Buddhism and inland Buddhism.
The construction of Samye Monastery began in 762 AD and was completed in 779 AD. Soon after its construction, 7 Tibetan nobles were ordered to take the tonsure, and they became the first group of monks in Tibet. Samye Monastery became the first monastery in Tibet with the three Buddhist jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. From this point of view, the Samye Monastery is known mostly as the first Buddhist monastery built in Tibet although it was actually built a little later than Jokhang Temple.
The Samye Monastery is modeled on the Odantapuri Temple in Bihar, India. Its layout resembles the Mandala in the Esoteric Buddhism. Mandalas are usually symmetric with series of concentric circles and squares. The centre point is the residence of the resident deity, from whom the Mandala is identified. Lines are drawn from the centre until they intersect and form circles and squares. The finished Mandalas have four gates, which symbolize a culmination of the four virtues: compassion, kindness, sympathy and equanimity. Other Buddhist auspicious symbols can also be included in the design. Form and color application techniques are strictly followed in the process of creating a Mandala to show religious meanings.
The magnificent and unique central hall, Wuzi Hall, is the main hall of the temple, representing the central world Mount Meru. It is three-story high, combining Chinese, Tibetan and Indian architectural styles. The first floor is of the Tibetan architectural style, the second the Han style and the third the Indian style. Hence the monastery is also called the “Three-styled Temple”. On the top floor of the Wuzi Hall is the best place to enjoy Samye Monastery’s ingenious layout.
The Sun and Moon chapels in the north and south stand as the sun and moon in the universe.
In the four corners of the central hall lie the White, Red, Black and Green Pagodas guarding the Dharma like the Four Heavenly Kings, who are guardians of the Universe.
Four larger halls and eight smaller halls are distributed around all sides of the central hall, symbolizing the four large continents and eight small ones.
A circular wall surrounds the temple as if marking the periphery of the world.
The halls in the monastery house many statues and murals, and the monastery has bronze bells, carved marble lions and tablets marking the development of Buddhism. All these are valuable cultural relics. In the monastery there is a pair of white marble statues, their shapes are simple and with a carving style of Tang Dynasty. They are the most precious remaining stone sculptures in the monastery. Besides, there is a rare bronze bell with ancient Tibetan script on it. According to the record, this is the first bell cast in Tibet.
Today Samye Monastery is still an active monastery and important pilgrimage destination. It’s one of the main scenic spots of the state-level scenic area – the Yarlung River Scenic Area.
Taking a Lhasa-Tsedang bus in Lhasa, it’ll take you 3 hours to get to Samye ferry crossing. Or you may take a bus from Tsedang to Samye ferry crossing, about 30 kilometers long. Then you can rent a ferry to cross the Yarlung Tasangpo River. You may also enjoy the fun by taking a sheepskin raft. After going ashore, you can go to Samye Monastery by truck.