School of Buddhism: Gelug, Sera is one of the 6 Great Gelug Monasteries
Founded: in 1419 by Tsongkhapa’s disciple Jamchen Choje Sakya Yeshe
Location: North of Lhasa city
Altitude: 3,700 meters / 12,140 ft
ABOUT SERA MONASTERY
Sera monastery is one of the largest and oldest monasteries in Lhasa. It stands at the base of Pubuchok mountain on the Northern side of Lhasa.
Sera is one of the 6 Great monasteries of Gelug, along with Drepung and Ganden in Lhasa, Tashi Lhunpo in Shigatse, and Labrang and Kumbum in Amdo, Eastern Tibet.
Sera received its name after the wild blooming flowers similar to roses that grow on the mountain behind the monastery ground.
Before the cultural revolution, more than 5,000 monks lived in Sera monastery. Even though only a few hundred monks live there now, it remains one of the most important monastic centers. The monastery complex includes a printing house and three colleges in addition to monks quarters.
HISTORY OF SERA MONASTERY
The great master Tsongkhapa stayed in meditation retreats in some of the caves of what is now known as Sera Utse Hermitage. His disciple, Jamchen Coje (1355–1435) established Sera in 1419.
The oldest structures are Sera Me and Sera Ngagpa colleges.
The monastery withstood cultural revolution, but the colleges were damaged and ancient texts and some artwork was lost.
In the past, there were 5 colleges. Nowadays, there are three colleges in the monastery complex: Sera Me, Sera Je, and Sera Ngagpa.
VISITING SERA MONASTERY
The complex is divided into Eastern and Western parts. You should always walk around Tibetan monasteries in the clockwise direction.
On the West you will find the 3 colleges of Sera: Sera Me, Ngagpa and Sera Je.
For families with kids the Sera Je college building with the Hayagriva (horse-headed deity) chapel is the most important. Tibetans bring their kids for blessings and you will see many kids emerging from the Sera Je with an ash mark on their noses.
The main building on the West side is the Assembly hall. It is a center of the monastery and the largest and most impressive building in teh complex.
At the North-West side of the complex is the tree-lined debating courtyard. Every day, except Sundays you can see the famous monk’s debates in this courtyard. They usually begin in the afternoon, around 3pm.
Many of the chapels are closing at around 3 in teh afternoon. That’s why the best time to visit Sera is early in the afternoon, around 2 pm. You will have time to visit the Assembly hall, walk through the monastery complex and head to the courtyard to watch the debates.
The debates are an important part of studying Buddhism. Monks of the Gelug order believe that along with studying the texts, it is important to practice what they’ve learned. They gather in the courtyard to ask each other questions about religious topics to ensure that they understand it well.
For visitors, it is an interesting performance. Monks accompany their discussions with specific gestures. They change partners, gather for discussions, joke and enjoy the process.
You will see a standing monk who asks questions. Another monk or sometimes several monks sit in front of him ready to reply. Once the monk asks a question and claps his hands, it is time to reply.
Important! You can take photographs with your phone, but no professional cameras or video cameras.
THE GREAT ASSEMBLY HALL
The Tsokchen is the great Assembly hall in Sera monastery. The four-story building was constructed in around 1710. 125 pillars support the structure with the skylight in the center of the building. Upon entering the Assembly Hall, you will see the murals of the Four Guardian Kings.
Inside there are 5 chapels. Once inside, you will see large thangkas (images of Buddhas) hanging from the ceiling.
The central statue is Jamchen Choje, the founder of Sera. On the sides there are statues of the Maitreya (5 meters tall) flanked by lions, 5th, 7th and 12th Dalai Lamas, and Tsongkhapa with his disciples.
There are 3 chapels on the first floor. The central chapel is the most important, displaying the 6 meters tall statue of Maitreya or Future Buddha (Jampa in Tibetan). The precious text of Kangyur (text of Buddha teachings) printed in 1410 in 105 volumes is on display on the South wall of the chapel (three out of 108 original scriptures were lost). Each text has a cover of red lacquer with carved gold decorations on it.
Another important chapel is on the second floor displaying the statue of the thousand arm Chenresig (Avalikiteshvara Buddha) originally discovered in Pabongka. Pilgrims press their heads to the statue which is believed to offer its blessings from the heart.
SERA MONASTERY COLLEGES
SERA JE COLLEGE
The largest college in Sera monastery complex. The Hayagriva (horse-headed deity) chapel in the college is one of the most important in Sera, and parents bring kids there to get the blessing. College mostly welcomed monks from Kham region.
SERA ME COLLEGE
Sera Me college was erected at the time of the construction of Sera monastery. College welcomed novice monks. The monks were trained in philosophical studies there to receive the Geshe degree, the highest degree in religious studies.
Sera Ngagpa is the tantric college and the oldest building in the complex. It served as an assembly hall before the construction of the modern day main assembly hall. In the main hall you can see the statue of Jamchen Choje, the founder of Sera.
FESTIVAL CELEBRATION IN SERA MONASTERY
Sera monastery is always popular and hundreds of locals as well as pilgrims from all over Tibet visit it every day.
In addition, once a year Sera attracts a huge crowd of Tibetans to celebrate Shoton or yogurt festival.
The summer month (May and June according to Tibetn calendar) were traditionally a time for meditation. To avoid killing abundant insects and gain merit, monks tried to stay inside during tat time. Monks usually retreat to caves or spend time within the monastery in meditation, away from mid-summer heat.
At the end of the month, Tibetans would offer monks freshly made yogurt. In return, monks display a large thangka, an image of the Buddha, to give blessings to all visitors.
The tradition became so important, that monasteries built special walls to display these huge thangkas once a year.
Tibetans celebrate Shoton Festival on the 29th day of 6th Lunar month of the Tibetan calendar (usually falls in August of the world calendar).
The celebration starts in Drepung monastery, where monks display the thangka early in the morning. After receiving blessings in Drepung, the crowd heads to Sera to receive blessings from another thangka in the afternoon.
While many of the temples in Sera are closed during the Shoton celebration, as monks are busy with the festival activities, it is still one of the best times to visit the monastery. You will see hundreds of pilgrims wearing traditional costumes and their best elaborate jewelry.
Sera Monastery Heritage includes a number of smaller nunneries and temples scattered on the mountain above and around Sera Monastery. Many of them are interesting and worth visiting if you have extra days in Lhasa.
When visiting Sera monastery you can see a yellow temple perched on top of the mountain behind Sera. At the center of Sera Utse is the meditation cave of Tsongkhapa.
The monastery was completely destroyed in cultural revolution and now is slowly rebuilt.
The hike up there is short but tough. Since the new road is on the way, it might be easier to visit Sera Utse in the future.
Pabongka is the oldest and most important site in the Sera Hermitage. It dates back to the 7th century, when Tibetan King Songtsen Gompo meditated in one of the caves. You can still visit this cave in Pabongka. Tsongkhapa also spent time in Pabingka as a hermit. The main artifacts in Pabongka are the self arising image of Rigsum Gompo Trinity and a carved mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” as Tibetan alphabet was invented in Pabongka.
THINGS TO DO NEARBY
WALK THE KORA AROUND THE MONASTERY
Many Tibetans walk around the monastery (the circumambulation around the holy place is called kora and it is always walked in a clockwise direction) and you can join them not only to experience the local culture but also to see some interesting views. The small kora around the monastery will take approximately 30 minutes.
VISIT THE LOCAL TEA HOUSE RUN BY MONKS
The tea house inside the monastery is run by monks and many locals gather there to get a cup of delicious sweet tea or to have lunch.
Join Tibetans to rest in a shade of trees and prepare to explore the monastery complex.
SEE THE PRINTING PRESS
Following the old tradition, wooden blocks with imprinted texts are pressed to the pages.
There is a small store with printed texts in Tibetan.
WALK AROUND MONASTERY TO SEE ROCK PAINTINGS
You will find many rock paintings on the hills surrounding Sera. They depict various deities and Buddhas.
RECOMMENDED TOURS VISITING SERA MONASTERY
8 DAYS LHASA TO EVEREST TOUR
A beautiful and exciting journey, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and going to the Everest Base Camp. The tour visits Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera, Drepung and Tashilhunpo monasteries, Kumbum Stupa, Yamdrok lake and Karola glaciers.
Both group and private tours are available
6 DAYS TIBETAN CULTURAL HERITAGE TOUR
This private tour takes you from Lhasa to Yarlung Valley and Samye Monastery. Yarlung valley is the birthplace of Tibetan civilization. You can see Yumbulakhang, an ancient fort and the first surviving building in Tibet. After that, you will visit Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.
7 DAYS LHASA TO KATHMANDU TOUR
This tour starts in Lhasa. We will stay there for 2 days to explore the capital and acclimatize. After that, we will head to the center of attraction in Himalayas – Mount Everest. We will spend a night by the highest mountain on a planet and continue driving through majestic mountain ranges, alongside rivers and waterfalls to the border between Tibet and Nepal.
Can we watch debates in the monastery?
Yes, of course! It is one of the main attractions of Sera monastery. We visit it during the time when monks debate in the courtyard.