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Shalu Monastery

This small monastery lies 22 kilometre (14 miles) south of Shigatse. For centuries it was renowned as a center of scholarly learning and psychic training, and its mural paintings were considered the most ancient and beautiful in Tibet. Shalu still had 100 monks in this century, and its reputation lasted up to its destruction in the 1960s. A small part of it, housing a few superior murals, is still standing. A dozen or so monks and novices are in residence.

Shalu was founded in 1040 near a flourishing, long-vanished market town. It was the first of the major monasteries built by noble families of Tsang during Tibet’s great revival of Buddhism. Shalu’s monks kept in close touch with Sakya Monastery, which was founded soon afterwards and was bigger and politically more powerful.

In 1329 an earthquake demolished Shalu, and it was rebuilt in 1333. The new style was Mongolian, featuring massive, inward-sloping walls around a main courtyard, strong woodwork and glazed roof tiles from Qinghai that have a Chinese flavor.

The man in charge of Shalu at the time of the earthquake was Buton ( 1290—1364), its enormously energetic 11th abbot. He is remembered ot only as a capable administrator, but also as a prodigious scholar and Tibet’s most celebrated historian. He catalogued all the Buddhist scriptures—4,569 religious and philosophical works—and put them into a logical, usable order. He wrote countless commentaries of his own and produced new translations of many religious texts. In addition, he wrote his famous History of Buddhism in India and Tibet, to which scholars still refer. Buton’s activity naturally attracted other intellectuals to Shalu. Although the monastery was only intended for 500 monks, up to 3,000 would assemble there for lectures.

After Buton’s time, Shalu became an important center of esoteric studies and psychic training. The avowed purpose of lamas who cultivated paranormal abilities was not to become magicians or miracle-workers but to attain philosophical enlightenment—a realization, in the Buddhist tradition, that all earthly phenomena are mere creation of the mind. Nonetheless, after many years of training in intense concentration ( often sealed up in caves in total darkness), the adepts were said to have performed extraordinary feats. The commonest, called tumo, was a monk’s ability deliberately to raise his body temperature to a level where he could live at frigid temperatures wearing only the lightest clothing. Long-distance runners, called lung-gompas, learned to cross Tibet’s vast spaces with superhuman leaps while in a trance state. These served as messengers. Some masters were able to transmigrate their human consciousness into the bodies of birds, animals or even dead people. Others could become invisible at will by learning how to leave no impression upon the feats actually took place almost routinely. These practices are described at length by Govinda in the way of the white clouds. The monastery stands in a small valley facing east. It is mostly destroyed, only the other wall, the main building ( its roof damaged ) and a few adjacent tumble – down structures remain.

The few surviving murals on the wall outside the chapel follow an iconographic monastic discipline. At the top, Buton and two disciples are enveloped in clouds. Below, precise rules are laid out for the monks on what to wear, where to place their robes, when to bathe—in short, how to behave under all circumstances. Eight monks demonstrate how they must sleep and meditate perched in trees when travelling away from the monastery. The mural on the left is an allegory in which trials to Nirvana.

Inside are several intricate mandalas. Three exquisite examples are on the south wall behind the altar, each three meters in diameter and still in a good state of preservation. All the others, as well as the painted, coffered ceiling, have suffered various degrees of damage from forced neglect and rain entering through the roof. Mandalas were a specialty of Shalu. Formerly, the designs were also created out of colored sand, but these were never kept for longer than a year.

The only other chapel open to the visitors is on the west side of the roof. Remnants of former mandala murals are concealed by over 100 thangkas, most of which were embroidered in Hangzhou early in this century. A fine thangka hanging over a small altar that stands alone was painted several decades ago by Shalu’s present head monk. The large upper-story porch over the wrecked chanting hall was the apartment of Buton and subsequent abbots, but this cannot be visited.