China Guide

Samye Monastery Introduction to Tibet’s First Buddhist Monastery


Famed for being Tibet’s first Buddhist Monastery, the Samye Monastery today stands in all its grandiose as an important part of Tibetan history.

Built in the eighth century under King Trisong Detsen, the Samye Monastery was the King’s way of revitalising Buddhism within Tibet. Its construction by Shantarakshita, an Indian monk was less than smooth first attempts continued to collapse. The workers began to believe that there was a troublesome demon preventing its completion. Fortunately Shantarakshita’s contemporary Padmasambhave joined them from India and was able to perform a Vajrakilaya dance to ‘tame’ the spirit and clear the way for the building to be finished. His actions also bound him as the head of the Buddhist hierarchy of protective spirits.

The final product is rather complex with several buildings which were created to replicate the Sutra’s universe. This complicated design is that of the sacred Mandala design with the main temple symbolising the famous Mount Meru, positioned to be the centre of their created universe. The whole complex is surrounded by a large wall with entrance gates for access, all amidst the stunning backdrop of the Himalayan Mountains.

The Samye Monastary was where the first ordainment's were made to the monks now known as the Seven Examined Men. Unfortunately the original buildings no longer stand from several instances of destruction from the civil war, fire and earthquake disasters and during the cultural revolution. Each time the Monastery was damaged it was rebuilt. It still remains today a popular pilgrimage spot for the Tibetan Buddhists who often travel long distances on foot to reach it.

The Samye Monastery and village can be found in Dranang within the Shannan Prefecture of Tibet. To visit here you can take the bus from Lhasa which departs from outside the New Mandala restaurant in the morning. There is the option of staying overnight at the Monastery with quite comfortable accommodations and a good restaurant to enjoy your meals at. It is suggested that you spare a good couple of hours exploring the complex as there is a lot to see and shouldn’t be rushed.

The Samye Monastery is a must see for those interested in Buddhist history in Tibet especially as it was the site of the 8th century “Great Debate” between the Buddhists of China and the Indian Mahayanists.