I didn’t notice him at first, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the Assembly Hall at Pelkor Chode Monastery, I caught a movement. A maroon-robed monk stood at the base of the massive bronze statue of Shakyamuni. He moved serenely, refilling flickering oil lamps set between delicate yak butter sculptures. It wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t noticed him. The monk was Lilliputian compared to the 26-foot high bronze of the Historical Buddha.
Built during the early 15th century, Pelkor Chode is an ancient walled monastic complex in Gyantse, Tibet. Buddhist monasteries are almost always affiliated with one specific sect of Buddhism, however Pelkor Chode Monastery is unique in this respect. From the very beginning it was home to universities representing three different sects: Gelugpas, Sakya, and Gedang. Though many of the original structures were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, both the Assembly Hall and its adjacent six-story Kumbum (Stupa) escaped total destruction. They were ransacked but not razed.
Today Pelkor Chode Monastery is still home to monks from different schools. Notably, the Assembly Hall has two thrones: one for the Dalai Lama and another for the Sakya Lama. But no matter which school they represent, the monks all pay homage to Sakyamuni Buddha.
Author’s note: After many years of trying to visit Tibet, I was finally successful with the assistance of Himalaya Journey, an absolutely fantastic company that specializes in small group tours of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India. Also, if you plan to visit Gyantse, make sure to stop at Yamdrok Lake, one of the most holy lakes in all of Tibet.