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FOUR MAIN SCHOOLS OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM

The main schools or sects are the following: 

Some of the sects were further divided into different schools. Each sect keeps a precise record of its lineage and has its own leader. Consequently, monasteries of each sect, while having some common characteristics, have a few distinct features.

Panoramic view of Gangen Monastery in Tibet

GELUGPA SCHOOL OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM

Tsongkhapa and his disciples
Statues of Tsongkhapa(in the middle) and his two disciples

Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect is the newest sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was established by Tsongkhapa.

The three main monasteries of the sect are Ganden, established by Tsongkhapa himself, Drepung, established by one of Tsongkhapa’s disciples, and Sera. Drepung and Sera are located in Lhasa, and Ganden is located approximately 40 km away from Lhasa in a beautiful valley. The head of the Gelug sect is Dalai Lama, and this is the most well-known sect around the world.

Monasteries of the Gelug sect always display the statues of Tsongkhapa and his two disciples. They can be easily recognized as they are always wearing yellow hats. Monks of the Gelug school also wear yellow hats.

Tibetan monks wearing yellow hats during Cham Dance performance

SIX MAIN MONASTERIES OF GELUG SCHOOL

Ganden Monastery East from Lhasa in Tibet

GANDEN MONASTERY

The first monastery of Gelug school of Buddhism was established by master Tsongkhapa. Lama Tsongkhapa established the Gelug school and also wrote one of the most profound works in Tibetan Buddhism named Lam Rim.

Ganden monastery is located within a short drive from Lhasa. You can visit it within a day or a half day tour. When visiting Ganden, walk the high kora round it to enjoy a gorgeous view on surrounding valleys and mountain ranges.

Drepung Monastery complex in Tibet

DREPUNG MONASTERY

Drepung was the largest monastery in the world with over 10,000 monks living and studying there. One of the Tsongkhapa’s disciples Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden established Drepung in 1416. Drpung is located in Lhasa and one of the must-see sights in the capital of Tibet.

Lhasa Day Tours, Tibet

SERA MONASTERY

Tsongkhapa’s disciple Jamchen Chojey established in 1419. Sera is a large and beautiful monastery located in Lhasa. There are 3 colleges where Tibetan monks can study Buddhism. To practice what they’ve learned, monks gather in a courtyard for debates on the Buddhist topics. Visitors can watch the debates every day except Sunday.

Kelsang Temple in Tashi Lhunpo

TASHILHUNPO MONASTERY

The first Dalai Lama founded Tashi Lhunpo in 1447. Tashi Lhunpo is located in Shigatse. The monastery is the seat of Panchen Lama, the second most influential Lama after the Dalai Lama. If you have time when visiting Tashi Lhunpo, walk the kora around it.It takes 1-2 hours and you will see Shigatse Old Town from above and Shigatse Fort.

Ta'er Monastery, Kumbum. Xining, Qinghai

KUMBUM (TA’ER) MONASTERY

The Monastery is located near Xining in Amdo region in Eastern Tibet. The monastery is built at the birthplace of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Gelug Sect.

Labrang Monastery in Gansu, Amdo, Eastern Tibet

LABRANG MONASTERY

Labrang monastery is located in Xiahe in Amdo region in Eastern Tibet. The monastery was established in 1709. Nowadays, it is the largest monastery in Amdo. There were over 4,000 monks living there in monastery’s heyday. Presently, there are about 1,500 monks in Labrang. The popular way to travel to Labrang is from Xining making a stop in Rebkong, where you can visit other interesting and scenic Buddhist monasteries.

NYINGMAPA SCHOOL OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM

Samye Monastery complex in Tibet
Samye Monastery complex
Statue of Padma Sambhava or Guru Rinpoche (Tibetan)
Padma Sambhava Statue

The oldest and second largest sect in Tibet is Nyingmapa or Red Hat sect. Its lineage begins from Padma Sambhava, who came from India and subdued the demons on Hipo Ri hill near Samye. Samye is the first monastery built in Tibet. Its architecture resembles the shape of a mandala, as it is regarded to be an ideal structure.

There are six main monasteries of the Nyingmapa, sometimes called the “Nyingmapa mother monasteries”. In addition to Samye, there are Thupten Dorje Drak, Dzogchen Ugyen Samten Chooling, Katok, Ugyen Mindrolling and Palyul Namgyal Jangchup Ling. Since the center of the Red Hat tradition was around Samye, the sect influence spread around the nearby areas. Most of the Nyingmapa monasteries are located in Lhoka (Southern Tibet) and Kham (South-Eastern Tibet).

The red hat sect monasteries always display statues of Padma Sambhava (Tibetans call him Guru Rinpoche), Santariskta, the first abbot of Samye Monastery and King Trisong Detsen.

FAMOUS NYINGMAPA MONASTERIES

Samye Monastery the first monastery in Tibet

SAMYE MONASTERY

Samye is the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. In the 8th century Tibetan King Trisong Detsen invited Indian master Padma Sambhava to help establish the monastery. 

The monastery complex is in the shape of a mandala representing the Universe. The Utse Temple in the center represents Mount Meru, and twelve surrounding temples represent continents and subcontinents. There are four large stupas with different colors on the four sides of the complex.

Mindrolling monastery, Tibet

MINDROLLING MONASTERY

Mindrolling is one of the 6 main Nyingma monasteries in Tibet. It is also the largest Nyingmapa monastery complex in Central Tibet. Mindrolling is located between Lhasa and Tsedang. The monastery complex is very beautiful, its temples built with brown stones. Inside Tsuklakhang, the main building of the complex, you will see original murals and 4-meters high Shakyamuni Buddha statue.

The large white stupa dominates the scene. Inside the large stupa, is the 3 floors high statue of Maitreya (Future Buddha). There are seven smaller stupas surrounding it.

Mount Everest and Rongbuk monastery in Tibet

RONGBUK MONASTERY

Rongbuk is the highest monastery in the world at an elevation of 5,050 meters. It is located in one of the most spectacular places in the world. From the monastery you get an incredible view on the North Face of Everest. Rongbuk is very unusual because both monks and nuns are staying there.

Chiu monastery near Manasarovar lake in Tibet

CHIU MONASTERY

Chiu Monastery is located in a gorgeous setting overlooking the sacred lake Manasarovar. On a clear day, you can see Mount Kailash located to the North. At the center of the monastery, you can see Padma Sambhava meditation cave. The river Ganga Chu at the foot of the mountain where Chiu is built connects Manasarovar lake with nearby Rakshas Tal lake.

KAGYUPA SCHOOL OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM

Milarepa Statue
Milarepa Statue

The Kagyupa or Black Hat sect is one of the most mystique sects of Buddhism.

The lineage begins with Milarepa and his teacher Marpa. Milarepa achieved enlightenment during his lifetime. The sect is famous for yogis, who spent years in retreats, meditating, practicing breathing techniques and yoga.

The leader of the Kagyupa order is Karmapa, the third most important religious leader in Tibet, after Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama.

The main seat of Karmapa is in Tsurpu Monastery, founded in the 12 century. In Tsurpu monastery, the abbot Dusum Khyenpa first announced his future reincarnation. That was the beginning of undisturbed lineage of all Karmapas, as well as other prominent lamas from other orders, including the Dalai Lamas.
Other important monasteries are Drigung, Taglung, Karma Gön and Palpun.
In Black Hat monasteries, you will see statues of Milarepa and his teacher Marpa.

Statues of founders of Kagyu sect of Buddhism in Tsurpu
Statues of founders of Kagyu sect of Buddhism in Tsurpu

FAMOUS KAGYU MONASTERIES

Tsurpu Monastery

TSURPU

Tsurpu is undoubtedly the main monastery of Karma Kagyu and the seat of Karmapa, the leader of the school. It is about 65 km to the North-West from Lhasa in a beautiful Drowolung valley. Originally, Tsurphu was founded in 1187 by the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa. He is famous for being the first Lama who predicted his reincarnation. Starting from his first reincarnation, the tradition of Tulku started.

Drigung Til monastery near Lhasa, Tibet

DRIGUNG TIL MONASTERY

Drigung Til is the seat of Drigung Kagyu tradition. The monastery is located about 120 km to the North from Lhasa. Drigung sits at an elevation of over 4,460 meters. Monastery was founded in 1179 and was a center of meditation studies and practices. Near the monastery complex is a large Sky Burial site.

SAKYAPA SCHOOL OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM

Inside the Sakya Order Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet
Inside the Sakya Order Monastery

Finally, there is the Sakyapa or tantric sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The sect is famous for its oracles. Lamas don’t cut their hair and wear distinct hats, making it very easy to recognize them.

One of the main monasteries of the sect is Sakya, located near Shigatse.

In tantric monasteries, you will see the statues of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, Sanchen Kunga Nyingpo, Sonam Tsemo, Drakpa Gyaltsen and Dogon Choengal Phakpa.

FAMOUS SAKYA MONASTERIES

Sakya monastery and Town in Tibet

SAKYA

Sakya Monastery complex is very impressive. Trum-chu river divides the complex into two sections: one is on the hillside, and another is on the valley below. The primary colors of the monastery – white, red and black. These colors represent Rig Sum Gompo (three Bodhisattvas): Wisdom Buddha (Manjushri), Compassion Buddha (Avalokiteshvara) and Vajrapani.

Serkhang Temple in Shalu Monastery

SHALU

Shalu Monastery belongs to Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Bodong suborder. It is famous for its 14th century old original murals. Shalu is located 20 km from Shigatse. Chetsun Sherab Jungnay founded Shalu in 1040. The most important relic of the monastery is the naturally appeared statue of Chenresig, Compassion Buddha. You can see it in Serkhang Temple among other relics.

TOURS YOU MIGHT LIKE

Mount Everest North Face in Tibet

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.

Yumbulakhang the oldest building in Tibet

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.

Stupas of The Dira Puk Monastery by the Kailash Mountain in Tibet

15 DAYS MOUNT KAILASH GROUP TOUR

One of our most popular group tours, starting in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and going to Mount Kailash for a three-day trekking around this sacred mountain. During this tour, we visit Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse monastery and Kumbum stupa, Mount Everest, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Kailash, and much more.

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