A Museum All to Myself in Florence

As I write a very strong and icy wind is sweeping across Italy bringing ever more misery to the earthquaked cities, towns and villages of central Italy and our first snowflakes here. This morning I woke up to a house without electricity but, fortunately, still supplied with gas and a good stock of wood.

The Museo San Marco, which I visited on my recent trip to Florence, seems eons away, especially the divine tranquillity of its cloisters and the frescoes in the friars’ cells painted by Beato Angelico.


January and February are particularly good months to visit Florence’s great cultural heritage. The tourist masses have not yet arrived and it’s often possible to have the place to oneself. At San Marco I was the only person there for most of the time – it was wonderful!

How did this monastery come to be created and who was Beato Angelico?

The foundation of the monastery by Silvestrine monks (a sub-order of the Benedictines) dates back to before 1300 and there are some frescoes below ground which still remain from this period.


In 1418 the monks were told to leave because of irregularities in their order but it wasn’t until 1420 that, thanks to Cosimo de Medici, they were replaced by Dominican friars from Fiesole. The friars found a very dilapidated structure mainly consisting of wooden huts so in 1437 Cosimo commissioned the great architect Michelozzo to rebuild the monastery according to renaissance ideals. In 1443 San Marco was finally consecrated.

The structure is of great beauty and contains two large cloisters (St Anthony and St Dominic) with painted lunettes:

and two smaller ones.

In addition to the friars’ cells

San Marco also includes a chapter house, two refectories, dormitories, a library and a pilgrim’s guest house.

The library may be confidently said to have truly sparked off the great advancement of learning, particularly the rediscovery of classical texts, which underwrote the whole renaissance adventure and marked a break from the previous age of mediaeval scholasticism. Without this library we might well still be speculating on the number of angels on the top of a pin…..

Among the greats of this new learning curve were humanist Agnolo Poliziano (Politian) and Pico Della Mirandola who are both buried in the adjoining church. (Incidentally these writers together with Marsilio Ficino are part of the teaching of the School of Economic Science in London whose events and courses we have attended).


(Tombs of Politian and Pico della Mirandola with statue of Savonarola in Florence’s San Marco church)

How perfect it must have been to have one’s mind opened by studying texts in this airy and light-filled library!

There is a good display showing how the illuminated manuscripts were produced. The parchment was made from animal skin which then had to be coated with gesso to produce a workable surface.

All the colours had to be ground from their sources. Blue was particularly prized.

Then, of course, there was all the binding to be done after the writing and illuminating:

What a difference from word-processing a document today and how much more beautiful the end product!.

The heart of the monastery are, however the rows of Dominican friars’ cells decorated by frescoes by Beato Angelico in the 1440’s. Beato Angelico was actually beatified, (by Pope John Paul II in 1982), but his transcendence as a painter earned him the title of ‘Beato’ soon after his death. Artistry and adoration are magnificently combined by Beato Angelico:

(The frescoes of episodes from Christ’s life don’t follow a chronological sequence down the cells but I have arranged them above as they succeeded one another)

For those with sight difficulties there was a tactile representation of one of the frescoes – the Annunciation:

Giovanni da Fiesole, to give him his original name, started off as a miniaturist very much in the late mediaeval tradition. Indeed, Beato Angelico illuminated one of the books in the library:


Born in Vicchio in 1395 Giovanni’s aims were to combine mediaeval devotional painting in the post-byzantine idiom with the new rules of perspective, light and shade of renaissance art. In this he succeeded admirably. In one sense Beato Angelico might be regarded as a naïf painter but he certainly knew his contemporary artists well and was fully up-to.-date with what was happening creatively around him.

It’s no wonder that Beato Angelico is the patron saint of artists – his day is celebrated on February 18.

Two of the cells provided a retreat for Cosimo de Medici:

Another was home to the fundamentalist priest Savonarola who railed against the decadence and luxury of renaissance Florence and even persuaded Botticelli to burn some of his more sensual pictures.

Not surprisingly he eventually finished up at the stake in Piazza Signoria (his burning place is marked by a plaque today):

I think the portable chair Savonarola invented was the best thing about him: take a dowel out and the chair folds flat:

The museum has further works by Beato Angelico in the old pilgrims’ hostel.


This includes the restored wonderful Pala Annalena which had arrived from the workshop just a few days previously :


and also works by Fra’ Bartolomeo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Alesso Baldovinetti, Jacopo Vignali, Bernardino Poccetti and Giovanni Antonio Sogliani:

I particularly like Ghirlandaio’s last supper with those lovely birds and that well-fed cat by the table. I feel that the cat is there to celebrate an animal whose intervention in capturing vermin from the granary stores safeguarded provisions for the Last Supper – or indeed any supper for that matter…I’m glad the birds flying above are safe from his claws!

PS In case you are confused by the difference between priest, monk and friar see http://aleteia.org/2015/12/07/what-is-the-difference-between-a-friar-a-monk-and-a-priest/

In short not all priests are monks or friars and not all monks or friars are priests.

Christmas Count-Down in Mediavalle

As another prime minister, this time leader of Europe’s third largest economy, has shot himself in the foot over yet another referendum I wonder whether the traditional method of Parliamentary voting through one’s representatives is going out of fashion if one wants to change the government…..

Something that is not going out of fashion or be decided by a referendum, however, is Christmas despite the past efforts of certain English councils, to appease practising atheists and those of other faiths, to have it renamed ‘winterval’. I remember the occasion  when my own former place of work decided not to have a Christmas tree in its foyer. The first person to complain about this new ‘regulation’ was our receptionist who came from India. She was quite livid about it and the Christmas tree was put back in its proper place.

Christmas is not just for Christians. It has become a world-wide celebration of hope in the coming year, a gathering together of families and communities, a celebration of faith in the Earth. The only humbug thing about Christmas are those nice zebra-striped boiled sweets.


Christmas in Italy, especially in the mountain villages, is something not to be missed. The ‘presepe vivente’ or ‘living crib’, where the village streets provide a perfect scenario for presenting old traditions and crafts and the birth of the baby Jesus himself, is particularly special. We have been privileged to have been role-players in one particularly spectacular one at Equi Terme. There are many more, however, closer to home.

Every year in the comune of Bagni di Lucca there’s a circulating one which each year chooses a village out of Granaiola, Monti di Villa and Pieve di Monti di Villa. This year it was Pieve di Monti di Villa’s turn but on the same day I could have gone to at least five others within an hour’s drive from our house. Moreover, there was a great Christmas market at Borgo a Mozzano with a re-enactment of Saint Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) throwing the devil off the Ponte Della Maddalena. To top it all there was a magnificent guitar recital by a great virtuoso at the convent of Saint Francis. Doubtless there was more happening but how on earth could I fit it all these activities?

I started with the Christmas market at Borgo. This was the beginning of the afternoon so the crowds hadn’t arrived yet. There were stalls to please all tastes for Christmas gifts.

My next stop was the Presepe Vivente at Pieve di Monti di Villa. I found this beautifully organized and very well-attended. It was good to meet many friends too. I couldn’t stay on for the actual nativity scene for I’d promised to be at a concert.

See how many old village crafts you can count. Needless to say some of them are still being carried out to this very day. Have you prepared your garden for spring planting? How well stocked is the winter feed for your goat? And who hasn’t got a friend who can cheer you up with some folk music. (There were no less than four bands that afternoon). And as for the food on offer…..so tasty and home-grown, especially the cheese!

Our living crib villages have got it absolutely right. The crib should be just for one day and it should start from mid-day and finish in time for dinner before it gets too dark and cold. Full marks and more for the presepe vivente di Pieve di Monti di Villa. It was absolutely brilliant.

It was then back to Borgo a Mozzano for the market and the concert. The high street was now very well attended. I had to miss the Saint Nicholas procession, however. (He chases the devil and throws him from the stupendous mediaeval ponte Del diavolo). A concert of John Dowland and J S Bach played by Nuccio D’Angelo, one of the world’s great guitar virtuosi (he’s even played in Darwin Australia and all over the USA, of course) could not be overlooked!

This was the programme:


Within the beautiful setting of the convent of San Francesco the church grew colder and colder but Nuccio’s expressive playing more than warmed up the capacity audience. I particularly enjoyed his use of baroque ornamentation.

His transcription of Bach’s Lute suites for guitar (which involved quite a bit of re-tuning) was close to miraculous.

An encore was requested but although Nuccio jokingly said ‘you’ll have to wait for it next June when it’s warmer in this church’ he provided us with another Bach meltingly beautiful sarabande.

There are still twenty days to Christmas. Will I have the energy to make it to that day when there is so much happening just in our little valley? And I haven’t even mentioned the light shows and street parties and the best fun and games to warm up a month which is getting even ccccccccolder!

The Ride of a Lifetime

Our journey to Gyangtse took us along a branch of the famous ‘Friendship Highway’ which joins Lhasa with Kathmandu. This has to be one of the world’s most spectacular roads and I only wish I was doing it on a motorbike (I’ve done many of the big alpine passes, the Stelvio, the Gavia and the Col d’Iseran and feel that riding on two-wheels is truly the best way to appreciate these incredible vistas. You do become part of the landscape when biking).

However, we did have frequent stops on our little bus and enjoyed the rarefied mountain air and breath-taking views to the full.

The actual road is 920 kilometres long and reaches heights of above 5000 metres (well over 16,000 feet). It was built in the nineteen sixties to cut the journey time between Nepal and Tibet from almost two months to just a handful of days. Very often it is closed sometimes due to political reasons but largely because of landslides.


The first part of our journey took us past some rocks with ladders painted on them.What was the meaning of them I wondered? The best version I heard was as follows: the ladders are painted to represent a divine bond between Tibetans and the Gods. These are spiritual ladders which allow one’s spirit to ascend to the heights more easily or, alternatively allow the Gods to descend upon the earth and sanctify it with their blessing.

On our journey to Gyangtse we crossed three mountain passes. The first one was Gampa La pass, height 15,748 feet, which is a little less than thirty feet lower than Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc (15,777 feet high).

An extraordinary sight greeted us from the top of this pass, so richly decorated with prayer flags. It was the view of one of Tibet’s’ four sacred lakes, Yamdrok-So. (The other three sacred lakes are Lhamo La-tso, Namtso and Manasarovar).

The intensity of the lake’s turquoise colour pitted against the highly sculptural barrenness of the mountains surrounding it and with a distant view of a snow-capped peak was stunning.

The lake is over forty-five miles long and twists and turns like an undisciplined snake across quasi-lunar landscape. It’s sacred to the Tibetans as it is regarded as the transformation of the goddess Dorje Gegkyi Tso.

For lakes, like mountains, are sanctified by Tibetans as they are the abodes of protecting gods. We were not just driving through some of the most spectacular scenery we’d ever come across, reaching heights we’ve never attempted before on Earth but we were also performing a pilgrimage which so many Tibetans undertake. Yamdrok-So is the largest lake in south Tibet and it’s said that if its waters run dry then Tibet will no longer be a habitable area – a severe warning indeed!

The lake also has associations with Padmadambhava, the second Buddha, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. We did not have time to detour to Samding monastery which was a real pity as it’s the only male Tibetan monastery to be headed by a female incarnation – a Dalai Lamaess, in fact. I couldn’t verify this as I couldn’t verify that the monastery has been rebuilt since it was one of the thousands destroyed during the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

If you’re interested in more of the history of Tibetan Goddess reincarnations then there’s a book by Hildegard Diemberger (2007) called When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. You can get it on Kindle at https://www.amazon.co.uk/When-Woman-Becomes-Religious-Dynasty-ebook/dp/B0092X8WHE/re . Definitely a Christmas book for some!

The lake has good fishing and I noticed quite a few yaks grazing on its shores. Yaks are happy at these altitudes. It would be very cruel to bring them lower down.

Our second pass, the Karo La, was the highest at 16,551 feet. It passes the foot of Noijin Kangsang mountain with its glacier. We stopped here too and looked at the local stalls filled with trinkets set up by villagers .

There was an outstation here and I can definitely vouch that the toilets here are not to be highly recommended.


However, we should be grateful for small mercies. With the lack of trees it’s difficult to find any sort of privacy. Perhaps women travellers should wear long Tibetan skirts to do their business by crouching without embarrassment.

Noijin Kangsang is 23,641 feet high and was first climbed in 1986 by a Chinese expedition. I realised it was this snow-capped mountain that we saw from a distance over the turquoise waters of lake Yamdrok-So. I’ve heard that it’s not too difficult to climb so it could be an economic way of grabbing a Himalayan peak for the first time. Next visit?

You’ll notice from the photographs that Tibet seems largely barren. The mountains aren’t prettily dotted with extensive forests as the Alps or the Apennines are. There are few opportunities for refuge from sun or the rare snowfalls and strangely the snow line only seems to start above 20,000 feet. If you want pretty mountain landscape go to the Austrian Alps. If you prefer powerful natural sculptures and vast areas of impressively desolate purity then Tibet is the place.

There was a third pass to negotiate at only just over 14,000 feet before we descended to follow the fertile Nyang Chu valley which would lead us to Gyangtse.

This was truly a breath-taking ride in all senses of that word. ‘Mozzafiato’ as one would say in Italian. I have only praise for the driver of our little bus!



Heated Debates at Sera Monastery, Tibet

In the afternoon of our second full day in Lhasa we visited the same monastery which Don Ippolito Desideri, the Jesuit from Pistoia mentioned in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/a-morning-in-lhasa/ , stayed at back at the start of the eighteenth century and, indeed, where he was given his own chapel by the chief Lama to practise his devotions.

Sera is one of Tibet’s three great teaching monastic universities, the other two being Drepung and Ganden (which we did not visit) and is situated on the slopes of Wangput mountain a little outside Lhasa at a height of 13,000 feet. The mountain slopes also contain nineteen hermitages where those monks seeking greater seclusion towards their search for enlightenment may stay, and four nunneries too.  (It should be stated that Tibetan nuns, recognised by their very short hair, have played a leading role in the Tibetan resistance movement.)

The word ‘Sera’ in Tibetan means wild rose and, indeed, the site is still surrounded by wild roses. The original monastery was founded by Jamchen Chojey of the great Gelugpa (yellow hat) order in 1419 and houses a little over five hundred monks.

As sadly with so many other monasteries in Tibet Sera suffered grievously during the Cultural Revolution with widespread destruction of its colleges and an untold number of monks (ranging into the hundreds) slaughtered.

As a result of this massacre many monks fled south into India and established a parallel Sera monastery at Bylakuppe near Mysore. This Sera mark-two monastery houses around six thousand monks, nearly six times the number at the original site in Tibet. I must visit it next time I’m in the sub-continent.

Fortunately there is little visual evidence of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution at Sera, Tibet. We found the monastery a very serene place filled with happy pilgrims and monks. The buildings looked very well cared for and intact and there was some work taking place to replace the drainage system in parts. I do feel the Chinese want to draw a curtain, as much as the rest of us, over what was going on in Tibet during those critical years between 1966 and 1976.

Sera has some fine buildings including a large assembly hall but it is particularly famous for two things.

First, is its fine collection of wood blocks used for printing books. In the workshop I was able to obtain a copy of that masterpiece of Tibetan literature, the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. To have my copy of it from Sera monastic University was indeed tremendous. All I’ve got to do now is to learn Tibetan (although I do have the Evans-Wentz translation.)

(My copy of the Bardo Thodol – liberation through hearing – from Sera Monastery)

Second, is the monastic university’s debate sessions. We were in time for the afternoon one and came across yet another of those extraordinary sights one encounters in the mountain kingdom. In the debating courtyard I noticed around a hundred pairs of monks, one sitting meekly on the ground the other striding around him and outstretching both hands clapping them and wildly twirling his auspicious rosary of 108 beads.

What did all this noise and kafuffle mean I wondered? Translation please!

Actually, each pair of monks represents a question-and-answer session. The standing monk or teacher questions the sitting monk or pupil. The arm gestures and clappings signify the beginning and the end of each question. If the teacher is annoyed by the student he circles around him (clockwise of course) three times.

If anyone thought of Sera debates as something on the lines of the Oxford Union then think again. The ‘debate’ is, in fact, a religious quiz. Questions are generally closed ones by nature of the replies the novice is allowed to give and the subjects could relate to the relationship between Dharma and Karma, the nature of Samsara, truths about a Bodhisattva, even if a yak can be enlightened, the four noble truths established by Gautama etc, etc. I do wish more could have been explained to me about the questions asked but they are all on doctrinal matters.

Afterwards I discovered that the Tibetan argument takes two forms to defeat wrong ideas and clarify understanding. The first type of argument proposed by a teacher is that of a syllogism made up of a thesis and a reason stated together in one sentence. The second is that of a consequence, similar to a syllogism but an expansion of the pupil’s answer.

Let’s try to give a ‘western’ example:

Listening to Beethoven’s fifth symphony is a transient experience because the sound starts and then after just over half-an-hour it stops. It is thus a product. The minor premise is that music is impermanent because it is a product of instruments starting and ending to play.

The major premise is that all products are transient. Everything (and everyone) has a birth and a death. It follows from the major premise, too, that sound is transient

The pupil can thus answer in one of at least three ways at the premises launched to him by the teacher.

(1) “The reason is not established,” = denying a minor premise;

(2) “There is no pervasion,” = denying the major premise;

(3) “I accept it,” = accepting the argument and the conclusion.

They then may have to take the ‘consequence’.

The session did look and sound an odd way to question novices on their knowledge of the Dharma and Buddhist doctrinal matters. I would have been truly scared to be a novice at Sera! It was, however, fascinating to watch. But when I thought of the debate as a combat sport, spiritual rather than physical, it began to make more sense to me.

Two main rules had to be observed by those non-monastic spectators attending the debate: one was to keep silent – this was pretty easy as nothing could be heard above the general discussion mayhem; the other was that photos could only be taken using a cell phone. I think this second rule was a desperate one since it’s quite rare to find a Chinese or even a Tibetan person without one of these items of technology in their hands (that includes monks as well) and it just seems natural to take a picture of this astonishing event…


Actually, this system of debate, or ‘closed dialectic’ as I’d rather prefer to term it, goes back a long way. It originated in India several thousands of years ago and apparently there was a similar thing going on among the Greek philosophical schools.

Developing one’s awareness of the ultimate Truth and opening the doors of perception is indeed a systematic ritual. Whether, to outsiders, the ritual looks like the next thing to a pub argument is irrelevant for behind it all there are strict rules of procedure which both the teacher and pupil must observe.

Incidentally, the system continues in Italian schools where oral examinations are as important as written ones and certainly in other religions although the rules of engagement may differ. I suppose in England the dreaded interview is the closest one gets to it.

The word ‘argument’ also needs clarification. In English ‘to have an argument’ is usually taken to mean having an often rough disagreement between two (or more) persons. One can also use the word in the context ‘My argument for the existence of the yeti is etc.’ Argument or ‘argomento’ in Italian means something quite different than its usual English use, ‘L’argomento dell’Opera è’ means ‘the ‘plot of the opera is’ – argomento is never used in the context of a rough exchange as in English. It generally means a discussion or ‘point’.

Certainly the debating sessions, for which Sera is particularly famous, seemed to me to draw a fine line between ‘litigare’ and ‘discutere’. I’m sure, however, that the novices, quickly learnt where they went wrong! Everyone, anyway, left on good terms.

Sera Monastery has a big festival called Sera Bengqin on the 27th day of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar (which is around February). It’s one of the coldest parts of the year but I’m sure that the crowds of pilgrims will do much to warm one up.

It was great to see something of the monks’ daily routine at Sera but we were raring to see more of the country outside Lhasa. Our wish was to be satisfied, for next day we would be travelling through some of the most spectacular country I’ve ever seen and surmount three mountain passes, two of which would approach 17,000 feet in height.

A ‘mini-Potala’ at Ganden Sumtsenling

Sometimes called the ‘little Potala’, Ganden Sumtsenling is within easy reach of Zhongdian and is situated at a little over eleven thousand feet in height.

First we passed through further typical rural landscapes in this area. Note the dzo (a cross between a cow and a yak) and the frames put up to dry the hay,

Thanks to our gradual ascent we didn’t suffer from altitude sickness which, if acute, can lead to death. The last thing anyone should do is to get to Tibet in one day from near sea-level. Of course, AMS can affect some people more than others. Perhaps living in an Italian village already close to two thousand feet in height can help a little.

My first sight of Sumtsenling monastery was quite awesome: the gilded bronze roofs shone in the true blue sky and behind, the pre-Himalayas framed a stunning view. Sumtsenling is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and also its most important centre of religious excellence.

Dating back to seventeenth century and founded by the great fifth Dalai Lama (credited with the unification of Tibet) Sumtsenling forms part of the yellow hat sect of the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order. (But please don’t mention the present fourteenth Dalai Lama’s name publicly, together with the island of Taiwan if you find yourself in that part of the world…).

Unfortunately, this majestic monastery which once housed two thousand monks, suffered damaged during the now largely discredited cultural revolution of the 1960’s and was actually bombed. It was restored in 1983 and is now home to around seven hundred monks.

It’s free to photograph the exterior of the monastery but one has to pay ten Yuen (a bit over a pound sterling) to take snaps of individual chapels and interior shrines. This can amount to quite a bit, and since no flash can be used, and the interiors can be very dark, there’s little point in paying. Moreover, it seems to me that no photographs can truly capture the extraordinary atmosphere of these monasteries; you just have to go and experience them yourself for, as yet, no virtual reality experience can encapsulate any particle of their arcane ether.

Sumtsenling’s greatest interior treasure is the almost thirty foot tall statue of Shakyamuni, the original Buddha, also known as Gautama or Siddhartha (remember Hesse’s novel?) whose teaching form the basis of Buddhism, and who lived around 500 BC.

Many years ago I was privileged to visit the deer park at Sarnath, India, where the Buddha received Moksha or enlightenment after 49 days of mediation and the age of thirty-five, truly a Dantean ‘Midway the path of life that men pursue’. These photos have been digitised from the colour slides I took there when I was still in my teens.

I always find it strange that in a Hindu-based civilization Buddhism did not immediately take root in India (although Buddha is considered one of the ten avatars, or earthly incarnations, of Vishnu in Hindu belief).

In case you are fully aware of the features of western monasteries but are unsure of what makes up a Tibetan Buddhist one here are its main features. (You can see them all in our photos above). They are arranged, almost campus-like, around an often walled area and are not necessarily interconnected like western ones are:

  1. An often elaborate entrance portal
  2. A steep flight of steps up to the main chapel where an image of the Buddha is kept with permanently lit candles made from yak butter in front of it.
  3. An assembly hall where the monks gather for lessons and the recitation of the scriptures.
  4. Chapels where idols of different aspects of the Buddha and previous lamas are kept.
  5. Murals illustrating stories from the scriptures on the inner walls of the chapels.
  6. A library of manuscripts, many of which are written on palm leaves and stamped with wooden blocks.
  7. Dormitories for the monks
  8. Prayer wheels arranged around a Kora (pilgrimage route – always perform it clockwise please!).
  9. Gardens and agricultural outbuildings.
  10. A shop selling books and religious items.

It’s a pity that we weren’t in time for the monastery’s biggest festival at the end of November. Called Gedong it’s where religious mask dances are performed, including the Cham which impersonates  the battle between forces of good and evil in the form of animals, gods and ghosts. However, we were glad enough to visit this impressive monastery and were glad that its sacred nature and the ancient religious rites of the monks are now being rather more respected than in previous decades.

Our last evening in Shangri-la was spent attending a spectacular show at the local theatre illustrating traditional stories from the area,. It was clearly a touristic honey-pot but the standard of presentation was high.

We should have taken the plane to Lhasa from Diqing Shangri-La airport but no direct flights were available so instead we took a flight to Kunming over increasingly impressive mountain ranges.

Kunming, itself would have been a fascinating place to visit but we were limited to admiring its Changshui airport built by that impressive American architectural partnership Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who have also built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (height 2722 feet). I loved the waving support structure of this airport terminal. Yes, even airport buildings can have their fascination – if you can forget Heathrow, that is!

From Kunming we flew to our main destination in our adventure – Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and one of the highest cities truly placed on the world’s roof. From the aircraft cabin porthole I could see the landscape becoming ever more arid. Truly Tibet is the roof of the world but it is also a rain-shadow area and in large part a kind of high-altitude desert, a sort of moonscape, in fact.

Finally, the Eastern China airlines touched down on the Gonggar airport serving Lhasa and a new phase of our travels began.



Swine before Pearls?

On our first full day at Zhongdian (AKA Shangri-La) we took a journey in the surrounding environs to visit Gyalthang Ringha monastery, a sweet little temple with a multiplicity of prayer flags surrounding it.

Since prayer flags are such a universal item in Tibetan, Nepalese and Mongolian culture it may be useful to say something about them here.

Prayer flags are largely hung up at temple and mountain passes and their main purpose is to bless the countryside around them. Their use predates Buddhism and is associated with the primeval Bon religion.

Prayer flags are usually printed with wood blocks and their different colours relate to aspects of the universe.  The colours, arranged from left to right, are blue, symbolising sky and space, white standing for air and wind, red representing fire, green standing for water and yellow denoting the earth. These are the five universal elements, or pure lights, of life itself.  In Tibetan alchemy it’s the balance of the five elements which produce health and harmony in one.

But what’s written on the flags themselves? There are prayers and mantras transmitted by the gods or devas containing important formulae to protect one against the demons or asuras which permeate our universe. Truly our lives are a battle between good and evil – such is the nature of the primal force which creates and destroys the universe – the arcane dialectic between life and death.

Prayer flags also assist the souls of the dead to reach the sphere of the gods. Indeed, on many of them there’s a horse galloping in an upward direction which symbolises carrying the spirits of the dead, Pegasus-like, to the higher regions and escape from the relentless wheel of samsara or reincarnation.


This quadruped is called a wind-horse or ’lung ta’ (strong horse). It bears three jewels on its back representing represent the Buddha, the Dharma (or divine law) and the Sangha (or Buddhist community). If you are suffering bad luck then hanging a prayer flag with a lung ta can change your bad times to good fortune. It’s truly worth trying, I’m sure. Just hanging up a prayer flag will bless you with good fortune. (Incidentally, the animals on the corner of a prayer flag are known as the four dignities and they are the dragon, the garuda – or heavenly  eagle -, the tiger and the snow lion).

As prayer flags fade they become part of the universe and add their little quota of peace and accord to the cosmos.

I often think how different the significant of flags are between those in the part of the world we were visiting and which stand for peace, and those in the west which so often represent nationalism and all the partitions of humankind that that word brings – war and devastation. Nothing could be further apart than the evil black flags carried by terrorist groups and the harmonious colours of the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the high places of a country which so singly has sought those things which are really of the highest matter to us – reconciliation, amity and divine love.

There is so much to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and I have just scratched the surface. Imagine what it must be like for a protestant (or indeed someone of any other religious persuasion) to enter into a Catholic shrine and try to make sense of it all. It’s because religion is itself a metaphor for all those aims that we would ideally wish life to be and metaphor is itself dependent on the environment which surrounds one, whether it be high snowy mountains, vast rocky deserts, icy expanses, infinite oceans or impenetrable forests.

Anyway, to get back to more earthly concerns. During our visit the Gyaltang Ringha monastery had also inmates which were not strictly admitted to it. Some pigs had wandered into its confines, perhaps to seek more earthly nourishment. We helped one of the monks to let the swine out in the surrounding woods where I’m sure they’d find plenty of food to scavenge for.

Like the monks and our adorable Tibetan guide, Anna, we burnt pine incense needles in one of the big braziers as an offering to the gods :

Gyalthang Ringha was an unassuming temple monastery but one which was little-known and largely free from sight-seers. It was truly a place to fill one’s ambiance with serenity and joy. We felt very happy there….