High on the Tibetan plateau, a few dozen red-robed monks of the Lhagang Monastery sat facing one another, rocking back and forth as they chanted with faces turned upward, to the heavens.
In the flickering candlelight of the monastery's dim main chamber, they then built small pyramids of incense to place throughout the building, adorned with golden Buddhas, and at the center of Tagong.
Outside, under the harsh noon sun, the monks mingled with the mainly Buddhist and ethnically Tibetan residents of the frontierlike town, population 8,000, which despite its makeup is in Sichuan province, China.
I had been in Tagong just an hour, after arriving in a small, dusty van that had bounced along rutted roads for the three-hour journey from the nearby city of Kangding, its engine whining as we ascended and descended steep mountain passes.After checking into one of the colorful guesthouses across the central square from the monastery, I had simply followed the brightly dressed monks into the main hall to witness one of their several daily worship sessions.
Tagong, whose altitude of about 12,000 feet makes it one of the highest towns in the world, offers an unfettered window onto the Tibetan people and culture. The region was part of Tibet until 1955, and its remoteness — to get there, you must take a single winding road several hours from the bustling provincial capital, Chengdu — has insulated it against significant change. The place has a closed-off feel, with a slow-paced existence that revolves around the major Tibetan monastery and its 60 or so resident monks. And it was easier than traveling to the Tibet Autonomous Region, which in addition to the visa and passport required to visit China, also requires a special entry permit that doesn't promise unrestricted travel.
That sort of unfettered access was my reason for going, and two hours into my stay it was clear that Tibetan culture and Buddhism remain at the heart of life in Tagong, albeit with slight tweaks to accommodate the few thousand foreign visitors who make the journey each year: a few guesthouses, yak-cheese pizza and arranged horse-trekking trips into the plains outside of town.
Tagong itself is just a blip on the map: a stretch of ornate buildings leading to the gates of the monastery, all surrounded by endless peaks and plains. A few minivans leave or arrive throughout the day, offering seats to destinations as far away as Chengdu for about 120 renminbi, but the rest of the time a horse being ridden up the main street is as likely a sight as a passing car.
Once in the recesses of Lhagang Monastery you can see monks devoting themselves to their faith with a calm assurance; across a wide river that runs alongside the town young apprentice monks study Buddhism at a monastic school; and up on a nearby hill, a handful of hermit monks live in silent worship.
"We have over a hundred young novices studying Buddhism who will eventually join us in becoming monks,'' Dhondoup, a fresh-faced 25-year-old monk said to me in English as we stood on a shaded platform overlooking the courtyard of the monastery after the noon service.
In front of us, part of the monastery was undergoing construction to house these new recruits; a new two-story dormitory was being added. Bags of cement lay within the grounds, and amid the debris were dented 10-foot-high prayer wheels, their Tibetan text covered in dust. There has been a monastery in Tagong since A.D. 652, when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo built the last of a series of 108 monasteries he had ordered constructed across his kingdom. Over the next millennium and a half the monastery rose and fell in importance, changing allegiance several times to different Buddhist sects before its destruction during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s work began on rebuilding the monastery, and today's temple is slowly returning to some of its former glory and size.
As I wandered the halls and chambers, staring up at the many gold Buddha statues surrounding the wall, the newness of the physical structure seemed immaterial. This visit was more about the monks than the monastery.
Though all Tibetan Buddhists, they were a varied group. In one of the side reliquaries off the main hall, an aged monk smiled as I entered, and led me around the small, candlelit room where he has lived for the last three years, sleeping on a small cot. Stopping at one point, he showed me a picture of himself next to the Dalai Lama. “We are all Buddhist and he is our leader,'' he said to me in Chinese.
Later in the afternoon I spotted a group of young monks playing basketball using a hoopless telephone pylon as a net on a grassy field across the town's river, their robes billowing around them. There was no bridge in sight, but I removed my shoes to cross the ice-cold, knee-deep water. On the other bank I was quickly invited to join the game.
“We try to play basketball every day before our 6 p.m. studies,'' said Laozang Tsere, a gregarious 18-year-old novice born in a nearby village.
A few minutes after I joined the game, a bell sounded. The novices quickly checked that their robes were on straight before heading back to their studies.
Class was in session for an even younger group of devotees in the main hall of the Sakya Monastic School, a smaller version of the main monastery, where boys sat crossed-legged on long rows of dark-red cushions, each facing another student. They debated Buddhist texts, gesturing to make their points. Dhondoup had explained to me that the novices study the finer points of Buddhist logic, philosophy and discourse in the hillside school for seven years before being allowed to join their brethren in Lhagang.
Sometime during the debates, I sneaked out of a side door and headed up a small path through a forest of multicolored prayer flags to the simple hillside homes of several hermit monks. From their dwellings the town below appeared even smaller, dwarfed by vast snowy peaks in the distance. In the foreground there was little but wide expanses of pastureland and other small hills adorned with colorful Buddhist prayer flags, placed there over the years by the monks and townspeople.
As I arrived outside of one door, a hermit beckoned me in, and, without uttering a word showed me around his small home, filled with Buddhas. Most of the room was taken up by the statues and Tibetan texts, with a small curtained-off area for him to sleep in. Back in town, the streets were emptying as the evening drew near; soon the monks — who must rise for 6 a.m. prayers — and locals had gone home. Viewed from this town perched on the roof of the world, with little in the way of light pollution save from a few guesthouse windows, the stars that glittered above the monastery were nothing short of majestic. That evening I dwelled on the seemingly simple lives of the monks: their faith, their warmth and their absence of 21st-century distractions. It may be facile to assume that they had found fulfillment, but it was hard to shake the impression that I'd met a group of people who, having long ago discovered a few of the secrets to a content life, existed outside of time.