The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery (Songzanlin Monastery) is located near Shangri-La, on the Tibetan plateau in China’s south-west Yunnan province. If you’ve been to Lhasa and seen the Potala Palace you may think that this monastery is proof that all Tibetan monasteries look the same – and you’d be half right. The Sumtseling was in fact modelled on the Potala and has been nicknamed the ‘Little Potala’.
This is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in south-west China. All told there are presently over 700 monks affiliated with the monastery which was established in the seventeenth century. That number is but a quarter of the number in its heyday when it operated as a centre of scriptural and spiritual learning and, like many monasteries, also functioned as a center of medicine, literature, and other forms of learning. Unlike many of the monasteries in Tibet which have not recovered their former vibrancy, the atmosphere in Sumtseling sparkles. Being closer to China and further from Lhasa has meant that political tensions are reduced, and the monastery can devote its attention to more traditional concerns.
The monastery is also tied to the community in traditional ways with donations to furthering or upkeep of the monastery, be they financial or in kind, seen as a form of ‘merit making’. In Buddhist thinking, mere mortals such as we, can use the surplus of our good fortune to make this merit. In making merit we can ensure that our future life will be as good as or better than this one, and simultaneously we can aid the present. With the monastery divided into houses, and each house supported by a group of villages the institution truly resembles a microcosm of the community, and accordingly the ties between the surrounding communities and the monastery are strong.
Closer to China proper than many other Tibetan monasteries, the Sumtseling has a history more intertwined with the Chinese than many of its siblings. The Qing dynasty Kangxi Emperor (r.1662-1722) was happy to give his blessings for the founding of the monastery, and to repeat his support when the monastery was involved in the search for the Seventh Dalai Lama. One unfortunate note concerns the modern period. When the Communist general He Long led one section of the Red Army through the area on the Long March in the 1930s, the monks donated needed supplies and helped direct the troops. By contrast, Chinese forces shelled the monastery in 1959 as they entered Tibet. Recent years have seen a return to better relations.
Sumtseling is one of two monasteries outside of Tibet that is highly recommended to visit if you are unable to travel to Tibet proper (the other being the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu province). Feeling inspired? Enquire about taking a luxury tour to Shangri-La and the beautiful Little Potala with Imperial Tours now.