Samding Monastery is located on a hill southwest of Yamdrok Yumtso Lake, around 10 kilometers east of Nagarze County, Shannan Region of Tibet. It belongs to Shangpa Kargyu, a branch of Kagyu School in Tibetan Buddhism. Some say it is part of the Bodong tradition, a sub-sect of the Sakya sect. Seen from afar, Samding Monastery looks like a magnificent castle. At close range, it’s just an ordinary monastery. The main buildings enclose a rectangular courtyard, with a three-story Buddhist chapel, a sutra-chanting hall and a two-story monks’ dormitory along the sides.
Covering an area of around 100 square meters (120 square yards), the sutra-chanting hall is simply decorated but solemn with a few Buddha statues. It is flanked by two small halls. The one that seems to be more interesting and secret is named Tantrism Hall. The interior wall is painted black, with portraits of hideous skeletons and ghosts hanging on it. A statue of Yamāntaka is displayed in the niche, and a chair is placed in front of the niche for the monks to sit and meditate when practicing Tantrism.
History of the Monastery
Samding Monastery is over 300 years old. According to historical records, it was built by a disciple of Khyungpo Nyalior, the founder of Shangpa Kargyu. Other evidence suggests that it was constructed in the 15th century by Bodong Chokle Namgyel who established the Bodong tradition. At first, the monastery was very small and obscure. It expanded gradually with the efforts of the abbesses and generations of followers.
Both monks and nuns live and practice Tibetan Buddhism in the monastery. There were 80 monks and nuns at the beginning of the 18th century. In its golden period, the number increased to nearly 200 in the early years of the 19th century.
Living Female Buddha - Dorje Phagmo
What makes Samding Monastery unique is that since its establishment it has been the only monastery administered by living female Buddhas. Dorje Phagmo, known as a living female Buddha, is believed to be the incarnation of an Indian deity Vajrayogini (Diamond Sow, with human head and pig body). After the Samding Monastery was built, Chokyi Dronma, the 1st Dorje Phagmo, became the abbess of the monastery. After she passed away, her reincarnation Kunga Zangmo was selected as the 2nd Dorje Phagmo. Up to the present, there have been twelve reincarnations. The mortal bodies of the late eleven reincarnations are still housed inside the monastery.
According to legend, the 7th Dorje Phogmo saved Samding Monastery from a Mongolian attack at the beginning of the 18th century. She turned herself into a furious sow in a sea of fire and prevented the monastery from being destroyed by the Mongolian armies.
The 2nd, 5th and 9th Dorje Phogmos contributed much to the monastery's expansion. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1966. Then, it was rebuilt in the 1980s with the help of Dechen Chokyi Dronma, the 12th Dorje Phogmo. She currently works as a government official in Lhasa. Every year, she returns to Samding Monastery once to bless the devout believers by touching their heads.
How to reach there from Lhasa?
Visitors usually choose to go from Lhasa to Nagarze. The distance between those two is about 160 kilometers (100 miles), a 3.5-hour drive. Alternatively, they can take a regular bus (Lhasa – Shigatse) from the Western Suburb Coach Station located on No. 1 Minzu Road, and get off at Nagarze. The fare is CNY 33 or so. Then charter a car to visit the monastery. A round trip costs about CNY 200.
Best time to visit
Each year in May of the Tibetan calendar, a grand Buddhist ritual for paying tribute to Yamāntaka is held in the Samding Monastery. This religious event is well known in Nagarze, Gyantse and Lhozhag counties. Unfortunately, it is almost unknown to the world outside because of the poor transportation to the monastery. Additionally, in the past, Shangpa Kargyu was discriminated and suppressed.