Lenggu Monastery

A tiny CERS project hidden inside a sacred mountain

By Wong How Man, Hong Kong


From the satellite image on my iPad, our route is penetrating into the heart of the high snow range surrounding what is Ge Nyen sacred mountain (6204 meters). The circular cluster of snowfields somewhat resembles petals of a lotus. A trail with peaks on both sides was what we used as access into the mountain. Beside it was a clear and pristine river cascading down from glaciers and alpine lakes. Between 2017 and 2019, twice, my team and I entered this remote mountain fastness.

The occasional meadows are like patches of green carpet where the gushing river would momentarily become a quiet calm stream as it flows through the valley. Rhubarb rising high in prime yellow color, with some in red as it becomes ripe, dotted the valley floor. They grow most abundantly near the many streams feeding the river. These alpine plants, with short growing season yet rising tall at high elevation, are an important ingredient for both traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine.

Indeed, during the middle ages, Rhubarb from China, predominantly from the Tibetan plateau, was considered by people from the Middle East and Europe to be such a potent drug for all ailments that huge amounts were exported. It was recorded in an account from the 14th century in the Ming Dynasty that in one month alone, of the 600 camels arriving at Samarkand, 300 were carrying rhubarb – or the equivalent of 100 tons. Here, however, they are left to decay, withering as summer passes.

It is also in these meadows yaks roam, grazing among the flowers. Some of them have colored ribbons tied to their necks or horns, with a full coat of fur much thicker than the usual yak we see. These are the more sacred among yaks, freed by local Tibetans as offerings to the mountain gods.

It is among such idyllic natural landscapes that the ancient Lenggu monastery is located, at an elevation of 4151 meters, set among pine and fir forests. The jade peaks, some like knives piercing into heaven, sit majestically like armed guardians protecting this largely forgotten temple. Just a couple hours hike to the south is one of the very busy caravan routes historically providing access between the plain of Chengdu through to Litang, then Batang, and into Tibet.

A small village, Lamaya, used to witness caravans passing, at times numbering over a hundred pack animals. Villagers would hear the bell of the leading mule approaching, as the long train of horses and mules passed through the village. Lamaya not only offers respite and shelter for a night during a long journey, the villagers would also serve as caravan helpers in a relay toward the next stage stop. Others would make a little money supplying grain and fodder for the draft animals.

Today, though the trade caravans are long gone, Lamaya still provide a service for us latecomers. It is here that we organize horses to take us to Lenggu monastery and beyond. We would drive ahead with our fleet of Land Rovers and rendezvous at the foot of the sacred mountain the following morning. There, near the newer and much larger Lenggu monastery, ruled by a different Rinpoche than the one overseeing the old monastery, would be where we set our base camp, at an elevation of 3902 meters.

There are literally hundreds and thousands of big and small Tibetan monasteries and temples throughout the plateau. Few people, not even Tibetan Buddhists, would know what is special about this Lenggu monastery, with only one main assembly hall rebuilt in the 1980s and much of the monks’ quarters surrounding it in dilapidated condition.

Lenggu monastery, meaning “Cold and Old” in Chinese, was first founded in 1164 by the First Karmapa, founder of the Karma Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Today that lineage is into its 17th generation, with the current Karmapa blessing his adherents and the public both with political and religious intrigues. I had the great fortune of being invited as a special guest at his enthronement in Tsurphu monastery outside of Lhasa in September 1992 when he was seven years old. Later I met him again when he was living in Dharamshala under Indian “protection.”

The Lenggu monastery was turned into a Gelug or Yellow Sect monastery by the year 1690, something quite common as what was then the newest sect of Tibetan Buddhism became the most dominating religious force throughout much of the Tibetan plateau under the Fifth Dalai Lama. At its peak, Lenggu had over 2000 resident monks, but today it has only a handful of monks, with the monastery literally befits its name, cold and old.

My latest visit came in June 2019, when I invited a small group of friends from Bhutan to join me. Among them were Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuk, a princess from the Royal Family together with her two sons, a Bhutanese monk Sonam, and Ugyen, a long-time friend. Tashi Rinpoche, a direct descendent of the 7th Dalai Lama’s family in Litang, came along to facilitate our visit. CERS was fortunate to provide support some years ago to repair and restore the house where the 7th Dalai was born. Thus the Rinpoche and CERS have become close friends.

The march, then a ride into the heart of Ge Nyen mountain was awe-inspiring. The scenic beauty of nature captivated our imagination as if on way to a heavenly enclave. The floating clouds silhouetting cliffs and peaks was mesmerizing. It took about two hours from base camp when the monastery revealed itself, sitting on a sloping hill. As we approached a white pagoda, we saw a herd of Blue Sheep grazing at the base of it. Without dismounting from our horses, we took pictures while these usually-shy animals seemed totally oblivious to our presence. Indeed, such a balance of nature and human can only be found in the remotest corners of the earth now.

We had brought along our picnic lunch and entered a stone house to enjoy some buttered tea served by two local monks. I decided to eat my lunch outside and enjoy the scenery at a broken stone house with a walled-in garden. It has a wonderful view of both the sacred Ge Nyen mountain as well as a cliff on the other side.

As curiosity drove me, I went inside the house with broken door and windows. Part of the wall and roof had collapsed. Asking the two local monks, they said the house was formerly used for meditation but had long been abandoned. Restoring it would require quite some effort given how far away the monastery is from the road.

It seemed a nice small project just perfect for CERS to leave a little impact behind. I have often repeated a notion to our student interns, “So you have seen many places, have any of these places seen you?” To illustrate my point, I have grown to love small projects, since they can become an inspiration for the younger generation who may have less patience and fewer resources to start larger and more long-term undertakings. So, this meditation house would be another case study for us.

Furthermore, it helped demonstrate my other notion that big things attract the eyes, while small things touch the heart. Indeed, CERS has supported several small projects, two in Tibet alone, without anyone knowing about it. Without much fanfare, and through Tashi Rinpoche as our proxy, we committed CERS to paying for the repair of this small stone house on the edge of Lenggu monastery.

Today, less than a year later, the roof, walls and garden are done. The little bit of work remaining would be to replace the door and windows. I look forward to returning soon to spend a night in it, perhaps meditating under the shadow of sacred Ge Nyen, while the Blue Sheep graze quietly in our yard.