Nestled 4,000 meters above sea level on the hillside settlement in the Tibetan region of Kham is Larung Gar. Also referred to as the Larung Valley, Larung Gar was founded initially by Dudjom Lingpa in 1880 and rebuilt 100 years later by Khenpo Jigme Puntsok. The population of monks, nuns, pilgrims and religious as well as Mandarin students is thought to be either 10,000 or 40,000. The institution holds a significant spiritual importance to Buddhists with residents coming not only from nearby provinces but also from all over Asia and the overseas. Larung Gar is without doubt the largest Buddhist institution in the world. Today, it is also an important tourist destination for travelers keen on learning about Tibetan culture and way of life.
Larung Gar is located in a valley at 2,800 feet, about 4 km off the highway and 15 km from the town of Sertar. It is situated in Sichuan in the nation of China. At the entrance of Larung Gar institute there are huge prayer wheels. Houses for nuns and monks sprawl throughout the valley all the way to the surrounding hills with a huge wall separating the monk houses from the nuns’ residential areas. Each section has its own housing, prayer and teaching halls as well as separate shops and restaurants. Monks and nuns are prohibited from leaving their designated areas except when assembling at the common area located in front of the main monastery assembly hall.
Larung Gar has very unique accommodation options. The main hotel is perched on top of the hill overlooking the beautiful valley and the monastery. Unfortunately, visitors cannot book rooms prior to arrival (so you have no choice but to book your room on arrival). There are a handful of basic guest houses around the institute and several more downhill near the main entrance. Tourists can also befriend and stay with monks in their rooms, although guests are officially not allowed to do this. During peak summer months, most visitors opt to stay in one of the hotels in Sertar, a town 25 km away from Larung. In addition, there are several vegetarian restaurants in Larung Gar, with most of them located around the central monastery. They all serve pretty much the same dishes, mostly consisting of cabbage and potato.
Even for the secular tourist, the most conspicuous sight you will come across is a memorable one: thousands of red tiny dwellings that sprawl the hills around the main prayer halls. It is easy to spend entire day feasting on the smells, sights and sounds of this busy Buddhist monastery. Start your trip by getting around the institute on foot, paying attention not to lose your track in the maze of seemingly identical spiritual shanties.
Bells summon devotees to prayers all day long. Guests are welcome to listen to lectures and participate in meditations (as long as they understand Mandarin, of course). Be sure to remove your shoes before walking into any of the prayer halls or monasteries.
Sky burial is an important Tibetan Buddhists’ funeral rite. The remains of the deceased are offered to vultures as an embodiment of the Buddhist concept of compassion and generosity. To get started, a specially trained monk prepares the dead body by skinning it. Once this is done, the waiting vultures descend to feed on the body as monks recite mantras. This ceremony is not for everyone, however. Visitors are neither allowed to view dead bodies nor take photos of them. For those who are allowed to attend, the ceremony starts at exactly 1 pm.
Due to a poor road network, getting to Larung Gar from Chengdu by bus takes approximately 18 hours. Visitors are thus advised to break up their journey and make a stop-over in Kangding before getting to Larung. Besides rest, spending time in Kangding allows travelers to acclimatize before reaching the 4,000 meter elevation.
In 1980, Larung Gar was rebuilt and significantly expanded by one of the twentieth century’s most influential Nyingma lamas called Khenpo Jigme Puntsok. At first, the institute was designed as a chossgar, a Buddhist encampment for devotees or followers of a particular preacher. A small seminary college (bshadgrwa) and a recreational center (sgrubgrwa) were built thereafter. As Larung Gar began attracting more devotees, its curriculum was expanded to include language, philosophy, reasoning, epistemology, monastic discipline, mind training, Madhyamaka philosophy, Dzogchen, tantric textual commentaries as well as pitch instructions.
Chokyi Gyeltsen, the tenth Panchen Lama, blessed Larung Gar. He bestowed it with the name "Serta Larung Five Sciences of Budhist Academy" or Serta Larung Ngarik Nangten Lobling. In the twentieth century, Larung Gar’s popularity as a center for Buddhist learning increased. It set the background for the establishment of other Nyingma encampments across Tibet.
Currently, there are plans underway to demolish the Larung Gar residential homes. The Chinese government plans to reduce the number of residents to 5,000 monks only. On July 20, 2016, Chinese authorities initiated a plan to evict at least half of the over 10,000 residents of Larung Gar by September 2017. This involves demolitions of tens of thousands of Larung’s residential houses and other facilities. The government’s justification for their action is that the Larung Gar is overcrowded. However, it is believed many other parts of China are more overcrowded than Larung Gar. This dramatic exercise is an infringement on the religious freedom of the Buddhists. Additionally, it robs monks and nuns who reside in the institute their peace. Consequently, several monks and nuns have resorted to committing suicide in protest. The international community, led by a campaign group called Free Tibet, also plans to protest against the actions of the Chinese government.
It is not the first time for the government to order such a demolition. In 2001, the Chinese government implemented a similar exercise on Larung Gar. Thousands of monastic houses were destroyed and thousands of monks and nuns expelled from their dwelling places. Several monks and nuns died of shock and suicide as a result of this crackdown. Other monks and nuns even developed mental illness. The charismatic founder of the institute, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok later died mysteriously at a hospital in Chengdu.