On the hill in the middle of the picture above, at 4,500 metres above sea level, sits one of the highest monasteries in the world, Dolma Lhakang. In this isolated place several hundred monks and nuns have chosen to dedicate their lives to intensive study and contemplation in the most unforgiving of environments.
In keeping with Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Dolma Lhakang offers a full and comprehensive education at its monastic college (Tib.: Shedra), giving monks and nuns the opportunity to study for many years, starting with reading and writing in Tibetan, progressing to traditional Tibetan sciences, and culminating in rigorous study and analysis of profound philosophical texts.
Some of the Sangha are engaged in the very intensive traditional three-year group retreat, after which they may undertake individual retreats, often with life-long commitments to solitary practice.
Whatever the outer form of the monastic schedule, however, the over-arching intention behind all of these activities is to help the monks and nuns to reach their full potential as human beings – not just for their own sakes, but for the benefit of all living beings. Human morality, ethics, character, what it means to be a good person – traditionally, these are all derived from the monastery and, to this day, the education that Dolma Lhakang delivers centres on these.
Despite its location, the monastery does not exist in isolation from its surrounding community, however, for whom it serves as a haven of refuge and renewal as well as a vital lifeline for more mundane matters. During the year, according to special dates in the Tibetan calendar, Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche (Abbot of Dolma Lhakang) and other Lamas preside over various ceremonies. On such occasions members of the outside community also attend, in order to receive teachings and personal advice. Most of them come from nearby villages, but some travel as far as 200 km. Often they are connected to Dolma Lhakang through having at least one relative who is a monk or a nun at the monastery.
Conditions at Dolma Lhakang are not easy. Accommodation has always been limited: in small shared rooms four or five Sangha have to sleep, study, eat and cook and much of the accommodation is in urgent need of replacement. Except for the very youngest ones, the monks and nuns are responsible for their own meals and their diets consist of rice, flour, oil and vegetables, occasionally topped up with some butter and cheese. Winter in Dolma Lhakang can last for eight months and the earth is frozen solid for most of the year. Because no crops can grow at this height, every necessity of life, including food, medicine and clothing, must be brought in from outside. There are no local supermarkets here and two or three times a year, the monastery hires a truck to make the week-long trip to Chengdu and back to buy vital supplies of food and other items.
Because of its location and the harsh climate, the much-needed building work at Dolma Lhakang can only be done between late May and early September at best. Living in temperatures that fall below -30⁰ C in midwinter creates many difficulties. There’s no central heating and all the water supplies freeze. Until 2013 they had to collect water from a river about a kilometre away. Now they have a water-pump system, but still during the coldest months of winter they dare not use it. The risk of pipes bursting, in spite of insulation, is too high.
Renowned as a special place of practice, this remote and isolated monastery is the Seat of the Akong Tulkus. It is therefore a place of great significance to all those who had the good fortune of meeting the 2nd Akong Tulku and who wish to support his work there.