Overview of Zantang Monastery
Zantang Monastery (བཙན་ཐང་གཡུ་ཡི་ལྷ་ཁང།), nestled in the village of Zantang within Nedong County and perched at an altitude of 3576 meters, is also known as “Yui Lakang.” It is revered as one of the “Three Holy Sites” (ཡར་ཀླུངས་གནས་གསུམ་) in the Yarlung region. The monastery, believed to be founded by King Songtsen Gampo‘s queen, Mongsa Tricham, is modest in scale but rich in history.
The Layout of Zantang Monastery
Upon entering the monastery, visitors are greeted by a courtyard leading to the main hall. Flanking the main hall are two smaller halls on each side. The courtyard’s central area is dominated by the scripture hall (Sutra Hall), which is three sections wide and three sections deep.
The Main Hall and its Artistic Heritage
Behind the Sutra Hall lies the main hall’s entrance, adorned with murals of the Three Buddhas. On the left are paintings of Dromtonpa, Atisha, and Natso Yeshi, while on the right, the murals feature Padmasambhava, Trisong Detsan, and other Bodhisattva. The front wall of the Sutra Hall showcases Yama, the god of death, and protector deities. The left wall depicts the future world’s subjugation of demons, and the right wall illustrates stories from Tibetan history.
The main hall, supported by eight columns with lotus-carved bases and devoid of internal pillars, houses statues of the Three Buddhas. Flanking these central figures are eight Bodhisattvas and two protector deities, all exquisitely crafted in copper and gilded gold. These statues, with their substantial and simplistic design, reflect the artistic style of the early Ming Dynasty.
Murals and Circumambulation Path
A mural of the Three Buddhas adorns the rear wall of the main hall, while the side walls display a thousand Buddha images. Murals of Vajra (Diamond) figures decorate the inside of the hall’s outer corridor, a circumambulation path, with images of a thousand Buddhas holding alms bowls painted on the outside. The left wall of the external corridor depicts an elder master holding an amrita (nectar) vase.
The Tsechu Pagoda: A Historical Landmark
Approximately one mile west of the monastery, at the base of a hill, stands the towering Tsechu Pagoda. The ancient and majestic Tsechu Pagoda, serving as the burial site for King Songtsen Gampo’s clothing and crown, enriches Zantang Monastery’s historical tapestry with its significant history.
Zantang Monastery, with its deep historical roots and artistic treasures, serves as a beacon of Tibetan cultural and religious heritage, attracting pilgrims and visitors seeking to connect with the ancient traditions and spiritual legacy of Tibet.
Key Highlights of Zantang Monastery
The Concept of the Three Buddhas
In Buddhism, believers understand the universe as having no beginning or end, constantly undergoing change and cycling through phases of formation and destruction. Every phenomenon passes through the phases of birth, existence, change, and cessation. Similarly, the teachings of a Buddha are not eternal but have their own durations. Once a Buddha’s teachings conclude, another Buddha succeeds, creating three distinct periods. Each period has its own Buddha, forming the concept of the Three Buddhas: Dipankara Buddha (the past), Shakyamuni Buddha (the present), and Maitreya Buddha (the future).
The Present Buddha: Shakyamuni
The main figure among the statues is Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of the present. He is depicted with an oval halo and backlight, curly hair tied in a topknot, and draped in a red robe. His left hand holds a begging bowl, and his right hand extends downwards in a ‘touching the earth’ gesture, symbolizing the Buddha’s sacrifice for the enlightenment of all beings, a truth only the earth can attest to. He is seated in a cross-legged posture on a lotus seat.
The Past Buddha: Dipankara
To the right of the main figure is Dipankara Buddha, representing the past. He is shown with an oval halo, curly hair in a topknot, and wearing a red robe. His left hand holds a bowl at his chest, and his right hand is in the ‘fearlessness’ gesture. He is also seated in a cross-legged position on a lotus seat.
The Future Buddha: Maitreya
On the left is Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha, also known as “慈氏怙主” and “Jampa” (byams-pa). He is depicted with a topknot, and a small Nirvana stupa on his forehead, representing his teacher Shakyamuni Buddha. He wears monastic robes and a red robe, with both hands in the ‘turning the Dharma wheel’ gesture. Maitreya also has an oval halo and backlight and is seated on a lotus platform.
Visiting Tips for Zantang Monastery
- Accessibility: Zantang Monastery is located 3 kilometers from the county town. Visitors can reach the monastery by taxi, rickshaw, or on foot.
- Historical Significance: Zantang Monastery’s history and architectural style are significant. Built entirely in the Han Chinese architectural style, it features glazed walls and a hip-and-gable roof, reflecting the advanced skills of Tibetan craftsmen at the time. This melding of Tibetan and Han architectural styles makes the monastery an important site for studying the history of Sino-Tibetan relations and Tibetan architectural history.