Published: Aug. 23, 2015

Photo Essay by Holly Gayley

The largest Buddhist institution on the Tibetan plateau can be found in nomadic areas of northern Kham, tucked in a valley just off the main road. Larung Buddhist Academy is an ecumenical institute focused on a monastic curriculum of scholastic study and home to well over ten thousand monks and nuns. Emerging as an encampment in the early 1980s, it was established as a Buddhist academy in 1987 by Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (1933–2004), a towering figure in the revitalization of Buddhism in the post-Mao era, with the help of the Tenth Paṇchen Lama. Over the past three decades, Larung Buddhist Academy (also known as Larung Gar) has played an important role in revitalizing monastic scholasticism among the Nyingma and Kaygu traditions in eastern Tibet.

In addition, Larung Buddhist Academy is now the epicenter of an ethical reform movement spreading in nomadic areas surrounding Serta since at least 2010. One of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok's principal successors, Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö (who visited CU Boulder in April 2015) has spearheaded this movement, and its implementation is being conducted by local monasteries in the region through mass vow-taking ceremonies. I discuss this movement in my article, "Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau" in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics (2013)  and the controversy it has sparked in "Controversy over Buddhist Ethical Reform" in the latest issue of the journal Himalaya (2016).

This photo essay shows the grand scale of Larung Buddhist Academy, with separate three-story buildings containing the respective assembly halls and classrooms for monks and nuns, thousands of monastic residences scattered across its hillsides, and the shimmering "magical illusion" (sgyu 'phrul) temple at the top of the ridge. I trace a route from Golok to the north, which I have traversed numerous times in the past ten years in visiting monasteries in the region. The photos begin in the county seat of Padma and follow a dirt road through the grasslands until reaching Serta and finally Larung Buddhist Academy.

For the latest news on Larung Buddhist Academy, visit Radio Free Asia.