Tantric Buddhism in Mustang

October 4, 2014

in Nepal


Early one morning in Lo Manthang, the walled fortress-like capital of Mustang, we visit the monastery to receive blessing from an old monk. He has spent more than 40 years in the monastery and is master of an ancient Tantric rite, one that derives directly from the 8th century beginnings of Himalayan Buddhism. He chants scriptures, tosses grains of rice, pours water from a metal jar stuffed with purifying peacock feathers, and wields a small golden dagger with 4 faces carved on its hilt (vajrakila). One by one, we kneel as he offers us a traditional blessed thread to wear at our necks for protection and well-being and lays a white prayer scarf over our shoulders. We then walk to the main prayer hall where the monks chants their morning blessing while blowing horns, simmering cymbals, and thundering their double-sided hanging drums.

Ritual Tantric implements.

After morning prayers, a few monks gather for breakfast on the monastery steps.

Lo Manthang and the nearby villages are home to some stunning Buddhist artwork including the world’s only surviving monastery painted entirely with 15th century Buddhist mandalas. The monastery paintings have been carefully restored under the guidance of the an Italian conservation expert and also by training local artists to master the old styles (all with funding from the American Himalaya Foundation), but photographs are not allowed inside. (You’ll just have to come see them for yourself!) Dark, centuries old prayer rooms reveal towering deities and intricate circular mandalas as we explore the town. Along the journey, we also visit sacred caves filled with colorful flags, detailed paintings, statues, stupas, and prayer scarves.

Sacred cave where Padmasambhava meditated more than 1300 years ago.

Painted stupa inside a cave.

Caretakers of remote shrines are sometimes assigned by the head lama of the area and other times come from a family lineage where 20+ generations have passed knowledge and responsibility from father to son.

Another monastery we visit is as old as Samye, the oldest monastery in Tibet. A demon was obstructing the construction of Samye, so 8th century Guru Padmasambhava chased him out of Tibet and slew him in Nepal. A monastery marks the heart of the demon, while the red color of nearby rock is the demon’s blood strewn on the cliffs. Whether you believe in ancient demons or take the demon as a metaphor for the local pressures and indigenous beliefs that were resistant to Buddhism, this land is rife with history and legend dating back to the earliest era of Tantric Buddhism. We move among the myths as much as through the mountains.

Cliffs splashed red with “demon’s blood.”

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