Sera Monastery sits on the outskirts of Lhasa. At one time it had a population of over 5000 monks, but now houses only a few hundred. The Chinese government has imposed restrictions that limit the number of monks allowed at each monastery in Tibet. Sera survived the cultural revolution with light damage, but most of the five colleges that were hosted on the site were destroyed.
The monks hold their debates in an outside courtyard daily from 3 to 5pm. During the debates the area is a sea of burgundy robes. You can hear the chatter as you approach the courtyard.
The debates are a fascinating event to watch. The purpose is for the monks to hold discussions about their religious studies. A defending monk will stand and present his thesis to another monk or group of monks that are seated on the ground. He will make statements about how he has interpreted the meaning of a religious teaching. To further emphasize his point he will often reach out towards the others and loudly clap his hands together. The opposing monks will question the statements that have been made. They will try to draw the defending monk into making an error or contradict himself. The debating gets very passionate and intense. It’s quite a ruckus of noise that’s created by dozens of monks bantering back and forth and forcefully clapping their hands.
We had some time to spare before the debates started. We were allowed to freely wander around the monastery grounds and through the chapels and assembly halls. The rooms had an eerie feeling to them, they were dimly lit and smelled of yak wax. The religious statues had eyes that seemed to follow us around the room.