How to Build a Monastery

Every monastery I visited this summer had some sort of construction project going on. While not all of these were epic in scope, it was hard to escape the idea that Kham is experiencing a boom in monastic construction. I’m sure there are many reasons for this, including new wealth among Tibetans, interest in Tibetan Buddhism among the Han Chinese, tourism revenues, and so forth. That analysis, however, I will leave for others. What I’m more interested in here is the style in which this construction is performed. Basically, I observed two major construction models, ‘traditional’ and ‘concrete’.

Paplung Monastery

Palpung Monastery serves as a great example of the former. Palpung sits on a promontory overlooking the Bei Chu river, a tributary of the Dri Chu. It is a beautiful location, overlooking a wooded valley, and below high, grassy slopes. Miraculously, the main temple hall seems to have survived the Cultural Revolution fairly intact, even though most of the religious artwork and other artifacts were destroyed or removed. When I visited in June, there were several buildings under construction, mostly houses for resident monks (like many traditional monasteries, monks at Palpung reside in their own homes, rather than in collective dormitories). In each instance, the buildings were being constructed using the standard timber construction seen all over the area (see photo 1). With the exception of an electric saw for shaping the beams, there were no modern construction methods in evidence. Importantly, the construction work did not negatively interfere with the life of the monastery, and no one I spoke with seemed bothered by the activity.  (For more on the architecture, art and conservation measures at Palpung, visit the Palpung Architecture Project)

Construction at Katok

This contrasts with Katok Monastery, which typifies the ‘concrete’ construction style. At Katok, there were no less than three major construction projects going on simultaneously. Each of these buildings required large numbers of dump trucks, concrete mixers and workers. While I’m sure that the results will be impressive, the current situation can only be described as chaotic and dirty. In his Footprint Tibet guidebook, Gyurme Dorje extols the serenity of Katok monastery, saying, “Anyone viewing the majestic setting of Katok’s red and white buildings which cover the peaceful mountain top can appreciate why the concept of ‘sacred outlook’ or ‘pure visionary perception of the landscape’ is so significant here.”[1]

Construction debris flowing down a hillside at Katok

While this may have been true in the past, Katok monastery’s peaceful mountaintop is currently dominated by construction noise.  An entire hillside has been turned black by detritus poured out by a continuous stream of dump-trucks (see photo 3). Arriving here after the peace of Palpung, the activity, dirt and noise was quite a shock. Furthermore, I was not the only one who objected to all the activity: several of the monks I spoke with also expressed distaste at what was going on, even questioning the need for the new buildings at all.  Looking at the black debris on the hillside, one monk commented, “Nothing will grow there again.”  Like many monasteries, Katok does not have a clear hierarchical structure with a single head. Instead, different lamas are each responsible for their own sections of the monastery. In the case of Katok, this seems to have lead to competing construction projects, with little regard for the overall impact on the monastery or its environment.  To be fair, timber construction has its own environmental problems.  All those trees have to come from somewhere, and even in pre-modern times, deforestation was a real issue in Kham.  Still, the difference between the construction and its attendant environmental issues at Palpung and Katok is striking, and I can’t help but feel like there must be a better way to do this.

Katok is not alone in choosing concrete over more traditional construction methods.  Almost every monastery I visited had some form of construction work going on, and most were employing concrete construction methods (Karndzé Nunnery is another notable exception. The new Chenrezik temple there was being built entirely with traditional stonework).  Of course, as a tourist, it is easy to praise the beauty of traditional construction and denigrate modern techniques. The monks who live in these monasteries, however, may appreciate the conveniences provided by modern construction (such as, say, basic plumbing). Nevertheless, it seems like something has been lost when an already significant monastery, like Katok, dedicates so much capital to a project, only to damage its own environment in the process.


[1]Dorje, Gyurme. Footprint Tibet. 3rd ed. Footprint, 2004, p 494.