YELLOW HATS

Just 15 km upriver from the LUX* Benzilan — short drive —is one of the most important monasteries of the region.

Just 15 km upriver from the LUX* Benzilan — short drive — is one of the most important monasteries of the region. Called Dongzhulin (东竹林), which means East Bamboo Forest, and in Tibetan as Dhon-Drupling Gompa. Perhaps the most notable thing you’ll see when you visit is the headwear of the monks — elaborate crescent-shaped hats in bright yellow, worn during ceremonies. The style of hat goes with the school of Tibetan Buddhism, and there are four of these schools. This one, often referred to by foreigners as the Yellow Hat School (or Order), is properly known as Gelugpa, and ever since the 16th century, when there was a struggle for religious supremacy within Tibet, it has been the pre-eminent one.

The origins of this strangely shaped hat go back even further, to a time of when Buddhism was being repressed in Tibet in favour of the older Bön religion, in the 9th century. When one of the few surviving monks, Gongpa-rabsel, began teaching again secretly, he told his disciples to dye their Bön hats yellow as a remembrance of their studies. Several centuries later, when the Gelugpa schools was founded by Tsongkhapa, he revived this idea, adding to it the distinctive shape, as an auspicious sign that pure ethical discipline had returned to Tibetan Buddhism.

The Yellow Hats are regarded as a strict sect, and take a scholarly approach to Buddhism, and in their search for nirvana they follow a traditional monastic code. At the same time, Yellow Hat monks are renowned for their martial arts skills. Outside of ceremonies (there is an annual Gedong Mask Festival at the Dongzhulin monastery around the end of November), one of the more striking activities you may be fortunate enough to see is the scholarly debates between pairs of novice monks. These are noisy and very physical, with a seated defender and a standing challenger, who jumps, strikes his hands together for emphasis and tries to ridicule the defender’s arguments.