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Day 66: Lhasa

Lhasa, Tibet 
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Am I right? Monk makes his point in ritual debating at the Sera monastery.
Michael Palin - HimalayaMigmar and I join the clockwise perambulation, which they call the kora, passing rows of stalls set in front of old houses with Spanish-style, wrought-iron balconies. We stop for coffee at one of them, the Makye Ame restaurant, hung with red, tasselled lanterns, which manages to feel very Tibetan whilst serving Jim Beam whisky, playing The Grateful Dead on its sound system and offering 'Chicken à la King' as Dish of the Day.

It was here, on the first floor of a corner house overlooking the Jokhang, that Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth and naughtiest of all the Dalai Lamas, used to drink and entertain a succession of lovers. In his book Tibet, Tibet, Patrick French quotes a contemporary Jesuit priest's verdict on the sixth Dalai Lama: 'No girl, or married woman or good-looking person of either sex was safe from his unbridled licentiousness'.

As if that wasn't enough, he also wrote poetry. Such apparently unrestrained love of life is not as incompatible with Buddhism as it is with Christianity, and later in the day we climb up to Sera, one of the great monasteries of Lhasa, to witness an activity that would probably be classed as highly eccentric in any religion other than Buddhism. Around 100 young monks gather beneath the trees of a shady, walled garden to take part in ritual arguing, a sort of verbal martial art. The idea is that one of a group has to stand and defend a proposition, which can be as provocative as possible (Migmar says he heard one monk arguing that there is no such thing as water) and the sitting monks must debate with him. Possibly because Sera has a long tradition of supplying fighting monks, the whole thing is very physical. The arguer, arms flailing, thrusts aggressively at his opponent and each error in the opposing argument is marked by a wide swing of the arm and a ricocheting slap of one hand against the other.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 66: Lhasa
  • Country/sea: Tibet
  • Place: Lhasa
  • Book page no: 161

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  • Eating
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 3 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 6 
  • Pole to Pole