Spirituality can be experienced and processed in many forms, from silent prayer to forms of self-flagellation, whether physical or mental. I have always felt a profound spirituality in movement as well as in the natural world. Judaism, the religion in which I was brought up, teaches us (at least in our variant of hippie-Judaism) to recognize and appreciate the divine in the world around us, a precept that has always seemed to click with my ideas about spirituality. I have never felt more connected with the earth, or an unnamed divine power, than when on a long, meditative walk or run in the mountains – or when simply being somewhere amidst a natural magnificence of unexplainable but palpable power. This is where I believe in and even feel (to the extent of my ability, given my skeptical self) the existence of something greater.
Fortunately, Tibetan Buddhism acknowledges the spirituality I feel in nature and in movement (to twist things a bit) with forms of worship that involve both walking and reverence of the natural world. I refer here to the practice of kora, a clockwise movement around something sacred – whether a mountain range, monastery, stupa or prayer wheel. In Tibetan religion, the kora is an important type of prayer, and a necessary part of most monastery visits.
Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to walk many koras through spectacular scenery with some fascinating and exceptional people. Here, completely subjectively, are my five favorite koras in Kham and Amdo – the ones which, after you finish, you feel a pull, desire, even a need to do again and again.
1. Ganze Gonpa དཀར་མཛེས་དགོན་པ། 甘孜寺, Ganze, Sichuan
This one wins out for pure scenic splendor, as well as the variety of attractions along the way. Rising high up a hillside above the monastery, this kora route provides stunning views of the town, as well as the jagged peaks of the Chola mountains. But this kora also has many interesting features placed along the way: prayer wheels, stupas, mini-koras of sacred outcrops, and an interesting venture into the old town (at the beginning and end). The pilgrims here seem to be exceptionally friendly (even by exceptionally-friendly pilgrim standards), maybe because they’re enjoying this spectacular circumambulation just as much as you. Start from a concrete road leading up to the west (left, if you’re looking up) entrance of a monastery; a narrow set of steps leads up from the road as it switchbacks up a narrow ravine. After traversing the high hillside, the kora descends steeply to a riverbank and, after passing rows of prayer wheels, deposits you back in the center of the village-like area below the monastery. Enjoy!
2. Drakar Tredzong, Xinghai (Tsigorthang), Qinghai
If you make the effort to come to this sacred site and only visit the Serdzong monastery, you’re missing out on most of what makes this place special – and palpably sacred. The holy peak of Drakar Tredzong is encircled by a 3-6 hour kora route which crosses two passes and, along with its side-routes, offers access to the mountain’s many sacred sites. Awesome views are also on offer, stretching over vast grasslands and high, snowy peaks. There’s also a good chance of seeing wildlife (often antelope and other ungulates), as this area is quite remote. I’m not going to describe the route in detail, but take your time and enjoy exploring the grasslands, valleys and strange little crevices and shrines amidst the limestone behemoth that is Drakar Tredzong. Start at the large chorten at the far end of the monastery, and get swept ever-onward in one of the most beautiful trips imaginable.
3. Labrang, Labrang (Xiahe), Gansu
The Labrang kora is special for the large number of pilgrims constantly encircling the monastery, and the consequent atmosphere of devotion this imparts to the place as a whole. It’s hard not to be swept away by the rapid current of humanity, the fervent prayers being muttered, the desire and hope and belief all swept up in a constant perpetuity of motion. Also, with over 1000 prayer wheels lining three sides of this massive monastery, you’ll get an arm workout along with your walk (only your right arm, though; you’ll have to exercise your left arm elsewhere, or at Bon monasteries, where kora routes are done counterclockwise).
4. Gyanak Mani, Yushu, Qinghai (and Princess Wencheng temple)
The world’s largest mani wall is, even with continuing renovations following the 2010 earthquake, an unbelievable sight. The best way to experience this intensely and almost tangibly sacred place is to join the seemingly endless stream of pilgrims doing koras around this massive pile or rocks. You may meet a family and end up doing countless circumambulations with them, or you may be offered butter tea and tsamba from the massive communal pot at one end of the circuit. Whatever happens, expect to spend longer here than you had originally planned. Also, make sure you do the kora at the Princess Wencheng temple south of town – lots of prayer flays and beautiful views.
5. Monstery, Dawu town, Golog, Qinghai (and Ragya Gonpa)
I don’t even know the name of this small temple on the outskirts of Dawu, the capital of Golog prefecture. However, this place is much beloved of the local population, and is constantly encircled by a crowd which itself is a demographic cross-section of Golog prefecture Tibetans. The monastery is small, but above the sheet-metal buildings is a grassy hill covered by a colossal mound of prayer flags, one of the largest displays I’ve ever seen. Encircling this hill in the company of Golog pilgrims of all ages, before spinning the massive prayer wheels surrounding the monastery, is an awe-inspiring experience. If you want even more merit, follow it up with a kora at the Ragya monastery, one hour to the north on the banks of the Yellow River. The circuit here offers beautiful views of the area, especially if you take the (long) side trip to the top of Chung-ngon, the pillar of crimson sandstone that towers imposingly above the monastery.
There are many more fantastic kora routes in these regions, but there are only five top spots. Other recommended koras include Sershul Gonpa in Sershul, Sichuan; Rongwo Gonpa in Rebgong, Qinghai; Kir$i Gonpa in Langmusi (Taktsang Lhamo), Sichuan/Gansu; Dzogchen Gonpa in Dzogchen (Zhuqing 竹庆乡), Sichuan, and too many others to list. To sum up – if you find yourself at a Tibetan monastery, make sure to do the kora: it will make your visit a surprisingly and fulfillingly spiritual experience – and will give you a taste of the extraordinary sacred power of movement and of the natural world. Enjoy your journey!