Sertar, the “Golden Horse” in Tibetan comprises 17 town and 66 villages. It inhabits over 40,000 Buddhist monks and nuns.
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The place is mainly known because it is home to the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world, founded in 1980 by lama Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok.
Sêrtar started off with just few monks. Within few decades, houses tens of thousands of monks and pilgrims, the vast majority of Sêrtar population. However, according to an eight-point document issued by the Chinese authorities, the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute would be reduced in size and thousands of monks and nuns will have to leave by 2018. According to The Land of Snows “foreign travelers are NOT permitted to travel to the area at Larung Gar or to the nearby county town of Sêrtar, most likely for the next 12 to 18 months”. The demolition order was aimed at proper regulation and management of Larung Gar Buddhist institute. According to the London-based Free Tibet group, in July 2016 China has started demolishing buildings at Larung Gar: the local authorities received the order to cut the number of Larung Gar residents by half to 5,000.
Images of Sertar demolition
Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok
At the age of two Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was identified as the reincarnation of the Terton Sogyal, Lerab Lingpa (1852–1926). Khenpo established the Serthar Buddhist Institute in 1980, Larung Gar, a non-sectarian study center with approximately 10,000 monks, nuns, and lay students at its highest count.
“He played an important role in revitalizing the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism following the liberalization of religious practice in 1980. In 1987 Jigme Phuntsok met and befriended the Ninth Panchen Lama. In 1989 he also met the 14th Dalai Lama, whom he refused to denounce, much to the chagrin of the Chinese Communist Party. After this the Chinese government refused him permission to travel for any reason. Around 1999 the Sichuan United Work Front pressed him on the issue of his support for the Dalai Lama, and demanded that he reduce the number of students at the Institute (either to 150 or to 1400, depending on reports).
Jigme Phuntsok refused. In summer of 2001 several thousand members of the People’s Armed Police and the Public Security Bureau descended on the site, razing its structures and dispersed its students.” In 2001, few houses were demolished and hundred of monks nad nuns were expelled. In 2012 a monk self-immolated in Larung Gar. [Wikipedia]
Sertar is one of the few places in Sichuan where Sky Burial (Tibetan Ritual Dissection) is still practiced today. Sky burial is an ancient funerary practice wherein a human corpse is incised in certain location and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to vultures.
Images of Larung Gar
“Despite its remote location, it grew from a handful of disciples gathering in Khenpo’s home to be one of the largest and most influential centers for the study of Tibetan Buddhism in the world, numbering to nearly 10,000 monks, nuns, and lay disciples by the year 2000.
Overall, the student body of Serthar Institute was made up of monks, nuns, lay “vow-holders” of both Tibetan and Chinese origins, and tantric practitioners. They studied under four major religious divisions in the Institute: Ngarig Nangten Lobling, International Religious Committee, Pema Khandro Duling Nunnery, and Lektso Charbeb Ling. Ngarig Nangten Lobling consisted of 2,500 Tibetan monks. Lektso Charbeb Ling is the section that trained over 1,000 lay Tibetan “vow-holders” and tantric practitioners from Sêrtar and other regions of Tibet.
Pema Khandro Duling Nunnery was the home for study to approximately 3,500-4,000 nuns from all regions of Tibet. More than half of those who came to Serthar were women and the curriculum allowed nuns to achieve a coveted Khenpo degree for the first time in Tibetan history. Entry into the relatively small number of nunneries that exist in other areas of Tibet is limited, but Serthar was open to virtually anyone who genuinely sought to become a student of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s ecumenical vision. Khenpo’s niece, Jetsunma Mumso, was recognized as a tulku and heads the order of nuns. The term is descriptive of certain teachers in Tibet who are thought to reincarnate over a number of generations.
Roughly ten percent of the nearly 10,000 students attending Serthar were ethnic Han people. They attended separate classes taught in Standard Chinese while larger classes were taught in Standard Tibetan. The International Religious Committee oversaw 1,000 disciples from regions of the People’s Republic of China and students from other Asian countries.
Serthar Institute has operated with a standing executive committee of seven learned lamas, but major decisions were confirmed and implemented only after consultation with Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok. Serthar Institute has been home to over 500 khenpos—holders of Bachelor’s degrees in divinity—and widely renowned for the high quality of both its religious and secular education. English, Chinese, and Tibetan languages and modern computer studies have been taught alongside traditional non-sectarian Buddhist curriculum.” [Wikipedia]