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Jokhang Temple: History & Destruction

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

If you only have a chance to see one Buddhist temple, this one's not a bad option. In this lesson, we'll check out the Jokhang Temple and see what makes it so important.

Jokhang Temple

Catholic churches have a long history of collecting and venerating relics. The more closely something is associated with Christ, the more spiritually valuable it is. Just imagine what the Vatican would think if they found a statue of Christ carved in Jesus's lifetime by one of the apostles.

With that image in mind, perhaps we can begin to appreciate the significance of Jokhang Temple, located over 11,000 feet above sea level in the city of Lhasa, Tibet. Lhasa is Tibet's political and cultural capital, as well as the center of Tibetan Buddhism. There are many important sites in Lhasa, but one of the oldest and most sacred is the Jokhang Temple.

Jokhang Temple of Lhasa, Tibet
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Origins of Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Temple is one of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism, and dates back to the early years of Buddhism in Tibet. The story starts around 641 CE, when the ruler who had unified Tibet, Songstan Gambo, made an agreement with the ruler of China's Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong. As a symbol of their improved political relationship, Taizong sent his daughter, Princess Wencheng, to be Songstan Gambo's bride.

Princess Wencheng arrived at a time when various disasters had been rocking Tibet. According to tradition, she was gifted in astrology and ordered a Buddhist temple to be built in order to drive away demons. In other versions of the story, Songstan Gambo decided to build a temple in order to house a very important Buddhist relic that the princess had brought as her dowry. Either way, the site chosen for the temple was a lake.

Over years, workers brought buckets of sand and dirt up the hill to fill the lake so the temple could be built. The locals started calling the place ''Rasa,'' which means ''Land of goats.'' This name later became Lhasa.

When the temple was finally completed later in the 640s, it was named Jokhang, meaning ''House of Buddha.'' Archaeological studies suggest that the original temple contained eight rooms of religious images. It became a very important site in spreading Tibetan Buddhism, particularly against the native Bon religion.

The temple was expanded again and again over time, now containing literally hundreds of thousands of sacred carvings, relics, and statues. Today, it is an extremely important religious and cultural center and a revered site in the history of Tibetan architecture. Among the features that are hard to miss is a roof made of gold.

Overview of the entire Jokhang Temple at Lhasa
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The Jowo Rinpoche

So, what was this sacred relic that Princess Wencheng brought to Tibet? It was the Jowo Rinpoche, also called the Jowo Shakyamuni. This five-foot-tall gilt metal statue depicts the Buddha Shakyamuni, also known as Siddhartha Gautama. For those who have studied Buddhism, yes, this is the original Buddha.

Any image of the Buddha Shakyamuni is sacred, but the Jowo Rinpoche is particularly important because it is said to have been carved in the Buddha's lifetime, when he was about 12 years old. The statue depicts the Buddha seated in the lotus position, with one hand in the dhyana mudra (the meditation gesture) and the other in the bhumisparsha mudra (the gesture of calling the earth to witness), which together symbolize the moment in which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Because of the statue's direct connection to the historic Buddha himself, the image is like an avatar of the religious leader. It is dressed in ceremonial clothing on holy days, food is presented to it, and it is revered more than any other sacred object in all of Tibet. This is the single most important statue in Tibetan Buddhism.

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