A Window on Tibetan Culture: Circumambulation or Kora

Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Khandro la at the Boudha stupa.

Visit Buddhist places in Tibet, India and Nepal and you will find people walking with a determined air around buildings and other structures they consider sacred. This practice of literally walking around something as a mark of respect originated at the time of the Buddha.

The Heap of Jewels Sutra describes the Buddha's leading disciple, Maudgalyayana, bowing before the Buddha and reverentially circumambulating him seven times before addressing him. With regard to sacred objects representing the Buddha, many of the significant events of the Buddha's life took place under trees, which in time became the focus of acts of reverence. The Buddha spent more than twenty rainy seasons in a park near the northern Indian city of Shravasti and when his disciple Ananda asked him how or where devotees could pay their respects when the Buddha himself was not present, he indicated the tree under which he regularly sat. Shortly before his death, the Buddha remarked to Ananda:

'Bhikshus, after my passing away, all sons and daughters who are of good family and are faithful should as long as they live, go to the four holy places and remember: Here at Lumbini, the enlightened one was born; here at Bodh Gaya he attained enlightenment; here at Sarnath he turned the Wheel of Dharma; and there at Kushinagar he entered Parinirvana. Bhikshus, after my passing away there will be activities such as circumambulation of these places and reverence to them. '

Following the Buddha's demise, dome shaped monuments known as stupas were erected to enshrine relics from his cremation. Being solid structures, stupas could not be entered, so as was the case with the trees associated with the Buddha, walking around them mindful of their significance was a natural way of paying them respect.

In Tibet, circumambulation became widespread. People walked respectfully round sacred objects that could range in size and significance from the reliquaries known as stupas or chörtens that dotted the landscape, to temples that contain images of the Buddha and collections of scriptures, to entire monasteries or even mountains, such as Kailash in the western province of Ngari. Such objects might be as small as a lama's teaching throne or a cairn of mani stones on top of a mountain pass.

People mostly walk around these objects to earn religious merit, the basis of a better life in the future and the foundation of any progress on the spiritual path. The practice is simple and easy - anyone can do it. What's more, it is intensely practical because it allows you to involve all three fields of human action, physical, verbal and mental at the same time, by simultaneously walking, reciting mantras and cultivating the aspiration to benefit all sentient beings. In a landscape filled with sacred objects it is easy to earn merit simply going about your daily life. At Norbulingka, His Holiness's Temple in Dharamsala, people walk round one side of the temple on their way to work and round the other side on their way home. The elderly and retired spend much of the day circling the temple, and piles of small stones on the window sills are evidence of their keeping a record of their rounds.

The pre-eminent circumambulation in Tibet that virtually every Tibetan aspired to do was around the Jokhang, in Lhasa, the most sacred temple in the land. In Dharamsala, near the residence of H.H the Dalai Lama, a steady stream of people circles the Theckchen Chöling temple and the Kalachakra temple next to it. Many spin prayer wheels as they go or count mantras on their rosaries. Besides the standard refuge prayer, the mantra recommended for circumambulation is Om Mani Padme Hum, as well as the following: Om Namo Bhagawate Ratna Kitu Rajaya Tathagataya Arhate Samyaksam Buddhaya Tayatha Om Ratne Ratne Maha Ratne Ratne Vijaya Soha.

Another, more elaborate kora is that around Mount Kailash, the holy mountain in Tibet. It is said that doing seven koras of Mount Kailash during the special year of the horse will close the lower realms forever.

A similar thing is said about the stupa in Svoyambu, where you need to do 17 koras in one day to achieve the same result.

The practice can be done at any time, but the 8th, 10th, 15th, 25th and 30th days of the Tibetan lunar month are regarded as propitious occasions, while nearly everyone makes special effort during the fourth Tibetan month of Saka Dawa, when the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and nirvana are commemorated.

The Wheel of Life portrays the cycle of birth and death in which sentient beings find themselves. Circumambulation is a way of breaking the circle.

Kopan Monastery
(Nepal Buddhist Mahayana Center Gompa)

Kopan Monastery is affiliated with FPMT
(Foundation for the preservation of the Mahayana Tradition)