Dating back to the 12th century, Palpung is a Tibetan monastery in Babang, a village nestled high in the Chola mountains of Garze Tibetan Autonomous Region of eastern Tibet. Palpung Monastery is home to hundreds of monks that practice the Gelug tradition of Buddhism.

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Six Dharmas of Naropa: An esoteric Buddhist ceremony in the remote mountains of Tibet

Eleanor Moseman | Garze Tibetan Autonomous Region, China

On the 15th day and first full moon of the Lunar New Year, the Six Dharmas of Naropa ceremony is performed at Palpung Monastery near Derge, located in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Region along the eastern mountains of the Tibetan plateau. This ceremony signifies the end of the “Practitioner of Six Dharmas of Tummo,”; a three-year, three-month, three-day monastic retreat performed by the monks of the monastery.

The Six Dharmas of Naropa is a very advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that dates back to 1100 AD. Another name for the Six Dharmas ceremony is "the oral instruction transmission for achieving liberation in the bardo.” Bardo refers to the three states of existence between death and rebirth and between waking and sleep.

As the Tibetan region drastically changes because of globalization and strengthening political forces, these esoteric ceremonies are quickly disappearing. It is important that these practices and rituals are visually conserved with accuracy. This photo essay is to document and record an essential cultural tradition found along the Tibetan plateau to provide historical records for Tibetans, historians, and anthropologists.

Thanks to Kamanamjal for granting me access and permission to document this ceremony in his hometown of Babang.

This project would not have been completed without the help and research conducted by Dr. Ayesha Fuentes.

Dr. Fuentes is an objects conservator and technical historian specializing in material religion. She earned her PhD from SOAS University of London in 2021, writing on the use of human remains in Tibetan and Himalayan ritual objects. She is currently Isaac Newton Trust Research Associate in Conservation at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. For more information about her work, see

On the 15th day and first full moon of the Lunar New Year, the Six Dharmas of Naropa ceremony is performed at Palpung Monastery located in the eastern region of the Tibetan Plateau. Historically this day coincides with the eve of Chunga Choepa (the Butter Lamp Festival) that celebrates the victory of Sakyamuni Buddha over his opponents in a religious debate. This ceremony signifies the end of the “Practitioner of Six Dharmas of Tummo”; a three-year, three-month, three-day monastic retreat performed by the monks of the monastery. The monks conclude the retreat by exiting their dormitories in the mountains to return to the monastery where they will continue their studies and practice.

Palpung Monastery’s origin dates back to the 12th century, the monastery was officially founded in 1727 and continues to have a great influence over the region. The Palpung Monastery has survived the Cultural Revolution, and a number of fires that destroyed most of the monastery and relics. Over several centuries esoteric religious Buddhist practices and rituals have been retained and passed on through the studies of the monastery’s monks.

On the eve of the 15th day of the Lunar calendar, the monks chant in the monastery and eventually reside to a small room where local Tibetans can observe, pray, pay their respects and make offerings to the monks and monastery. The monks have disrobed from their traditional burgundy cloths and wear a simple white cloth to cover their bodies as they chant throughout the night. Graduating from the burgundy cloths, the white robes represent the meditation practice of “Tummo”, or “Inner Fire Meditation”, and brings the practitioner closer to enlightenment. These monks are recognizing light as their essence and will generate a clear white light throughout their lifetime, ending the wait for death and accepting the union and oneness with divine nature in this current lifetime. (To come closer to ending their cycle of Samsara.)

During centuries past, the monks would retreat to the caves of Babang where they would meditate in solitude behind walls of stone, wood, and mud. Locals would climb up the mountains after the three-year, three-month, three-day retreat and tear down the walls to allow the monks to exit and return to the monastery where they would live out their remaining days. Now, during more modern times, this ritual is represented by an activity at the rear entrance of the monastery.

Close to midnight, villagers are pushed out of the monastery and the monks bar the doors shut from the inside. In a reenactment of the ancient tradition, the locals will crowd at the doors and beat on it until sunrise. Younger monks, inside the monastery, stand behind the locked doors while taunting and teasing the crowd on the other side. It is a game for both sides while knowing who will win by daybreak. During these hours, teens and young adults use this time to meander away from family and friends to meet with their crushes or lovers in the shadows created by the bright moonlight.

By the first light of day, the doors have been broken open, the villagers enter, and the monks conclude their chants to make a single kora - a clockwise procession around the monastery.

The kora begins from inside the monastery, as the tummo practitioners exit a room where they have chanted throughout the night. These monks in their white cloths are followed by horn players, flag bearers, and high-ranking monks carrying vessels of incense. They are flanked by onlookers inside the monastery and all around the external perimeter.

Horn players and flag bearers lead the kora. Locals line the edge of the procession to pay tribute and honor the men that have concluded years of solitude and devotion to the teachings of the Buddha. The monks march slowly while chanting deeply. Despite frigid temperatures, the monks, who are wearing only a single white cloth, show no signs of discomfort.

At sunset and after the ceremony concludes, the Butter Lamp Festival begins under a new cycle of the moon. This holiday commemorates Shakyamuni Buddha’s great debating victory over his opponents about 2,500 years ago in India.

There are still limited resources and materials about this ritual as it’s rarely seen and understood by the outside world. Because of my connections to this community, I was granted an insider’s view of this ceremony. The community tells me I am the first outsider to document and share this tradition outside of the Tibetan region. Tibetans know what is happening and what the outcome likely will be. Once this region becomes more relaxed to foreign travel, there are plans to return with greater access to the next ceremony I am invited to witness.

This religious ceremony is among thousands that the Communist Party of China may soon eradicate. This documentation is an effort to preserve visually disappearing traditions. Whether for those of the diaspora around the world looking for ways to connect to their motherland and culture or for historians and anthropologists to understand such a remote region and complex religion. It is crucial for the world to know about ancient traditions that are still practiced. While recognizing that every single act of religious and devotional practice is an act of resistance toward an unrelenting regime.

Dr. Ayesha Fuentes

Kamanamjal, Tibetan monk from the village of Babang


Eleanor Moseman


What is the technology of ritual practice? How is it transmitted between generations and how does it change over time according to different contexts, narratives, resources or values? These questions frame the study of religious performance from an anthropological perspective but cannot approach the why - or even the how - of these collective activities as the combination of inherited forms and an expression of identity. As for what ritual requires of its human participants and provides in return - as the scholar of Tibetan religious life Dan Martin has observed - to some people the nature of this exchange will always remain a mystery.

According to the region’s religious histories, Nāropa was an eleventh century ritual master living in present-day India and an important source for several texts and teaching lineages which are fundamental to Himalayan Buddhist institutions. The techniques and conceptual framework of the six dharmas taught by Nāropa - na ro chos drug in transliterated Tibetan - have been part of ritual practice in this region for at least one thousand years and these photographs document their performance according to an early seventeenth century tradition. Many of Nāropa’s teachings continue to be celebrated, memorized, translated, illustrated and periodically embodied by Vajrayāna practitioners across the Tibetan Plateau and southern Himalayas according to their needs, interests and/or capacity.

Eleanor Moseman’s images reflect the dynamic continuity of this region’s religious traditions as well as their historical, cultural and geographical idiosyncrasies. From the cotton cloth worn by monks otherwise sustained by their internal yogic heat to digital images captured by an audience of lay practitioners, from blue plastic surgical masks to the painted wooden beams characteristic of buildings in this part of eastern Tibet, this book describes a ritual community in its specific natural and social context. Moreover - seemingly motivated by joy and an uncomplicated curiosity - Moseman manages to capture indications of both the historical longevity of this performance and its potential for adaptation. Here are practices which are neither eternal nor constructed but rather the expression of a collective and intangible effort by those who have been and remain “within” the tradition of Vajrayāna (in Tibetan, nang pa).
Moseman’s photographs may not be able to communicate the entire sensory experience of this ritual in its setting - the smell of incense released from a textile in motion or the press of a stranger’s body at the doorway to a temple - but they nevertheless represent its density and complexity. At the same time, these images document a series of the infinite connections between people, objects, deities and environments which are characteristic and essential to this community and ritual efficacy in general, provided one is receptive to these gifts.

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