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Samye: A Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism
by Mikel Dunham
2004

It's a miracle that the legendary Tibetan Buddhist monastery Samye has managed to survive for over 1,200 years. Major fires have threatened it. It has stood up to Tibet's cruel weather and punishing elements. But Samye's biggest foe has been man, in the form of China's Red Army. In the name of the Cultural Revolution, Samye's sacred and irreplaceable texts were burned, many of its timeless paintings were desecrated and monks were expelled or murdered. Today, although Samye is still visited by Tibetan pilgrims who understand its sanctity, it lives uneasily in the shadow of China's ongoing spiritual oppression. Samye is one of the holiest places on earth, and author Mikel Dunham has captured its spirit in words and, especially, in pictures. Samye: a Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism is a stunning and moving book.

Dunham is perhaps the only Westerner who could have fully grasped the magic and majesty of Samye. A successful artist who had already traveled to many foreign lands, he made his first trip to the Himalayas in 1989. Eventually he learned the art of painting thankghas with Pema Wangya (in fact, he was the master's last student). Dunham eventually went on to paint murals for Tibetan temples in India and New York. In 2000 the Vajrakilaya Foundation sent him to Tibet to create a photographic record of Samye's fragile treasures. Dunham accomplished his mission, and much more. Through his lens, we are able to experience Samye's timeless beauty and share a small taste of the spiritual joy that is the lifeblood of its pilgrims and monks. Tibetan holy men come to life in ancient, colorful paintings. Samye's Stupas stand fiercely, framed by the vast mountain range. Smooth-skinned monks and weathered pilgrims share a spiritual devotion that's as delightful as it is dedicated. Dunham's words are also eloquent. His text relates the history of Samye in a lively manner that compliments the paintings and statues of gods and historical figures. Dunham also brings to life the Samye of the twenty-first century - damaged, but still standing, a jewel set in an imposing landscape, tended to and loved by worshippers who revere its eternal value.

For the majority of people, Samye: a Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism is as close as they will get to seeing the actual place. (Sadly, one of these is the Dalai Lama, who has written the book's forward.) Mikel Dunham's book is a magnificently spiritual work that has somehow managed to do justice to its sacred subject.

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