If you’re travelling down the Friendship Hwy and want to get a taste of what off the beaten track looks like, consider a few hours’ scenic diversion along the Yarlung Tsangpo to this monastery, situated at the edge of a gargantuan sand dune. The monastery's pre–Cultural Revolution ruined fort, seated high on a rocky crag, just adds to the photogenic atmosphere.
Now home to 50 monks, Phuntsoling was founded in 1615 and was once the central monastery of the Jonangpa. This Kagyu sect is especially known for the examination of the nature of emptiness undertaken at the monastery by its greatest scholar, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361). He was one of the first proponents of the hard-to-grasp notion of shentong. Roughly, this is based on the idea that the buddha-mind (which transcends all forms) is not ultimately empty, even though all forms are empty illusions. (No, we don't get it either…)
Shentong has been debated among Buddhist philosophers for seven centuries. The Gelugpa school did not share Dolpopa’s view, to the point that, in the 17th century, the fifth Dalai Lama suppressed the Jonangpa school and forcibly converted Phuntsoling into a Gelugpa institution.
The monastery was expanded by the writer and scholar Taranatha (1575–1634), whose next incarnation was the first Bogd Gegeen (spiritual leader) of Mongolia. Thereafter, the monastery was closely associated with the Bogd Gegeens, which is why you will see pictures of the 8th and 9th incarnations in front of the main altar. The ninth Bogd fled to India as a young man but revisited Phuntsoling in 1986 and 1993, helping to reopen the monastery following its closure during the Cultural Revolution.
You can visit the monastery’s large assembly hall, which is lined with dusty 17th century murals and dominated by a 2400-year-old statue of Sakyamuni, which was broken apart during the Cultural Revolution and repaired several decades later. Other statues include those of the 10th Panchen Lama, Tsongkhapa and the fifth Dalai Lama. The inner sanctum of the hall contains a statue of Mikyöba (Akshobhya), while the murals on the upper floor (also 17th century) tell the story of the life of Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa).
If you have extra time, it is a pleasant, steep walk up to the ruined old monastery buildings and fortifications behind the current site, which offer stunning views of the valley. Look for the ruined dzong (fort) on a cliff across the Yarlung Tsangpo.
A festival is held at Phuntsoling around the middle of the fourth lunar month (equivalent to June/July) every year, and sees lamas and pilgrims from all over the county gathering in the courtyard for prayers and celebrations.
About 6km south of Phuntsoling are the ruins of the once-spectacular Jonang Kumbum. The former 20m-high chörten was built by Dolpopa in the 14th century and was the spiritual centre of the Jonangpas. It was said to be one of the best-preserved monuments in Tibet, resembling the Gyantse Kumbum, before it was wrecked during the Cultural Revolution. Sadly, it's currently off limits to international visitors.
The monastery restaurant serves simple potato curries, shapathu (yak-meat dumpling noodles served in bone broth with shredded radish and green onion) and the most luxurious sweet tea in Tibet, all made by a resident monk-chef.
Phuntsoling can be visited on the way between Shigatse and Lhatse. Take the road north of the Friendship Hwy at kilometre marker 4977/8, from which point the monastery is 34km northwest (less than an hour’s drive). After visiting the monastery you can continue 61km to rejoin the Friendship Hwy near Lhatse Chöde.