While the depth of faith in Buddhism and the Dalai Lama has not changed after five decades of occupation, the adaptation and reinvention of religious expression have become key to the survival of Tibetan Buddhist faith.
Adaptation is the primary tool Tibetans use to maintain the practice of religion in China-occupied Tibet. The people have been forced to remain malleable in their expression of religious faith and yet they are today, over four decades after the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, as faithful to Buddhism and to the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader, as they were before the 1949 invasion. And this is so despite what the People’s Republic of China (PRC) leaders and Chinese media may say, in articles such as the one in Xinhua newspaper entitled “Support for Dalai Dwindles” (March 2001). The state mouthpiece reported a poll in which 86 percent of Tibetans in Lhasa considered the Dalai Lama a “separatist and a politician”. This is propaganda that few China- and Tibet-watchers take seriously.
There is often an assumption by Tibetan support groups in the West, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and writers on current Tibetan affairs that there are blanket policies emanating from Beijing that cover all elements of Tibet’s religious life. This myth of ‘totalisation’, the false belief that one situation represents the whole of the experience, is counter-productive, giving, as it does, a false impression of the state of affairs. One example is reporting of the kind that implies that because a few nuns at one convent in Lhasa were expelled, all nuns in the Tibetan Autonomous Region are at risk. This kind of myth is created by repeated generalisations that propose a homogenous policy of religious suppression is carried out dutifully in all corners of Tibet by government cadre. Repetition makes the myth self-perpetuating and soon it passes into the realm of ‘knowledge’ on Tibet.
It is not always so readily apparent what polices are brewing behind the high walls of the offices of the Chinese Communist Party and Religious Affairs Bureau in Beijing even though analysts abound worldwide whose job it is to decipher these signals. Clearly, when it comes to on-the-ground application, whatever policies may emerge from Beijing, these polices are not implemented uniformly throughout the monasteries, nunneries and other religious institutions across the Tibetan plateau.
Tibetans are attempting to quietly carry out their religious practice in the face of formidable obstacles set up by China’s state bureaucracy. These obstacles include the United Front Work Department, the Religious Affairs Bureau, the Tibetan Buddhist Association and the Democratic Management Committees in monasteries, political education teams, work inspection teams and a host of security organs. While there is much speculation on what it must be like to be a Tibetan Buddhist in Tibet today, there is little known that is not inspired by either the Chinese state or by counteractive perceptions of the Chinese state. Certainly, much can be said about Tibetan Buddhist expression, and the often brutal repression of it in Tibet today, but a few anecdotes from Tibet should illuminate the resilience of religious expression and the nature of Tibetan Buddhism as it is practised in its native land.
In the eastern region of Tibet traditionally known as Kham, now incorporated into Sichuan province, the phenomenon of ‘monastic encampments’ (gar) has developed over the last decade. These camps that house monks and nuns from across Tibet, and have a significant number of Chinese students as well, have formed around charismatic lamas in remote areas far from, but not out of the reach of, local government cadre. None of them have significant ties to pre-1959 monastic institutions, hence there is no history of conflict. Neither are they “rebuilt” monasteries that had been destroyed before or during the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, the gar are not administered or run as traditional monasteries but function more as secluded meditation retreat centres. The number of monks and nuns that they house vary greatly. From a couple hundred at the smaller ones to 3000 at Yachen Gar in Payul (Chinese: Baiyu) county in Sichuan, by last year an estimated 10,000 monks and nuns lived in small mediation huts at Larung Gar near Serthar in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) prefecture.
Yachen Gar was home to a few hundred Chinese students and Larung Gar hosted nearly 1000 Chinese-speaking students from China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. All were expelled on order of Chinese government officials in the summer and fall of 2001. Before the expulsions, Chinese-speaking lamas at both encampments oversaw the Chinese language curriculum, which included simultaneous translation of the teachings by religious leaders like Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (at Larung Gar) and Achuk Khen Rinpoche (at Yachen Gar). While the Tibetan and Chinese students followed the same teacher, there were ethnic tensions. As one Chinese nun who studied at both encampments before being expelled said, “Some Chinese at Larung Gar say that the Chinese and Tibetan monks and nuns at Larung Gar are like shining stars in the night sky; we are both beautiful in our own space but if we collide, then there will be a large explosion. Perhaps they are right”.
There are around a dozen gars in Kham. Nevertheless, the earthen and mud adobe homes of the encampments, spacious teachings halls, and apolitical teachers that comprise the encampments have become the only place anywhere in Tibet or China where students can receive a comprehensive Buddhist education. In addition to receiving teachings and instructions on philosophy, students are introduced to the core of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Essential to these meditation practices are the oral transmissions of scripture and meditation texts, empowerments into tantric practice, and the pith instructions for meditation.
For decades since the Dalai Lama and most other senior teachers fled Tibet, the focus of monks and nuns in search of religious education had been on how to evade border authorities and escape to India to the monasteries in exile. Today, the gars serve as centres for spiritual gravitation; a draw for thousands of monks and nuns who are restricted by Beijing’s polices from searching out adequate Buddhist instructions in their home areas.
While there were monastic camps in pre-1959 Tibet, the particular formation of the current ones as well as the sheer numbers found in eastern Tibet is a recent phenomenon. This boom can in part be attributed to the strict controls that have been placed on traditional monasteries and religious practitioners. One of the most relentless efforts to control religious institutions and practitioners began in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in 1996 with the “patriotic education” campaign. Government-driven patriotic education is still in full force today across the Tibetan plateau including Kham and Amdo.
Patriotic education aims to instruct and test all monks, nuns and teachers in every monastery and nunnery across the Tibetan plateau on the correct view of religion, law, history and the Dalai Lama. Work teams of Communist Party cadre, both Chinese and Tibetan, conduct study sessions lasting a few weeks up to many months at the monastic institutions. Often work teams become a permanent feature at those monasteries that are historically significant, high profile to tourists or politically active. Examples of this include Labrang Tashikyil in Amdo (Qinghai province), Litang monastery in Kham (Sichuan province) and Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet, home to the teenage Karmapa who fled Tibet in 2000. In March 1998, the patriotic education programme was extended to schools and to the ‘citizens’ of Tibet.
One of the primary aims of the patriotic education programme is to encourage disavowal of allegiance to the Dalai Lama and to discredit him as a religious teacher. This includes signing written statements condemning the Dalai Lama as a fraud and “splittist”. At a July 2002 meeting of the Directors of People’s Management of Monasteries, Li Liguo, Deputy Party Secretary in Lhasa and leader of the Regional Group for Monastery and Religious Affairs, stated clearly what the duty of monastics is with respect to the Dalai Lama. The Lhasa Xizang Ribao daily newspaper reported Liguo as stating, “Monks and nuns… should be bold in exposing and criticising the Dalai Lama in order to clearly understand the Dalai Lama’s political reactionary nature and religious hypocrisy and to enhance their awareness of patriotism”. Discrediting the Dalai Lama is one of the most pernicious aspects of the PRC’s patriotic education because it contravenes a fundamental monastic vow of not disparaging one’s root teacher.
Patriotic education and other such coercive measures aimed at religious practitioners have proved to be difficult to carry out in the gars of eastern Tibet. The encampments are unconventional, remaining outside established patterns of religious institutional and organisational structures that Chinese officials are used to controlling. There is no formal admission to the encampments and monks and nuns often return to their home monastery after attending a series of teachings. The monastics here do not gather for daily chanting sessions as they do in traditional monasteries and nunneries. Rather, the monastic body gathers as a whole only when teachings and empowerments are being given. A loose organisational hierarchy prevails at the gar, as opposed to the more rigid system of traditional monasteries in Tibet. The prominent incarnate lamas who give religious authority to the encampments attempt to remain outside any administrative role that would place them in contact with local and provincial government cadre. Nearly all the teachers offer teachings in an ecumenical style, as opposed to the sectarianism that is found among some Tibetan Buddhist teachers. This teaching style allows a for a much wider pool of disciples because students can come from any region and any ‘school’ (including Nyingma, Gelug, Sakya, Kagyu, Jonangpa, Bon as well as Chinese Chan Buddhist), and then return to their home areas to practice and often teach themselves.
Chinese government officials are confounded by a system whose organisational formation they do not understand, and by the sheer numbers living under institutions that fall outside the pale of their administrative system. Because of their enigmatic nature, places such as Larung Gar and Yachen Gar and the lamas who teach there are often seen as un-controllable and thus a threat. In spite of this suspicion, many lamas have developed a close relationship with local government leaders, and this often translates into political currency. Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, however, are examples of what happens when there is a perceived threat and political currency runs dry. Both encampments experienced mass expulsions of monks and nuns, and both saw the demolition of thousands of meditation huts. The destruction at Larung Gar in particular was on a scale not witnessed since the Cultural Revolution and has been well documented by non-governmental organisations, human rights watchdog groups and foreign governments.
“The so-called issue of Tibet is the main pretext for western countries, including the United States, to westernise and split our country. Western countries, including the United States, want to topple our country and further the cause of their own social and value systems and national interests. In order to achieve this, they will never stop using the Tibet issue to westernise and split our country and weaken our power. The Dalai clique has never changed its splittist nature; it has never stopped its activities to split our country. Therefore, our struggle against the Dalai clique and hostile western forces is long-drawn, serious and complicated” – Zhao Qizheng, minister in charge of the Information Office of the State Council at a meeting of National Research in Tibetology and External Propaganda, 12 June 2000.
The PRC makes it abundantly clear to foreign governments and Tibetans and Chinese alike that the Dalai Lama is the most problematic of their problems in Tibet and a concern for their international image. State-sponsored media and government leaders express this quite publicly. Because the PRC accuses the Dalai Lama and those who work with him with attempting to “split the motherland”, any activity whatsoever that has to do with the Dalai Lama is by extension seen as “splittist” activity. In 1995, a renewed offensive was made on the Dalai Lama, which included banning his photographs and intensifying media attacks on the Dalai Lama as a religious fraud. This was a change from the 1980s when the Dalai Lama was attacked primarily as a political leader. In Tibet today, religious devotion to the Dalai Lama, including acts such as listening or watching audio or video cassettes about or by the Dalai Lama or conducting any secular or religious ceremony in the Dalai Lama’s name are seen as acts of political rebellion. Hence, local government departments regularly issue and enforce strict regulations on politically sensitive dates such as 6 July, the Dalai Lama’s birthday, or 10 December, International Human Rights Day and on the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize. On 24 June 2001, the Lhasa City Government posted citywide notices which stated, among other items: “The People’s Government… forbids any person, any group, or any organisation, in any form or in any place to use any situation to represent celebrating the Dalai’s birthday, to pray to the Dalai for blessing, to sing prohibited songs, to offer incense to the Dalai, or to carry out barely-flower-throwing illegal activities”.
While authorities and security personnel in Lhasa on 6 July and other dates keep a keen eye open and the detention cells ready for use, a contrary event occurs every Wednesday. On that day, Tibetans across Tibet and in particular in Lhasa carry out intensive popular religious practices, more than on any other day of the week. These include devotional practices such as circumambulating and prostrating in front of the Potala and Jokhang temples, making offerings of burning juniper incense, pouring alcohol in traditional vessels in front of the Tibet’s protector deity, Palden Lhamo, and tossing barley flour into the air. Why Wednesday? According to the complex Tibetan astrological calendar, the Dalai Lama’s birth sign falls on that day. As with many days in the Tibetan calendar which are deemed to be auspicious, pious and devoted behaviour is believed to carry special weight on these days.
This unorganised yet massive expression of devotion to the Dalai Lama that is evident on Wednesdays took place in a similar fashion before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. But because of the political climate now and the volatility that surrounds the figure of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, according to elderly Lhasa residents, the Wednesday observances are carried out with even more vigour than before 1959. When asked about the possibility of police questioning prompted by these observances a 65-year old Tibetan man responded, “What do you think, will they ban Wednesdays?”
Lamas and comedians
Innovative ways to express religious ideals can be seen in Tibetan pop culture as well. Religious expression is well apparent in the many bootlegged music cassette recordings of pop and folk songs. Stand-up comedians also bring to light religious ideals through their humour. Across the Tibetan plateau, from dusty wind-swept small towns to the large Sinocised cities in Tibet, one will find music cassettes interspersed with those of Tibetan Buddhist teachers giving teachings or simply chanting Buddhist scriptures. The cassettes are recorded and informally distributed by students of the specific lama whose voice and name appear on the cassette. Some of the more popular teachers’ cassettes found throughout all regions of Tibet are Lamrim Rinpoche from Drepung monastery, the previous Panchen Lama, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok from Larung Gar, and Achuk Khen Rinpoche from Yachen Gar. Invariably, the cover of the cassette tape will depict the individual lama in a celebrated form with various Buddhist deities hovering over him.
The mixture of pop and folk music with Buddhist teachings in these cassettes represents more of young Tibetan monks’ interests and less a marketing ploy. Nonetheless, it is a new kind of expression of popular religious practice. When a monk in Kandze (Chinese: Garze) was asked if the cassette recording of him playing the dramyin, a traditional Tibetan guitar, was a violation of the monk’s vow not to indulge in mundane music and dance, he responded, “All my music is an offering to my lama. That is why I put his photo on the cover of the cassette”. In addition to low budget’ cassette bootlegs, professionally produced video compact discs and digital videodiscs of Tibetan pop music videos that have stars singing and demonstrating devotion to lamas are prevalent throughout Tibet. In the classic karaoke VCD and DVD style, the words of the song (in Tibetan and Chinese language both) run continually on the bottom of the television screen. In monasteries throughout Tibet, monks gather in the evening after their nightly prayers in front of the television to watch the Tibetan equivalent of Hrithik Roshan or Bono singing Tibetan pop tunes that intermingle with long life prayers to Tibetan lamas and praises to Manjushri, Chenrezig and other Buddhist deities.
On Lhasa television, as well as recordings on VCD and DVD, two of the most famous Tibetan comedians use humour in subtle skits to emphasise the importance of symbols of Tibetan Buddhism. One particular joke involves the most revered statue in all of Tibet, Jowo Shakyamuni. Hundreds of devotees daily, and on special occasions, thousands, make traditional butter lamp and silk scarf offerings and prostrations to the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni. The Jowo statue portrays the historical Buddha in his youth and was part of the dowry of the Chinese wife of Tibet’s King Songtsen Gampo, Princess Wen Chen, in the seventh century. The Jowo is located today in the inner sanctum in the Jokhang, Lhasa’s central and most important temple. Tibetans often say that one must see Jowo Rinpoche at least once in their lifetime.
The joke is told by two stand-up comedians, Migmar and Thubten. The latter pretends he is the Jowo statue. Migmar is a cunning Tibetan art thief who enters the Jokhang late at night to lure Jowo out of the temple. “You must be so bored. All these long years here in the same cold, dark temple. You have to breathe all this butter lamp smoke, day after day”, Migmar, the art thief, commiserates with Jowo. “Year after year you sit here in the same clothes, listening to same ol’ prayers. Say, why don’t you come with me on vacation. I’ll take you to a nice place in Hong Kong and then to a really nice cosy home in America. You will be able to visit all your other statue friends who left many years ago”. At this point in the joke, the laughing crowd has understood the poking of fun at illegal antique dealers and art thieves and know that their Jowo is not going to have anything to do with the enticements offered. The skit continues in this vein until the gilded statue exclaims to Migmar, “You silly little man, who do you think you are? I’m staying here with the Tibetan people!”
Article 36 of China’s constitution states, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief… The state protects normal religious activities”. Crackdowns at monastic encampments in eastern Tibet, the continuation of patriotic education, and the Chinese government’s intransigence towards religious devotion to the Dalai Lama are but a few examples demonstrate that Tibetan Buddhists do not enjoy freedom of religion under Chinese rule today. Yet, the innovations of Kham should remind those outside Tibet that there is still today, in some areas, authentic transmission of Tibetan Buddhism. Popular religious practice in the name of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa and other communities is still happening on a weekly basis. And Tibetans are finding new and innovative ways in monasteries and popular culture to express and communicate the importance of Buddhism in their lives.
This adaptation of Tibetan religious expression is analogous to the power and fluidity of a river. Dropping steeply off the Tibetan plateau into Asia’s major river systems, Tibet’s waters trickle through the rocky alpine mountains, flow into the arid valleys, and crash into the Himalayan foothills and jungle, overcoming the obstacles in their way. So it is with Tibetan religious expression; adapting to the current environment keeps the river of Tibetan Buddhism flowing.