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<-Back to WTN Archives A struggle for spiritual freedom in China (WP)
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World Tibet Network News

Published by the Canada Tibet Committee

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

8. A struggle for spiritual freedom in China (WP)

The Washington Post
March 10, 2004

Buddhist center perseveres after crackdown

By Philip P. Pan

SERTAR - The young Chinese monk had traveled more than a thousand miles to
study with Buddhist teachers here. He had built a crude cabin in the
mountains, and made it his home. But then police decided to force him to
leave, part of a campaign to control a sprawling religious settlement in
this remote Tibetan region in Sichuan province.

As officers at a guardhouse finished the paperwork to expel him, the young
monk pulled a hood over his shaven head to hide a smile. "I'm not really
going," he whispered, before stepping into the freezing cold and moving down
the road as ordered.

A few hours later, the monk returned, slipping past the police and climbing
a narrow, twisting road through falling snow in a local vehicle. In a valley
ahead, wisps of gray smoke rose from a vast encampment as crowds of monks
and nuns in red robes strolled along paths among assembly halls, temples,
market stalls and cabins.

"There are so many people here," said the young monk, Ji, who asked to be
identified only by his surname. "How can the police make me leave if they
can't find me?"

His expulsion and quick return to Larung Gar, one of the world's most
influential centers for the study of Tibetan Buddhism, was a small twist in
a profound conflict now unfolding in China.

Founded 24 years ago, Larung Gar grew into the country's largest monastic
community, with as many as 10,000 residents, before the ruling Communist
Party began trying to control it and to expel settlers in the late 1990s.
Its struggle to survive the crackdown and maintain its independence from the
party illustrates how the faithful are pushing the bounds of freedom of
religion and association in China -- and what happens when the state pushes

The Chinese government allows people to worship only in party-run churches,
mosques and temples, considers any autonomous religious organization a
potential threat and routinely imprisons priests, monks and others. But
Larung Gar's ability to survive and flourish suggests the party is no longer
able to crush all independent spiritual activity, or is unwilling to risk
the popular backlash that might result if it tries.

A quarter-century after China abandoned Mao Zedong's rigid version of
socialism in favor of free-market reforms, the Chinese enjoy greater
prosperity and personal freedom than ever under Communist rule. But the
state still attempts to maintain control over a broad spectrum of society,
from public affairs to the arts and religion.

The friction that results is a defining characteristic of life in modern
China, where people are testing, and often redefining, the limits of what
the authorities will permit. Controlling this popular pressure -- sometimes
with repression, sometimes with restraint -- is one of the central
challenges confronting the party as it seeks to preserve a monopoly on power
at a time of rising social discontent and wrenching economic change.

Steering clear of politics

Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, a heavyset man with a broad, weathered face, founded
Larung Gar. A charismatic leader, the khenpo, or abbot, presented himself as
the reincarnation of a teacher of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader, and as a holy figure who could discover artifacts hidden
by ancient Buddhist leaders. He was known as a brilliant scholar and an
eloquent speaker, even in his later years, when he was partially blind and
could not walk without support.

When Jigme Phuntsok established Larung Gar in western Sichuan in 1980, this
desolate valley 13,000 feet above sea level and 600 miles northeast of Lhasa
was entirely uninhabited. At the time, China was only beginning to recover
from Mao's destructive Cultural Revolution, which hit Tibetan areas
particularly hard and interrupted the education of a generation of monks and
nuns. Jigme Phuntsok was one of the few senior lamas who made it through the
period without being imprisoned or tortured, and his academy quickly came to
be seen as a haven. Students flocked there from across Tibet and Tibetan
areas in neighboring provinces.

For years, Larung Gar thrived. The khenpo's teachings tapped into Tibetan
nationalism by recalling the glory of the ancient Tibetan empire, and he
welcomed adherents of all Buddhist sects, not just his own. But as Larung
Gar grew, Jigme Phuntsok was also careful to steer the community away from
politics, his followers said, discouraging activities that might be viewed
as supporting Tibetan independence, which is fiercely opposed by the Chinese
authorities. Still, the party was never fully comfortable with him.

Larung Gar escaped largely untouched when the party cracked down on
monasteries across Tibet in the late 1980s and the 1990s, jailing and
defrocking thousands of monks who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama. Though
teams of party officials began visiting Larung Gar on occasion in 1998, they
never seized control or expelled monks for political reasons, as they did

The encampment was spared in part because regional party leaders in Sichuan
adopted more lenient policies than those in Tibet. The khenpo also
cultivated local officials. "Everyone who knew him respected him," said
Zuzu, the former party secretary in Sertar county who served as the regional
police chief from 1981 to 1996. Even after Jigme Phuntsok visited the Dalai
Lama in India in 1990, he managed to escape serious trouble.

When party officials questioned him, he told them he considered the Dalai
Lama a religious figure and did not discuss politics with him or support his
cause, his followers said. He also told the party officials that he rejected
a generous offer by the Dalai Lama's followers to remain in India, and
turned down their request to speak on the Voice of America, Zuzu said. But
most important, the monks who flocked to the academy frequented local
businesses and deposited their savings in local banks. "Sertar is a poor
place," Zuzu said, "and the academy helped our finances greatly."

Threat of huge crowds

Larung Gar is a 24-hour drive from the nearest city, Chengdu. The road
snakes through a breathtaking range of mountains, but the miles are marked
by falling rocks, icy surfaces and treacherous, cliff-side turns.

By the late 1990s, Chinese party officials outside the region began to see
the khenpo and his quiet community in the mountains as a threat. For them,
the first signs of trouble were the crowds.

When Jigme Phuntsok ventured out of the valley and visited other Tibetan
areas, residents mobbed his vehicle and herdsmen descended from the
mountains on horseback to greet him. Huge audiences gathered to receive his
teachings when he visited other parts of China, too, including Guangxi,
Yunnan, Jiangxi, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanxi provinces. One
Tibetan official from a nearby county, who asked not to be identified, said
officials in Sichuan began receiving complaints from counterparts in other
provinces who were alarmed by the large gatherings.

Before long, she said, Sichuan began responding by dispatching police to
escort the khenpo back to Larung Gar. Eventually, they banned him from
traveling. But party officials were unwilling, or unable, to shut down his
academy. Even today, Larung Gar is largely independent. At noon, the place
is bustling with monks and nuns heading to and from classes, or chattering
as they line up at small shops to purchase food and supplies.

As a gar, or monastic encampment, the academy is more loosely organized than
a monastery -- and more difficult for party officials to control. There are
no formal admission procedures, so monks who evade police checkpoints come
and go freely, often returning to their home monasteries after a few weeks
of study. Classes do not follow a strict schedule, so party officials have
not been able to regulate what is taught. Residents also study on their own
or privately with individual teachers.

Ji, the monk who sneaked back into the encampment, said he moved here in the
summer of 2000. Like most students, he used funds donated by Buddhist
friends to build a cabin -- a one-room structure with hanging sheets that
divide it into a bedroom, study and kitchen.

A typical day for him and other students begins early and ends late. They
prepare and eat their meals alone, most often rice and vegetables, or butter
and barley bread. Beyond study and prayer in their cabins, there are classes
on Buddhist texts, medicine, literature, history and philosophy, which can
range in size from 30 to 500 students, and lively theological debates in the
assembly halls.

Most of the students are ethnic Tibetans like Dorbcha, 30, a monk who spent
two years in Larung Gar in the 1990s and returned for further studies in
January. He said he traveled here to pursue a Buddhist education free from
the restrictions imposed by the government elsewhere. "This is a special
place," he said. "Religion is important to Tibetans, so Larung Gar is like a

But the academy has also attracted large numbers of Han, China's main ethnic
group. There is rising interest in religion and spirituality -- from Falun
Gong to Christianity -- as people try to cope with rapid social change and
the vacuum left by the collapse of Maoist ideology.

Du Renzhong, 32, a computer programmer from Shanghai, recalled that he
embraced Tibetan Buddhism and came to the settlement after weighing
Christianity and Islam. "I came here to study because I'm not interested in
the things people most think are important, like modern life or family," he

During the late 1990s, local officials tried to persuade Jigme Phuntsok to
reduce the population of the encampment, sometimes even prostrating
themselves before him, his followers said. But the khenpo told the officials
that because he didn't ask the students to come to the valley, it would be
wrong for him to ask them to go, said one senior teacher. "He believed
teaching was the most important thing," the teacher said. "On that point, he
would not compromise."

Evictions and destruction

The pressure on Jigme Phuntsok came to a head in 1999, when Yin Fatang, a
retired senior military official who had once served as the party chief in
Tibet, visited Larung Gar, local officials said. The officials said Yin was
stunned by the size of the encampment and wrote a report to Jiang Zemin,
then China's president, urging a crackdown.

By showing leniency and allowing Larung Gar to develop, Yin argued, Sichuan
province was undermining the party's policies regulating monasteries and
religious activity in Tibet. He warned that residents in Tibet could demand
similar freedoms and that Larung Gar could become a breeding ground for
Tibetan nationalism, officials said.

The party also appeared worried about the khenpo's ability to attract
devoted followers and funding from a broad cross section of Chinese society.
At the time, the party was struggling to crush the Falun Gong spiritual
movement, which had been banned as a cult after staging a huge protest in
Beijing in 1999. Stories about Jigme Phuntsok's mystical skills may have
reminded party leaders of Li Hongzhi, the Falun Gong leader who claimed
similar powers.

In the summer of 2001, police and other officials from across the region
converged on Larung Gar, demolished about 2,400 homes and evicted several
thousand residents. The party also attempted to set a limit of 1,400
residents on the settlement. The idea was not to wipe out the settlement,
but to reduce its size and try to place it more directly under the party's

Authorities focused first on evicting the estimated 1,000 Han students,
sometimes climbing on roofs and listening down smokestacks for voices
speaking Mandarin. The officials also concentrated on Larung Gar's convent,
expelling more than 3,000 nuns, witnesses said.

Thenkyong, 30, a monk who moved here in 1990 from a nearby prefecture, said
the authorities posted notices on walls and buildings throughout the
settlement telling residents to go home. Then, officials from his home
prefecture found him and pressured him to cooperate.

He agonized over what to do, but eventually agreed to leave after officials
told him that staying would mean trouble for his teachers. "Obviously,
everyone wanted to stay. But the more that stayed, the more problems there
would be for the monastery," he said. "It was a very difficult decision."

Thenkyong said Jigme Phuntsok "specifically instructed us not to try to stop
this. He specifically advised us not to be violent and to remain calm." As a
result, crowds of monks and nuns, murmuring prayers and wailing in grief,
stood by and watched as their homes were destroyed. There were no
large-scale protests or confrontations.

Thousands of people who had devoted themselves to Buddhist study, many of
whom had no families and had planned to stay in Larung Gar until they died,
suddenly found themselves adrift and homeless. Two nuns reportedly hanged
themselves in despair. And many residents who had shown little interest in
politics turned against the party.

Ji said he spent part of the crackdown hiding in the homes of Tibetan
friends before fleeing Larung Gar. He found his cabin intact when he
returned months later, but was angered to see how many others had been torn

"The government says China has freedom of religion, but look what it did,"
he said, pointing out a hillside that had been cleared. "In an authoritarian
system, we don't even have the right to live in the mountains."

Soon after the crackdown, though, many of the monks and nuns who were
evicted began to return. Those who lost their cabins moved in with those who
did not. Residents are unwilling to discuss how many people live here now,
saying that doing so could prompt evictions again. But judging from the size
of the settlement, well over 3,000 people reside in Larung Gar, more than in
any monastery in Tibet or the rest of China.

New students continue to arrive, too. But watchful local officials now
occupy several rooms in one of the academy's buildings, and the party has
blocked construction of new homes in the valley.

"That's the biggest problem now," said a senior teacher. "We'll be able to
maintain what we have, but it will be difficult to develop any further." At
the same time, he said, hundreds of senior monks educated at Larung Gar are
teaching at monasteries across Tibet and the rest of China.

Despite orders to stop teaching, the khenpo continued to meet with small
groups of students until he was hospitalized in late December. He died on
Jan. 7, prompting another tug of war with the government. His disciples
wanted to let his body lie in state for as long as possible or embalm it, so
more of his students could return to Larung Gar and offer prayers. But the
government wanted to cremate Jigme Phuntsok's body at an early date and
limit the number of visitors.

Two weeks after the khenpo's death, the government prevailed, and his body
was cremated. Police set up roadblocks across the region to discourage
attendance at the ceremony, and monasteries across China were ordered to
keep their monks away.

But a crowd of at least 50,000 made it to Larung Gar, residents estimated.
Many monks said they evaded the roadblocks by hiking through the mountains.

Articles in this Issue:
  1. Statement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the Forty-Fifth Anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising Day
  2. Tibetans in Nepal defy ban on rallies to mark uprising anniversary (AFP)
  3. Dharamsala: the tourist town the Tibetan exodus built (AFP)
  4. Website offers 22,000-dollar reward for information on Panchen Lama (AFP)
  5. Tibetan martyrs remembered in memorial service
  6. East meets West in Swiss Tibet (SI)
  7. Xinhua 10 March 2004 Qinghai-Tibet railway to shore up tourists to world's roof (Xinhua)
  8. A struggle for spiritual freedom in China (WP)
  9. Himalayan high Tibetan Buddhist monks mix practice & politics at Bard

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