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In Tibetan Monasteries, the Heavy Hand of the Party
"We have a saying: 'Close one eye, open one eye,' " Arjia said. "It was very difficult to denounce His Holiness before the other monks. If you can avoid saying his name, that's considered being a hero."
Avoiding direct confrontation over the Dalai Lama has become almost impossible in Tibet, certainly in the past month, but also more generally in the two years since tough-talking Zhang Qingli took over as party secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region. He has called the Dalai Lama a "wolf in monk's robes, a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast" and dismissed the exiled leader's supporters as the "scum of Buddhism."
On Thursday, Zhang ordered not just monks but students, government workers and business people throughout Tibet to participate in patriotic education sessions and sign denunciations of the Dalai Lama. The lessons assert that China liberated Tibet from oppressive feudalism in the 1950s and that, in Zhang's words, an "international hostile conspiracy to Westernize and split our country has never changed."
A diplomat who participated in a tour of Lhasa on March 28-29 arranged by the Chinese government said local officials there did not answer direct questions about whether underlying social tensions, including resentment over education campaigns and the vilification of the Dalai Lama, helped spark the violent protest in Tibet's capital on March 14. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the trip, the diplomat said officials insisted the only problem in Tibet was that a small group of "splittists" had incited people to riot and that the monks needed more education.
One 27-year-old monk, interviewed on condition his name not be used, fled Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in the Tibetan city of Shigatse in September 2006 because after 14 years in the monastery, he had had enough of Chinese domination. "I felt all the time that this was a lie," he said. "On the one hand, they were telling us we are given full freedom of religion, but on the other hand, we are not allowed to honor our root teacher or even keep his picture. I could no longer bear all those disturbances and threatening by the government. Even a minor political mistake could lead to imprisonment."
The monk participated in his first party-led education session in 1993. He did not have to sign a denunciation that time but had to condemn the Dalai Lama in front of his fellow monks. "I had to be very active, had to prove I was really patriotic, so I can pass the exam," he said. "In order to stay in the monastery, I did this. I clearly know the other monks did not do this from their hearts, and not me, either."
The campaigns intensified in 1995 after China named its own Panchen Lama, the second-most-revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and the Panchen Lama recognized by the Dalai Lama disappeared. Nearly 200 of the 800 monks in Tashi Lhunpo were imprisoned after they rejected the Chinese choice, and the others had to sit through "patriotic education" classes twice that year, each session lasting nearly two months. Since then, the monks have been required to attend classes twice a week.
"There were too many politically motivated activities," said the 27-year-old monk, who now lives with thousands of others in Dharmsala, India, near the headquarters of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile. "I could not concentrate on my religious study."
Teachers are an essential element in the many forms of Buddhist practice. The first vow taken by monks and nuns is to "never abandon what your teacher says," said Matteo Pistono, executive director of the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture in Washington. "You can never turn your back on your root teacher."
The Dalai Lama is most Tibetan Buddhists' root teacher, so the denunciations required by the Chinese campaigns completely undermine the first tenet of Buddhist study. "To adhere to the political position is directly contradicting the vows of loyalty," Pistono said. "It hits right at the very identity of Tibetans."
Tsering Wangdu Shakya, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said so many monks have fled in the past five decades that there are no more senior monks living in Tibet itself. That makes it nearly impossible to pass on core Buddhist teachings and provides little buffer between Chinese government officials who control the monasteries and the increasingly restive young monks attempting to study there. Those conditions, he said, are what feeds the "social instability and creates tension in Tibet."
Researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.