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Mao in Ramoche Monestary
Beijing asserts that it allows Tibetans religious freedom yet it limits the number of monks and nuns allowed to enter Tibetan monasteries, supervises the selection of religious leaders, and limits the size of prayer gathering which they fear will generate anti-government demonstrations. Monasteries and temples are exploited as tourist attractions. Many monasteries are run by the Beijing-controlled Democratic Management Committees through monks selected on the basis of their pro-China views.

Monks are required to swear allegiance to local Communist party authorities. As part of the "patriotic education" campaign monks and nuns are required to renounce the Dalai Lama and not allowed to keep his photographs. In the 1990s, monks and nuns who refused to denounce the Dalai Lama were purged of their positions in Tibetan monasteries. Some were defrocked and imprisoned.

Religious teachings deemed politically sensitive are banned. In some places Mao posters have been placed where portraits of the Dalai Lama once hung and people have been jailed for as long as six years for having a photo of the Dalai Lama. There have been reports of the government sending prostitutes to monasteries to get monks to break their vows of celibacy.

Tibetan students who study in Tibet and Tibetans who work for the government have been prohibited at least since 1996 from practicing Buddhism. Tibetan monks are often refused admission into Chinese run hotels.

The phrase “parent of all gods” entered the news during the crisis in Tibet, when the “autonomous region's” party secretary declared that the Communist Party was the “real Buddha” for Tibetans. A report issued by London-based Tibet Watch in December 2007 asserted that religious repression was worsening in Tibet, saying that Beijing was: 1) building large police stations near monasteries; 2) limiting the number of monks and nuns; and 3) requiring them to take an exam to prove their loyalty.

The director of Tibet Watch said, “Monks have also told us of returning to monasteries that are more like museums and having money donated for upkeep of monasteries snatched by Chinese authorities.” A nun told Tibet Watch that when Chinese soldiers found she was wearing a picture of the Dalai Lama and she refused to give it up, “The soldiers rushed over and beat me...I was punched and kicked and blood was spouting from my mouth.”


Religious Tolerance in Tibet

The Dalai Lama told Newsweek, "Superficially, there is some religious freedom. Simple things, like prostration and carrying a rosary, are allowed. But there are restrictions on serious practice." Photographs of the Dalai Lama are now allowed in many places (but not Lhasa). Even so police poke around monasteries, measuring the size and placement of photos of the Dalai Lama and tear them down if something is perceived as wrong.

The government generally has no objection to Tibetans erecting new stupas and repairing old monasteries as long as they pay for it themselves. The High Lama of Lobsang is permitted by the Communist government to put on his official robes for one week a year, during the spring festival celebrating the Chinese New Year.

See Labrang Monastery

For some Chinese, Tibetan culture has become kind of hip. They read Tibetan Buddhist texts; make offerings at Tibetan temples in Lhasa; and seek blessings and the touch of the Dalai Lama. Some say this is so because the lives of Chinese are spiritually empty. Other say it is because it is fashionable in Hollywood. Yet others say it because Tibetan Buddhism is associated with Tantric sex.

Chinese Rules and Monks

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Notice banning prayer flags in Darlag
The Chinese government bans monastic education before the age of 18. The government justifies this policy by arguing that monasteries only teach religion and the Tibetan language and students need a complete education with sciences, the Chinese language and math. Many parents ignore the law and quietly send their sons off to monasteries for religious training. Senior monks have said that after attending regular schools for nine years many young Tibetans don’t want to become monks.

In many monasteries monks are not allowed to watch DVDs, surf the Internet or use cell phones in accordance with Beijing rules. They are told that pictures of the Dalai Lama are banned and reminded not to listen to what people outside China say.

Monasteries have been ordered to stop holding public teachings and are required to allow the Chinese government to conduct classes. One monk in Shigatse told the Washington Post, “We have enough to eat and enough clothes, but our spirits are heavy. There are political education classes every Tuesday and Friday now, and everyone is scared. We can’t even trust our senior monks.”

Foreign tourists have described undercover monks at some of the monasteries they have visited. One American couple told Lonely Planet that they gave one monk at Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse some tapes of speeches by the Dalai Lama. Later the couple was picked up by police, with the “monk” on hand to identify them. They were interrogated at police station and had their hotel room searched. Possessions connected to the Dalai Lama were confiscated.

Re-education Classes for Monks

In recent years regular re-education classes have become part of monastic life in Tibet. Three times between 1999 and 2008 monks were required to take “patriotic education” classes in which they studied China policies and wrote statements denouncing the Dalai Lama.

A monk at the Dege printing factory told National Geographic, “Fifteen times a year, Chinese officials visit the monasteries and conduct “patriotic education” Each class lasts two or three hours. Basically they tell the monks the Dalai Lama is evil and that he wants to split the motherland. The monks must pretend to listen, but most manage to block it out by chanting silently to themselves.”

In recent years regular re-education classes have been stepped up. Attendance is mandatory---unless a monk is sick and then a letter from a doctor is necessary be excused from the class.

The re-education classes used to take place once or twice a month then they were increased to once or twice a week. Now at some monasteries they occur almost daily. One monk told the Times of London that in the morning, “We gather in the main hall and Communist Party officials deliver a speech telling us to be patriotic and they give each monk a paper to read.” In the afternoon the monks return to answer questions related to the paper. “Usually, it’s pretty relaxed. If I can’t remember my answers, then I just repeat the same as the monks in front of me.”

‘sometimes it turns more serious. That is when the police arrive. They may stand beside each monk listening carefully to make sure each answer is correct. If the police come we have to lie. We have to say, “I love the motherland. I don’t love him.” They don’t require you to explain who “him” is, because we all know.”

The answer for one question on a re-education test for Buddhist nuns and monks is: "The Dalai is 'the head of the serpent and the chieftain of the separatist organization conspiring for independence in Tibet" and "the root cause of social instability in Tibet."

Imprisoned Monks

See Tibet Under China, History, Tibet

In 1997, Chadrel Rinpoche, a high-ranking lama and abbot of Tashilhunpo was sentenced to six years in prison for "splitting the country" and leaking state secrets (leaking information on Beijing's choice for the Panchen Lama). Chadrel Rinpoche had previously been accused of being a Beijing puppet. In 1994 he received an award for turning Tashilhunpo monastery into a "Resplendent Model of Safeguarding the Motherland by Displaying the Spirit of Patriotism."

In 2002, a 52-year-old monk, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, was sentenced to death in a closed trial on charges that he was involved the the bombing of a pubic park. In 2005, his sentence was commuted to life. A younger man, Lobsang Dondup, described as an assistant to Tenzin Deleg, was charged in the same crime and executed the same day his appeal was denied. Both men had claimed they were innocent. Their trials were regarded as shams. Tenzin Delek was a popular monk based at the Litang Monastery in Sichuan. Some say he was framed because of his pro-independence views, large following, support of the Dalai Lama and unwillingness to do what Beijing told him to do. Lobsang had little connection to him.

A 30-year-old monk arrested on suspicion of engaging in separatist activities was beaten so badly while in jail he was "brain damaged and paralyzed" when he was released.

At Rongbo, a 500-monk monastery in Qinghai Province known as a "separatist hotbed," monks have been routinely arrested.

See Human Rights

Image Sources: Cosmic Harmong, Save Tibet

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2010

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