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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.

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

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.

Crackdown on Monks After the Tibetan Riots

“After the uprising, security forces in Lhasa cleared out monasteries and jailed monks for months. About 700 were sent to a camp in Golmud, in Qinghai, for patriotic education, then ordered to return to their hometowns, said three young monks who were at the camp.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, February 25, 2009]

The number of monks in Lhasa’s three main monasteries has been slashed by authorities. At Drepung about 600 monks were sent back to their villages and homes. The 450 that were allowed to remain are watched over carefully, One Lhasa monk told the Times of London, “We have to take patriotic education classes one day a week and pledge to love the motherland and criticize the Dalai Lama. It is very painful but I want to stay a monk.”

“Monks no longer in the monasteries are barred from wearing their robes in public, the monk said, and the police check on the monks at home, at times hauling some off to prison. The monk said Tibetan policemen came to his home three times a month. They ask, “Where have you been?” he said. “Have you been out? What are Tibetans talking about in the society? Have you met with friends who are in prison?” [Ibid]

Rongwo Monastery has been a locus of resistance. Even before the riots in Lhasa, monks joined Tibetan townspeople to protest the way the police had handled a dispute between Tibetans and ethnic Hui Muslims. More than 200 monks were detained in that incident. During the March uprising, security forces surrounded the monastery, only to be met by stone-hurling monks. A monk there told the New York Times , as he held up a pile of five empty glass picture frames, “They broke into my room and took away all my photos of the Dalai Lama. Then they led monks away with their wrists bound by wires.”

Monasteries were put under strict surveillance — cameras have been installed throughout, monks say, and security officers dressed in monk’s robes wander the alleys. Patriotic re-education — hours of classes on the law and Communist thought — was ordered. Monks were told to denounce the Dalai Lama.

To try to maintain calm in the monastery, government officials meet regularly with a council of eight older monks. They said they don’t want any trouble from us, he said. They said they punished us last year by putting us in jail. This year, the punishment will be this — The monk held up a thumb and index finger in the shape of a pistol.

Detention and Torture of Tibetan Monks and Burning Monk Shot

A monk in Tongren told the Washington Post he participated in three protest and was detain for six months after the riots, During his detention he said he was suspended from the ceiling beaten and tortured with electric rods and said the beatings nl ended when ne agreed to make a videotape denouncing the Dalai Lama. “They made me agree to a confession saying all the things I did was because I got instructions from the Dalai Lama.” he says he thinks he was singled out because he was involved with a group of 13 monks that drafted a 2007 proposal calling for the preservation of Tibetan language and culture.”

Monks interviewed by Human Rights Watch tell similar stories. Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said, When monks were tortured in detention, it was often because they refused to denounce the Dalai Lama, There is no doubt that many Chinese policies are aimed at diluting or reshaping traditional Tibetan culture in way that is innocuous to the state.”

In February 2009, a monk was shot after setting fire to himself during an illegal protest, according to reports from international Tibetan advocacy groups. China's Xinhua news agency reported the protest had been against government restrictions on religion in the Tibetan county of Aba in Sichuan province. The monk is believed to have doused himself with petrol and set himself alight. Witnesses then saw Chinese police shoot the man. [Source:Amelia Hill, The Guardian, March 1, 2009]

See Separate article on Self-Immolations in Tibet.

Reformed Tibetan Monk?

Norgye, a monk who cried out “Tibet is not free” to a group of foreign journalists being led around Lhasa in March 2008, was detained and subjected to re-education classes. In June 2010, he showed up at a press conference, saying he had been punished through patriotic re-education, and he had repented. “I wasn’t beaten or tortured,” he said. “We had to learn more about the law. Through education about the law, I realized what we had done in the past was wrong and was against the law.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 29 2010]

Norgye was not part of the scripted tour the foreign journalists were on in 2008. He was called over when journalists insisted on meeting with one of the monks who had protested in the Jokhang on March 28, 2008. “I didn’t know anything at that time,” Norgye said of the March 28 protest. He said the monks protested because security forces had kept them locked inside the Jokhang during the March 14 protest. “The authorities made all the monks stay in the temple,” he said. “We wanted to go outside.” [Ibid]

Security forces had kept the 117 monks of the temple locked up since March 10, four days before the riots. When the journalists came to the temples more than two weeks 30 monks in the Jokhang who had suddenly burst in on the journalists: “The government is telling lies; it’s all lies,” and, “They killed many people,” the monks said, according to reporting by an Associated Press correspondent on the trip. [Ibid]

Norgye was asked whether there was freedom to worship the Dalai Lama. He replied, “It’s freedom for one person to believe or not to believe.” When asked by reporters whether Tibetans have religious freedom, Norgye said, “Yes,” with a quiet voice and bowed head. [Ibid]

One monk told Reuters, “Through education, I realized that what I did was wrong and lawless. There is freedom of religion in Tibet.

Senior Tibetan Cleric Faces Prison

“Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche, 51, a revered Tibetan abbot, was detained by security forces in May 2008, four days after a protest by more than 80 nuns from the two convents he leads in the restive area of Ganzi in Sichuan Province. He as the most senior religious figure to be put on trial after the waves of detentions in Tibetan regions last year.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, April 25, 2009]

The nuns’ protest was one of many in Tibetan regions after ethnic rioting erupted in Lhasa in March 2008. Prosecutors charged the abbot with weapons possession, saying the police found a pistol and about 130 bullets in his living room, according to one defense lawyer, Jiang Tianyong. The court also charged the abbot with embezzlement after prosecutors accused him of trying to illegally take possession of a home for the elderly that he runs.

The abbot was put in trial in April 2009. If convicted on both charges, as is expected, he could be sentenced to 15 years in prison, Jiang said. He said the charges were unfounded and motivated by politics. There’s a lack of evidence on the weapons charge, and the embezzlement charge is ridiculous, Jiang said. The living Buddha predicted that the government would arrest him because some nuns from his convents took to the streets to protest.

Jiang was one of 21 Han lawyers who signed a petition last year announcing that they would help defend Tibetans. Government officials met with the lawyers and told them not to take on any cases, he said. But he traveled with a colleague, Li Fangping, from Beijing last week to take on the case. Both are prominent human rights lawyers. “We hoped that this kind of issue could be solved through law, through legal procedures,” Jiang said. “This is beneficial to the relationship between Tibetans and Han Chinese,because they’re citizens of the People’s Republic of China, and they’re entitled to be protected by the law.

After the Chinese government sent security forces across western China to crack down on the protests last year, the nuns at the two convents in Ganzi were told to sign papers denouncing the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. However, the nuns refused and marched instead, according to Woeser, a prominent Tibetan blogger who has written about the case and who follows the Tibetan tradition of using a single name. At least a dozen of the nuns have been sentenced for unknown crimes, and six are still being detained, Woeser said in an interview.

See Human Rights

China’s Position on Religion in Tibet

According to the Chinese government: The state respects and safeguards the rights of the Tibetans and other ethnic groups in Tibet to live their lives and conduct social activities in accordance with their traditional customs, and their freedom to engage in normal religious activities and major religious and folk festival celebrations. As society progresses, some decayed, backward old customs despising laboring people that bear a strong tinge of the feudal serf system have been abandoned, which reflects the Tibetans' pursuit of modern civilization and a healthy life as well as the continuous development of Tibetan culture in the new era. The Tibetan people, while maintaining their traditions, have greatly enriched their lives by absorbing many new cultural customs, as displayed in dress and adornments, diet, residence, weddings and funerals. [Source:,, Ministry of Culture, P.R.China]

There are many traditional festivals and fairs in Tibet, including the Tibetan New Year, Sakadawa Festival, and Ongkor (Bumper Harvest) Festival. Religious festivals celebrated by monasteries include the Shimo Chento Festival ofTashilhunpo Monastery and Nganjo Festival ofGanden Monastery. Combining new concepts and the new culture of modern civilization with the fine aspects of traditional Tibetan culture, Tibet has formed new customs and habits with the characteristics of both the ethnic group and the times.

The Central People's Government and the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region have paid special attention to respect for and protection of the freedom of religion and normal religious activities of the Tibetan people. Beginning in the 1980s, the state allocated large amounts of money for the reconstruction of some famous monasteries, including the Ganden, Yumbulagang and Sanggagorto monasteries, and the repairing of well-known but dilapidated monasteries, such as the Samye, Shalu, Sakya, Changzhug, Qamba Ling and Toling monasteries. The scriptures and classics of the Potala Palace, the Norbulingka and Sakya Monastery have been well preserved, with some edited and published as the Catalogue of the Classics of the Potala Palace, Ancient Books of the Snowland, and Origin of Religions by Deu. Now, Tibet is home to more than 1,700 monasteries, temples and other sites of religious activity, with more than 46,000 Buddhist monks and nuns.

Image Sources: Cosmic Harmony, 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.

Last updated September 2022

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