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Survival of Important Tibetan Buddhist Institute Under Threat

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/08/20; August 20, 2001.]

TIN News Update / 19 August 2001 / ISSN: 1355-3313

Expulsions of Nuns and Students Threaten Survival of Important Tibetan Buddhist Institute.

Many hundreds of Tibetan nuns, some monks and Chinese Buddhist scholars have been forced to leave the monastic institute and nunnery of Serthar in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) prefecture in Sichuan, one of the most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism remaining in Tibet, following the arrival of troops of armed police and teams of officials to enforce orders from Beijing. Photographs that have been brought out of China in the last two weeks show the huts of nuns at Serthar being torn down in order to prevent them from returning (the images can be viewed at TIN's website at: http://www.tibetinfo.net/reports/trel/larung-gar-1.htm).

The senior Buddhist teacher at Serthar, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog, who was already in poor health, has been ill and weak since the expulsions began. While he has been confined to his residential quarters at the institute under close supervision for several months, his current whereabouts are not confirmed - some reports indicate that he may be receiving medical treatment at a clinic outside the valley. According to further reports, many nuns have left without signing a document that requires them to denounce the Dalai Lama, despite pressure from the authorities. Some nuns are believed to have suffered mental breakdowns due to their expulsion and a Tibetan source said that some monks and nuns who still remain at Serthar have threatened to commit suicide rather than leave the institute.

The Serthar monastic complex, which was founded by Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog in 1980 for the purpose of reviving Buddhist scholarship and meditation, housed the largest concentration of monks and nuns in Tibetan areas - an estimated 6-7,000 monks and nuns including nearly a thousand Chinese students, with an increase in numbers at times of religious festivals and special teachings. There have been previous attempts by the authorities to reduce the numbers of monks and nuns, but this was difficult to enforce due to the sprawling nature of the complex and the fluctuating Numbers of scholars, monks and nuns there. In June this year high-level officials from Beijing, including officials from the United Front Work Unit and others from the regional authorities, arrived at the Institute to oversee a reduction of the population to 1,000 monks and 400 nuns and to oversee demolition of residential quarters. Roads leading to the institute were blocked and the site was sealed off before demolition began. It is likely that most of the destruction of residential quarters has taken place on the lower slopes of the remote Larung valley where most of the nuns, who constituteapproximately half of Serthar's population, live. Reports from Tibet indicate that more than a thousand dwellings have been destroyed since the middle of June.

Chinese Buddhist students were targeted first for expulsion, with nearly a thousand Chinese Buddhists reportedly told to leave in the past two months. The second target of the authorities was the strong and cohesive community of Tibetan nuns at Serthar. Although some monks are known to have been expelled and to have returned to their home areas, the majority of those expelled have been nuns. One report indicated that the majority of the nuns who were at Serthar - approximately 3,000 - may now have been forced to leave. Many of the nuns who have been expelled from Serthar in recent weeks and whose homes have been destroyed are likely to face severe hardship. "Many of them have fled with nowhere to go," said one source, who visited Serthar last year and is still in contact with the institute. "Some of them were so poor that at Serthar they used to do fasting retreats because they had so little food. Now they are likely to be suffering even more." Some nuns have reportedly experienced mental breakdowns and depression since the expulsions began, and according to one reliable source, medical treatment was denied to some nuns from the institute following orders from local officials. Officials at the institute reportedly presented monks and nuns who were being expelled with documents to sign containing three points; a denunciation of the Dalai Lama, a commitment not to return, and a commitment to honour the guidelines and policy set by the Chinese authorities. Many nuns reportedly left without signing the document.

A monk from the area who is now in exile told TIN that the authorities had set the deadline of October for the expulsions to take place, and had also stated that students from outside Sichuan province would not be allowed to stay at Serthar in future. The source said: "The Work Team told monks and nuns that the decision would be implemented in three stages - information, persuasion to leave the institute and the enforcement of decisions by force of the law. They made threats to the effect that if people showed a hostile and uncooperative attitude, they would be arrested or have their [residences] burnt or dismantled. It is unclear how the authorities are going to shortlist the 1,400 student quota because there are far more students from Sichuan than these sanctioned places." The same source said that many monks and nuns had threatened to commit suicide rather than leave the institute.

Fears for Respected Tibetan Buddhist Teacher

During the visit of Chinese officials to Serthar earlier this year, Khenpo Jigme reportedly said that because he had not invited monks or nuns to come to Serthar, it would be inappropriate for him to ask them to leave. The Tibetan source who is now in exile told TIN that during the most recent visit of officials to the institute, "Officials kept on pressing Jigme Phuntsog by asking him to take the lead in persuading and encouraging his students to vacate the institute's premises before the deadline [of October]. This caused great mental and physical anguish to [Khenpo Jigme] who soon fell ill." Khenpo Jigme has not been in good physical health for some years; he has cataracts and is partially blind, and is unable to walk without support.

The orders to enforce the expulsions appear to have originated from high levels of the Chinese Communist Party, with support from the provincial authorities in Sichuan. The full reasons for the authorities' concern over Serthar (known in Chinese as Wumin) are not known. Under the leadership of Khenpo Jigme, who is a charismatic figure revered by both Tibetans and Chinese Buddhists, the Serthar institute is known for its strict focus on the study of Buddhism and the practice of the Dharma, and Khenpo Jigme, by avoiding all political controversy, has reportedly managed to maintain a harmonious relationship with the provincial and local authorities. Even some Chinese officials are said to have acknowledged that Serthar is a "patriotic" institution. In recent months, Khenpo Jigme is said to have appealed to the authorities to safeguard the people's religious belief in accordance with China's constitution, according to a reliable report.

A Western Buddhist scholar who has visited Serthar told TIN: "Serthar just isn't a politicised place. It is a place for genuine students of the Dharma and as such attracts scholars from all over China and Tibet." Another Western student of Buddhism who knows Khenpo Jigme told TIN: "Khenpo Jigme is one of those rare people who derive strength from a lived moral, rather than political, authority. His mission is clearly to propagate the Dharma. I remember him describing with obvious joy and reverence his trip to Wutai Shan (mountain) in China in 1987 with both Tibetan and Chinese followers."

Chinese Buddhists at Serthar

Chinese Buddhist students were the first to be told to leave by the authorities following the arrival of officials in spring. A Chinese student who was studying at Serthar at the time told a Western journalist two weeks ago that instructions to leave were given in the middle of a lecture by officials, who told all the Chinese students that it was time for them to go home. The Chinese student said that they were told that the expulsions were necessary due to "poor sanitary conditions".

The Tibetan monk, who has studied at Serthar and who has recently arrived in exile, told TIN that the diverse mix of nationalities present at the institute may have been one of the reasons for the concern of the authorities. "There are students at Serthar who are from areas as diverse as Taiwan, Hong Kong, various Chinese provinces, Inner Mongolia and the Tibet Autonomous Region," said the source. "The authorities think that this ethnic mix is a potential source of tension." A senior Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche living in the West told TIN: "The Chinese authorities say they want to promote unity among different groups and to create ethnic harmony. But in reality they don't want Chinese people to learn the truth about Tibetan culture, about Tibetan beliefs and aspirations. Most of the monks studying at Serthar from China were well-educated and from urban rather than rural areas - these are just the sort of people that the authorities would not wish to be influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan views."

Khenpo Jigme has always accorded a high priority to teaching Chinese as well as Tibetan students at Serthar, which was certified as a Buddhist academy by the 10th Panchen Lama in 1987, seven years after its foundation. In the same year, Khenpo Jigme gave teachings to Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian students at Wutai mountain, a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Shaanxi, China, and in 1988, Khenpo Jigme spent two months in Beijing at the Buddhist Higher Academy at the Panchen Lama's invitation. David Germano, an American academic from the University of Virginia who made several visits to Serthar between 1990 and 1992, writes in an essay: "Not only are there Chinese monks and nuns resident in [Khenpo Jigme's] Golog centre and Chinese lay Buddhists periodically making the long pilgrimage there, I have heard reports of Khenpo literally being mobbed by Chinese Buddhists or simply the curious seeking his blessings or teachings during visits to Chengdu."

Nuns Expelled and Homes Destroyed

Nuns at Serthar, who study at a nunnery headed by Khenpo Jigme's niece, 36-year old Jetsun Muntso, are involved in religious studies and meditation at a high level and are allowed to adopt the title of "Khenpo", which is analogous to the "geshe" degree in the Gelugpa school of Buddhism and a doctorate in Western universities. Khenpo Jigme reportedly feels that the teaching of nuns at Serthar is particularly important because of the relative lack of religious institutions for women in the region. In 1991, the assembly hall at the institute was constructed so that nuns and monks could receive Khenpo Jigme's teachings simultaneously.

Monks and nuns at Serthar have generally provided for themselves, although limited living expenses were available for some poorer students, and Khenpo Jigme is known to have organised some funding for poor Chinese students who travel a long distance to reach the institute.

A Revival of Devastated Buddhist Practices

Sixty-eight year old Khenpo Jigme was recognised in his teens as the reincarnation of Lerab Lingpa (1856 - 1926), an important Nyingma teacher of the 13th Dalai Lama. Although he was singled out as a "class enemy" during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, he survived by living in remote and isolated areas of Kham, the traditional Tibetan area incorporated into the Chinese province of Sichuan. In 1980, during the liberalisation period following the Cultural Revolution, Khenpo Jigme established a Buddhist monastic centre and nunnery, Larung Gar, in the remote valley of Larung ("Gar" in Tibetan refers to a religious settlement or encampment, but not a formal monastery), which is approximately 15 kilometres south of the town of Serthar (Chinese: Seda). The settlement began in an informal and traditional fashion with approximately 100 followers taking up residence near Khenpo Jigme's home. The community grew as word of mouth attracted other religious practitioners, who were free to come and go without any formal membership process as long as they adhered to monastic behaviour. David Germano writes that only people known to have broken major religious vows, such as those who physically abused their teachers during the Cultural Revolution, were refused permission to study and live at Serthar.

The community expanded rapidly; in the late 1980s the monastic institute and nunnery were granted special local government funding for electricity. Khenpo Jigme developed a close relationship with the district authorities and occasionally performed the traditional lama's role of mediator in some political disputes.

Monks, nuns and scholars generally came to Larung Gar (Serthar) for indefinite periods, without changing their monastic affiliations, and frequently travelled back to their monasteries and nunneries to give teachings. Khenpo Jigme is a Nyingma lama but his teachings are known for their ecumenical approach - he gave teachings and initiation from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa). There is also a rigorous curriculum of traditional academic study for both nuns and monks designed to culminate in the attainment of a "Khenpo" degree. According to Germano, in the first decade of the institute roughly one hundred khenpos graduated from his academies, most of them young men in their twenties or thirties; some returned to their own monasteries to teach, others stayed at the centre to become advanced teachers in their own right or to engage in further studies, while some were sent by Khenpo Jigpme to monasteries in particularly urgent need of teaching assistance.

"The development of rigorous scholastic training programmes at Larung, as well as the other teaching academies in eastern Tibet that he founded during the 1980s, has been a top priority for Khenpo Jigphun," writes Germano. "Khenpo's revival of the devastated Buddhist systems of educational training (the Tibetan mind) has been nothing short of remarkable, and his ecumenical emphasis on monastic-centred ethics separated from political activism has offered a powerful Tibetan religious paradigm for survival in the People's Republic of China that contrasts sharply with the political activism of monks and nuns in central Tibet." The expulsions currently taking place at Serthar are a threat to the survival of the institute as one of Tibet's leading centres for the study and practice of Buddhism.


Note: Photographs of the destruction of homes at Larung Gar, portraits of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog and images of the Serthar complex can be viewed at TIN's website at: http://www.tibetinfo.net/tibet-file/religion.htm

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