A land of ruined temples

DAVID POTTS October 5 1987

A land of ruined temples

DAVID POTTS October 5 1987

A land of ruined temples


Approached on horseback, up one of the numerous dirt tracks that slice across the front of the mountain, Drepung Monastery, near Lhasa, Tibet, gleams brightly in the harsh sunlight. Tucked into a wedge of the mountain, it comprises five main whitewashed buildings and numerous smaller outbuildings. Statues of Buddhist deities and four-toed Tibetan dragons perch on the golden rooftops. Sounds of chanting monks pierce the rarefied air. But the tranquillity is shattered by a honking bus. About 30 welldressed European and U.S. tourists, dripping with camera equipment, stumble out. Soon they are swarming over the grounds, puffing and snapping pictures. An hour later another horn blast from the vehicle signals that their visit is over, and the tourists climb back on board. They have, as they say, “done Drepung ” and now bounce down the hill to the next monastery on their itinerary.

That scene reoccurs several times a day during the summer months at the major monasteries in and around Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. In the words of the

July 26, 1987, issue of China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper, Tibet’s Buddhist temples “have all become irresistible attractions to foreign tourists.” Many of the temples have been pillaged by the Chinese since the invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and are only

The Chinese tried to destroy the Buddhist faith in Tibet, pillaging the monasteries and imprisoning monks

now being restored. Previous Chinese restrictions on the Tibetans’ practice of their religion, Buddhism, are being significantly relaxed. But whether the reforms constitute real change is a matter of debate. One American Buddhist who has visited Tibet on several occasions called the Chinese initiative an effort to transform Tibet into a “Buddhist Dis-

neyland” with all the trappings of the religion to attract tourist dollars—but with none of the substance.

But Buddhism remains a profound and moving presence among Tibet’s estimated two million people. Packed buses carry pilgrims daily on bone-jarring journeys to monasteries and religious shrines around Tibet. The constant chanting of mantras and the abstracted twirling of prayer wheels by Tibetans on the streets is pervasive. Monks, laymen and grimy urchins incessantly ask tourists for pictures of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetans, who has lived in exile in India since the Chinese suppressed a major Tibetan rebellion in 1959.

The Chinese tried to destroy the Buddhist faith when they invaded Tibet in 1950. Of the roughly 6,000 monasteries existing before the occupation, only about 35 now function. Drepung, for one, founded in 1416, was the largest Buddhist monastery in the world before 1959 and housed 10,000 monks. Now there are only 350 monks and caretakers. According to John Avedon, author of the widely acclaimed book on the Chinese occupation of Tibet, In Exile from the Land of Snows, the destruction of the Tibetan monasteries was a result of a meticulously planned campaign begun before the Cultural Revolution. Soldiers stripped them of their artifacts, which

they shipped to China, and dynamited most of the buildings.

The legacy of that destruction is evident almost everywhere. Ganden monastery, 40 km east of Lhasa, once contained dozens of multistorey buildings on a spectacular mountaintop setting.

Now, much of it resembles ruined European cities after the fire bombings of the Second World War. Another monastery, Samye, built between 763 and 775 A.D., survived with its walls intact—and served until recently as a pigsty and a granary. Even in Lhasa, the religious

frescoes from the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, the Norbulingka, were covered by posters of Chairman Mao and scribbled Chinese characters.

The Tibetans say that the Chinese also imprisoned, tortured and even killed tens of thousands of monks. Said one monk in Lhasa: “I was conscripted into road-building gangs for 20 years and only released in 1979.” Others tell similar tales: of Chinese soldiers breaking monks’ kneecaps—making it excruciatingly painful to meditate in the cross-legged lotus position—and of monks being forced to regularly kill dogs. Aside from violating the general Buddhist prohibition against taking life, killing a dog is particularly reprehensible for monks because of their belief in reincarnation—and the belief that monks sometimes return as dogs.

For their part, the Chinese defend their presence in Tibet. According to a book compiled in 1985 by the National Minorities Questions Editorial Panel in Beijing, the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet put “an end to the long-standing feudal system and emancipated all the serfs and slaves. The democratic reforms in 1959 led to the abolition of exploitation of the masses by the monasteries and high clergy.”

But the end of the Cultural Revolution and the succession to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 heralded an era

of revisionism in China. Authorities adopted a policy of religious freedom. Now, despite such official statements as “religion poisons the minds of people with fatalistic conceptions,” the Tibetans are theoretically allowed to practise Buddhism without fear of persecution. The Chinese government has also appropriated a special fund to finance the renovation of monasteries and temples. But it is sometimes difficult to determine how much of the renovation is paid for by the Chinese and how much by the Tibetans themselves. Monks at Ganden, for example, claim that they are repairing their monastery by themselves. Said one: “We have not received any assistance from the Chinese.”

Still, it is clear that the Chinese attach great importance to the renovations. And the desire to attract foreign tourists—and their cherished currency—is an important consideration. The Chinese say that tourism is an important part of their economic strategy for Tibet. According to China Daily, nearly 30,000 tourists from Europe and the United States visited Tibet in 1986. Tourism in Tibet brought in more than 30 million yuan in foreign currency— about $10 million—in 1986. And apart from Himalayan mountain scenery, the primary tourist attractions are the monasteries and the temples.

Indeed, both Tibetans and foreigners say that they are uncertain about the sincerity of the religious reforms in Tibet, although most say that the changes are an improvement. Some experts point out that the reforms are carefully controlled. For one thing, the Chinese strictly limit the number of boys who can enter the monasteries. One U.S. professor of religious studies told Maclean's, “Tibetans can practise their religion but cannot propagate it.”

The Chinese themselves have left little doubt that they intend to be vigilant. The National Minorities Questions Editorial Panel publication states, “While protecting the people’s normal religious activities, the government will crack down on any counterrevolutionary sabotage perpetrated in the name of religion.” And one elderly former monk from Drepung, who now lives in Lhasa, said that he was pessimistic about the reforms. Dressed in faded clothes and worn running shoes—a far cry from the maroon robes he wore before being forced out of the monastery after the invasion—he smiled skeptically when asked whether the reforms and renovations really meant religious freedom. “They are only a showcase,” he said. That is an opinion shared by many Tibetans still struggling to come to terms with the Chinese presence in their land of mountains and ruined temples.