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Page last updated at 20:34 GMT, Thursday, 20 March 2008

Tibetan monks: A controlled life

China's crackdown on monk-led rallies in Lhasa is part of a long history of state control of monasteries, says Peter Firstbrook, producer of BBC Four series A Year in Tibet.

A Chinese official addresses Tibetans in Lhasa, 1959
Monks suffered after a Tibetan uprising was crushed in 1959

Buddhist monasteries are among the few institutions in China which have the potential to organise resistance and opposition to the government - so the Chinese Communist Party constantly worries about them.

Are some monks secret supporters of the Dalai Lama? Could they be working towards Tibetan independence? Beijing's fear is so great that being found with just a photograph of the Dalai Lama in your possession could land you in jail.

Government regulation of the monasteries started almost as soon as the People's Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1950.

The recent protests mark the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of 1959 when anti-Chinese and anti-communist demonstrations erupted on the streets of Lhasa, and were put down by force.

Lhasa's three major monasteries - the Sera, Drepung and Ganden, were seriously damaged by shelling. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile and the Tibetan government-in-exile estimates that 86,000 Tibetans died.

I visit these temples once or twice a month. I tell them what to do and what not to do. They all listen and say nothing
Butri
Communist Party official

Less than a decade later, Mao's Cultural Revolution wrought havoc in the region and the Red Guards destroyed more than 6,000 monasteries and convents - just a handful survived.

Along with the buildings, hundreds and thousands of priceless and irreplaceable statues, tapestries and manuscripts were destroyed.

"At that time all the monasteries were destroyed. The whole country was changing during the revolution. The wave of change was unstoppable," says Dondrup, a 77-year-old monk at the Pel Kor Monastery in Gyantse.

'False' lama

Further evidence of Chinese control over Tibetan Buddhism came in 1995, with the naming of the new reincarnation of the Panchen Lama - second only to the Dalai Lama in terms of spiritual seniority in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama selected six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima - but within days the young boy and his immediate family disappeared, apparently abducted.

Tsultrim, the deputy head lama of the Pel Kor monastery
Although we can't have that many lamas now, we can still absorb new lamas under the current regulations and policies
Tsultrim
Pel Kor monastery

The Chinese government soon announced they had found the real Panchen Lama, a six-year old boy named Gyaltsen Norbu.

Gyaltsen Norbu just happened to be the son of two Tibetan Communist Party workers and he was soon whisked off to Beijing, where he continues to live today. Only occasionally does he appear in public, in carefully stage-managed events.

Most monks regard him as a "false" lama, though he is venerated by ordinary Tibetans.

We filmed his visit to the Pel Kor Monastery in Gyantse in September 2006. It was clear the authorities were worried about demonstrations as there were hundreds of police and army personnel on the streets and the monks had to go through a security check to get into their own monastery.

Since the 1980s the Chinese government has begun to rebuild some of the monasteries and also granted greater religious freedom - although it is still limited.

But almost every aspect of the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns is monitored and controlled by the government.

Phone technology

Every monastery and nunnery in Tibet is visited at least once every few weeks by a Communist Party official, who checks that the government rules and regulations are being correctly applied.

Butri, a Tibetan Communist Party cadre, explains: "I visit these temples once or twice a month. I tell them what to do and what not to do. They all listen and say nothing."

The government is also very careful whom it allows to become a monk. All novices have to go through a detailed vetting procedure which takes years to complete. Even their families are checked for any subversive background.

The Chinese government also restricts the number of monks and nuns. In fact, monasteries can no longer perform many of their rituals correctly because of a shortage of monks.

Tsultrim, the deputy head lama of the Pel Kor monastery in Gyantse, said at its peak the monastery was home to 1,500 monks. Today the Chinese government restricts numbers to no more than 80.

"Although we can't have that many lamas now, we can still absorb new lamas under the current regulations and policies," he said.

"Of course, we need to check up on them, to see if they're the right people for us."

The recent conflict on the streets of Lhasa mirrors events almost 20 years ago - the last time there were major protests - when frustration among the monks and ordinary Tibetans finally reached boiling point in 1989.

But today, there is one important difference: technology. Practically every Tibetan monk I have met has a mobile phone. They even have special pockets sewn inside their robes to carry them.

In the past it has been notoriously difficult to communicate across the vast expanse of Tibet. Today, everybody is just a text away.

Tibet map



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