Learning From The Enemy


Learning from the enemy
Why are monks and nuns so involved in the independence struggle? A trip to Drepung,
once the biggest monastery in the world, now a breeding ground for rebellious clerics.

I am standing by the roadside shouting at passing buses. It is, I have been told, the thing to do in Lhasa. You shout the name of the place you want to go to and the ticket-collector shouts back. ‘Drepung?’ I shout. The ticket-collector at the window of a stationary bus nods and we clamber on. Something about the twinkle in her eye tells me to double-check with the driver who emphatically indicates ‘No!’ The girl giggles. I had heard that Tibetans love practical jokes...

The next bus proves more successful and we set off for Drepung, one of the most important monasteries in Tibet. At the time of the Chinese invasion it boasted 7,700 monks. It’s the seat of the Gelugpa – or ‘yellow hat’ – Buddhist sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs and which has always played a prominent role in Tibetan politics. These days it’s a different kind of politics and Drepung is a hive of protest and activism.

Drepung means ‘heap of rice’ – and it actually even looks a bit like it, the white buildings piled and sprinkled on the hillside above the town. We take a tractor rickshaw to the top, passing eucalyptus groves and gurgling streams. At the gate we are met with a most incongruous scene. A woman in bright flowing clothes, made up to look like a courtesan, is posing for three male photographers in the window of the monastery’s ticket office. One is touching her hair. The scene only becomes slightly less bizarre when we realize that it’s a fashion photo-shoot.

Completely unperturbed, a very old monk accompanies us up the steps to the monastery, gently leading us in the right direction around the various shrines and chanting the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum quietly to himself as he goes along.

The fact that Drepung still exists is something of a miracle. In 1959 there were 2,463 monasteries in Tibet. By 1976 there were just 10. What happened in between was the ‘Cultural Revolution’ during which any display of religion was strictly forbidden – from prayer flags to incense burners, prostrations to circumambulation.

Only in the 1980s were Tibetans allowed to start practising their religion publicly again. The Chinese decided that religious ‘superstition’ was tolerable as long as it did not challenge the authority of the Chinese state. They allowed some monasteries to be rebuilt, partly because they realized tourism could become a major source of foreign exchange. The official line became that China wanted to ‘protect’ Tibetan Buddhist culture, but in a ‘scientific’ way. The Chinese had finally realized that religion in Tibet had a political power that was not going to go away. It would make more sense to control and manipulate it from inside. In the crudest sense this meant allowing monasteries to exist but stationing police within them.

The Chinese wish for more involvement in religious affairs came to a head earlier this year in a bizarre row over the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second most important religious figure after the Dalai Lama. The previous Panchen Lama was seen to be a Chinese stooge until he unexpectedly starting making anti-Chinese statements. He died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards in 1988.

The search for his reincarnation ended in May this year when the Dalai Lama suddenly announced that the new Panchen Lama – a 6-year-old boy – had been found in Tibet and instated at Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse.

The Chinese were outraged. They had wanted to have a say in the selection and had been outmanoeuvred by the Dalai Lama, who made the announcement after just three stages of recognition had been completed instead of the usual five – he said the signs were clear and unambivalent after the third stage. The Chinese reacted by arresting the boy and taking him to Beijing where presumably attempts will be made to ‘educate’ him to become an ally of China.

The whole furore has, say observers, set back even further the chances of China coming to the negotiating table. The selection of the Panchen Lama is politically sensitive because it is he who will have the final say in the selection of the next Dalai Lama. If the Chinese can get the Panchen Lama on their side, then perhaps the next Dalai Lama will be one of their stooges too.

Meanwhile, the leniency over religion is today being reversed. Restrictions that lapsed during the 1980s are now suddenly being enforced. The ‘work units’ are back. These are groups of Communist cadres who set about politically educating the monks and nuns and look out for trouble-makers. Those who disagree with them most strongly are weeded out and taken into detention. This year cadres demanded that monks at Drepung sign a declaration denouncing the Dalai Lama. They refused and arrests were made.

We walk up Drepung’s narrow alleyways winding between the whitewashed stone and timber buildings, passing great wooden doors leading into cloisters and courtyards. It is mid-afternoon and very quiet. There’s hardly a soul in sight. Gradually we hear a faint rumble and walk towards it. The noise gradually grows into a roar of voices and a sharp slapping sound.

We follow our ears until we come to the source of the uproar: a central courtyard full of monks debating under the trees. But ‘debating’ is too sedate a description. ‘Kung-Fu dialectics’ is more like it: they throw their whole bodies into each exchange, sending off each point with a great clap as one hand comes down from above the head to connect with the other held at knee level. The movement concludes with a challenging smile.

It’s four o’clock and time for the afternoon’s debate to end. But even as the monks tumble out of the courtyard and down the alleyways, they carry on debating in small groups. It all seems vigorous and good-natured. Logical debate is a cornerstone of Buddhist monastic practice and it’s not hard to believe reports that the monks make intellectual mincemeat of the cadres who come to give them a political education.

The Chinese authorities are frustrated. Why can’t the monks and nuns just be grateful for the right to practise their religion and keep their noses out of politics? But for Tibetans religious and political freedom are not separable.

According to Tibet specialist Ronald Schwartz, monks and nuns regard their vows as empowering them to act politically. Celibacy, for example, puts them in a better position to sacrifice their lives in the independence cause than those with parental responsibilities. What’s more the selfless act of dying for independence guarantees rebirth in the next life as a human being.

Schwartz quotes a young Drepung monk: ‘The Chinese are saying that we have freedom of religious faith and so on... But we need real freedom. Through freedom we can make preparations not only for this life, but work for the future lives to come. As the Chinese reject the existence of future lives, that is a difficult point. If one is only talking of freedom to eat and drink, it doesn’t have much significance. That can be done by any animal such as a dog or a cat... To be human has a deeper meaning.’

So what exactly do the monks want? Do they want monasteries to be as powerful as they were before the invasion?

‘No,’ say the rebellious clerics of Drepung. They don’t want a return to the bad old days of feudalism. What they do want is an independent democratic Tibet. They spell it out quite clearly in the so-called ‘Drepung Manifesto’, an 11-page woodblock-printed pamphlet which envisages no special political role for the Dalai Lama or for monks in such a democratic Tibet.

The monks who drew up the Drepung Manifesto are fairly typical of monks these days. They are young and come from poor rural backgrounds. Their first project was to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into Tibetan and to take it out to the villagers. The monks insist that it’s Buddhism that ‘accords with the general practice of the contemporary world’, not Communism.

It’s ironic. The Communist cadres who went into monasteries to ‘raise political consciousness’ among Tibetans have succeeded – but with a different result than they intended. The ‘work units’ may be back in action at Drepung but the young monks who argue so animatedly in the cobbled lanes are probably busy making the best use of this adversity. As the Dalai Lama says: ‘You can learn much from your enemy – much more than from your friend.’

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 274 magazine cover This article is from the December 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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