“The local authorities are mistrustful and dislike the strong bond between monasteries and the lay people; they try everything possible to break that bond”.
- Exiled Tibetan
Tibet’s Buddhist monasteries form a key part of the country’s national identity. For Tibetans they hold great religious and cultural significance, and, under the Chinese occupation, they have also become centres of political activism. Due to their respected status, Tibet’s monks and nuns make natural community leaders. They run educational projects, orphanages and old people’s homes and help preserve Tibet’s unique culture and language. They also carry out protests. Monasteries are centres of Tibetan resistance.
China’s authorities see monasteries as a threat and have sought to break the bond between them and the communities that they serve. The methods may have changed – in the 1960s large numbers of monasteries were destroyed, whereas now they are put under surveillance and the inhabitants subjected to political re-education – but the struggle is ongoing. As one scholar puts it, Tibet’s monasteries have become “the principal battleground for Tibetan resistance to the Chinese state”.
Why monasteries resist
Monasteries have long been at the centre of Tibetan cultural, political and economic life. It was traditionally common for each Tibetan family to have relatives serving as monks and nuns, while monasteries also granted loans, financed trade and offered a safety net during economic crises.
The Chinese occupation put an end to this system. Monasteries were identified as rival power bases and intrinsically disloyal to the China’s central government. Most were shut down. Things worsened under China’s Cultural Revolution the 1960s, during which time even private religious practice became illegal. Monasteries were destroyed in massive numbers and monks were jailed or forced into hard labour.
After more tolerant policies were introduced across China, monasteries re-opened, but with state controls over their religious activities that continue to this day. As outlined below, their freedom to teach, recruit monks and nuns and even appoint their own leaders are all restricted by China’s government. Images of the Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism - and copies of his teaching are banned.
In recent years, monks and nuns have faced a new threat to their way of life, as Chinese tourists come to Tibet in previously unimaginable numbers due to improved rail links and efforts by China’s government to promote Tibet as a tourist destination. Some monasteries have been renovated to turn them into tourist sites, or modified to create space for restaurants, hotels and shops. Monks have reported huge numbers of tourists coming to their monasteries on a daily basis, disturbing their studies and way of life.
How monks and nuns resist
“Since the Chinese government invaded Tibet in 1949, Tibetans have never stopped protesting and never accepted the Chinese government as our own government. In this process, we had fought with arms and many were killed, arrested and sentenced…”
Kanyag Tsering, a monk from Kirti Monastery now exiled in India, 2016
Despite these restrictions and intrusions, monasteries have continued to play a pivotal role in resisting the occupation, representing what one scholar has called, “a Tibetan civil society, outside state control”, an “institution that Tibetans are able to identify as their own” that has “come to signify Tibetan nationhood and survival”.
Monks and nuns have frequently been at the forefront of protests and been closely involved in organising them, including major outbreaks of resistance in the 1980s and in 2008. In 2009, a monk called Tabe set himself on fire in protest against Chinese rule, launching a wave of more than 140 self-immolation protests across Tibet, almost half by monks or nuns. Others pass information about conditions in Tibet and protests by Tibetans to the outside world via Tibetans living in exile in India.
In response to threats to their language and culture arising from state control and Chinese immigration, monasteries also take a political role through actions intended to defend them. Monks conduct activities such as debates and classes in Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy for local communities. Others give lectures on cultural, political and environmental issues.
Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery
Nagchu County is situated in the northern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is home to Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery, a Gelugpa monastery established over 300 years ago. It was subjected to severe repression from April 2010, along with the surrounding population, after members of the monastery were accused of contacting the Dalai Lama, forbidden by the Chinese authorities.
A month-long patriotic re-education programme was enforced upon the whole monastery in April 2010 and the monastery’s abbot, Dawa, was arrested. During the programme, enforced by about 150 armed policemen, monks were commanded to denounce the Dalai Lama and Dawa. Monk Ngawang Gyatso, aged 75, hanged himself in an apparent protest at the treatment of his fellow monks.
Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery was reopened in July 2013 but then shut down again before the month had ended after monks continued to petition authorities, calling for Dawa to be reinstated and for an end to the denunciation campaigns against him and the Dalai Lama. Religious activities were prohibited in the monastery and all the monks were expelled. A large military presence was established near the deserted monastery and approximately 2000 military and 400 security personnel were deployed in the area.