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Tibetan Buddhism: Sacred traditions have down-to-earth side
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He played and joked with a friend on the way, like any other young man might do, but when the scarlet-robed lama arrived at the monastery, he suddenly became quiet and serious.

He began chanting mantras in chorus. "All lamas must do this, and I must do it well," said Losang Zaxi, 20, who joined the Tashilhunpo Monastery of Xigaze in 2000.

The quiet boy, a native of Xigaze, graduated from a village primary school. He didn't want to study any more, so he became a lama, at least partly because it seemed like a good job where he would be respected by followers of Buddha.

In the first year, Losang was an apprentice, like he might have been at an ordinary job, and he couldn't wear the robe for a year. It seems he hadn't escaped studying after all: he had to pass an exam.

The test wasn't too hard, because he studied diligently, but a monk's life took some getting used to. "Being a lama was more difficult than school, because there were so many rules to follow in the monastery."

Life in a monastery has a regular pattern. Losang rises at 5:30 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, amid the sounds of mantra chanting. Breakfast is zanba, a traditional dish made of barley flour, washed down by ghee tea. After lunch, there's a two-hour rest period. Afternoon study starts at 3:30 p.m., when the monks learn politics, laws and the religion, culture and history of Tibet.

"I'd like to get a geshe degree," said Losang. Geshe degree is an academic qualification for monks.

It might sound dull to many young men, but Losang said his life was not all that different from that of his peers.

"I watch TV and listen to pop music too," he said, adding that he had watched the Tibetan language version of "A Journey to the West," based on a Chinese novel.

He also liked the movie "Huo Yuanjia," a film about a martial arts hero.

During the Beijing Olympic Games, he watched many events on TV. He was especially interested in Yang Wei, who won a gold medal in gymnastics, and Yao Ming, the basketball player. When it came to foreign players, he said his favorites were the Brazilian footballers Ronaldo Ronaldinho and the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo.

He said he also followed "big national issues," like cross-Straits relations. "They are improving," he said. "I hope I could see one day Taiwan and the Chinese mainland reunite."

Losang also has a mobile phone that he uses to exchange messages in Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese with his friends every day.

Internet cafes, however, are strictly off-limits for members of the Tashilhunpo Monastery.

"There are too many temptations on the Internet. Once a monk is addicted, his study of Buddhism would be affected," said Losang Yignyen, 30, who is an assistant to Salung Phunlha, deputy chief of the monastery.


Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century, during the reign of Songtsen Gampo (617-650), when China was in its prosperous Tang Dynasty (618-907) period. Trisong Detsen (755-797) made Buddhism the official religion in the 8th century. Songtsen and Trisong were rulers equivalent to kings or emperors in medieval Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism combined politics with religion, a link that was broken by democratic reform. Under the old system, the Dalai Lama was not only the spiritual leader but also the secular ruler of Tibet.

The Tashilhunpo Monastery, about 300,000 square meters in size, took 12 years to build in the mid-1400s.

According to Salung, the monastery now houses more than 800 lamas, with fewer than 300 young men like Losang. In the 1950s, there were nearly 5,000 lamas in the monastery. Although the number was larger, Salung said many of them were not really willing to be lamas.

"They fell into three categories: pious believers, children of poor serfs who entered the monastery to make a living and those sent to temples to meet a quota," he said.

Temples had quotas for the serfs, and those who joined for this reason were called zunzhas. Among the ranks of lamas, more than 70 percent were from impoverished families, he said.

Salung said he didn't recall how many manors were formerly owned by the Tashilhunpo Monastery. Monasteries, along with aristocrats and government officials, were among the landowners in Tibet at that time. An exhibition at the Museum of Tibet showed that they owned about 36.8 percent of arable land in the plateau region before 1959.

Farmers worked the land under contract and had to turn in grain, ghee and fodder as tax. Hence, each lama at the temple could get 42 kilograms of food per month without doing any of the work it took to produce the food, said Qiangba, 64, a former lama in Tashilhunpo.

Although China is a socialist country, Buddhism is protected according to national policy.

The late Chairman Mao Zedong said when he received delegations from Peru in 1964 that "it is wrong to tell people to be against religion."

He said that if China did so, "religious people would oppose us ... believing in a certain religion doesn't mean people don't oppose imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism."

After democratic reform in 1959, the manors and land were confiscated. Some 3,000 lamas left for a secular life.

The question then arose: how could the remaining lamas survive? After democratic reform, lamas could no longer get food from farmers.

They were still each entitled to a ration of 0.25 kg of ghee and 14 kg to 28 kg of grain per month, depending on their age.

Those amounts of food weren't enough to live on, however, and they had to work. That meant only four days a week could be devoted to Buddhist ceremonies, Qiangba recalled.

In the 1980s, the 10th Panchen Lama proposed that the monastery develop its own businesses to support itself. He bought some dairy cows from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and asked Qiangba, who had attended agricultural school in 1976, to work as a technician.

"It was a great move, as we didn't want to be a burden to the country," Salung said. "Everyone respected him and nobody disagreed," Qiangba said.

The farm started in 1986 and grew. By 2008, it had more than 60 dairy cows and some 34 hectares of land were sown to grain and watermelon. Eight workers were hired and paid 20 yuan (almost 3 U.S. dollars) to 25 yuan per day, Qiangba said.

The Tashilhunpo Monastery also owned several companies, grouped under the umbrella of the Gangjian group, whose businesses ranged from tourism to making furniture, carpets and tanka (a form of religious painting). With more than 500 employees, the company had an annual revenue of 1 million yuan in its prime. In 2006, it invested 40 million yuan -- some of it borrowed -- to build a four-story hotel in Lhasa.

But the hotel was torched by rioters last March 14. "It's losing money now," Salung said. "I hope that kind of thing never happens again."


The Tashilhunpo Monastery was not the only temple that saw a sharp decrease in the ranks of its lamas in the 50 years of development. That has happened at many monasteries housing one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

In the Sakya Monastery, the seat of the Sakya or Sakyapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, there are about 120 lamas. But that's only about 10 percent as many as before.

The Drepung Monastery, one of the "great three" Gelukpa (yellow hat) college monasteries, has nearly 500 lamas, but the population before 1959 was 7,700.

Development is the major cause of the decline in the monks' numbers. "In the past, as education was a privilege for aristocrats, ordinary people had to study in temples if they didn't want to be illiterate," said Ngawang Chozin, deputy chief of the Drepung Monastery. "But now people, rich or poor, can attend school," he said.

A report from the Tibet Daily newspaper showed that as of last year, 73 of the 74 Tibetan counties provided six years of free education to all children, while in 49 counties, children could enjoy nine years of free education.

Development also brought temptation. "Each year, about 10 lamas left to return to secular life," said Salung. "Some left just after a holiday, after becoming fascinated by life outside," he said. A few were expelled for breaking the rules.

"There are too many temptations" like the Internet, he said.

However, Drigung Qongtsam Losang Champa, vice chairman of the Tibet branch of the Buddhist Association of China, said he didn't believe the decrease was a bad thing.

"In the past, although there were more lamas, they were definitely not more knowledgeable than the current ones," he said, adding that now many Tibetan lamas could speak English, use computers and were familiar with science and technology.

"They also know more about the fields of politics, religion and law," he said.

Nima Cering, deputy director of the Jokhang Temple, said the power of Buddha was enlightenment, which meant having people understand the true meaning of life and the universe.

Currently, Tibet has more than 1,700 monasteries, which accommodate 46,000 lamas and nuns, accounting for 2 percent of Tibet's population. But most of the 2.8 million people in the region are active Buddhists, who worship and practice religious rituals at home, noted Drigung.

Every day, hundreds, or even thousands, of pious people prostrate themselves on the ground or spin prayer wheels around religious sites like the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace.

Buddhism is being used in more areas. Cering Drolma, a 32-year-old technician with the agricultural science and technology station in Pome County, Nyingchi, said when she taught villagers how to kill pests in the field, many Tibetans who followed Buddhism were unwilling to take lives.

"Then someone asked the living Buddha, who told them that it was okay because they were protecting crops and doing the right thing," she said.

"The power of Buddha doesn't belong solely to lamas," Nima said. "The number of lamas doesn't really matter," he said, "so long as the doctrine prevails among ordinary people."

(Xinhua News Agency March 10, 2009)

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