Wearing sneakers and riding a skateboard, 22-year-old Dawa looks like anything but a monk. The red robe, however, gives him away.
Dawa and his young peers live different lives than their monastic elders lived at the same age. Some of the young devotees own digital music players. Others even own cars they bought with their earnings from selling traditional crafts. But meditation and prayer remain the focus of their daily lives.
Dawa lives in the Nianduhu Temple of Tongren, a typical Tibetan area in northwest China's Qinghai Province.
He was trying out the features on his new cell phone when a Xinhua reporter visited the monastery this week. The young man said he was interested in every new and novel thing.
Dawa said that hot pot was his favorite meal.
"Tsamba is still our staple food, but sometimes I go with other monks to a small restaurant for hot pot," said Dawa, in lightly accented Mandarin.
Tsamba, made of roasted barley and ghee (butter), is a traditional staple food for Tibetans.
"We eat less tsamba now, but not because we don't want it," said Dawa. "It is fatty and has a lot of calories, and we don't want to suffer from high cholesterol or high blood pressure."
For Gasang Losae, 49, the abbot of Wutunxia Temple, the changes go far beyond diet.
His housing at the monastery features a mix of Tibetan traditional style and modern facilities. Exquisite woodcarvings decorate beams and pillars in his living room, all typically Tibetan style. But the living areas of the monastery are definitely modern when it comes to things like electricity, televisions, plumbing and induction cookers.
"I like to use up-to-date household appliances, as they are clean and convenient," said Gasang Losae. "With a wood-fired oven, it used to take me more than two hours to make dinner, but with an induction cooker, it only takes half an hour."
Gasang Losae was once sent to study at the High-level Tibetan Buddhist Institute of China in Beijing, the highest educational institution for Tibetan monks. He has also visited other large, cosmopolitan cities and developed some modern habits.
"Tibetan monks used to take a shower only once every year or two. But living in cities, I found that showering more often is a clean living habit," said Gasang. "Now I take a shower every four or five days, and I often persuade other monks to do so.
"The Buddha will be happy if we open the sutra with clean hands."
He also decided to establish a nursing house for old monks, who traditionally lived out their retirement years in their monasteries but without any special facilities for the aged.
"After I saw a nursing home in Beijing, I decided to establish one for old monks back at the temple, because monks have no children to take care of them when they get old." Money for the facility was raised partly by the abbot and partly through donations.
MODERNITY, TRADITION AND IDENTITY
For Tibetan monks, private cars and chances to travel are the epitome of modernization.
At Wutunxia Temple, about 10 percent of the monks own cars. While monks don't get a salary, they can earn money individually by selling thangka paintings, which go for 10,000 yuan (about 1,470 U.S. dollars) or more. Thangka paintings feature Buddhist religious themes. One younger monk, Shawu Cering, 36, bought a Hyundai car two years ago with his earnings.
"I always travel since I bought the car. I even made a pilgrimage to Lhasa," said Shawu Cering. "I also made pilgrimages to India and Pakistan, both by plane."
SOME PREFER PILGRIMAGES
Not every monk likes to travel to cosmopolitan cities or scenic spots.
Dawa said many fellow monks had visited Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, one of China's most prosperous cities, but came back saying that they preferred a simple life of meditation.
Dawa actually wants most to go to Lhasa. Pointing at a textbook called "Dialogues in Standard Tibetan," he said that he was studying the dialect spoken in Lhasa. He now speaks Ando, one of three variants of Tibetan, which are mutually unintelligible.
"Learning Mandarin is important, because we need to know at least how to read Chinese signs at bus stops," said Dawa, "but mastering the mother tongue is just as important. After all, I am a Tibetan."
"No matter how life changes, we can never forget Buddhist traditions and culture," Gasang Losae, the abbot said.
To better pass on traditions and culture, he is strict with his disciples. The novice monks, aged from eight to 13, get up at 5 a.m. and recite sutras, sitting on the floor their master's courtyard, until noon.
Then they study thangka painting techniques until 1 p.m. In the afternoon, they listen to their masters' lectures on the sutras. Younger monks have to study up to 12 hours per day.
One of Gasang Losae's rooms retains pure Tibetan household decorations. The room, used for meditation, is filled with ritual objects, ghee lamps and a complete set of the Tripitaka (Buddhist encyclopedia) on wood blocks. Various Thangka hang on the wall.
"Every day I come here to meditate and feel the power of Buddhism," said Gasang Losae. "I always believe that as long as we are Buddhist in our hearts, no matter how our way of life changes, we will not lose our identities or Tibetan Buddhist traditions."
(Xinhua News Agency April 2, 2009)