Monastery quietly resists pressure



South China Morning Post

Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Three years after its leader fled to the United States and complained of religious persecution, Kumbum Monastery, one of the most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism, appears to be firmly under Beijing's control.

Still, many monks remain quietly defiant of the Communist Party's intrusion into their affairs. The monastery in Qinghai province, in a region that historically was part of Tibet, is where the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, was educated. The tensions at this centre of culture and learning illustrate the Government's uneven efforts to suppress loyalty to the exiled Tibetan leader.

The head of the monastery, Arjia Rinpoche, who lives in California's Bay Area, was one of the most senior Tibetan religious figures to leave the country since the Dalai Lama fled in 1959. He was a government adviser and a vice-president of the official Buddhist Association of China, which defends the Government's religion policies.

He objected, however, when the Government interfered with the religious practices used to find the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in the religion. The Government rejected the candidate approved by the Dalai Lama and installed its own candidate.

Arjia Rinpoche said he left when the Government's Panchen Lama was about to visit the monastery, because he would have been required to recognise him as legitimate.

"Rather than compromise my religious beliefs, I chose to leave," he said.
He added that when he reached 50 he wanted to spend more time on religious practices, but the Government refused to let him give up political duties.

At the monastery, two senior lamas, Benba and Xiagiri, refused to comment on how the Government had tightened control since Arjia Rinpoche left. In an interview monitored by government officials, Benba wore monk's robes, and Xiagiri wore a western-style shirt and slacks.

Officials at Kumbum and other monasteries have forced monks to attend political loyalty meetings that involve condemning the Dalai Lama. In a campaign in recent years to tighten control at monasteries in Tibet, monks who refused to speak ill of the Dalai Lama have been expelled. The senior monks' frequent consultations with one another in quiet Tibetan and their uneasy moments of silence spoke volumes about the limits of religious freedom in China.

Kumbum was home to more than 3,000 monks, many of them leading scholars in Tibetan Buddhist medicine, astronomy, dance and esoteric rituals. About 600 monks ranging in age from seven to 88 live there today. The monastery is run by a ''democracy committee'' of 10 people, according to the two senior monks.

One monk, approached when no government officials were present, said government controls over the monastery had periodically tightened and loosened in recent years, often for unknown reasons. Another said police sometimes checked monks' rooms for pictures of the Dalai Lama. He said most monks kept such photographs, although few displayed them.

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