Serthar Teacher now in Chengdu


Serthar teacher now in Chengdu; new information on expulsions of nuns at Buddhist institute

TIN News Update /

8 November 2001

ISSN: 1355-3313

Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog, the senior teacher at one of the most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism remaining in Tibet, the Serthar Buddhist institute, has been moved to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. Until recently he was being treated for ill-health at the military hospital in Barkham (Chinese: Ma'erkang) in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

New evidence has reached TIN of the demolition of nuns' homes and the impact of the expulsion of nuns and monks at the Serthar institute, which is located in the valley of Larung Gar in Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) prefecture in Sichuan. Photographs taken in early October, which can be viewed at TIN's website at:

indicate the extent of demolition of nuns' homes at the institute. Reports received by TIN describe the suicide of at least one nun and the expulsion of hundreds of nuns from the institute since official work teams moved into Serthar in June. There is concern among Tibetans in smaller and more remote monastic encampments that the crackdown might extend to other religious communities in the region.

The authorities have primarily targeted nuns' homes at the Serthar institute for demolition, although the homes of some Chinese Buddhist students from China and overseas who were living at Serthar were also destroyed in June and July.

Reports received by TIN indicate that well over a thousand dwellings have been destroyed since the work teams moved in. The photographs on TIN's website show that many buildings are still standing at the monastic complex - housing those who are currently allowed to stay at Serthar, including monks, nuns from the local area, some elderly nuns, and some laypeople who have taken Buddhist vows.

Chinese labourers brought in by officials to demolish homes at the Serthar institute paid at least 130 yuan ($16) for the destruction of each home, according to TIN sources. A Tibetan who has recently left Serthar told TIN that several Khenpos (religious teachers [1]) at the institute were told by officials that they should assist the demolition work, but that they were unwilling to do so because each home had an altar, and also because they were unwilling to destroy monks' and nuns' houses. According to one report, officials from two local areas - Ngaba county (Chinese: Aba) in Ngaba prefecture in Sichuan province and Chigdril (Ch: Jiuzhi) in Golog (Ch: Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai - were also told by the authorities that they had to destroy some nuns' homes at Serthar.

A Westerner who has recently returned from Tibet told TIN: "There are many nuns from Serthar begging for food and money in Xining, Chengdu and other areas. The main problem is that if they go home they cannot enter a nunnery and they have taken vows not to go back to lay life." The same source said he had been told by nuns that physical force was used by officials and police to expel some nuns who objected to the demands of the work team at Larung Gar. "A few of them were dragged away from their dwellings and beaten," said TIN's source. Several reports received by TIN state that many nuns are receiving medical treatment for illness and psychological distress following the trauma of the demolition of their homes and their expulsion from Serthar.

Another Tibetan who has now arrived in exile from Serthar told TIN: "During the meetings held at Larung Gar to announce the expulsions, some nuns fainted with shock. They would be brought round by officials throwing water at them. Many of the nuns recovered after a period in hospital, but many have not recovered." The same source said that a 21-year old nun called Wangmo from Kardze prefecture committed suicide when she was told to leave Larung Gar. TIN's source said: "She was told to leave, but didn't have anywhere to go, because both her parents live at Larung Gar - they are elderly, and depend on her. She told the authorities about her problems, but they didn't accept it, so she was desperately sad. Also, some of her friends had been expelled already from the institute and they had asked her to look after their houses - but eight or nine of these houses were destroyed. She didn't see any way out but to commit suicide. She died by hanging herself with her belt from a tree in a forest near the nunnery, in early July.

We saw her body, and monks went to carry out prayers at the place where she died."

There is concern among Tibetan monks and nuns from the Serthar institute for the welfare of the highly respected spiritual teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog, who founded the monastic institute in 1980 for the purpose of reviving Buddhist scholarship and meditation. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog was in poor health before the work teams arrived in spring and his condition has reportedly deteriorated since then. A Tibetan from Serthar who is now in exile suggested that the deterioration in his health was at least partially due to "anger and anxiety"

following the arrival of the work teams to carry out demolition of homes and the expulsion of monks and nuns. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog had to stop his regular teachings at the institute after the work team arrived at Larung Gar this year.

He was taken to a clinic in Barkham run by the military for medical treatment, and he has now been moved to the provincial capital of Chengdu. It is not known whether he is receiving medical treatment in hospital in Chengdu, where medical facilities are more sophisticated than in Barkham.

Implementing the expulsions Before the work teams arrived to carry out demolition at the institute, the population at the Serthar institute was at least 7,000 - the largest concentration of monks and nuns in Tibetan areas currently administered by China. There were fears as early as 1991 that Serthar would eventually be affected by restrictions that were being introduced in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries throughout Tibetan areas as part of the state's attempt to re-assert its authority over the quickly expanding monasteries. The status of Serthar as an "academy", rather than a formal monastery, could be a reason why, while the first wave of "patriotic education" hit Sichuan's Tibetan Buddhist monasteries from 1997 onwards, religious life at Serthar appeared to have carried on with minimal interference from the authorities until spring 1999, when an official work team arrived at the institute. A monk who was studying at Serthar at the time and who is now in exile told TIN: "The local officials told us that the institute is guilty of following the wrong path and has too many students. They went on to emphasise the need for a 'patriotic education' programme and the necessity of exercising strict control over the number of students." The movements of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog were increasingly restricted following the work team's visit and on several occasions he was not permitted to travel outside the area to give teachings. According to several reports, the authorities stated in 1999 that they intended to reduce the number of monks to

1000 and the number of nuns to 400, although officials did not begin to enforce mass expulsions until this summer. According to one reliable report, the authorities have an even more ambitious plan to reduce the entire community of monks and nuns still further over a period of time.

A recent visitor to the area who met nuns expelled from the institute said: "The Chinese authorities are clearly nervous about the gathering of dedicated people in increasing numbers to devote their lives to Buddhist study and practice. The fact that a significant number of Han Chinese [Buddhist students] were among them and the repressive climate generated by the crushing of the Falun Gong movement may have added to the government's determination to deal with the situation at Serthar."

The most recent orders to carry out the expulsions and demolitions at the Buddhist institute came from the highest levels of the Party in Beijing, according to reports received by TIN. A senior Party official with links to Tibet was reportedly particularly influential in this year's crackdown. Yin Fatang, who was Party Secretary in Tibet from 1980 to 1985 and who is known to be a hardliner in terms of cultural and religious policy, reportedly advised Party chiefs in Beijing of the "risks" in terms of possible "splittist activity"

in allowing the number of monks and nuns at the institute to remain unchecked.

After visiting the region, he passed on his concerns about the threat of separatist activity at Serthar directly to President Jiang Zemin. The United Front Work Department investigated the situation and reportedly concluded that there was little or no evidence of "splittist" activity at the Serthar institute. Reports on the institute received by TIN indicate that Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog had maintained a cordial relationship with the local authorities, and Serthar was known for its strict focus on the study of Buddhism. However, due to the continued concern of several Party officials the decision was made to implement the expulsions.

Teams of workers supervised by officials were instructed to carry out the demolition of residences in order to ensure that monks and nuns would not return to the site, and reports indicate that many nuns were required to sign agreements stating that they would not return. The authorities also stated that the institute would be continuously monitored and that particular attention would be paid to any contact with people in India, reflecting a particular sensitivity to connections with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

Notes: [1] The title of "Khenpo" in the Nyingma tradition indicates a high level of Buddhist scholarship, roughly analogous to the "geshe" degree in the Gelugpa school of Buddhism TIBET INFORMATION NETWORK - 188-196 Old Street LONDON EC1V 9FR UK TIN UK - ph:

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