The dominant religion in Tibet is Tibetan Buddhism. Religion has for centuries been the most defining aspect of Tibetan life and has fundamentally shaped Tibetan identity. Before, and especially during, the Cultural Revolution, all but eight of six thousand monasteries and nunneries were destroyed, religious artefacts and scripts burned, monks and religious leaders imprisoned and tortured.
As a consequence of China’s occupation, both before and during the Cultural Revolution, 6000 monasteries and nunneries were destroyed in Tibet and religious leaders, monks and nuns persecuted. The repression of Tibet’s culture and religion continues today with 80% of political prisoners being monks.
Article 36 of the Chinese constitution provides a limited right to religious freedom, and defines what ‘normal’ religious practice or activity is. It excludes foreign religious leaders or organisations, therefore exiled religious figures. This is significant in that all four heads of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism are living in exile. The Chinese government also installs hand-picked candidates in influential roles within the religious establishment, the most prominent of which being China’s choice of the Panchen Lama, one of the most important Tibetan religious figures. In his case, the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, as identified by the Dalai Lama, was detained aged just six and has not been seen or heard from since. His abduction allowed the Chinese government to install their own choice of Panchen Lama, who they have now installed in a prominent post within the Chinese government.
History of Buddhism in Tibet
Buddhism was introduced from India to Tibet from the 6th century where it came into conflict with the local Bon religion. The Tibetan king Trisong Detsen established Buddhism as the official religion of the state in the 8th century. He invited renowned Buddhist masters from India such as Shantaraksita and Padmasambhava who popularized the religion and helped found Tibet’s first monasteries.
Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and is deeply influenced by Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism especially in reference to the reincarnation system which is a distinct feature of Tibetan Buddhism. There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug.
The aim of spiritual development in Tibetan Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment (buddhahood) in order to help all other sentient beings attain this state to avoid ‘samsaric’ or wordly sufferings through endless rebirths. On the path to enlightenment one must cultivate compassion and wisdom through meditation and analytical thinking on the nature of reality.
Tibetan Buddhism is known for its elaborate rituals and advanced philosophical debates. A unique element of Tibetan Buddhism is the role of Lamas and reincarnated beings who act as teachers and mentors and are highly revered in Tibetan society. Spiritual development is very much linked to oral teachings (transmissions) from such teachers. The Dalai Lamas belong to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is believed to be an emanation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara) who assumes human form and reincarnates time and time again for the benefit of all sentient beings.The present Dalai Lama, the fourteenth, is internationally renowned for his eclectic study and reverence for all Buddhist traditions as well as promoting inter-faith understanding and cooperation for world peace through his message of universal responsibility and compassion. Another important Gelugpa figure in the Tibetan religious tradition is the Panchen Lama. Tibetans refer to the Dalai Lama as the sun and the Panchen Lama as the moon.
Although the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet has resulted in the destruction of over 6000 monasteries and the loss of countless lamas, monks and nuns, many of the learned Buddhist and Bon masters had managed to follow the Dalai Lama into exile. These Lamas of both the Buddhist and Bon traditions have successfully set up their schools and centres in India, Nepal and abroad, leading to the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in the west.
Main restrictions in monastic institutions:
• Police stations next to or inside monasteries
• Monks and nuns restricted from traveling outside their monasteries for religious teachings.
• Age limits for novice monks and nuns (a minimum age of 18). A number of other restrictions may be applied, apparently at the discretion of local officials, to individuals wishing to enter monasteries.
• Renovation and reconstruction of monasteries must be approved by government departments. Unapproved rebuilding occurs in some areas, but is prohibited.
• Limits on the populations of monasteries and nunneries may be imposed.
• A limit on the total number of monasteries. In 1994 the Chinese government declared that a sufficient number of monasteries, monks and nuns existed.
• Interference in the choice of monastic and religious leaders, and the discovery of new incarnations.
• Expulsion from their institutions of monks and nuns involved in peaceful demonstrations, pamphleteering or possession of proscribed religious texts. Upon release, those jailed for such activities are unable to return to monastic life.
• Outlawing of some traditional Buddhist rituals and festivals.
• Restrictions on movements of monks outside their monasteries. Monks and nuns are restricted or forbidden from performing rituals in people’s homes and other places outside monasteries
• Monasteries are required to make money through tourism or enterprises
‘Patriotic Re-education’ and the influence of the Dalai Lama
The Chinese government is aware of the influence which monks and nuns hold in Tibet, and that the Dalai Lama is an enduring symbol of Tibetan identity. Keen to assimilate the Tibetan culture, the Chinese authorities regularly carry out ‘patriotic re-education’ campaigns in monasteries and nunneries. During these campaigns, ‘work forces’ arrive at the monastery unannounced and interrupt the monk’s studies, telling them instead to read ‘patriotic’ literature which speaks of the benefits of living under the Chinese government and which labels the Dalai Lama as a ‘splittist’ who intends to break up the Chinese nation. These enforced ‘studies’ can take place for weeks at a time. When they are complete, monks and nuns are given tests in which they must repeat the information contained within them, denounce the Dalai Lama and write a ‘self criticising’ letter. Monks who refuse to take part in this process or who ‘fail’ the tests often have their right to practice as monks or nuns taken away and are forced to leave their monasteries.
It has been reported that these ‘patriotic re-education’ campaigns have intensified since the 2008 spring protests in Tibet, as the Chinese government wishes to ensure that only monks and nuns who are willing to swear allegiance to the state can hold positions in the religious establishment. They believe that by removing the Dalai Lama’s influence from the monasteries, they will also remove it from the lives of ordinary Tibetans, and that this will eradicate the sense of national and cultural identity which the Tibetan people have. Some monks who refuse to take part, such as Jamyang Tenzin are imprisoned for speaking up against patriotic re-education. There have also been cases where monks have become so depressed at being forced to denounce their leader that they have committed suicide, such as a 16-year-old monk named Lobsang, who told his brother that the Chinese work teams had arrived to carry out patriotic re-education. His brother later found that Lobsang had hung himself in despair.
The Chinese authorities also attempt to remove the influence of the Dalai Lama by making the sale and ownership of images of the Tibetan leader illegal in some areas. Other national symbols such as Tibetan national flags and the Tibetan national anthem are also banned.