Emotional video of nuns leaving Larung Gar as expulsions continue in ‘religious winter’

This emotional footage depicts nuns leaving Larung Gar at the end of September, as the authorities pushed through expulsions of religious practitioners and demolitions of their homes.
  • Video footage circulating on social media shows Tibetan Buddhist nuns sobbing as they gather for the departure of those forced to leave the Larung Gar religious institute in Serthar, eastern Tibet.
  • New information has emerged from the area confirming mass expulsions from the monastic community both at Larung Gar, one of the world’s largest Buddhist centers, and Yachen Gar, a religious encampment in remote grasslands also in Sichuan.
  • There is evidence of construction work and development of infrastructure at both sites, consistent with the Chinese authorities’ push to develop tourism based on promotion of Tibet as a location for spiritual seekers, at the same time as authentic Tibetan religious culture is undermined by official policy.

The video footage that has been circulated by Tibetans on social media in the last two days features emotional scenes of nuns weeping as they leave Larung Gar on a coach, with others sobbing as they stay behind, some covering their face with their robes in anguish.

According to information received by ICT, around 700 to 1000 people have been expelled in recent weeks from Larung Gar in Serthar (Chinese: Seda), in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham). Footage of the demolitions at Larung Gar in August received by ICT depicted homes being razed by Chinese work teams with heavy equipment.[1]

According to Tibetans who spoke to a recent visitor to the area, the religious teachers at both Larung Gar and Yachen Gar “feel under intense pressure to comply with the official regulations – if they don’t convince the monks and nuns ordered to leave, there is an implicit threat to the ability to continue teachings there”. The same source said: “People are worried and disappointed that the nuns are having to leave, particularly as many are in the middle of their education. Some have heard that they could come back once a week to take classes. But for those returning to the Tibet Autonomous Region, thousands of kilometers away, that would be impossible.”

According to new information from Tibet, there have also been demolitions of homes at Yachen Gar, about 300 kilometers southwest, and the expulsion of at least 1000 religious practitioners there, including nuns and laypeople.

In both places, Chinese Buddhists have been among the first to be targeted for expulsion, which may be indicative of the authorities’ insecurities over the influence of Tibetan teachers and teachings on Chinese from different parts of the PRC. This interest among Chinese, however, is unlikely to be extinguished by such actions; it is a major new phenomenon, with some Tibetan religious teachers commanding followings of more than a million Chinese Buddhists.

Both Larung Gar and Yachen Gar have become prominent in both Tibet and China in recent years as vital centers for the study, practice, and promotion of Buddhist teachings otherwise difficult to access or non-existent in regular monasteries and nunneries due to restrictions put in place by the Chinese government.

According to a source who has recently been in the area, monks and nuns believe that the demolitions and expulsions emerge from the authorities’ determination to “control their lives, and set the parameters for religious practice according to the Party state”. The same source referred to major construction just outside the main gate of Larung Gar religious institute, which may be part of a push to develop the area with new guest-houses or facilities for visitors. At Yachen Gar, there appear to be plans to develop the area with new roads and improved infrastructure, which may also be linked to increasing tourism at a site known for its focus on pure teachings and religious practice.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “It is heartbreaking to view this footage of the nuns departing Larung Gar, a peaceful and vibrant center of Buddhist teaching which is of unparalleled importance. Larung Gar is famous across the world, and these demolitions and expulsions are shocking to Buddhists everywhere. These nuns are being deprived of the precious opportunity of studying close to their teachers in an environment of scholarship and quiet religious practice. Restrictions on the number of Buddhist students in certain areas of Tibet based on administrative or housing regulations has become another means by the Chinese government to restrict religious freedoms, which as a result, further alienates the Tibetan people. The Chinese government should reconsider these decisions, stop the expulsion of Buddhist nuns and allow those expelled to return. It is also essential that adequate compensation and rehousing are made to those who lost their homes due to demolition. China’s leader Xi Jinping is believed to have expressed his concern about moral decline in the PRC, and alluded to the importance of China’s ‘traditional cultures’ or faiths, including Buddhism. In this context, it is vital that Larung Gar and Yachen Gar are allowed to flourish and not undermined.”

The expulsions are taking place in a political context of sweeping regulatory measures that intrude upon Tibetan Buddhist monastic affairs and the implementation of aggressive “legal education” programs that pressure monks and nuns to study and accept expanded government control over their religion, monasteries, and nunneries. Newly revised Regulations on Religious Affairs in China represent a ‘religious winter’, according to Christian human rights group China Aid.[2]

The tightened national measures follow a raft of measures at local levels in Tibetan areas – for instance a harsh new ‘rectification’ drive in one area of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Driru, last year, led to the adoption of regulations according to which monasteries deemed ‘illegal’ will be torn down and Tibetans who possess images of the Dalai Lama or place traditional prayer (mani) stones will be severely punished.[3]

The expulsions at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar follow mass expulsions of monks and nuns from many monasteries, particularly those institutions that are influential, important centers of religious education, and associated with peaceful protests. After monks from the ‘Great Three’ monasteries in Lhasa of Sera, Drepung and Ganden took to the streets in March 2008, the monastic population has been subject to intensified suppression and the strengthening of control mechanisms. Hundreds of monks have been expelled and arrested from these three monasteries, leading to serious fears for their survival as religious institutions.[4] Monks in other areas of Tibet, who traditionally visited these monasteries for period of study and teachings, are no longer allowed to do so.

The Chinese authorities have also singled out other important and influential centres of Tibetan Buddhist culture outside the Tibet Autonomous Region – notably Kirti monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo), where the current wave of self-immolations in Tibet began in 2009. The situation at Kirti escalated in 2011 when monks from the age of 18-40 were taken away from the monastery under the pretext of giving them “legal education”. Local laypeople who tried to prevent them being removed were violently beaten by troops surrounding the monastery. As with Sera, Ganden and Drepung in Lhasa, the authorities used the pretext of taking monks away “for study” or “legal education” as a means to reduce and control the monastic population at Kirti.[5]


Footnotes:
[1] See ICT report, September 15, 2016, https://www.savetibet.org/mass-expulsions-at-globally-renowned-buddhist-institutes-follow-demolitions/

[2] http://www.wnd.com/2016/10/chinas-plan-called-religious-winter/?cat_orig=faith. Thomas DuBois, a professor of China Studies at the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University, laid out a side by side comparison of the 2005 and 2016 restrictions at: https://www.academia.edu/28414977/Chinas_Religion_Law_2005_vs._2016. Also see ChinaLawTranslate : http://chinalawtranslate.com/religious-regulations/?lang=en. ICT will provide further analysis in a forthcoming report.

[3] ICT report, http://www.savetibet.org/harsh-new-rectification-drive-in-driru-nuns-expelled-and-warning-of-destruction-of-monasteries-and-mani-walls/. Also see ICT and FIDH report, ‘Chinese Crackdown on Tibetan Buddhism’, https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/en-report-tibet-4.pdf

[4] Monasteries in the Tibet Autonomous Region that once housed thousands of monks are now reduced to a few hundred whose main responsibility appears less to undertake religious study and more to tend to the buildings and tourists. The Chinese state media acknowledged that a total of 1200 monks from Drepung and Sera had been expelled in 2008. For full details, see ICT report, ‘A Great Mountain Burned by Fire’, https://www.savetibet.nl/fileadmin/images/ictreports/A_Great_Mountain_Burned_by_Fire_ICTReport.pdf.

[5] A full account of these developments is given in International Campaign for Tibet’s report, “Storm in the Grasslands: Self-Immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy”, December 2012, http://www.savetibet.org/resource-center/ictpublications/reports/storm-grasslands-self-immolations-tibet-and-chinese-policy.

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