Mass expulsions at globally renowned Buddhist institutes follow demolitions

  • News is emerging of mass expulsions of religious practitioners from two major religious institutes in eastern Tibet, following the demolition of monks’ and nuns’ homes that began in July at Larung Gar in Serthar, eastern Tibet. Footage of the demolitions at Larung Gar in August received by ICT depicts homes being razed by Chinese work teams with heavy equipment.
  • Around 1000 religious practitioners were compelled to leave another major monastic encampment, Yachen Gar, in Pelyul (Chinese: Beiyu) county, Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) prefecture, Sichuan, although demolitions have not been reported at Yachen Gar. This follows an order to families by officials from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), stating that there would be severe consequences for those who did not recall their relatives from studying at the two religious institutes.
  • Three Tibetan nuns have committed suicide apparently linked to distress at the demolitions and restrictions at Larung Gar, which is one of the world’s largest monastic institutions with a population of thousands of Chinese and Tibetan practitioners.
  • Both Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, about 300 kilometers southwest, 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 various Tibetan sources, a large number of Tibetan religious practitioners have been forced to leave Larung Gar in Serthar (Chinese: Seda), in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham). The exact number is not known due to tight security restrictions in the area, with communications blocked in order to prevent information reaching the outside world. “A huge number of people have been forced to leave and return to their home areas, such as Lithang in Kham,” said one Tibetan source. “It is believed the authorities plan to prevent people staying there permanently in future unless they are from the immediate local area.”

Monks and nuns from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where the crackdown has been particularly intense, have been targeted for expulsion in both religious institutes.

Human Rights Watch reported that since about April, up to 1,000 nuns at Yachen Gar, another major monastic encampment, had been compelled to leave the institution and return to their homes. All the nuns were from the TAR, and instructions to leave came from TAR officials, not the local authorities. Yachen Gar, about 300 kilometers southwest of Larung Gar, has an estimated 10,000 residents, mostly nuns, and has not experienced major demolitions in recent months.[1]

Several hundred homes were destroyed at Larung Gar in the first week of demolitions in July, and since then hundreds more, with government workers demolishing around 2,000 dwellings in recent weeks.[2] Although Tibetan sources stated that compensation was promised by the local authorities to those who had lost their homes, none has yet materialized according to the same sources. According to reports received by ICT, demolition has now stopped although it is likely to resume next year, if not before.

Monks, nuns and local people have followed the appeals of religious leaders at the monastery not to obstruct the demolitions or to protest, despite deep distress in the religious community. The Tibetan lamas in charge of Larung Gar, who have followings of hundreds of thousands of Buddhists in China and across the world, urged calm as the demolitions began in July, advising monks and nuns to continue with their studies and that it is important to focus on the Buddhist teachings, not the destruction of physical dwellings.[3]

But the demolitions led to the suicides of three nuns, according to reports from the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia. Tsering Dolma, 20, from Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) in Sichuan, left a note to say that she had hanged herself “when she could no longer bear the pain of seeing the destruction of Larung Gar”, according to a source living in the area cited by RFA’s Tibetan Service.[4] A nun named Semga, a native of Dowa village in Ngaba’s Dzamthang (Rangtang) county, also killed herself, though details on how and when she died were not immediately available, while a third nun attempted suicide “though others intervened in time and saved her,” the same source said. The deaths follow the suicide on July 20 of Rinzin Dolma, a nun who hanged herself as Chinese work crews began to tear down monks’ and nuns’ houses, according to RFA.

Demolitions and expulsions at Larung Gar

The demolitions at Larung Gar were first outlined in an order issued by the county government – which also gave no indication that Larung Gar’s religious leaders had any involvement in the process of decision-making. The order stated that homes for all but 5,000 monks, nuns and laypeople would be demolished, and that “By September 30, 2017 the population of the encampment must be limited to 5,000 persons” (translated into English by Human Rights Watch). A report in the Chinese state media stated an unnamed official saying that: “Only the more than [sic] 8,000 registered nuns and monks could reside in Larung Gar. If foreigners undergo the monastery’s registration procedures, they are also allowed to stay there, the anonymous official noted.” (Global Times, July 27, 2016).[5]

The population of Larung Gar is believed to be at least 10,000, consisting of monks, nuns and laypeople who attend teachings. There are students of the teachers at Larung Gar across the world, in China, India, and the West as well as in different areas of Tibet.

According to the article in the Chinese media, the Kardze government denied destruction at Larung Gar, saying that it had “renovated one of the world’s largest Buddhist learning centers to prevent fires and to ease crowd levels”.[6]

In 2014, news emerged that families from Jomda (Chinese: Jiangda) county in Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu) in the TAR were threatened with punishment, including withdrawal of government aid, if they failed to bring home any of their relatives who are monks and nuns in Buddhist centers outside the TAR, notably Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. The Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia reported that the recall order, issued at a county-wide meeting held early this month, echoed similar efforts in Driru (Biru) county in the TAR’s neighboring Nagchu (Naqu) prefecture to more tightly control the movements of monks and nuns and size of monasteries in areas seen by the Chinese government as centers of resistance.[7]

Matteo Mecacci, President of the ICT, said: “Expulsion of genuine religious practitioners, the imposition of intimidating levels of security and the bulldozing of homes are not the way to address genuine concerns on sanitation and over-crowding; instead they point to intensifying oppression and restrictions on religious freedom. Both Larung Gar and Yachen Gar are peaceful and vibrant centres of Buddhist teachings where Tibetans and Chinese from across the PRC gather to study and meditate under the guidance of respected Tibetan lamas. Larung Gar is famous across the world, and these demolitions and expulsions are shocking to Buddhists everywhere.

“It is essential that adequate compensation and rehousing are made to those who lost their homes due to demolition, and that monks and nuns are allowed to stay and to peacefully practise their religious studies. Their safety and welfare are of paramount importance. The demands by the authorities in the TAR must also be addressed by the Chinese government – both the threats to families and the removal of monks and nuns who are simply seeking to study the teachings and carry out their religious practice is unacceptable. ”

A threat to the survival of Tibetan Buddhist teachings: submission to U.N. Rapporteur on Larung Gar

In a letter to the U.N. Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt, submitted before the opening of the UN Human Rights Council session on September 13 (2016), ICT stated: “The order authorizing and announcing the demolitions at Larung Gar indicates that leading personnel was obliged to attend meetings for ‘promoting law and ideological guidance’, at the same time ordinary monks and nuns were forced to attend ‘legal education’ and to write ‘compliance letters’. While this involuntary indoctrination signifies the repressive nature of the authorities’ measures at Larung Gar, it also becomes apparent that members of the institute have merely been assembled to ‘hear the announcement’, whereas there is no clause about their involvement in the discussion, decision-making or drafting of the order.”

The original order on demolitions and expulsions also demands that “not more than 1,000 [monks and nuns] can come from other provinces” which implies that not merely infrastructural or technical considerations have been relevant for defining who and how many practitioners have to leave. The restrictions imposed on practitioners from other areas is consistent with tightening measures elsewhere, which has serious implications for the survival of Tibetan Buddhist institutions and practice, particularly because the teachings are based on oral transmission.

The Chinese authorities have imposed sweeping new restrictions on monks and nuns studying in provinces away from their home area, on pilgrimage, and also in order to prevent Tibetans travelling to teachings by the Dalai Lama outside Tibet, and to punish those who do.[8]

In the letter to the Rapporteur, ICT also stated that with regard to the lack of participation of concerned monks and nuns, the Chinese authorities have failed to – as stipulated by U.N. Human Rights Council resolution 6/37 (2007) – “exert the utmost efforts, (…), to ensure that religious places, sites, shrines and symbols are fully respected and protected and to take additional measures in cases where they are vulnerable to desecration or destruction”. This means that the concerns of relevant religious practitioners on the ground would need to be heard before a religious site is to be demolished or altered in any way, in order to fully respect and protect the religious site, particularly given the importance of Larung Gar not only within the PRC but also globally.

Larung Gar was founded by the late Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok to provide a training center for Tibetan Buddhism and to meet the need for renewal of meditation and scholarship all over Tibet in the wake of China’s Cultural Revolution. It began as a handful of students studying with the Khenpo, to later become one of the most influential and important Buddhist institutions worldwide; by 2002 it had over 8,000 disciples, including a sizable Chinese population.

The late Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok had also traveled extensively within China, giving Buddhist teachings in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. His students are now in China, India and the West.

Expulsions at Yachen Gar

Nuns and monks at the religious encampment of Yachen Gar were taught by the late Nyingmapa lama, Achuk Khenpo Rinpoche. Earlier demolitions of hundreds of dwellings at Larung Gar in 2001 – unprecedented in scale since the Cultural Revolution – were followed by demolition of meditation huts at Yachen Gar too. Yachen Gar is located in the grasslands in the area traditionally known as Tromthar, now part of Pelyul county of Sichuan Province. More than 800 dwellings were destroyed there in 2001, with nuns even being forced to carry out the destruction themselves. One nun who had studied at Yachen for nearly five years told ICT, “They said we had to destroy our homes ourselves and if we didn’t, then the police would come and take our belongings. So most of the nuns did wreck their homes by pushing the mud walls in. We were all crying and sobbing but what else are we supposed to do? If we didn’t push the walls down ourselves they would beat us and take our belongings. At the meeting in front of the main prayer hall, the work teams said if we could keep all our belongings if we destroyed the house ourselves.”[9]

According to new information from Tibet, up to 1,000 nuns from the TAR studying at Yachen Gar are being forced to leave by officials in the TAR. According to Human Rights Watch, Yachen Gar residents from areas outside the TAR have not been threatened or ordered to leave. The nuns are unlikely to be allowed to attend nunneries in their home areas in the TAR, given restrictions there.


Footnotes:
[1] Human Rights Watch report, September 14, 2016, ‘China: 1,000 Evictions from Tibetan Buddhist Centers’, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/09/14/china-1000-evictions-tibetan-buddhist-centers

[2] See HRW report, ibid

[3] ICT report, July 25, 2016, https://www.savetibet.org/demolitions-begin-at-larung-gar-monastery-for-the-world-as-religious-teachers-urge-calm/

[4] RFA report, August 29, 2016, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/suicides-08292016143614.html

[5] http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/996484.shtml

[6] Global Times, July 27, 2016

[7] “Government workers claimed that the order had come from [China’s] central government and must be obeyed, with consequences spelled out for noncompliance,” said a Tibetan source. Radio Free Asia report, October 24, 2014, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/return-10242014162330.html

[8] The measures make it almost impossible for monks and nuns who wish to travel outside the PRC to receive instruction from teachers who are in exile, and difficult for exiled teachers to get permission to travel within Tibet to give teachings. ICT report, July 13, 2015: “‘A policy alienating Tibetans’: New ICT report on systematic denial of passports to Tibetans”. Also see ICT report, https://www.savetibet.org/china-tightens-control-prevents-pilgrimage-before-major-dalai-lama-teaching-in-exile/

[9] ICT report, November 14, 2001, https://www.savetibet.org/destruction-of-monasteries-spreads-in-tibet/

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