Why are Nuns and Monks in the Streets? (Parts I & II)

March 22, 2008—A little over two weeks ago, I received a cryptic message from a friend in Tibet: “Things are tense. The government is cracking down.” A week later most of Tibet was under martial law. The press coverage of the recent demonstrations has focused on the events that have taken place in Lhasa, the capital of the “Tibet Autonomous Region” (TAR), but what is actually happening in Lhasa is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The media has been less successful at covering the protests in the Tibetan ethnic areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces on Tibet’s eastern frontier. Protests have even occured in Beijing. Taken together, these demonstrations—more than two dozen confirmed thus far—represent the strongest Tibetan response to Chinese rule since the March 1959 uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile from his homeland.

The Chinese government’s response to the demonstrations has been swift and severe. Initially confined simply to breaking up and detaining “troublemakers,” on March 14 the government apparently lifted its ban on using deadly force. From that point on, the police and army troops and have been openly firing into crowds. The unconfirmed death toll is presently at well over 100. Hundreds of Tibetans have also been arrested and are being detained in jails and in the interrogation centers of the Public Security Bureau.

The media has tended to focus only on the political dimension of the protests. This is understandable, given that it is the most dramatic aspect. After almost 50 years of living under Chinese rule, there is no denying that most Tibetans continue to believe that Tibet is an independent country. They tear down the Chinese flag from public buildings, raise the Tibetan flag in its place, and chant Pö rang wang! (Tibetan Independence!). Many Chinese, for their part, claim to be baffled: “Why do Tibetans feel this way? Have we not modernized Tibet? Tibetans now have electricity, roads and medical care. Aren’t Tibetans more prosperous than they were fifty years ago?” Despite these material advances—which in fact are confined almost exclusively to urban areas—most Tibetans feel as though they are second-class citizens within the PRC, lacking the same rights, privileges, and economic opportunities that the Han Chinese enjoy. They also feel as though their culture is under siege, and not simply because Tibetans are increasingly a minority in their homeland, especially in cities. Tibetans feel as though their culture is devalued and that it is steadily eroding. To take just one example—a symptom of the underlying problem, not its cause: at Tibet University in Lhasa, the only officially recognized institution of higher learning in the TAR, Chinese continues to be the official language of instruction, and there is little support or academic programming related to Tibetan language, literature, culture, or the arts.

The conflict between Tibetans and the Chinese government over the status of Tibet is complex and multifaceted, involving issues of race/ethnicity, economics, language, and education—not just politics. Aside from the political, most of these other factors have been overlooked in Western media coverage, while coverage of the role of religion has been particularly unnuanced. Aside from noting that most of the protests have involved the Buddhist clergy, little attention has been paid to the role that Buddhist monks and nuns have played in these events, and especially to their motivations for protesting. Monks and nuns have been at the forefront of public demonstrations in Tibet since the 1980s. As with the earlier demonstrations, the most recent round of protests began with monks. They escalated, spreading to the laity, when these monks were beaten and arrested.

But why do Tibetan monks engage in public protests in the first place? Those earlier demonstrators who are currently living in exile in India have stated that, being unencumbered by the responsibilities that come with having a spouse and children, they consider themselves more free than their lay counterparts to engage in political action. They have cited this as one of their principal reasons for becoming politically active. If imprisoned or killed, they have said, they have no dependents who would suffer as a result of their actions. The monks and nuns who have taken part in the recent protests are undoubtedly of the same opinion. But statements like this still provide us with few clues about the clergy’s actual grievances, what injustices they feel need to be redressed. To understand the monks’ and nuns’ motivations for protesting is not, of course, to understand the whole of the Tibet issue, but it is to understand one of the sparks that has led to conflagrations like the ones we have witnessed this last week.

In a recently released public statement, the Dalai Lama hints at what is at stake for the clergy. “It is common knowledge that Tibetan monasteries, which constitute our principal seats of learning, besides being the repository of Tibetan Buddhist culture, have been severely reduced both in number and in population. In those monasteries that do still exist, serious study of Tibetan Buddhism is no longer allowed; in fact, even admission to these centres of learning is being strictly regulated. In reality, there is no religious freedom in Tibet.” It may seem strange to an outsider that the regulation of monastic institutions—for example, the control of the number of monks in monasteries—should be such an important issue for Tibetans. Let me try and explain why monks and nuns risk years of imprisonment, and indeed their own lives, to protest this and other governmental policies aimed at controlling their institutions.

Religion is at the very heart of Tibetan ethnic identity, and monastic institutions are one of the hallmarks of Tibetan religion. According to the most conservative estimates, before 1959 monks constituted 10-12% of the total male population in central agricultural regions (the percentage of nuns being somewhat lower). Most Tibetans had close family members—children, siblings, aunts or uncles—who were ordained. Monasteries served as a focal point for many lay religious practices, including important village or regional festivals. Because of the importance of monasteries to Tibetan religious and cultural life, it is not surprising that Tibetans should view the Chinese government’s attempts to control monasticism as a threat to Tibetan cultural identity. Tibetan monks believe that they must have internal autonomy: the freedom to establish their own policies, to manage their own affairs, and not to be subject to ideological pressures or other forms of interference from the state. In Tibet today it is precisely the issue of autonomy—the freedom to opt for a Buddhist way of life and to establish such a way of life institutionally—that is the greatest source of conflict between the clergy and the Chinese state. Viewed from this perspective, the question of Chinese policy in regard to the Tibetan monasteries is the “Tibet question” writ small. How much autonomy is necessary to make monks (Tibetans) happy? How much is the Chinese government willing to grant them? Can a compromise be reached? The most recent round of protests suggests how far the Tibetan clergy and the Chinese government are from a compromise.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy in regard to Tibetan monasticism must undoubtedly be seen as the historical legacy on the part of Chinese (and perhaps, more generally, East Asian) polities to (micro)manage institutions at all levels of the culture: to bring them under the bureaucratic control of the state. Among the various types of institutions, religious ones have been seen as a perennial and special object of concern, in part because of the extent to which they penetrate all levels of the society, and in part because of their potential to challenge the power of the state. Without getting into the details of the bureaucratic apparatus that has been put into place to control Tibetan monasteries in contemporary China, suffice it to say that such an apparatus exists in the form of a superstructural bureaucracy that regulates monasteries from above, and an infrastructural apparatus (including government informants) embedded within monasteries to control them from below. This bureaucracy allows for control of various aspects of monks’ and nuns’ individual and institutional lives:

—The Chinese government (or one of its various proxies) issues or denies formal registration to monasteries. Monasteries that operate without formal recognition are considered renegade institutions and can be shut down.

—Government offices determine who may or may not become and/or remain a monk or nun. For example, “children under 18” and individuals who are (or whose parents have been) classified as having politically problematic views are prohibited from entering the monastic life.

—Party officials ultimately decide who will or will not be granted “official status” as monk or nun. Large monasteries in the TAR often have an “unofficial” monastic population that can be up to half of the official number of resident monks—a kind of waiting list. Although residents of the monasteries, where they work and study, these unofficial monks and nuns have little status and no real privileges in these institutions. (For example, they are not allowed to receive a share of monetary contributions made to the clergy by the laity.) Whereas monks and nuns used to be the ones to decide who would fill a vacant slot when an official monk left, retired, or died, this decision is increasingly made by government officials.

—The Chinese government determines the number of monks or nuns allowed to live within a monastery. (More on this in a moment.)

—While Tibetans consider the identification of reincarnate lamas or tulkus to be a religious matter, the Chinese government has increasingly sought to control the process of identifying high-ranking tulkus. It is now considered illegal for monks to identify tulkus without the approval of government authorities.

—The government also controls which types of religious images can be displayed, and which types of rituals can be enacted. For example, since 1996, pictures of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama have been officially banned in public places. Prayers and rituals for the Dalai Lama’s health and well-being are also prohibited.

—Media access is also controlled. Monks (like all Tibetans) are prohibited from listening to the Tibetan language broadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and members of the clergy especially are subject to interrogation and punishment if caught.

—The government sees itself as having the right to implement “patriotic re-education” campaigns of ideological indoctrination whenever this is seen as necessary (see below). What is more, only a specific form of Buddhism can, in principle, be taught and practiced in monasteries. Practices traditionally found within monasteries—like divination and oracles—are classified as “superstitions” and are proscribed.

—Government agencies also control the hours during which monasteries can remain open to the public, and can order their sudden closure if they perceive there to be a security problem, as has happened recently. They also determine whether, when, and how festivals and public teachings and rituals may be convened. For example, in August of 2004, Lhasa city authorities changed the date of the Drepung Zhotön festival, which traditionally varies according to the Tibetan lunar calendar, in order to promote tourism.

Of the various policies implemented by Chinese governmental agencies in recent years two have been the greatest source of friction between the clergy and the government. The control of the number of monks and nuns in monastic institutions, and the implementation of “patriotic re-education.” Since it is largely these policies that have brought the clergy into the streets in the recent protests, let me touch briefly on each of these now.

Part II

Monastic populations are today only a fraction—in many instances less than ten percent—of what they once were. Monks and nuns oppose this literal decimation of their ranks for a variety of reasons, but principally because they believe that a certain critical mass is necessary for their institutions to thrive. While most monks undoubtedly do not wish to return to the huge, pre-1959 monastic populations, and while they deplore the excesses of what has been termed “the mass monasticism of the old society,” monks object to the current size limits imposed on them by the government. They see this as a violation of the rights of young Tibetan men to enter the religious life, as an infringement on monasteries’ right to internal self-governance, and as an obstacle to achieving their educational objectives.

The government’s policy of limiting monastic enrollment to their current low levels is also considered to be a form of economic exploitation. Monks and nuns believe that the government’s strategy is to allow just enough of a monastic presence in the monasteries to insure their physical maintenance—that is, to insure that the buildings and temples can be preserved as “cultural relics” and maintained at a level sufficient for their exploitation as tourist venues. Maintaining ancient monasteries is an enormous labor, leaving monks with little time for religious activities, which is, after all, their reason for being there. While the policy of having smaller monasteries serves the purposes of the government, it does so at the expense of the monks’ own goals. Moreover, since the number of official monks in a monastery is fixed, new monks can be admitted into the official ranks of the monastery only after a slot is vacant. Rather than admitting scholar-monks, however, government bureaucrats, who have the final say on whether or not a given monk will be admitted, are increasingly opting for admitting middle-aged worker-monks who, being past the ideal age for beginning rigorous scholastic training, are, understandably, more interested in working than in studying. This means that the population of serious scholarly monks in the great monasteries is gradually declining, something that is obviously contributing to a decline in the intellectual life of the great monasteries.

Finally, monks point out that they are increasingly treated as actors on the tourist stage. For example, the daily debate sessions in Lhasa’s large monasteries, one of the most important venues for monastic learning, must be convened at a time that is convenient for the local tourist industry. During the peak of the tourist season, busloads of tourists descend on the monasteries in the early afternoon, cameras in hand. It is not uncommon for tourists to outnumber monks in the debate courtyards during this time. This is obviously disruptive, making a spectacle out of a serious educational pursuit.

Monastic response to the Chinese government policy of limiting monastic enrollments is at least in part the result of a clash between the secular, materialist, security-concerned worldview of the Chinese state, and the religious, traditional, and Tibetocentric worldview of monks. By restricting the monastic population to a number just large enough to run monasteries and to provide “costumed natives” for the tourist industry, Chinese government policymakers are privileging values like political stability, the physical preservation of monastic institutions as historical/cultural “relics,” and the tangible economic gains derived from treating these institutions as tourist venues. When they object to such a policy, the monks are privileging another set of values: (1) That the monasteries are living educational institutions whose chief purpose is to create morally upright, well-trained scholars, (2) that obtaining such training is the right of all Tibetans, (3) that it is the monks themselves who know the policies best suited to achieving their goal, and therefore (4) that they should be the ones to regulate the size of their institutions.

Control over the monastic rolls is a central point of disagreement between the Chinese government and Tibetans, but more important still are the campaigns of “patriotic re-education” that have been waged within monasteries. Beginning in 1996, this policy brought teams of party members into monastic institutions to “disseminate patriotic educational reform within the monasteries.” The ostensible purpose of patriotic re-education was to (re)train monks in party ideology. In actual fact, the campaign was aimed at identifying monks and nuns who were deemed “unpatriotic,” to expel and/or imprison these individuals, and to extract loyalty pledges from those remaining. The ultimate goal was to root out “splittist” elements within the monasteries, and to purge these institutions of “Dalai clique sympathizers.” According to one report, the campaigns, in one year alone, “resulted in 2,827 expulsions, 165 arrests, nine deaths and 35 [individuals] voluntarily leaving their monasteries and nunneries… A five-point political pledge requires monks to oppose the idea of an independent Tibet, to denounce the Dalai Lama and to recognise the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama.”

Composed of Tibetan party members from various offices (including the Chinese government’s Public Security Bureau), work teams spend weeks, and sometimes months, in monasteries delivering lectures to the assembled monks, who have no choice but to attend. Armed soldiers are frequently stationed in the monasteries while the re-education teams are at work. No resistance or challenge is tolerated. For example, two monks at Drepung who challenged the work team to provide evidence for their claims during a re-education session were each given three-year prison terms. Since the start of these campaigns more than 11,000 monks and nuns had been expelled from monastic institutions in the TAR alone. Most of these individuals were expelled for either refusing to undergo patriotic re-education or for refusing to sign the pledge that denounces the Dalai Lama. It is no accident that the most recent protests in Lhasa coincided with a new round of “patriotic re-education” within the monasteries.

Have these various policies been successful either as a way of changing Tibetans’ attitudes toward the Chinese government or as a method of purging dissidents? Given that the drama of “patriotic re-education” must be reenacted over and over, is this not an indication that something is amiss? In the end, does this policy make the CCP any less vulnerable, or Tibet any more secure? In the rhetoric of these state-sponsored campaigns, one often sees reference to the “severing of the serpent’s head,” a metaphor for eradicating “splittism,” the perceived cause of all problems in Tibet. But perhaps a better mascot would be the hydra, a mythical beast that grows two heads for every one that is cut off.

As one Chinese commentator on Tibet, Wang Lixiong, noted back in 2002:

Tibet is more prosperous now than ever before in its history. However, this has not gained the PRC the allegiance of the Tibetans, more and more of whom have become attached to the Dalai Lama… It would be wrong to regard the present situation as more stable than in 1987 [when the Lhasa protests first occurred]. At that time, it was mainly monks and disoriented youth who led the riots. Nowadays, opposition lurks among cadres, intellectuals, state employees. In the words of one retired official: “The current stabilization is only on the surface. One day people will riot in much greater numbers than in the late eighties”… Today, the person who controls the two banners [of religion and nationality] in Tibet is none other than the Dalai Lama, who enjoys the status both of the highest spiritual leader and the internationally recognized symbol of Tibetan nationhood.

These remarkably candid words from one of China’s most important writers on Tibetan issues demonstrate that Chinese intellectuals are all too aware of the failures of the present policy. Rather than resulting in any tangible success, the micromanagement of monasteries and schemes like “patriotic re-education” have created a great deal of resentment. It has shown monks and nuns the extent of the compromises required of them if they are to inhabit the modern Chinese state. Many Tibetans continue, albeit reluctantly, to make those compromises, but many refuse to do so, either leaving to become refugees in India, or else taking to the streets in protests.

The CCP prides itself on its willingness to confront reality head on, on its ability to “adhere to the objective nature of things as the basis for accomplishing its agenda.” This being so, the Chinese leadership needs to ask itself whether the present policies are, objectively speaking, working, or whether in fact Tibetan devotion to the Dalai Lama, as a form of religious expression, might be as difficult to eradicate as, say, religion itself. As Wang Lixiong says, “virtually all Tibetans have the Dalai in their heart.” No amount of political re-education appears to be changing this.

There is no question that a shift in Chinese government policy is necessary.* Given the failure of present policy, new strategies are called for. The Chinese administration, for example, should shift from the present top-down, hierarchical model of policy creation and implementation to a more local, representational and consensual model; from a reactionary model (that acts in response to crises that have already happened) to a preventative model that addresses the causes of potential crises (and attempts to deal with them before crises happen). Such changes, however, require the government to go beyond its present perception of Tibetan monastic institutions as the archaic vestiges of a backward culture and as revenue-producing tourist venues. It requires CCP officials to acknowledge that monasteries have been and continue to be an important and valued aspect of Tibetan cultural life, that they are the repositories of valuable traditional knowledge, and that this aspect of Tibetan civilization, which is not reducible to its materiality, is something that is worth preserving. Recognizing and responding to the grievances of Tibet’s clergy will not solve the Tibetan issue for the Chinese government, but without a serious reconsideration of its policies in regard to religious institutions, it is clear that no progress will ever be made in regard to the broader issues.

Mao once said that the Chinese Communist Party should always work “to accept what is useful and healthy, and to discard what is not.” Let these words serve as a guide for the Chinese leadership in the weeks and months ahead.

*As this article is being finalized, leading Chinese intellectuals have issued a statement calling for a rethinking of China’s policy in regard to Tibet. It is noteworthy, however, that the Buddhist clergy is not specifically mentioned in this statement.