The latest annual report published by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy describes Tibet as a “giant open-air prison”. A Freedom House report said the human rights situation in Tibet was between Syria and North Korea. In “The State of Human Rights in the World” published by Amnesty International, the situations in China (including Tibet) and Syria are listed together as the two countries of most concern.
Buddhism is central to Tibetan culture, society and national identity. It is the main source of national pride. The Buddhist monastery has traditionally served as the main place for the generation and preservation of Tibetan culture, both material and intellectual. This function of the monastery was seriously threatened by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent oppression and destruction during the periods of “liberation” and the Cultural Revolution. After a brief period of modest revival, beginning in 1979, the monastery was again in peril following the events of October 1987.
As Goldstein wrote, “Tibetan Buddhism…exemplified for Tibetans the worth and worth of their culture and way of life and the essence of their national identity. This is what they believe makes their company unique and unparalleled. This is why Tibetans have always resisted foreign rulers when they were seen as threats to Tibetan Buddhism, even when they tolerated violations of Tibetan independence or autonomy. This presents a dilemma for the Chinese, which mirrors Beijing’s political dilemma: by suppressing Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan resentment and thus the desire for freedom is heightened; but by adopting a liberal policy, the very cultural system that most encourages Tibetans to identify outside of China. From the Tibetan perspective, even during the more liberal era of the 1980s, the Chinese were hostile to Tibetan Buddhism, albeit with more subtle measures.
China has harshly cracked down on religious freedom in Tibet in recent years, imprisoning hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns and expelling hundreds more from their monasteries, according to a report published in the 1990s.
The 82-page report, released by the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based human rights watchdog, found that behind a facade of religious freedom, Communist Party officials are limiting the number of monks in every monastery in Tibet, control monasteries’ finances and require Tibetans to obtain official permission before joining monasteries.
The Communist Party officially proclaims a policy of religious tolerance in Tibet. Unlike the period of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when any sign of religion was banned, the party now allows Tibetans to engage in certain outward manifestations of their faith, such as praying in Buddhist temples.
Forms of protest by Tibetans against the effects of these policies have been met with further rights violations by the state, resulting in arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and inhuman treatment or punishment. The victims of these violations have been, to a large extent, but not exclusively, Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.
China’s strict control over religious practice and teachings in Tibetan areas is based on maintaining the supremacy and authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although China’s constitution states that Chinese citizens have “freedom of religious belief”, the Party defines religious behavior and religion as “acceptable” as that which does not interfere with or challenge the legitimacy and party status. If the authorities consider the exercise of religious freedom to be detrimental to the broader political concerns of the state, it will be duly suppressed. It remains impossible to challenge or question the constitution in court in China.
The Party’s role in controlling Tibetan Buddhism has been emphasized by the highest echelons of the CCP leadership. At a critical meeting defining policy on Tibet over the next decade, President and Party Secretary Hu Jintao spoke of the high political priority of guiding “Tibetan Buddhism to stay in line with socialist society”. “.
The Chinese government is not only violating the religious beliefs of those who follow exiled leader Dalai Lama and other foreign religious leaders, it is also violating the religious freedom rights of many Tibetans who do not accept the so-called “Additional Panchen “Gyaincain Norbu chosen by the Chinese government to represent the Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. The government forces believers to join in his worship ceremony, hoping they would recognize him. The local government also explicitly stipulates via regulations prohibiting the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China.
World class institute destroyed
Between 1959 and 1975, all but a dozen of the approximately 6,000 monasteries, temples and shrines in Tibet were physically destroyed, often by blowing up ceilings, a dark testament to the connection between religion and culture in Tibet. The Chinese apparently believed that traditional Tibetan culture could be wiped out by razing the material manifestations of Buddhism. Among the destroyed monasteries was Ganden; Drepung and Sera remained standing.
At the eastern end of the vast Tibetan plateau is a sprawling monastery named Larung Gar, which is the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world and a monumental monument to Tibetan culture, religion and history.
It is home to between 10,000 and 40,000 residents, including visiting monks, nuns and students. Because Larung Gar sits at an altitude of over 13,000 feet (3,962 m), it has become known as a “city in the sky”.
But in June 2016, the Chinese government in Beijing issued an order saying the site had become overcrowded and its population must be reduced to a maximum of 5,000 by October 2017.
Within weeks, work crews descended on the peaceful community and began demolishing people’s homes, reducing the shacks to nothing more than splintered wood and broken glass. The owners were forced to sign documents pledging not to return to the region and to “safeguard the unity of the nation”.
As images of the destruction began to emerge, human rights groups and international organizations called it a crackdown on religious freedoms and an attempt by the Chinese government to destroy an icon of Tibetan culture.
Interestingly, the country that was once called a Buddhist nation is now embroiled in the oppression of Buddhists. Aggression against Buddhism escalated after the Communist Party introduced the ideology of “Buddhism with characteristics” under the leadership of authoritarian President Xi Jinping. According to a 2012 demographic study by the Pew Research Center, it is estimated that about 244 million Buddhists reside in China, representing almost 50% of the global Buddhist population. Mainland China is home to ethnic Han Buddhist practitioners, who have been compliant with the CCP’s maneuvers to alter the very essence of Buddhism. Since they remain in direct contact and under surveillance from the CCP and designated Party agencies, it has been easier to silence them against state oppression.
After China’s forced annexation of Tibet in 1951, a popular uprising against Chinese religious oppression began to brew and broke out in 1959 as a protest against Chinese agricultural reforms unilaterally imposed on the Tibetan people. Mass protest by Tibetan Buddhists was brutally suppressed by Chinese forces and their spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet and take refuge in India.
Then Beijing began to slander the spiritual leader and call him a “wolf in monk’s clothing.” Since then, Chinese oppression of Tibetan Buddhism has intensified. China has blatantly installed a dummy Panchen Lama and intends to use him to identify the next Dalai Lama and ensure the CCP can take control of him.
Over the years, the CCP has also increasingly implemented restrictive policies on Tibetan Buddhist institutions, practitioners, and their practices. In the international context, China has demanded that states neither invite nor allow the Dalai Lama to enter their country, nor to meet with their officials.
The future therefore remains darkly obscure. If Tibetan Buddhism is to be a cultural relic for the diversion of the tourist, there seems to be little fear that the remaining monasteries will figure into the survival of Tibetan culture. But if culture is a tradition, something that is transmitted, the prospects are much more ambiguous. Like all Buddhist traditions in Asia, Tibetan Buddhism has its roots in India and the Buddha himself.