Category Archives: religion

“Spreading the Faith Where Faith Itself Is Suspect”

NYT has a good article on the disappearance of Bishop Ma, the latest move in the slap-fight between Beijing and the Vatican:

“If a Red Guard puts a knife to your throat and tells you to renounce your faith, what should you do?” he asked the five dozen initiates, all of them weeks away from baptism. After an awkward silence, Father Liu blurted out the answer: “Never give it up,” he said, his eyes widening for effect. “Your devotion should be to God above all else.”

Such sentiments might be a mainstay of Christian belief but they border on treasonous in China, an officially atheist state that demands fealty to the Communist Party. The pope might be a ranking minister, but according to the party’s thinking, President Hu Jintao is Catholicism’s supreme leader, at least here in China.

As a priest at an officially sanctioned government church — as opposed to the legion of illicit unofficial congregations — Father Liu struggles to balance his faith with the often-intrusive dictates of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the omnipotent government body that oversees religious life for China’s 12 million Roman Catholics.

After several years of quiet negotiation and a tacit agreement to jointly name Chinese bishops, the Patriotic Association has since 2010 consecrated four bishops over the Vatican’s objections, including Joseph Yue Fusheng, who was ordained Friday in the northern city of Harbin.

Rome responded with an automatic excommunication.

The drama intensified on Saturday, when the Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the newly installed auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, stunned his congregation by announcing his resignation from the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. “In the light of the teaching of our mother church, as I now serve as a bishop, I should focus on pastoral work and evangelization,” Bishop Ma told the crowded church. “Therefore, from this day of consecration, it will no longer be convenient for me to be a member of the patriotic association.”

The announcement, captured on video and posted on foreign and Chinese Web sites, was met with sustained applause from the congregation. Father Ma, who did not lead Mass on Sunday as scheduled, has not been heard from since.

“It’s a very critical situation; I haven’t seen things so bad in 50 years,” said the Rev. Jeroom Heyndrickx, founder of an institute at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium that promotes dialogue between China and the church. “All the years of cooperation and progress have been torn to pieces.”

It is not entirely clear what went wrong. The animus, fed by an age-old narrative that paints the Vatican as a foreign interloper, is never far beneath the surface. But analysts suggest party hard-liners may be taking advantage of the political stasis that has preceded the once-a-decade leadership change scheduled for later this year.

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“China Said to Detain Returning Tibetan Pilgrims”

Apparently some of the pilgrims are still in detention, prompting one of the first times this story has been carried outside of RFA:

Many of the pilgrims are elderly and have been detained for more than two months in central Tibet, or what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region. The detainees are being interrogated and undergoing patriotic re-education classes, and have been ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama, who presided over the ceremony, known as the Kalachakra, say people who have researched the detentions. The detainees are being held at hotels, schools and military training centers or bases; some are being forced to pay for their lodging and meals.

The detentions are expected to stoke resentment among Tibetans toward the Chinese government at a time when tensions across the Tibetan plateau are at the highest in years.

“About the pilgrim returnees, last I heard was they were detained and many put in hotel rooms,” said Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. He added that the detainees had been “interrogated regularly,” with questions focusing on what various officials, including himself, the Dalai Lama and the previous prime minister, Samdhong Rinpoche, had said in speeches during the Kalachakra.

Human rights organizations and Tibet advocacy groups have put out reports based on information collected through interviews. “This is the first known instance since the late 1970s in which the Chinese authorities have detained laypeople in Tibet in large numbers to force them to undergo re-education,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. The group said that it was unclear how long the detainees were being held, and that there had been no reports of any of the 700 Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, who attended the Kalachakra being detained.

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“Monks, Nuns Abandon Monasteries”

The media lockdown and communications barriers are keeping Ngaba and Kardze in the dark, but some news is still getting out of Tibet province. From RFA:

Monks and nuns have abandoned their monasteries in a Central Tibetan county, preferring to leave rather than submit to “intrusive” new Chinese regulations, according to Tibetan sources.

The exodus over the last two months comes amid an increasing crackdown by Chinese authorities following Tibetan protests highlighting rights abuses and unprecedented self-immolations mostly by monks fed up with increasing religious curbs.

“The monks and nuns have already left” their monasteries in Driru county in the Nagchu prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a Tibetan living in Australia said, speaking on condition of anonymity and citing sources in the region.

He named Driru, Pekar, Choeling, Tagmo, and Drongna monasteries, and Jana, a nunnery, as the affected facilities.

“All who were not willing to live under the strict restrictions imposed by Chinese [authorities] chose to leave,” he said.

Meanwhile, sources said, posters and leaflets calling for freedom for Tibet and the return of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama appeared on Jan. 25 at Ragya monastery in the Golog prefecture of China’s Qinghai province.

“Police could not identify the persons responsible, and later threatened to close the monastery,” India-based Tibetan exile Ragya Lowang said, citing sources in the region.

Monks had earlier displayed a large photo of the Dalai Lama and the banned Tibetan national flag in the main hall of the monastery, prompting an investigation by Chinese authorities, Ragya Lowang said.

There’s also some chatter on Twitter about a number of Tibetan-language sites hosted in China being closed by the government. I suppose the excuse is probably that ‘anti-China forces’ might be communicating over these sites, but I wonder if closing them will actually do anything other than throw yet another straw on the yaks back.

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Elliot Sperling is far and away one of the most informed voices on Tibet, and his recent article on the Buddhist convention in India and China’s resulting fury is well worth a read:

The Global Buddhist Congregation (GBC) that convened in New Delhi from November 27-30 made a bit of news when China reacted harshly to the Dalai Lama’s role in the gathering. Throughout several weeks of buildup to the event (which was designed to bring together Buddhists from all over the world and culminate in the establishment of a new international Buddhist organization) there was no secret that the Dalai Lama was to be the featured guest and that high-ranking Indian figures—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s name was mentioned—would likely also attend.

While the Dalai Lama was actually present for the gathering only on its final day, when he attended an interfaith function at Gandhi Smriti in the morning and delivered the gathering’s valedictory address before hundreds of participants at its final session in the afternoon, his presence hovered over the meeting from the very start. Over the course of the four days on which the GBC was held, several sangharaja, along with Buddhist sangha members from a multitude of countries and a variety of Buddhist traditions, were often unstinting in extolling the Dalai Lama. The unavoidable impression was that he now stands as the most visible living symbol of Buddhism in the world today. His spiritual preeminence was cited time and again over the course of the GBC, and not only by followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Many of those who follow the numerous other Buddhist traditions represented at the meeting acknowledged the Dalai Lama’s overarching spiritual position with language that, in one instance, described him as a lineage holder for all Buddhist schools.

The acclaim accorded the Dalai Lama by Buddhists from around the world added a certain significance to the meeting that China may find difficult to ignore and which makes its objections to the Dalai Lama’s participation in the GBC more complex than the sort of objections it visits on governments that choose to receive the Dalai Lama in an official manner. Indeed, its objections to the Dalai Lama’s presence are fundamentally different: after all, the Dalai Lama does reside in India. That aside, however, given persistent Chinese anxieties over the possibility of being surrounded by hostile powers intent on restraining “the peaceful rise of China,” it is hard to avoid the likelihood that a gathering of Buddhists from neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, etc., all acknowledging—regardless of sect or school—the Dalai Lama’s leading spiritual position among them, will be seen as a provocation or even a threat aimed at Buddhists (and not just Tibetan Buddhists) within China.

But the necessity of countering the display of veneration accorded the Dalai Lama also reveals how China has, in a sense, created its own conundrum. What counterweight does China have to the Dalai Lama? Well, there is one person, someone who has essentially been groomed for the role. But using him opens up a can of worms that one can hardly imagine China would like to see opened, for this person is none other than the Chinese Panchen Lama, so-called because he was chosen under coercion and foisted upon Tibetan Buddhists in opposition to the child recognized by the Dalai Lama as the incarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. The problem for China is that their Panchen Lama is not accepted—to say the least—by the large majority of Tibetans who do indeed consider him China’s (not Tibet’s) Panchen Lama. The irony of an officially atheistic state discovering and certifying incarnate lamas has been noted many times but the absurdity of the situation has not lessened. And a state bureaucracy that did not pay heed to popular rejection of a Panchen Lama that it foisted on Tibet over 16 years ago is, in a word, stuck. The situation is so abnormal that the Panchen Lama is not allowed to reside in Tibet, both to keep him tethered to the government and to avoid the unpleasantness that his presence among his ostensible followers might set off.

But now that the very moment has arrived in which China needs just such a figure, his problematic nature is obvious: the Chinese Panchen Lama, someone who was supposed to be the answer to a problem, is a problem in and of himself, residing in Beijing in a state of alienation from the general Tibetan populace. Put bluntly, he is a walking announcement of the lack of religious freedom in Tibet, a living and breathing advertisement for religious repression in the PRC.

Clearly, if the Chinese Panchen Lama is unusable in the situation created by the convening of the GBC and the establishment of an International Buddhist Federation it is more than a minor embarrassment for a China. He has been groomed for just such a task. But simply bringing up his name will bring to mind the Panchen Lama chosen by the Dalai Lama and held incommunicado since 1995. Indeed, from the time China forced its choice for Panchen Lama on an unaccepting Tibetan population it has been boxing itself in, tying the perception of its policy on religion to a rejected figure. It is a problem that China has wholly created for itself.

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“More Chinese embracing Buddhism”

From Public Radio International, a story that probably makes Beijing feel somewhat uneasy:

Wutaishan, in the mountains of China’s northern Shanxi province, has long been a sacred site for Buddhists.

They hike mountain paths, and visit temples dating back to the eighth century.

On one mountain path, a group of middle-aged guys hang a rainbow of prayer flags between two trees, and watch, satisfied, as they flutter in the breeze.

One declines to be interviewed. He’s a government official, and wants to keep his practice of Buddhism private. The other, former pharmaceutical salesman Zhang Jiankun, 42, is downright loquacious.

“I used to smoke, drink, gamble, fight and chase women. I used to like to do all this all day,” he said. “And then, by the time I was 30, I had money – but I also had hypertension, and liver damage from all the drinking. I’d take clients out, so I’d drink every day. And I was fat.”

Now, he says, he’s slimmed down, quit drinking, and can climb these mountains with no problem. He credits his embrace of Tibetan Buddhism 11 years ago with helping him clean up his act.

Like many Chinese, Zhang believes Tibetan Buddhism is a purer form than the variety battered and eventually coopted over 60 years of Communist Party rule in the rest of China. Not that Tibetan Buddhism escaped unscathed. Under Communist Party rule, thousands of Buddhist temples in Tibet have been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans killed – others, especially monks and nuns, have been imprisoned.

By some estimates, at least one in four Chinese actively practice Buddhism, with the upwardly mobile and creative classes increasingly embracing Tibetan Buddhism, in particular.

But not all who come in search of meaning know the essence of Buddhism. At one Wutaishan temple, a young businesswoman from Shanghai, Chu Hui, lights long incense sticks. She holds them to her forehead and bows deeply toward the temple. She said she came once before to make a wish, and had to come back, because the wish came true.

“If you make a wish and it become reality, you have to come back to offer thanks,” she said. “Otherwise, they will be some disaster – maybe.”

Chu admits she’s not actually Buddhist – just interested. Many of the visitors here are similar, said senior monk Shi Yanping.

“People are trying to find a way to connect their heart to Buddhism,” he said. “But many don’t understand Buddhism. They think burning incense, and falling on their knees and knocking their head on the ground is Buddhism. But the real practice of Buddhism it to find it in your heart.”

“Neither Chinese nor Tibetan Buddhism face any restrictions in China,” he said. “Some people may have taken advantage of freedom of religion to make mistakes, or commit wrongdoings. But it doesn’t mean the practice of religion faces any restriction.”

When asked if it’s “wrongdoing” for Tibetan Buddhists to display photos of the Dalai Lama, he says no. When asked about the Tibetan Buddhists who’ve been arrested for doing just that, he’s surprised.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he said, with a polite smile.

Most Tibetans in China couldn’t say the same. Ever since a March 2008 uprising in ethnic Tibetan parts of western China, lasting weeks, the Chinese government has cracked down. It flooded ethnic Tibetan areas with military police, tried to get monks to renounce the Dalai Lama and arrested those who showed signs of following him.

And yet, growing numbers of Chinese embrace him as a spiritual leader. They must tread carefully.

Reta Dinchenpujun is a “living Buddha” – a reincarnated practitioner, back to help others attain enlightenment. He declines to answer whether he’s been asked to denounce the Dalai Lama.

“I’m not particularly interested in politics,” he says. “No one can ask me to do or not to do something in my life. I belong to myself.” He paused and added a thought. “Of course, the Dalai Lama is a spiritual role model for all Tibetan Buddhists – as every Dalai Lama has been throughout history.”

The extent to which Chinese Buddhism has been destroyed by Communist Party rule is too obvious for even them to hide, despite massive efforts to sell it. A wider Chinese public embrace of Tibetan Buddhism as a result doesn’t necessarily mean hordes of Han Chinese will take up the cause of Tibetan independence, but it could break down one of the many walls that Zhongnanhai depends on to separate the different ethnicities from each other. Luckily they’re already trying harder than ever to coopt and/or destroy any meaningful practice of Tibetan Buddhism, so they might not have too much to worry about.

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“China ‘to give Tibetan monks welfare benefits'”

Interesting move being reported by the BBC. It should be noted that this plan is apparently aimed at Tibet province, and not the Tibetan regions outside the province which have given Beijing the most trouble recently. Also, one does have to wonder what strings will be attached… but here goes:

Monks can expect pensions, medical insurance and living allowances.

The announcement came at a gathering of the Tibetan branch of the Chinese Communist Party.

“The government will take great pains to ensure that public services such as electricity, water, telecommunications, radio and TV stations are provided to the local monasteries,” he is quoted as saying by the Global Times newspaper.

He added that there would also be personal help, including allowances, for monks and nuns living in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

The government intends to spend nearly $60m (£37m) on farmland irrigation and water conservancy projects.

It will also ensure there is more information – books, magazines and TV programmes – published in the Tibetan language.

Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, even said that a compensation scheme was helping preserve wildlife on the Tibetan plateau.

The project allows herders to claim money for livestock eaten by wolves, thus undermining farmers’ need to kill them.

Is this to be the trademark style of the new Party Chief of Tibet province? It certainly beats disappearing people and maintaining power with the barrel of a gun, but we’ll have to see if/how it’s actually implemented.

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Filed under Beijing does a Good Thing, religion, Tibet

“In China, tensions rising over Buddhism’s quiet resurgence”

USA Today comes out of the left field with a good piece about Tibetan Buddhism’s influence over Han Chinese. Beijing is obviously unhappy, while the Dalai Lama seems at least partially motivated by a desire to encourage this very spread:

Sheng is far from her home — and from the bars where she used to drink and the ex-boyfriends she says cheated on her. She is here with 2,000 other Han Chinese at the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in Serthar, Sichuan province, the rain-soaked mountainous region of southwest China.

The province is far from the central government in Beijing and a traditional gateway to Tibet, where Tibetans have practiced Buddhism for centuries — and where, for decades, China’s Communist Party has suppressed Buddhists, sometimes brutally.

Holy chants and red-robed devotees spill down hillsides blanketed by red wooden cabins, where monks, nuns and disciples spend hours in meditation. More than 2 miles above sea level, Larung Gar is among the largest Tibetan Buddhist academies in the world, with about 10,000 mostly Tibetan students.

In Ganzi, many people welcome the growing number of Chinese students but complain their own freedoms will be restricted as long as the Dalai Lama remains in India, his home since 1959.

“I am proud so many Han Chinese come to Serthar to study, as it will help relations between the Han and Tibetan peoples,” says Tashi Dengzhu, a yak and sheep herder who lives south of Serthar.

Han Chinese students have risen from 1,000 when she arrived seven years ago to over 2,000 today, says Yuan Yi, a shaven-headed nun from southeast Fujian province. But the senior Tibetan lama they follow, Khenpo So Dargye, refused to discuss the Chinese student body he heads.

Such caution reflects the academy’s troubled past and ongoing vulnerability. Founded in what was an uninhabited Larung valley in 1980, the institute became so popular it attracted a large-scale government assault in 2001. Hundreds of homes were demolished and thousands of residents evicted, according to exile groups.

Tibetan Buddhism was traditionally the religion of many Chinese emperors, and even apolitical teachings are unacceptable to Beijing, which fears a revival and increased influence among a Chinese public which was forcefully deprived of religion during the Mao years.

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