“The local authorities are mistrustful and dislike the strong bond between monasteries and the lay people; they try everything possible to break that bond”.
- Exiled Tibetan
Tibet’s Buddhist monasteries form a key part of the country’s national identity. For Tibetans they hold great religious and cultural significance, and, under the Chinese occupation, they have also become centres of political activism. Due to their respected status, Tibet’s monks and nuns make natural community leaders. They run educational projects, orphanages and old people’s homes and help preserve Tibet’s unique culture and language. They also carry out protests. Monasteries are centres of Tibetan resistance.
China’s authorities see monasteries as a threat and have sought to break the bond between them and the communities that they serve. The methods may have changed – in the 1960s large numbers of monasteries were destroyed, whereas now they are put under surveillance and the inhabitants subjected to political re-education – but the struggle is ongoing. As one scholar puts it, Tibet’s monasteries have become “the principal battleground for Tibetan resistance to the Chinese state”.
Why monasteries resist
Monasteries have long been at the centre of Tibetan cultural, political and economic life. It was traditionally common for each Tibetan family to have relatives serving as monks and nuns, while monasteries also granted loans, financed trade and offered a safety net during economic crises.
The Chinese occupation put an end to this system. Monasteries were identified as rival power bases and intrinsically disloyal to China’s central government. Most were shut down. Things worsened under China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, during which time even private religious practice became illegal. Monasteries were destroyed in massive numbers and monks were jailed or forced into hard labour.
After more tolerant policies were introduced across China, monasteries re-opened, but with state controls over their religious activities that continue to this day. As outlined below, their freedom to teach, recruit monks and nuns and even appoint their own leaders are all restricted by China’s government. Images of the Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism - and copies of his teaching are banned.
In recent years, monks and nuns have faced a new threat to their way of life, as Chinese tourists come to Tibet in previously unimaginable numbers due to improved rail links and efforts by China’s government to promote Tibet as a tourist destination. Some monasteries have been renovated to turn them into tourist sites, or modified to create space for restaurants, hotels and shops. Monks have reported huge numbers of tourists coming to their monasteries on a daily basis, disturbing their studies and way of life.
How monks and nuns resist
“Since the Chinese government invaded Tibet in 1949, Tibetans have never stopped protesting and never accepted the Chinese government as our own government. In this process, we had fought with arms and many were killed, arrested and sentenced…”
Kanyag Tsering, a monk from Kirti Monastery now exiled in India, 2016
Despite these restrictions and intrusions, monasteries have continued to play a pivotal role in resisting the occupation, representing what one scholar has called, “a Tibetan civil society, outside state control”, an “institution that Tibetans are able to identify as their own” that has “come to signify Tibetan nationhood and survival”.
Monks and nuns have frequently been at the forefront of protests and been closely involved in organising them, including major outbreaks of resistance in the 1980s and in 2008. In 2009, a monk called Tabe set himself on fire in protest against Chinese rule, launching a wave of more than 140 self-immolation protests across Tibet, almost half by monks or nuns. Others pass information about conditions in Tibet and protests by Tibetans to the outside world via Tibetans living in exile in India.
In response to threats to their language and culture arising from state control and Chinese immigration, monasteries also take a political role through actions intended to defend them. Monks conduct activities such as debates and classes in the Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy for local communities. Others give lectures on cultural, political and environmental issues.
China’s approach to the threat posed by monasteries has two aspects: state intrusion into their day-to-day affairs and using the full force of its security apparatus against any sign of political activism.
Where once Tibetan monastic bodies had responsibility for the admission, training and teaching of monks and nuns, now Democratic Management Committees, controlled by the Chinese government, control the basic affairs of monasteries and nunneries. These committees also take decisions previously made by monasteries on reincarnation – a central aspect of Tibetan Buddhist institutions - attempting to dictate to Tibetans who qualifies as a reincarnate lama.
In April 2015, Chinese officials stated that Tibet’s Buddhist monks and nuns should dedicate themselves to the Communist Party as much as their religion, and that their monasteries should be centres of patriotism and fly Chinese flags. The former Party Secretary of Tibet, Chen Quanguo, claimed that this would guarantee “model harmonious monasteries”, and allow Tibet’s monks to “have a personal feeling of the party and government’s care and warmth.”
The Chinese government has also placed controls on how many monks can stay in a monastery, for example, cutting the number of monks in Labrang monastery in eastern Tibet from 3000 monks, down to 1000 monks. Security cameras have also been installed inside monasteries. Thousands of monks and nuns have been forcibly evicted from monastic towns such as Larung Gar in 2016 and Yarchen Gar in 2019.
When monks and nuns carry out protests, monasteries and nunneries can be shut down or face mass arrests. They may also be subjected to month-long political re-education campaigns, where monks and nuns are forced to agree that Tibet is an inalienable part of China and denounce the Dalai Lama, causing them great distress. Monks and nuns that have refused to sign documents denouncing the Dalai Lama and accepting China’s version of history have been detained, tortured and forced to leave their monastic institutions.
Individual monks and nuns face arrest, violence, torture and harsh sentences if they fall foul of the authorities. Under close surveillance in their monasteries, they may be arrested simply on suspicion of planning protests, or for showing signs of loyalty to the Dalai Lama. Those seen as community leaders can face jail on trumped-up charges for actions such as setting up Tibetan language classes. Those arrested and convicted for involvement in protests are often tortured.
“The monks from Ngaba are regarded [by Chinese authorities] as people with a serious disease.”
Kirti Monastery, of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, has a tradition dating back to the 14th century. Politically important for centuries in the Ngaba region in Amdo, eastern Tibet, it was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, only being rebuilt in 1991.
Following its reopening, Kirti immediately became a centre of resistance and protest. As a result, it was closely monitored and controlled and has frequently been targeted for “patriotic re-education” campaigns, in which Communist Party officials subject Tibetans to intensive Chinese propaganda and demand declarations of loyalty from them.
In 2008, a demonstration by monks and laypeople in Ngaba was fired upon by police, killing 23 people. Following the incident, 100 Kirti monks were arrested and military forces were stationed inside Kirti for nearly a year.
“During 2008 […] the situation inside the monastery was like an army cantonment, the monastery premises were filled with military. The studies or activities inside the monastery were discontinued. And because the monks have seen and experienced all of these situations, they are more politically aware and interested.”
Tibet’s first self-immolation took place in 2009 when Tabe, a monk from Kirti, set himself alight on the main road in Ngaba town. Two years later on the anniversary of the 2008 shooting, another Kirti monk, Phuntsok, died staging Tibet’s second self-immolation. A month later, two people were killed trying to prevent the arrest of 300 monks at the monastery. Of the more than 140 recorded cases of self-immolation in Tibet up to February 2016, 13 were by monks from Kirti monastery.
Until recently, Kirti was a vital source of news from inside Tibet, with monks relaying information about protests and human rights abuses to fellow monks in India. However, the monastery is now subject to intense surveillance, with the surrounding area festooned with CCTV cameras, communications closely monitored and a large police station built right next to it. Kirti monks are rarely allowed to travel in pursuit of their studies and other monks are prevented from visiting them. In September 2015, Kirti monks staged a series of individual protests in central Ngaba. All were arrested.
Attention by security forces and the Chinese state has only served to reinforce opposition to Chinese rule inside Kirti monastery and all the evidence suggests it will continue to be a centre of resistance in Tibet.
Labrang Tashikyil Monastery
Founded in 1709, Labrang Tashikyil Monastery is a Gelugpa monastery situated in the historical Tibetan province of Amdo, north-eastern Tibet. It soon developed into an influential Buddhist monastic university, receiving scholars from across Tibet and opening several satellite monasteries. It also became a centre of economic life for the surrounding lay community, collecting taxes, lending money and settling disputes.
Labrang Tashikyil Monastery was closed down for four years in 1958 following anti-Chinese demonstrations in the surrounding region. It was closed again during the Cultural Revolution and only reopened in 1980, when some of its damaged buildings were also rebuilt.
Although it is now a popular tourist site, protected by Chinese authorities, who market the surrounding area as ‘Little Tibet’, Labrang Tashikyil Monastery has also been one of the focal points of Tibetan resistance. Hundreds of monks joined a mass protest in Labrang in March 2008 - part of the wider uprising against China that year. Several monks were detained and beaten. The following month, monks protested and flew a large Tibetan flag, prohibited under Chinese rule, during a visit by several foreign journalists. As a result of the protests the monastery was temporarily closed and 280 monks were arrested. Several other monks went into hiding with some eventually reaching safety in India.
Several prominent monks from Labrang Tashikyil Monastery also attracted the attention of authorities for their social activism, including Golog Jigme, a torture survivor now living in Switzerland, and Jigme Guri, who was sentenced in 2014 to five years in prison for “attempting to split the Chinese state”.
Driru County monasteries
“Driru is an area which historically has never been particularly amenable to control by a state.”
Robbie Barnett, head of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University
Driru is one of the eastern counties in Nagchu Prefecture and has become one of the focal points of Tibetan resistance to the Chinese occupation. Historically it was a self-managed area for hundreds of years, not even identifying with Lhasa. In 2010 it became a centre for protests due to environmental exploitation by Chinese companies.
In September 2013, following an anti-mining protest, a patriotic re-education campaign led to protests by local Tibetans and a severe crackdown, in which security forces arrested community leaders and fired on and severely injured protesters. The crackdown spread to religious institutions with the main monastery in the County, Drongna Monastery, being closed down in November 2013, and Tarmoe Monastery and Rabten Monasteries the following month.
In December 2013, Thardhod Gyaltsen, chant leader and part of the monastic management of Drongna Monastery in Driru County, was detained. The monastery was also forcibly closed down by authorities in December 2013 and in January 2014; Thardhod Gyaltsen was sentenced to 18 years in prison. According to local sources, he was convicted of separatism on the basis of being in possession of banned pictures and recordings of the Dalai Lama. He was well-known for his promotion of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, both in the monastery and amongst the locals.
Jhada Gon Palden Khachoe Nunnery
“During one of their campaigns to re-educate the nuns, the nuns all went on hunger strike and did not eat a morsel for days and nights […] We did our prayers and chanting and we did not give in.”
Anonymous nun from Jhada Gon Palden Khachoe Nunnery
The Jhada Gon Palden Khachoe Nunnery was also targeted in the 2013 crackdown in Driru. Most of its nuns were forced to leave. A political re-education campaign was also imposed on the nuns, who responded by going on hunger strike and refused to read the propaganda material given to them.
In September 2014, a large number of official “work teams” arrived at the nunnery. A total of 26 nuns were expelled after they refused to criticise the Dalai Lama. Similar to other religious institutes in Tibet, a restriction of registered pupils (in this case 140) had been placed on Jhada Gon Palden Khachoe Nunnery. One year later, in late September 2015, authorities expelled a further 106 nuns from the nunnery and then demolished their living quarters, leaving many of them homeless and seeking shelter. The nunnery now houses between 40 and 50 nuns.
Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery
Nagchu County is situated in the northern part of what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is home to Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery, a Gelugpa monastery established over 300 years ago. It was subjected to severe repression from April 2010, along with the surrounding population, after members of the monastery were accused of contacting the Dalai Lama, forbidden by the Chinese authorities.
A month-long patriotic re-education programme was enforced upon the whole monastery in April 2010 and the monastery’s abbot, Dawa, was arrested. During the programme, enforced by about 150 armed policemen, monks were commanded to denounce the Dalai Lama and Dawa. Monk Ngawang Gyatso, aged 75, hanged himself in an apparent protest at the treatment of his fellow monks.
Shak Rongpo Gaden Dargyeling Monastery was reopened in July 2013 but then shut down again before the month had ended after monks continued to petition authorities, calling for Dawa to be reinstated and for an end to the denunciation campaigns against him and the Dalai Lama. Religious activities were prohibited in the monastery and all the monks were expelled. A large military presence was established near the deserted monastery and approximately 2000 military and 400 security personnel were deployed in the area.