Secularizing Tibet

Those less spiritually pilgrims wandered through the ornate complex here in the mountain town of Xiahe to gaze upon towering Buddha statues bathed in incense. Some tourists indulge in distinctly unenlightened and Buddhist forbidden pursuits ie. smoking cigarettes and pouting at smartphones in the high-tech vanity ritual known as the selfie ( i.e. taking a self portrait of oneself to prove you are there).

As one of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang, Tibet (now formally annexed to China since 1959) presents an idyllic picture of sacred devotion that is carefully curated by the Chinese government, in  hopes to convince visitors that Tibetan religion and culture are swaddled in the Communist Party’s benevolent embrace and so bring in more Western money via Enlightened Tourism as well secularise holy places as “tourist spots” has been in the norm in USA and across Europe.

Behind closed doors though,, many of the monastery’s resident monks complain about intrusive government policies and  that they say are strangling their culture and identity. “Even if we’re just praying, the government treats us as criminals,” said a young monk, who like others interviewed recently spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid government repercussions.

Such frustrations, many monks say, are what have driven more than 120 Tibetans to set fire to themselves since 2009, including 13 in the Labrang area, in a wave of protests that has gone largely unreported in Chinese news media.

International human rights advocates say that rather than address the underlying grievances — including Beijing’s deeply unpopular campaign to demonize the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader — Chinese authorities have instead upped the anti  by punishing the relatives of those who self-immolate and imprison others who blog or disseminate any information contrary to the Official Word.

Monks agree, describing an  unseen web of controls that keep potential troublemakers in line: ubiquitous surveillance cameras, paid informers and plainclothes security agents who mingle among the busloads of tourists.

“Our hope is that the Dalai Lama can return,” said a monk, looking out for eavesdroppers while sitting at a cafe. “Without him, there is no chance our religion and culture will survive.”