If you go round any Tibetan monastery – and the Chinese authorities encourage tourists to visit them as a cultural attraction – the first thing your guide tells you is not to ask any questions about politics or Chinese rule. "There are always monks in their pay who'll report you and then I will lose my job." Indeed yes.
When I went to visit a highly revered Rinpoche in a Lhasa monastery, he had just been hauled in by the authorities after one of his students had reported him for making a potentially subversive remarks in a sermon. He seemed to accept it as just part of his life in the monastery.
When the Dalai Llama broke his usual diplomatic reticence this month to accuse the Chinese of "cultural genocide", he wasn't exaggerating. What is going on now is a cultural hollowing out of a Buddhist country which Beijing refuses to accept as anything more than a Chinese province.
Everything is being done to deprive it of independent strength or legitimacy. Chinese Han immigrants are being poured in so that, within the space of barely a decade, they now probably outnumber local Tibetans. Tourism and services are now virtually all controlled by Chinese companies. The train across the mountains is there to increase the rate of immigration. Han settlers are, according to the local Tibetans, given cash grants if they marry local Tibetans and allowed two children instead of one.
The monasteries are at the heart of this process of deliberate deracination. You have to go to Tibet to understand the reverence ordinary people hold for the monasteries and for the Dalai Lama and other religious figures. Every day they come from the countryside to proceed around the Potala palace of the Dalai Llama and the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, some by prostrating themselves through the whole route. Woe betide you if you are a student, a monk or a employee of the state or any of its enterprises. You lose your job.
The Chinese have made Potala, the most revered pilgrimage spot, into a museum, the monks excluded, the guards wholly secular. As for the monasteries, nearly all of which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the monks have been allowed back and the buildings rebuilt but under strict control. Where once there were several thousand, the numbers are limited to a few hundred. Novices have to be approved by the authorities. The abbots are government appointed. As many as a third of the communities are thought to be in the pay of the security forces.
And yet it is the monks who remain the beacons of national resistance, who are prepared to demonstrate against what the Tibetans regard as Chinese occupation, who pull you aside to ask of news of the Dalai Lama and even a picture (you have to be careful as a tourist because some are leading you on), who continue to cry out that Buddhism in Tibet is not just a folk ritual, as the Chinese present it, but a living, evolving faith with the Dalai Lama as its head.
Can this culture survive being subsumed by the Chinese? Few Tibetans are optimistic. And yet, walking into one of the monasteries that are now the focal point of this revolt, I was taken aback by the sight of a young product of China's new rich, his hair groomed in a riot of colour and conflicting angles, his girlfriend dressed as a baby doll and his hand holding an elegant little prayer wheel.
Approaching the main statue, he glanced furtively to the left and to the right and then threw himself in full prostration before it, before hastily getting up again and resuming his tour. A whim? A bad joke? Or is the Buddhism that makes Tibet so special finding its admirers even in China? If it is, it would be a rare point of hope for the beleaguered people of this oppressed nation.
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