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In search of an identity

August 30, 2010

ANANTH KRISHNAN
The Hindu
August 28, 2010

In new China's cities, millions of young people
are turning to Buddhism to make sense of their
county's rapid transformation while in the far
west, minority communities are searching for ways
to preserve their culture against the pressures of development.

Every summer, young Chinese from the country's
far corners gather at the foothills of the Taibai
Mountains in China's east. The gathering includes
doctors, lawyers, college graduates and, last
summer, even a couple of nuclear scientists; in
short, the kind of white-collar crowd one might
usually find at a Starbucks coffee-shop in downtown Shanghai.

But these young Chinese weren't at Taibai on
holiday; they were there in search of answers.
The cool Taibai Mountains are home to the
Tiantong monastery, a few hours' drive from the
eastern port city of Ningbo. Tiantong Si is a
1,700-year-old centre of Buddhist learning, and
it has influenced the thought and culture of much of China's east.

Questioning youth

Last summer, Jiang Julang, a graduate from
Beijing's elite Peking University who is in his
mid-twenties, was an unlikely addition to the
summer crowd. Jiang was born in the eastern city
of Hangzhou, now a sprawling industrial centre
and emerging IT hub, and once another thriving
centre of Buddhism in eastern China. Like most
Chinese of his generation, Jiang had a public
school education; going to the government-run
kindergarten around the corner from his home, to
the primary school down the road and, finally, to
the country's most prestigious institution in its
capital. Like most of his generation, he was
brought up on a strict diet of Marxism and
science. His parents, grandparents and
great-grandparents, who all used to frequent Tiantong Si, were Buddhists.

For Jiang, however, their beliefs were "backward
superstition." Or, so he used to think. "In
China, we are brought up to not believe in
faith,” he tells me one evening, when we meet at
the lush, sprawling campus of Peking University
in Beijing's northern Wudaokou university
district, a bubble of calm and quiet in the chaos
and dust of Beijing. “As a person, we all want to
know where we came from, and where we are going.
You can be taught perfect logic. But, at some
point, you will have questions that logic cannot answer."

Those questions brought him to Tiantong. As Jiang
headed east to Tiantong last summer, lessons were
also underway in Gyalthang, a small mountain town
in China's far south-western Yunnan province,
which borders Tibet. Young Tibetan monks, sitting
cross-legged in front of small, wooden desks,
pored over textbooks, written in the elegant and
intricate Tibetan script. Most of them came from
nearby villages. They had had little opportunity
to learn to read or write their traditional
script, let alone learn of their faith.  But in
this small two-story house in Gyalthang's old
city, under the watchful eyes of Lobsang Khedup,
a monk from Qinghai province, they were given a chance to study the scriptures.

Tiantong and Gyalthang, at first glance, have
little binding them in common, separated across
the breadth of China's vast, diverse landscape
and shaped by different histories and schools of
thought. Given the uniqueness of Buddhist thought
and practice, and the incredible diversity of its
many communities in China, from its south to
Tibet, it makes little sense to talk of Buddhism
in China as a monolith. There are an estimated
100 million followers of Buddhist faith in
officially atheist China (some estimates say
there are more than 300 million, but in the
absence of any surveys or a census, as well as
the ambiguity of its practice, no one really
knows for sure). Yet, taking a step back, both
places are contested sites of a similar struggle
unfolding in today's China; a struggle between
older cultural values and the unprecedented
change the country has seen in the past six decades.

Strange irony

There is a strange irony to this complicated
battle. As young, urban Chinese like Jiang look
to the past for answers; in the villages and
communities around predominantly Tibetan
Gyalthang, older ways of life are being eroded by
modernity. Monasteries like Tiantong are thriving
in the east, but community schools are struggling
in the west, which lags behind the rest of the
country on most economic and social indicators.

In Gyalthang, Dakpa Kelden has been trying to
make sense of these changes. In 1959, the year
the Dalai Lama went into exile in India, Dakpa's
family — who have lived in Gyalthang for
generations— left for India. He was born in an
exiled Tibetan community in Madhya Pradesh. He
studied in monasteries in Karnataka and
Dharamshala to become a monk. After China's
opening up in 1978, Dakpa's family decided to
return to Gyalthang, primarily to reunite with
long-lost relatives. After his return to
Gyalthang, Dakpa decided to open a school for
young Tibetans. The school is hard to find,
nestled in the maze of the town's narrow cobbled
streets, hidden away between the rows of
handicraft shops. “The main focus is for young
Tibetans to learn about their heritage, to learn
about traditional knowledge that they will not
learn elsewhere,” he says. “This is important for
their identity, and also for the community.
Growing up in an exiled community, you are always
taught that preserving your identity, your
culture, is the most important thing, no matter what you do.”

In Yunnan, he found a local government
surprisingly relaxed in its approach to religious
policies. Dakpa worked with the government to
find ways to promote culture through tourism.
After the tourism boom hit the town in the late
1990s, fuelled by the new affluence in China's
cities coupled with a rising interest in Buddhist
thought and practice, he opened his own school.
(The town itself, known as Zhongdian in Chinese,
was renamed "Shangri-La" by the government in a
bid to promote tourism.) Gyalthang sits at the
foot of the Foping Mountains, and under the
shadow of the towering, grand copper roofs of the
300-year-old Ganden Sumsteling monastery, also
known as Songzanlin. Built in 1679, it has been
one of the most important centres of Tibetan
Buddhism outside Tibet. In 1959, the monastery
was damaged by the People's Liberation Army as it
moved in to take control of Tibet and surrounding
regions. The upheaval during the Cultural
Revolution (1966-76), when older values and
traditions were under assault, left the old
monastery in ruins. Monks left for India, and few
would return. Since the 1980s, the government has
rebuilt many monasteries. Now, Songzanlin is home
to several hundred monks.  “The policy is more
relaxed here than in Tibet, where there are many
restrictions, and there is less interference,” one monk tells me.

Model project

Visitors to Songzanlin are usually surprised to
find a giant portrait of the Dalai Lama adorning
the main hall, and the curious sight of Han
Chinese, China's majority ethnic group, lighting
incense sticks and kneeling down in front of the
Tibetan religious leader. Vilified by the
Communist Party as a “splittist”, his image is
banned in many of Tibet's monasteries. Dakpa says
the slow revival in Yunnan could serve as a model
for the rest of China. The problems created by
China's development model in Tibet were laid bare
in March 2008, when there was widespread unrest
and rioting in many Tibetan-inhabited areas in
China. There is little to suggest the government
is reconsidering its development model, either to
make it more inclusive or to be more conscious of
the needs of local communities who feel their
ways of life are being eroded. What is
interesting about Dakpa's project is that it
finds a balance, using cultural tourism to tap
the power of the market. His initiative relies on
the tourism boom. Foreign visitors can stay at
the school, for a fee, and study Tangka, the
Tibetan art form of painting on cloth. This pays for maintaining the school.

Another similar initiative is Laurence Brahm's
Shambhala House, which is a social enterprise in
Tibet that looks to empower communities through
microfinance, ecotourism and heritage restoration
projects, and by finding a market for traditional
skills. (I couldn't visit Brahm's project in
Tibet, as journalists in China are not allowed to
travel to Tibet unless on a government-guided
tour.) I met Brahm during a recent visit of his
to Beijing, the day after he held a successful
fund-raising effort and a photography exhibition
showcasing his travels through Tibet in Beijing's expansive 798 art district.

Brahm's journey to Tibet is an unlikely one. In
the 1990s, he worked as an economic adviser to
the Chinese government under Premier Zhu Rongji,
who championed the reforms. Now, he is a critic
of China's GDP-focused development model. “I
don't think high growth rates are only way to
ensure social stability,” he tells me.
“Spirituality and changing values to appreciate
quality and not just quantity are crucial steps
that need to be taken to ensure sustainable
stability." Development, he says, should not be
top-down. "Very often, indigenous communities
have their own solutions. These need to be
brought into practice, or at least they need to
be empowered.” In today's China, he says, quality
of life has been sacrificed for high growth
rates: “We went from no materialism to being
overly materialistic without any idealism.”

It is this transformation, and an accompanying
sense of anxiety and loss of values, that has
brought young Chinese like Jiang to Tiantong,
looking for direction. Zhang Jia, a young scholar
at Beijing's Renmin University, is studying this
recent proliferation of Buddhist “summer camps.”
In central Hebei province, she found hundreds of
young Chinese descending on the Bolin temple last
summer, lost, like Jiang. "The Chinese people are
seeking for their identity," she said. "Buddhism,
as part of our culture, is becoming an integral
part of modern young Chinese beliefs."

At Tiantong, Jiang said he found "hundreds of
other people with similar questions." "In the
sutras, I found deep thoughts that spoke of the
questions I had in my mind,” he explained. “In
China, the only logic we're driven by now is the
logic that ‘You should get more money'. We are
taught that the answer to life's problems is to
make more money. But the thing is: it's not
solving the problems. It's only creating new ones."
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