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Buddhism's allure fading for some young Tibetans

February 16, 2009

Mon Feb 16, 2009 8:16am IST

By Emma Graham-Harrison

TSEDANG, China (Reuters) - Mima Tsering can call on over a millennium of
religious learning and several priceless relics to help tempt young
would-be monks into taking their vows, but lately he worries their
attractions may be waning.

Abbot of one of Tibet's oldest temples, his prayer hall is full and the
youngest recruit is only 20.

But after centuries in which monasteries offered a chance of education
and relief from the tough life of a peasant farmer on the Himalayan
plateau, they now compete for youngsters who grew up with television,
schools, the Internet and other job options.

"I am a little concerned about it, and hope that more young people can
take an interest in the monastic life to keep our religious traditions
alive," Tsering told Reuters in a corner of the Trankdruk monastery
alive with chanting, drums and gongs.

Religion is central to both Tibetan identity and to Beijing's years of
conflict with the restive mountain region. Since Chinese Communist
troops marched on to the plateau in 1950, most major bouts of unrest
have started with protests by monks.

And anger at China's control of the "land of the snows" has been
sharpened by constraints imposed by Beijing on monasteries and its
denunciation of the exiled Dalai Lama, ultimate spiritual leader for
many Tibetan Buddhists, as a scheming separatist.

There are still peasants with religious duties handed down in the family
or who prefer a life at a temple to one in the fields.

The ticket collector at one of Tibet's oldest palace-shrines, the Yumbu
Lhakang, is among them.

At 26, Tsering Daowa left a life of farming to move into the hilltop
retreat and study from the lamas as a kind of lay monk.

"I prefer this life, where I can study the scriptures," he said,
glancing across prayer-wheels and incense burners to a pristine valley
far below.

PRAYERS ONCE A YEAR

But three decades of modernisation across China have brought new money
and a new way of life for many Tibetans, even if they are unhappy about
other changes to their lives or the competition for jobs with migrants
from other ethnic groups.

"The younger generation are certainly a bit less religious than their
parents," said Damula, an ethnic affairs official in the regional
government who like many Tibetans has only one name.

While young monks chant in the icy central chamber of Tsering's
monastery, boys almost their age soak up the fierce Himalayan sun as
they practise for a dance competition in a village not far away.

"I'm not really religious. I go once a year to pray at the Yumbu Lhakang
palace for luck," said one 16-year-old from the hamlet of Kesong, during
a break from his routine.

None of his friends is a devout Buddhist, he added.

In the cities, where the lure of modernisation and the temptations of a
secular life are closer and stronger, the temples are also losing their
power.

"I've brought my mother here because she likes to make pilgrimages, but
I am not really religious myself," said 33-year-old Chamba, a postman
from Shigatse visiting Lhasa.

FASHIONABLE BELIEVERS?

A weakening in religious fervour and a fall-off in the number of monks
would probably please Beijing, already accused by exiles of diluting
traditional culture by encouraging migration of Han Chinese to the region.

Party officials have tried to weaken religion's grip on Tibetans, and
gain some measure of control over institutions like the selection of new
incarnations of senior lamas. But a lack of faith could radicalise
anti-Chinese Tibetan youth.

But some young people in towns are also exploring Buddhism as part of a
wider search for a more modern Tibetan identity.

"Tibetans are becoming much more assertive and confident than they have
been in the past," said Tsering Shakya, research chair at the University
of British Colombia.

"There is a growing number of young Tibetans who speak fluent Chinese,
are well educated and don't see themselves as a backward minority," he
added, highlighting a booming blogging culture and thriving modern
literature as part of the trend.

Some are embracing practices like vegetarianism, not a major part of
traditional Tibetan Buddhism. Others have updated their outfits but held
on to their parents' beliefs.

"I come every week to pray," said 18-year-old Zongzi, walking a pilgrim
circuit in Lhasa with her mother.

The high-school student -- dressed in a pink sweatshirt, fashionable
jeans and trainers, and with her nails painted black -- was a striking
contrast to most of the older, weather-beaten men and women in
traditional clothes walking beside her.

But she was equally serious about her faith.

"Tibetan books all talk about religion, but reading is not the same as
seeing with your own eyes, doing it yourself."
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