Monday, June 11, 2007

Gompas n' Governments

Social, economic and religious life in Tibet revolves around monasteries. Gompas have also been the focus of Chinese efforts to systematically destroy Tibetan culture and Buddhism. During in the Cultural Revolution period alone, over 95% of Tibet's religious buildings were destroyed. However, some Gompas were spared and others have begun to be rebuilt under periods of comparative religious tolerance. We visited 5 of the most important monasteries as we drove through Tibet to Lhasa.

Although all Buddhists hold reincarnation as a central tenet, one of the defining features of Tibetan Buddhism is the practice of actively identifying reincarnated individuals. This is done after a prominent monk dies, when a search party is sent out to look for his reincarnation in a new born child. The practice is sometimes called 'Lamaism' and the individuals identified in this way are called 'Lamas'. The most famous is the Dali Lama himself, who's current incarnation is the 14th. One of the Gompas we visited was the base for the Panchen Lama, second only in Tibet's religious order to the big man - the DL himself.

Tashilunpo Monastery - the Panchen Lama's traditional home - was spared the worst ravages of the Cultural Revolution because of the Panchen Lama's controversial and problematic relationship with the Chinese Government. Unlike the Dalai Lama who fled into exile, the Panchen Lama welcomed the Chinese as the only practical way to reform and modernise the closed, feudal society of Tibet. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1989 and the search for the next incarnation began.

Discovery of 11th Panchen Lama has great political as well as religious significance. The Panchen Lama has traditionally confirmed the recognition of the reincarnated Dali Lama, and vice-versa. If the Chinese government could select and control the Panchen Lama, they could also select the next Dali Lama and be free of the embarrassment and irritation caused by the Tibetan government in exile.

Consequently an attempt by the Dali Lama and the monks of Tashilunpo to name the new Panchen Lama resulted in his arrest by the Chinese government. The infant boy and his family immediately disappeared and their whereabouts are still unknown, more than 10 years later. Amnesty International calls the Panchen Lama the "world's youngest political prisoner". The Chinese Communists then selected their own Panchen Lama, who is also under virtual house arrest in Beijing and rarely visits Tibet. Since the controversy, photographs of the Dali Lama and his selection for the 11th Panchen Lama have been banned throughout Tibet.

It seems incredible that a modern government could feel so threatened by a pacifist religion such as Tibetan Buddhism. A measure of the control and paranoia displayed by the Communist Government is that this blog is banned in China and Tibet! Along with BBC News and Wikipedia, little picotrip is unavailable and cannot be read here. I can only think that this is because of my post about the Tibetan government in exile but it's amazing to think that such a comprehensive screening system exists.



A worshiper gifts money and butter at Tashilhunpo Monastery. Butter fuels the lamps that light the Gompas and is also used to sculpt 'butter flowers' and other statues and idols. In feudal times, butter was almost currency in the economy with a great variety of (rather smelly) uses, including the local 'butter tea' - made from rancid butter.


The assembly hall of Sakya Monastery.


Small butter lamps at Gyantse Monastery.


The almost 90-foot 'Future' Buddha statue in Tashilhunpo Monastery.


A worshiper takes a rest at Tashilhunpo.


One of the 4 main chapels at Tashilhunpo, home of the Panchen Lama.


Monks say prayers in the assembly hall at Drepung Monastery, once home Gompa to the Dali Lama.


Worshipers wearing traditional 'Sherpa' aprons, which I find rather reminiscent of Paul Smith. I wonder if next season will see PS suits incorporate Butter Pockets?

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