Religious life returns to the land of Tibet

THREE hours' drive from here the ruins of Ganden monastery stretch across a snow-dusted mountain. The crumbling walls look like the remains of an ancient city. It took the Chinese less than a year to reduce Ganden's 3,000 rooms to rubble. In 1969, China's Army moved in with explosives to destroy all evidence of the 500-year-old institution. Ganden's 3,000 monks were consigned to prisons or labor camps and its walls blown away.

Today Ganden is slowly being rebuilt. Chants can once again be heard within its walls, and row upon row of freshly minted miniature Buddhas line the porches, waiting to be positioned in new temples.

In one recently completed building hangs a glossy color photograph of the Dalai Lama, the man who lays claim to the religious and political leadership of Tibet. Two years ago no such pictures of the Dalai Lama were on display. Instead, people begged foreigners for photographs of the ``god-king,'' such was their rarity.

Now in monasteries and temples throughout Tibet the image of the living Buddha smiles benignly. His appearance as an object of worship follows a complete reversal of 30 years of Chinese policies in Tibet. It represents a triumph for the Tibetan people.

Five years ago, after three decades of antireligious policies and strict economic control, China quietly gave up trying to ``socialize'' Tibet or draw it further into the People's Republic of China.

Beginning with a personal apology to the Tibetan people from Communist Party secretary Hu Yaobang after he visited the region in 1980, Peking launched a campaign for the hearts and minds of the Tibetans.

The existence of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile and the persistence of the Tibetan resistance forced Peking to reconsider its approach to Tibet. It brought from the pragmatic leadership of Deng Xiaoping policies that acknowledge that Tibet is still not fully integrated into China.

The Dalai Lama is the key to the Tibetans' struggle. He has given them the courage to meet and resist the Chinese. Peking has come to recognize this and has invited him to return as a ``religious'' leader but has said he must live in Peking.

The Dalai Lama knows that until he does return, he serves as a reproach to the Chinese. He represents the Tibetans' only real bargaining power. For this reason he canceled a trip home he had hoped to make this year.

Perversely, after the resistence of the past 30 years, it may be that China's new liberal approach will pose more threat to the cause of Tibetan independence than persecution.

Lopsam lives and works in the shadow of the Potala, the huge medieval palace that housed the Dalai Lama until he fled to India. Two years ago Lopsam vented his rage against his Chinese masters to foreign journalists. He and his friends were angry young men, and they spoke of forming an active resistance movement.

Today Lopsam no longer speaks of resistance. Instead he is worried that the new, easy life will weaken the spirit of the young generations.

``Since the open-door policy, things have been a bit better. Life has been a bit freer, people respect freedom.

``But the young people watch movies all day and drink liquor. They just waste their time, they don't study, and they don't organize.''

The 100,000 Tibetans living in exile with the Dalai Lama have also identifed China's new approach as potentially the most dangerous to their campaign for an independent Tibet.

To mark the 26th anniversary of their uprising against the Chinese, the Tibetan exiles sent a letter to Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang last March. They called on him to bend on his knee and rub his nose in the sacred soil of Tibet.

``We condemn your so-called liberalization policy as nothing but a ploy to deceive the world and an attempt to subdue our people by guile,'' the letter said.

Nonetheless, there have been changes in Tibet.

Lhasa's monasteries and temples are filled with the smoke from sacred yak-butter lamps. Long-haired pilgrims in traditional herdsmen's robes can be seen adding a spoonful of butter from their own yaks to the lamps slowly burning in the dark. Digital watches, bracelets, and plastic key rings have been pinned to the silk alters as offerings.

The voice of the Dalai Lama can be heard once again in Tibet on Radio India. Until 1980 its signal had been jammed by China. Pilgrims from India and Nepal can be seen in the streets of Lhasa.

The monasteries that were torn down 10 years ago are being rebuilt, and the Tibetan language, unheard in the region's schools since the 1950s, is again being taught.

Religious studies are being encouraged, and monks and nuns who have spent half their lives in prison because of their vocations are being told to recruit young Tibetans to the same way of life.

Lopsam says that in spite of the liberalization, Tibetans still suffer many hardships.

``It is better than before but it is still difficult. There has been an increase in educational opportunities for Tibetans but there are problems. The teachers in the school don't know anything about Tibetan history. They treat religion as superstition. When they explain things about Tibet, they do it in a very simple-minded way.''

Through relatives in India, Lopsam achieved what most here dream of, an audience with the Dalai Lama.

``Before I went to India I didn't know much about the Dalai Lama. But when I was there, he said a lot. He is for equality.

``Society ought to be better for people. It shouldn't be so political. All people deserve to be happy. Here though we are so poor, they [the Chinese] are always talking about class struggle. People have no individual freedom, no individual life. Politics are so strict within China.''

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