Monks Feel China's Heavy Hand

Government's repressive grip still felt at Buddhist lamaseries in Tibet and near the border. RESTRAINT OF RELIGION

YESHI JIGME has sought miracles at Kumbum Lamasery for 57 years. But in the view of China's government, he would sooner find them at the many labor camps dotting his native Qinghai Province. This lamasery, although outside of Tibet, is similar to those near the provincial capital of Lhasa. For much of the 40 years since the founding of Communist China, Beijing has held Yeshi Jigme and other lamas in a repressive grip and nearly torn Tibetan Buddhism from its native land.

Four monks were sentenced this month to three years of ``labor reeducation'' for demonstrating in Lhasa for Tibetan independence on Oct. 25, according to the official newspaper Tibet Daily.

Amnesty International says it has documented that China has jailed more than 100 monks and other Tibetan dissidents since 1987. But the human-rights group says the verified cases are a small fraction of the total number.

Chosen by the state to experience the ``miracle of socialist reeducation,'' the Tibetan monks broke the tundra into roads and farmland behind barbed wire pens. Many of them died of exhaustion or starvation. Meanwhile, the government or its minions pillaged Kumbum and shut it down.

Beijing is still sentencing monks who oppose China's rule of Tibet to ``reform through labor'' while allowing Yeshi Jigme and thousands of other lamas to worship once again.

But it severely limits religious freedoms. At Kumbum, state surveillance is as ubiquitous as the beatific gaze of the 100,000 Buddhas that give the lamasery its name.

The government limits the number of monks at Kumbum to 500. It reviews the applications of all novices and discourages them from entering the lamasery before the age of 18. And it has all but severed the lamasery's contact with Lhasa, the traditional heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

Yeshi Jigme says he did not know that the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader born 10 miles south of Kumbum, won the Nobel Peace Prize in September. He also did not know that Beijing has turned the holy city of Lhasa into a virtual armed camp by declaring martial law in March after the largest pro-independence demonstrations in Tibet in 30 years.

``Officials control us. We're not very free,'' he says, shifting his crimson robes and looking out on rows of golden haystacks stretching on ebony soil out to the snowy Sun and Moon Mountains.

Like other Tibetans in the eastern regions of Kham and Amdo bordering China, the lamas of Kumbum were the first to face the atrocities of China's communist regime after its Army marched into Tibet in 1950.

Yeshi Jigme has watched the state hustle hundreds of his fellow lamas from the serene valley of temples beneath Lotus Mountain to labor camps on the frozen, windswept badlands of northwestern China.

Beginning with an initial round of arrests in 1952, army units and Communist Party cadres launched what they called ``democratic reforms'' at the lamasery, Yeshi Jigme says. (His name has been changed to protect him from reprisal.)

In the name of emancipating Tibet's tenant farmers, the Maoist zealots overturned traditional Tibetan society. They collectivized property and labor, assigned Tibetans to strict class divisions, dismantled the clergy, and imposed harsh political indoctrination.

The officials seized the lamasery's 740 acres of farmland and most of its relics and works of religious art, Yeshi Jigme says.

By 1959 the state had arrested about 1,000 of Kumbum's 3,000 lamas and hauled them away to labor camps, he says. Angered by China's atrocities, Tibetans rose up against their Chinese overlords in Lhasa and the Dalai Lama fled to India with tens of thousands of compatriots.

After crushing the uprising, China divided the Tibetan region of Amdo between Gansu and Qinghai provinces and imposed the ``democratic reforms'' throughout Tibet.

Only 20 of the scholars, priests, artists, physicians, and other Kumbum lamas condemned to forced labor ever returned from the camps to the lamasery, Yeshi Jigme says.

``I don't know what happened to the rest,'' he says, averting his eyes and stroking his wispy beard.

In the official view, however, the Kumbum lamas encountered one of the greatest wonders of China's legal system.

``As long ago as the 1950s and '60s, labor and reeducation camps successfully reformed large numbers of war criminals, counter-revolutionary enemies of `New China,' and common criminals,'' the official newspaper Legal Daily said last month.

``They won renown at home and abroad as a miracle on earth,'' says the newspaper. Two million Chinese have been sent to the prisons in the last decade, it says.

The account of suffering by Kumbum lamas under the ``reforms'' contradicts claims by Beijing that it only harmed Tibet during the decade of leftist extremism known as the Cultural Revolution.

By the beginning of that tumultuous period in 1966, most of the damage to Kumbum had already been done. Officials closed the lamasery and forced the remaining monks to join work brigades in the countryside. Rival gangs of Red Guards - Mao's youthful, fanatical agents - battled for the 100-acre lamasery, Yeshi Jigme says.

Today, the lamas are struggling to uphold the integrity of their faith as the state cashes in on the appeal of the lamasery to Chinese and foreign tourists.

Officials allowed the lamas to reopen the monastery in 1980 and painted some of the 4,500 temples, halls, and other buildings in flourescent blue, green, red, and yellow.

Chinese hawkers sell cheap trinkets in booths in many of the lamasery's courtyards or offer to dress tourists as Tibetan nobles and photograph them before eight holy stupas - dome-shaped Buddhist shrines. China's tourism officials have discarded the lamasery's Tibetan title and now promote it by a Chinese name, Ta'er.

For most of the time since its construction in 1560, Kumbum was decorated with bronze gilt and jade rather than brash paint. The lamasery was one of the grandest centers of the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. And like all the major monasteries in the theocratic, Tibetan state, it was a wellspring of Tibetan culture.

Rather than yearn for the revival of a bygone age, Yeshi Jigme merely hopes for the return of the Dalai Lama.

Above the din of a young monk beating a drum and cymbals and reciting a book of sutras, he says, ``Our life is incomplete without the Dalai Lama.''

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