Religion in Tibet

In March 2010 the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, accused China of attempting to “deliberately annihilate Buddhism”.

In Tibet, many people’s lives are dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism.

Religious customs are part of everyday life, from chanting mantras and prostrating in a local square to walking the ‘kora’ around a temple or sacred site.

China wishes to control and limit Tibetan Buddhism in order to weaken Tibetan identity and strengthen its control over Tibet.

Monks and nuns face restrictions on their practice and China’s military put on shows of force at religious events. Access to important pilgrimage sites is restricted and many sacred lakes and mountains have been dammed and mined without Tibetans' consent.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated that the US government must continue to list China as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom.

Army at Saka Dawa, an important religious festival
A Tibetan woman prays as a police officer looks on
CCTV camera disguised as a Tibetan prayer wheel

The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama

The belief in reincarnation and the role of lamas - spiritual teachers - are fundamental aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama is the most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism and is considered to be the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.

For generations, Dalai Lamas have also been the rulers of Tibet but the current Dalai Lama, the 14th, has given up any political role and is now a purely religious figure.

After a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, the current Dalai Lama fled into exile in India followed by tens of thousands of Tibetans.

Because of the Dalai Lama’s central place in Tibetan culture and national identity, the Chinese government sees him as an enemy of the state and is trying to break the bonds between him and the Tibetan people. In most areas of Tibet it is illegal to sell or possess images of the Dalai Lama.

Another important figure in Tibetan Buddhism is the Panchen Lama. Tibetans refer to the Dalai Lama as the sun and the Panchen Lama as the moon.

In 1995, the Chinese authorities abducted six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima just days after he had been identified by the Dalai Lama as the new Panchen Lama. To this day, nothing is known about his and his family’s whereabouts or wellbeing. The Chinese authorities recognised a different Panchen Lama to attempt to strengthen China's control over Tibet; Tibetans refer to him as the 'Panchen Zuma', or 'false Panchen'.

Monks protest in Rebkong, 2008, with an image of their exiled spiritual leader
Nomad reveals hidden collection of Dalai Lama images (credit: Filming for Tibet, from 2008 film Leaving Fear Behind)
Tibetan family openly celebrate 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama in 2015

Monks and nuns

Prior to China’s invasion, between 10% and 20% of Tibetan men were monks.

Under occupation - especially during China's Cultural Revolution in the 1970s - more than 99% of Tibet’s monasteries have been pulled down and the numbers of monks and nuns are strictly controlled.

Nunneries and monasteries are kept under the sort of tight surveillance normally reserved for terrorist groups. They are overseen by government-appointed ‘Democratic Management Groups’ and many have police stations situated nearby or even inside.

Because of religious restrictions and their status as community leaders, monks and nuns are often at the forefront of protests and resistance to China's rule. As a result, many have been beaten, imprisoned and tortured.

Many of Tibet's most significant political prisoners are monks, such as local leader Khenpo Kartse (pictured) and senior monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in prison in 2015. Dozens of monks and nuns have set themselves alight in protest against China's suppression of religious freedom and Tibetan culture.

'Re-education' Programmes

Monasteries are often compelled to show their loyalty to the Chinese state. They are instructed to fly the Chinese flag and individuals are assessed for loyalty to the government.

Monks and nuns may be forced to particpate in ‘patriotic re-education programmes’, in which they are required to read ‘patriotic’ literature and then tested on the contents.  As part of the test they must proclaim that Tibet is part of China and denounce the Dalai Lama - something which many Tibetans find deeply distressing.

The penalties for refusing to participate or failing the programme include fines, beatings and expulsion from a monastery or nunnery.

An injured woman in 2013 after China opened fire on a prayer gathering in celebration of the Dalai Lama's birthday
Chinese police pass a monk in Lhasa (credit: Prasad Kholkute, Flickr)
A show of force from China's military at a religious festival in 2014

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