An Interview with Arjia Rinpoche

Article excerpt

In 1952, at the age of two, Arjia Rinpoche was recognized as the eighth reincarnation of the head abbot of the culturally rich and historically powerful Kumbum Monastery in Amdo, Eastern Tibet (alt. Qinghai province, China). His training was cut short, however, in 1958 when the Great Leap Forward and subsequent Cultural Revolution ushered in an unprecedented period of persecution and destruction of Tibet's living and material Buddhist heritage. After sixteen years of forced manual labor, Arjia Rinpoche was allowed to receive Dharma instruction again and resumed his previously ordained role as Kumbum's head abbot. Assisted by the Panchen Lama (second only to the Dalai Lama in terms of institutional authority and the highest-ranking Buddhist leader still in Tibet at the time), Arjia Rinpoche successfully navigated the political minefield of the Chinese Buddhist bureaucracy to protect and advance Buddhism from within. His story and the story of the Politburo's sinister and cynical attempt to control Tibetan politics through its own puppet Panchen Lama "reincarnation" are chronicled in his autobiographical Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama's Account of 40 Years Under Chinese Rule. The following conversation informs and updates readers of the political situation in Tibet and further explains his political involvements and crisis of conscience that compelled him to flee Tibet in 1998. At the time, this made him the highest-ranking lama to leave since the Dalai Lama in 1959.

Question: What are the major political challenges facing Buddhism in Tibet/China today?

Response

1. The Communists are not only non-religious, they are also afraid of religion. The main reason is that a religion gathers people together under its umbrella, and any group of people gathered together may be a threat against the regime. For example, the Falung Gong organi zation has been persecuted by the Chinese Government because it fears that its members are being obedient and are controlled by some one other than the government. The same is with Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism as the Government fears the power of the Pope and the Dalai Lama. The Government is not afraid of Taoism as it is a very Chinese religion. Taoists are of the Chinese culture and speak the Chinese language. The actual beliefs of a religion are not the reason for the fear; instead, it is the fear of losing power over the people.

2. The monasteries have lost their religious mission and have become tourist traps. In the 1950s, before the Cultural Revolution, the Commu nists tried to stomp out religion, but they couldn't succeed. They man aged to stop overt religious practices, but the hearts of the people were not affected. In the 1980s, the "open policy" appeared to lessen control, but instead the control merely became more subtle. The Communists turned the monasteries into commercial ventures. The economy is the main thing. Kumbum Monastery in Amdo, Tibet, has 10,000 visitors each day, and the monks are constantly doing pujas for money and have become businessmen.

3. The Communists do not really follow their Constitution. The leaders follow their laws only if they find the laws useful. Most of the Chinese people today do not care about religion, and there is a general lack of morality in the populace. For example, human organs are sold for profit; prisoners are sometimes killed for their organs. Monks don't practice ethical behavior and care only about wealth, have wives, and have become the "protectors" of big businessmen.

Question: What solutions are Buddhists finding to these challenges?

Response

1. There are no black and white solutions. Everything is a grayish tinge. You may say that 50% of the people are bad and 50% are good. Of the "good 50%," 30% percent of these are very good. In some places, small monasteries focus intently on their spiritual practices. Even in some of the larger monasteries, you will find some earnest practitioners. …