China Looks to Control Separatists in Tibet through Buddhist Lamas A Small Underground Keeps Hopes for Independence Alive despite Decades of Communist Pressure to Subdue Tibetans and Their Beliefs

By Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 1993 | Go to article overview

China Looks to Control Separatists in Tibet through Buddhist Lamas A Small Underground Keeps Hopes for Independence Alive despite Decades of Communist Pressure to Subdue Tibetans and Their Beliefs


Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


SENGCHEN BLOBZANG-RGYALMTSHAN is a living Buddha and a cog in the wheel of Chinese control in Tibet.

As a living Buddha, he was plucked from his home as a young boy a half-century ago to join the monastery and take up the mantle as a reincarnation of a revered Buddhist teacher.

But that does not stop him from serving as an official of the Communist-run Tibetan and Chinese legislatures, although he says he is not a communist. Nor does it stop him from condemning young monks or lamas who form the nucleus of an independence rebellion in the one-time Himalayan kingdom.

"There is no contradiction or conflict. I believe in Buddhism. In terms of isms, Buddhism is idealism, while Marxism is materialism. However, I am not opposed to Marxism," Mr. Sengchen said in an interview in front of government officials, while in Beijing to attend the annual session of China's nominal legislature.

Contending that only a few young monks urge independence, Sengchen says that "the majority of that tiny number of lamas do this out of ignorance or deception. Most of the lamas detest their activities."

In an uneasy but potent mix of religion and politics, China exerts a tightening grip on Buddhism and the political future of Tibet.

In Tibet's 1,400 temples and among its nearly 40,000 lamas, Beijing is steadily expanding its influence, Western diplomats and Tibetan human rights activists say. The religion is central to Tibetan cultural identity.

The number of monks in many monasteries has been reduced and lamas placed on the state payroll. Chinese officials manipulate monastic administrative councils and hold sway over the choice of a growing number of living Buddhas, Western observers say. The government is sponsoring and claims final say in the search for the 11th Panchen Lama, who ranks second in the religious hierarchy only to the exiled Dalai Lama, Tibet's former temporal and spiritual leader regarded as the reincarnation of the culture's Protector God.

"Through the institution of the living Buddhas, the Chinese are shrewdly extending their control and co-opting Tibetan Buddhism," says a Western diplomat who has visited Tibet.

Moves to pervade Buddhist institutions run parallel to an often brutal security clampdown on pro-independence Tibetans aligned with the Dalai Lama, who fled to India with 100,000 refugees in 1959 after a failed uprising. Scores of monks, nuns, and other activists have been jailed and tortured, Western human rights groups say, and hundreds of dissidents remain in prison.

Earlier this month, foreign travelers in the region reported that about 30 people, most believed to be monks, were arrested in small protests coinciding with Tibet's spring prayer festival and anniversary of the abortive 1959 uprising against the Chinese. The outbursts signal the continuing influence of a small underground that perpetuates independence sentiment and claims a widespread following despite a generation of Communist pressure to subdue a people with few cultural and political ties to China. China first invaded Tibet in 1949.

"As for some people trying to split Tibet from the motherland, this is only a day dream," said Raidi, a Communist leader in Tibet. …

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