Omniscience comes in handy
for Tibetans in faithless state
New York Times, July 28th,
1999 and in Sydney Morning Herald, on: 31/07/99
By Seth Faison
SERTHAR, China -- Nearly
every day, Tibetan monks and nuns wearing blood-red robes arrive at this
distant outpost after a long trek through a forbidding range of mountains.
Drawn by word that a brilliant
teacher resides here, they climb a twisting path up a narrow valley to
find a freshly built metropolis of Buddhist worship. It is a stunning sight
in an otherwise barren setting and a potent symbol of the revival in Tibetan
Buddhism under way here.
A vast assembly of log cabins,
spartan inside and out, covers a pair of steep hillsides. At dusk, crowds
of monks and nuns buzz in conversation, their hair shorn and their gazes
serene, as they gather for evening prayers outside a ramshackle collection
of meeting halls that are connected by a criss-cross of muddy pathways.
In just a few years, Serthar
has emerged to become one of the largest and most influential centers for
the study of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. Despite its extremely remote
location in an ethnic Tibetan region of Sichuan Province, more than 500
miles by dirt road from the nearest city, Serthar has attracted nearly
8,000 monks and nuns who now live and study here.
Like countless sects of
qigong, traditional meditative and physical exercises that have enjoyed
popularity among Chinese who believe they can enhance vital energies, Tibetan
Buddhism seems to be filling a spiritual void in the hearts of many adherents.
(A new variant of qigong, Falun Gong, which has attracted a wide following,
was banned on July 22 in a high-profile crackdown.)
Serthar is now the brightest
star among a number of Tibetan Buddhist temples that are being built or
rebuilt with private donations from Tibetans and reluctantly accepted by
Chinese authorities. Economic growth has fattened the pockets of some Tibetans
in recent years, and their generosity is funding a gradual replacement
of the thousands of temples that were demolished by marauding Chinese leftists
during the 1960s and 1970s.
Tibetans still bristle at
the myriad restrictions by Chinese authorities on religious worship, both
in Tibet proper and in the Tibetan-populated regions in adjoining provinces
like this one.
But at the same time that
Chinese officials take steps to tighten control over large monasteries
that are wellsprings of political dissent, Serthar is an example of how
difficult it is for Chinese authorities to fully control places of worship
where popular support is surging among the ordinary faithful.
At Serthar, set up as an
institute for Buddhist study instead of as a monastery, the principal magnet
is a master teacher, Khenpo Jikphun, known by followers as a "living buddha,"
and believed to be the reincarnation of a holy figure.
Khenpo Jikphun, 66, set
up the religious center here in 1980 in an entirely uninhabited valley.
It began in a haphazard way, with a handful of disciples gathering around
the modest home he lived in. Spreading word slowly attracted more followers,
and in recent years, attendance has surged so fast that there is now a
desperate shortage of living quarters.
Monks and nuns here say
they were drawn by their teacher's reputation as a deeply insightful scholar
who is devoted to reviving a rigorous study of Tibetan Buddhism that was
devastated when monasteries were closed and monks defrocked in political
campaigns directed by Chinese authorities.
"We know our teacher is
a great man," said Sonam, a 23-year-old nun, who arrived 18 months ago
and who, like many Tibetans, uses only one name. "He has attained a higher
level of knowledge than anyone in the nation, and what he cares most about
One of the most surprising
elements of Serthar is that more than half of those who come to study are
women. Entry is limited at the relatively small nunneries that exist in
areas populated by Tibetans, but Serthar is open to virtually anyone who
is a genuine student of Khenpo Jikphun's brand of Buddhism.
Another surprise at Serthar
is that it attracts ethnic Chinese students as well as Tibetans. Of the
nearly 8,000 students here, roughly 800 are ethnic Chinese, who attend
separate classes taught in Mandarin, while larger classes are taught in
It costs nothing to study
here, yet monks and nuns have to find their own housing. Wooden cabins
are going up all over the place, but not fast enough to handle all the
Nearly everyone at Serthar
seems to credit Khenpo Jikphun's ingenuity with the spectacular growth
here. Khenpo Jikphun maintains good ties with both Beijing and with the
Dalai Lama, in part by discouraging political discussion and encouraging
students to focus on Buddhist study alone.
"Khenpo's revival of the
devastated Tibetan Buddhist systems of educational training has been nothing
short of remarkable," wrote David Germano, a Tibet scholar at the University
of Virginia, in a recent essay about Serthar in which he argues that stressing
ethics over political activism is a powerful model for survival in today's
On top of the intellectual
and religious vigor Khenpo Jikphun brought to Serthar is his mythic, and
charismatic presence. Followers believe he is omniscient and say he was
born with the ability to speak and recite scripture. He even emerged from
his mother's womb, they say, with the placenta wrapped over his shoulder
like a monastic robe.
Khenpo Jikphun claims to
be the reincarnation of a holy figure who taught the previous Dalai Lama,
and who died early this century. Khenpo Jikphun's followers believe it
gives him a special relationship with the current Dalai Lama, whom he visited
in India in 1990.
Eager to keep up good relations
with Chinese authorities, Khenpo Jikphun participates in an advisory committee
in the local government. He often travels and even visited the United States
Khenpo Jikphun is extremely
popular in the region. Beyond religious devotees, many ordinary residents
in the area display his photograph next to the Dalai Lama's in stores,
homes and even in the cabs of the hefty cargo trucks that traverse rutted
Khenpo Jikphun declined
a request for an interview. One of his top lieutenants, Sudaji, said there
had never been any serious political problems at Serthar, and pointed out
that Khenpo Jikphun has never encouraged monks and nuns to come to Serthar
but simply welcomed those who show up.
Several monks here said
that authorities in Beijing have expressed concern about the fast growth
of the community at Serthar, apparently worried about the inherent threat
posed by any organization they do not fully control. Yet suggestions that
some of the new arrivals should be turned away and sent home have apparently
been met by a gentle insistence from Khenpo Jikphun that it is not his
role to police or discourage the faithful.
Enthusiastic monks and nuns
here point to a rigorous curriculum of Buddhist study that encompasses
a large body of texts in diverse genres that include painting, medicine,
history and poetry, as well as philosophy.
Yet they are also inspired
by Khenpo Jikphun's personal example of strict celibacy and ethical norms
as the best path to spiritual revitalization. Although many Tibetan religious
leaders have been seduced by modern comforts, they say, Khenpo Jikphun
has consistently criticized moral lapses among others, which has created
a number of enemies among other Tibetan religious leaders.
"If everyone can learn from
our teacher, there will be fewer problems in the world," said Tsering Gyaldyup,
a monk who has studied here for eight years. "I want to stay here forever,
because there is no better place to be."
Webmaster's note: more about
Khenpo Jikphun can be found in the following book: Buddhism in Contemporary
Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity, edited by Melvyn Goldstein
and Matthew Kapstein, Univ of California Press, 1998.
Kham Aid Foundation Report
Buddhism has exerted a magnetic pull in the West, winning many adherents
with its teachings of non-attachment to worldly desires. What's less known
to the West is that Tibetan Buddhism exerts a similar pull on the spirits
and imaginations of many Han Chinese. "My greatest desire is to promote
Tibetan culture to the outside world" says 33-year old Zhang Weiming, a
traba (student monk) at Dzongsar Monastery. "This culture emphasizes the
soul and allows you to forget your suffering."
is a slightly built man, warm and articulate, with twinkling eyes and an
overwhelming enthusiasm for the life he has adopted here at Dzongsar. "My
parents were landlords, one in eastern Sichuan, the other in the north."
he says. "During the Cultural Revolution they were exiled to Serdar County
[a remote Tibetan region of western Sichuan] where I grew up. I studied
science, Christianity, agriculture, and Buddhism. But I realized that if
I really wanted to learn [Buddhism] I would have to put myself in this
prepared for entry into Dzongsar by studying Tibetan language at Southwest
Nationalities Institute in Chengdu. He still finds spoken Tibetan somewhat
difficult, but he has no problem reading the sutras that are his daily
lot as a student at Dzongsar. He explains with zeal his understanding of
Buddhism: "In Christianity, God is all-powerful; Western philosophy emphasizes
the external environment. In Buddhism we study the inner environment. Despite
the differences between Western and Eastern philosophy, their purpose is
the same: we all want to reach a higher level and recognize things we cannot
Zhang Weiming gives visitors a tour of Dzongsar's herbal medicine factory.
located in a remote valley of southern Dege County, is a good choice for
a student with unusual qualifications like Zhang, for it has a long history
of progressive thinking in the Buddhist world. The monastery was founded
1200 years ago, first as a Bon monastery promulgating Tibet's traditional
animist faith, later changed to the Nyingma ("old school") sect, then Kagyu.
Five hundred years ago the valley was wrested from the hands of King Gesar's
generals and attached to the then-ascendent Dege Kingdom. In 1959 the most
important temples were destroyed during a political movement against Liu
Xiaoqi, a rare instance of destruction of a Tibetan monastery prior to
the Cultural Revolution.
the entirely rebuilt Dzongsar wears the red, gray, and white stripes of
the Sakyapas, but it is not really a Sakya sect monastery. 110 years ago
three scholars -- Jangyong Khyentze Wangpo, Chuchi Niba, and Kongtrul Rinpoche--came
here with idea of uniting the four pre-Gelug Buddhist sects. They produced
150 volumes of writings that today form the basis for instruction at the
Dzongsar College of Buddhism, which is located below the monastery and
is administratively separate from it. The college is highly selective,
and its students, who come from all over Tibet, study for six years after
which they take stiff exams. After graduation they generally spend five
more years at Dzongsar before fanning out to monasteries all over the plateau.
1950 there were many Han Chinese students at Dzongsar. "Several hundred
years ago there was a decision to combine Chinese and Tibetan philosophy
here, but the traffic and communication problems prevented it," says Zhang.
The Chinese Buddhist Association has approved a special class for Chinese-speaking
students at Dzongsar, but as usual there are not enough funds to support
this endeavor, and so the plan languishes.
his relentless and sincere efforts, Zhang is now a part of Dzongsar Gonpa,
whose community he always refers to by the pronoun "we." His studies here
are supported financially by his family, the manager of the monastery,
and a few friends.. "The people here are very kind to me. Before I came
here I had a strong desire for things I couldn't get. Now I live my life
according to fate."