After China’s occupation of Tibet, religion in Tibet has gone through many transitions. The newly-established People’s Republic of China (1949) colonized Tibet and condemned Tibetan Buddhist practices and values. With the intensive indoctrination and increasing scrutinisation of Tibetan Buddhists, this article looks into how Tibetan female practitioners in particular suffer under the increasing state ‘sinicization’. And how the voices of Tibetan female practitioners are increasingly being blurred within the representations of the Chinese colonial discourse of Tibetan women’s emancipation.
China’s Religious policies in Tibet
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under Mao had a colossal upturn of Tibetan Buddhism resulting in massive destruction of Tibetan Buddhism. In the years following the cultural revolution, the state maneuvered policies in a way that did not completely reject religion per se. However, it curtailed the religious practices amongst the Tibetan community and Tibetan monastic spaces that would likely draw attention to their Tibetan national identity.
The overarching state’s religious policy in Tibet today includes the incorporation of Tibetan Buddhism into a greater degree of state’s socialist discourse. Over the years, the state’s intensive supervision of Tibetan monastic system in the monasteries and nunneries has completely undermined the traditional management system of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jiang Zemin’s “accommodation policy” stated that religions must “accommodate” to the needs of the state, which effectively undermined the religious ethics and conduct to prioritize the national interest of the state. These systematic appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism into a larger state’s rhetoric of socialism has become increasingly dominant in the Xi Jinping era.
The opposing narrative about Tibetan women’s status
In contrast to the propagandistic and skewed projection of Tibetan women as “empowered” and “uplifted” under the Chinese colonial rule through the state media, the larger question of Tibetan women religious practitioners’ challenges under Xi Jinping’s sinicization is to be questioned. The state’s mandate policy of how religion should function impedes the way how Tibetan nuns practice and uphold their religious ethics and values. One of the recently introduced policies in Tibet is called the “Four Standards”, the implementation of which has been carried out in Shugsep nunnery in Tibet in October 2019. The “Four Standards” entails monks and nuns to be politically reliable entities in maintaining the “national stability.” More recently, the state has implemented the religious policy by conferring awards on monks and nuns who are regarded as “model monks and nuns”. Hence. it shows that there is a state-endorsed and colonial discourse of “empowered” Tibetan women while on the contrary, state’s religious policy and increasing infiltration into Tibetan monastic spaces have completely negated the Tibetan Buddhist identity of nuns.
The Case of Larung Gar and Yachen Gar
Serta Larung Gar and Yachen Gar are two of the most important Buddhist academy, located in Kham province of Tibet, that has gained prominence under the great visions of their founders. The founders of these institutions, Khenpo Jigme Phunstok and Achuk Rinpoche, are important Tibetan Buddhist masters. The establishment of these two institutions is considered a landmark for the revival of Tibetan Buddhism after the massive damage caused during the Cultural Revolution.
With the establishment of these two institutions, an increasing number of nuns from different parts of Tibetan regions come to pursue and advance their religious studies. A monumental change in these institutions is the initiation of conferment of Khenmo Degree (degree equivalent to PhD) on Tibetan nuns in the 1990s, envisioned and implemented by the founding Tibetan masters. Thus, these two religious institutions are not only crucial space to pursue Tibetan religious studies in general but are also an important intersectional space of female empowerment and religious empowerment for the Tibetan nuns. Since Khenmo Degree is a great feat in the history of the Tibetan Buddhist community and due to the great reputation of the institutions, many numbers of nuns from various parts of Tibetan regions have joined the institutions. However, the state’s intensive intrusion into their spaces has caused great distress for nuns, in terms of how they uphold and practice their religious vows and advance their studies.
Moreover, there have been waves of eviction of nuns and demolition of nuns’ quarters in Larung Gar and Yachen Gar in 2001 and the Xi Jinping administration. The evicted nuns were held by the state and not allowed to go back to their academy to study. According to Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) annual report of 2016, the evicted nuns of Yachen Gar and Larung Gar have been subjected to political “re-education” by the state. Nuns who were allowed to stay have been forced to attend ‘legal education” from July to October at Larung Gar in 2016.
The demolition of Larung Gar began after the decisions were made by the state authorities during the Sixth Work Forum Conference and the second national work conference in 2016. In 2019, Yachen Gar nuns have been yet again met with the same fate of demolition and evictions. According to various media portals, thousands of monks and nuns have also been evicted and detained in Yachen Gar in 2019.
There is a greater drive to “sinicize” Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet today, as evidenced from the Xi Jinping’s statements at the Seventh Tibet Work Forum held in August this year. Most Tibetan monasteries, nunneries and institutions are becoming the center of state’s manipulation to realize “Chinese national dream.” China’s erasure of Tibetan nuns’ identity by detaining, evicting, and subjecting them to “re-education programs” while turning Tibetan Buddhist locations into Chinese spaces of domination is a step towards nuns’ disempowerment. It is equivalent to depriving Tibetan nuns of their cultural and religious roots for whom Buddhist ethics and values have been a source of empowerment for many centuries. However, it remains difficult for Tibetans in general to resist in any form without the risk of being labeled a “separatist” by the state.
*Tashi Choedon is a research fellow of the Tibet Policy Institute and views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute. The revised commentary was published in the Quint on 13 October 2020.