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China Takes a Chain Saw to a Center of Tibetan Buddhism


LARUNG GAR, Tibet – Atop a hill, a growling chain saw drowned out loudspeakers broadcasting a lama’s chants from a nearby temple.

The chain saw, wielded by workers demolishing a row of homes, signaled the imminent end of thousands of hand-built monastic dwellings here at Larung Gar, the world’s largest Buddhist institute.

Since its founding in 1980, Larung Gar has grown into an extraordinary and surreal sprawl — countless red-painted dwellings surrounding temples, stupas and large prayer wheels. The homes are spread over the walls of this remote Tibetan valley like strawberry jam slathered on a scone.

Larung Gar has become one of the most influential institutions in the Tibetan world, the teachings of its senior monks praised, debated and proselytized from here to the Himalayas. In recent years, disciples have popularized a “10 new virtues” movement based on Buddhist beliefs, spreading its message across the region.

Now Chinese officials are tightening control over the settlement, in what many Tibetans and their advocates call a severe blow to Tibetan religious practice.

Workers dismantling a dwelling in Larung Gar. Residents and rights groups say officials intend to reduce the settlement’s population to 5,000 by late next year through mass evictions. Credit Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times
On a recent afternoon, workers in hard hats were dismantling cells that monks and nuns had built along a ridge. As they tossed aside wooden beams and plastic sheeting, nuns looked for their belongings in the rubble. Men who appeared to be plainclothes police officers looked on from a bench across the street.

Hundreds of Buddhists had already been forced out of the area. A monk watching the destruction from a ledge told me he was staying in a home across the valley. Like others interviewed for this story, he spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal from the authorities.

“I heard my home will be demolished,” he said. “I don’t know whether I’ll be allowed to stay.”

Tensions between Tibetans and the Chinese government have been high ever since a widespread uprising across the Tibetan plateau in 2008. Suppression of their culture and religious life remains at the heart of Tibetans’ grievances, and restrictions at important religious institutions like Larung Gar stoke that resentment.

Many Tibetans say they fear the erosion of their language, traditions and ways of worship. China still denounces the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, and bans his image throughout the region.

Some estimates put Larung Gar’s population at 20,000, many of them clergy who have flocked here from far corners of the vast plateau. Buddhist practitioners who are Han, the dominant ethnicity in China, live alongside Tibetans in the settlement, which is a winding 16-hour drive from the provincial capital, Chengdu.

Monks checking religious books for sale on the street. Larung Gar has also become one of the most influential centers in the Tibetan world. Credit Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times
Interviews with residents at Larung Gar and reports from Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia and overseas pro-Tibet groups indicate that officials intend to reduce the settlement’s population to 5,000 by late next year through mass evictions. Over the summer, officials began deporting monks and nuns who were not registered residents of this area, Garze Prefecture of Sichuan Province, which includes a large section of the traditional Tibetan area of Kham.

Tibetan users of WeChat, a popular Chinese social networking app, have said that those evicted must promise never to return. As of October, as many as 1,000 people had been forced out, residents and human rights groups said.

In June, an article on a state-run website quoted a local party official, Hua Ke, as saying that the authorities were not driving away residents or destroying their quarters. Rather, he said, they were overhauling the crowded settlement “to eliminate hidden dangers and safeguard the personal safety and property of the monks and nuns.”

When the demolitions began this summer, officials closed the area to foreigners. The police set up checkpoints outside the valley. But last month, I managed to enter Larung Gar with two colleagues.

A major checkpoint on the road was unattended, and we boarded buses at the mouth of the valley that took us into the heart of the settlement. Chinese tourists were also visiting, many drawn by the chance to see a sky burial, an outdoor Tibetan funeral ritual in which a man cuts up a body so that vultures can feast on the remains.

At noon, crimson-robed nuns flocked to a gathering at the main nunnery. Among the winding alleyways, clergy walked in and out of their homes, little more than shacks built with wooden beams and sheets of metal and plastic. Monks speaking Mandarin Chinese — probably ethnic Han — were digging a sewage canal.

Larung Gar was founded in 1980 by Jigme Phuntsok, a charismatic lama, and it swelled for two decades as word of his teachings spread. Credit Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times
It looked like daily life, nothing out of the ordinary, until we reached a large prayer wheel on a road winding up the valley’s north wall. Next to the wheel, four workers in hard hats stood atop a home, ripping off the metal roofing. Nearby was a plot of dirt with rubble from another demolished home.

We continued uphill. At the top of the ridge, we saw a long stretch of homes being torn down by workers. We could hear a chain saw, and a yellow earth digger was nearby.

This destruction was occurring in a part of Larung Gar with particular religious significance. The homes had been built across from the valley’s highest stupa, which pilgrims and residents circumambulate, often while spinning hand-held prayer wheels.

Edward Wong, the Beijing bureau chief of The New York Times, visited Larung Gar, the world’s largest Buddhist institute, and shot this video of demolitions of Tibetan monks’ and nuns’ homes on Oct. 8. By EDWARD WONG on Publish Date November 28, 2016. Photo by Edward Wong.

The government says the settlement is crowded, and it is. There are open sewage drains and trash pits. In 2014, a fire destroyed about 100 homes. But Tibetans here say officials could build newer, cleaner enclaves rather than evict people. The government’s real aim, they believe, is to weaken centers of power that can rival it.

Elliot Sperling, a Tibet scholar who taught at Indiana University, shared the Tibetans’ view of the motives behind the demolitions.

“The party sees Tibet, inside and outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, as one of the more volatile regions and does not take kindly to alternate sources of authority, including moral and behavioral authority, and clearly the growth of Larung is problematic,” Mr. Sperling said.

China says the settlement is overcrowded and unsafe, but Tibetans claim the government’s aim is to weaken centers of power that can rival it. Credit Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times Larung Gar was founded near the town of Sertar in 1980 by Jigme Phuntsok, a charismatic lama whose portrait is seen throughout the settlement. (A gar is a monastic encampment; it starts as a small gathering.) Then in 2001, officials evicted many of its residents, demolishing homes. But people returned.

After Jigme died in 2004, two senior lamas took over, both of whom have expanded Larung Gar’s profile, often going overseas to give talks and teachings. One of them, Sodargye, went to Europe this summer, while the other, Tsultrim Lodro, made the rounds of American universities.

The two abbots have not spoken out publicly against the demolitions, and have in fact told residents not to oppose the government. Their view, residents said, is that it is better not to protest the demolition, and instead let it run its course and live peacefully afterward.

Across Chinese-controlled Tibet, disciples of Larung Gar have been spreading the “10 new virtues” movement. Based on a Buddhist model, it advocates a retrenchment in 10 principles: no killing or selling animals, no stealing, no drinking, no feuding and so on. The doctrine is especially popular in Garze. Some practitioners wear a pendant with the image of a white pigeon, and officials have noticed their religious activism.

For some Tibetan nomads, these tenets filtering down from Larung Gar’s two abbots make life more difficult, since much of their economy relies on the herding and sale of animals, particularly yaks. “These lamas are respected very much, but some Tibetans do not agree with the policies of the lamas,” said Katia Buffetrille, a Tibet scholar at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.

Monks from Larung Gar have traveled across Garze to try to defuse local conflicts and help with issues of social justice. In the grasslands area of Lhagong, called Tagong in Chinese, monks helped residents draft paperwork when they wanted to protest a large lithium mine.

But residents of the region said the authorities were not happy with such activity. “They want to control Tibetans,” said a man from Garze who has visited Larung Gar multiple times. “They don’t want the monastery to develop too quickly.”

Vanessa Piao contributed research. A version of this article appears in print on November 29, 2016, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: China Takes a Chain Saw to a Center of Tibetan Buddhism. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe