Monasteries re-engage with the community
Features | Civil Society | Environment | Ethnic Minorities | Subscription-only Content
Chang Tianle (常天乐) reports on the growing role that religious leaders in Tibetan areas are playing, both in delivering social services and in protecting their environmental heritage.
Xiangdenima Hotel （香德尼玛大酒店） in Shiqu County of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province is unique. It is the only hotel in town with en suite bathrooms and 24-hour hot water, and the only one that treats its waste water.
Moreover, this 10 million yuan hotel is not an ordinary business enterprise, but is owned by the Sexu Monastery（色须寺), with any profits going to a charitable foundation run by the lamas (monks).
The monastery, led by 40-year-old Living Buddha Chiwa Rinpoche (赤瓦仁波切), is more than a spiritual centre for local Tibetans. It is the only Buddhist education institute in Kampa—a vast area covering five Tibetan prefectures in four provinces—that is entitled to grant Gexi (the equivalent of a doctoral degree in Tibetan Buddhism)
Equally important, the monastery is a shelter for the homeless, the old, the sick and orphans.
Right next to the monastery is a home for older people who have no children. In addition to providing accommodation, the monastery each year spends around CNY 500,000 (USD 62,000) to give the residents food, clothing, medicine and spending allowance.
Inside the monastery, there is a Tibetan medicine hospital, providing low-cost or free medical care to local people.
The monastery is also building an orphanage and plans to set up a vocational training centre.
To facilitate its future charitable work, the monastery registered a charitable foundation with Shiqu Civil Affairs Bureau last year.
“For hundreds of years, monasteries have taken most responsibility for charitable work,” says Venerable Guangpu (广普法师), a Fujian native who has volunteered for the monastery for two years. “The government here is very supportive to monastery’s work and expects religious leaders to play a big role in charity.”
Guangpu, 36, a practicing Buddhist for 11 years and a former English teacher, runs her own charitable foundation and orphanage in Xiamen. Now serving as Deputy Director of Xikang Charity Foundation, under Director Chiwa Rinpoche, she finds it easier to deal with local government in Shiqu than in southern China.
“My feeling is that the local government doesn’t have sufficient resources for such issues even if they recognise problems such as environmental degradation and poor public services,” she says. “It makes sense to encourage religious forces to participate in social and economic development.”
It only took two months to get the Xikang charity registered and the seniors’ home was also quickly registered, making it possible to raise fund outside the Tibetan community, to complement donations from pilgrims.
So far, the charity has received USD 50,000 from an organisation in New Zealand and CNY 100,000 from individual donors in southern provinces. A pharmaceutical company donated CNY 260,000 worth of medicine to the foundation, a valuable contribution to the community.
Shiqu, located at the intersection between Sichuan, Qinghai and the Tibet Autonomous Region, and 4,200 metres above sea level, has long winters and a harsh climate. Most of its inhabitants are Tibetan herders dispersed across the plateau grasslands. In medical emergencies, they have to travel for hours on horseback to see a doctor. Even if they are able to reach the hospital in Shiqu township, their lives are not always secured: without a refrigerator, the hospital does not have any blood storage facilities and cannot perform even minor surgical operations.
With donated medicines, volunteer doctors from Fujian and Guangzhou Provinces and lamas with Tibetan medical training, Sexu Monastery is able to run a small clinic. Within a single year it has treated more than 3,000 patients, or 5% of Shiqu’s population. The charity plans to develop the clinic into a better-equipped hospital and send 10 local doctors to receive training in Beijing.
With Sexu Monastery and the world’s longest Mani wall (consisting of Buddhist prayer slates with scriptures or paintings), as well as breath-taking scenery of plateau grassland, Shiqu is expected to become a future magnet for tourists.
In preparation, the monastery is now developing a vocational school to offer training in languages, painting, carving, handicrafts and tour-guiding.
As for the Xiangdenima Hotel, the monastery does not expect much immediate profit, “but it serves as a window to the monastery and the charitable foundation,” says Guangpu.
Talking about his contribution to the community, the Living Buddha Chiwa Rinpoche says that leniency and care for people are the fundamentals of Buddhism. “It is the responsibility I was born to have.”
Some international organisations, recognising the importance of Buddhism in Tibetan communities, have developed programme partnerships with monasteries. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), for example, has been working closely with Tibetan monasteries for ten years.
In 1996, when WWF first launched an environmental education programme in Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve in Diqing, Yunnan Province, it worked with lamas from Dongzhulin (东竹林, Dondroblin) Monastery to compile a pamphlet about environmental protection.
“Protection of nature is a fundamental part of Buddhist teachings,” says Liu Yunhua (刘蕴华), WWF China’s Programme Director for Education and Capacity Building. Many traditional Tibetan tales, she says, convey the message that those who worship the nature are blessed by the Buddha while those who destroy the forest and kill wildlife are severely punished.
Later, WWF invited a Gexi from the Tibet Autonomous Region to give lectures on environmental conservation in three communities in Diqing, which received positive feedback.
WWF found that this cooperation was more successful than projects that the organisation piloted without the involvement of the monasteries. “Then we resumed cooperation with Dongzhulin Monastery and have a very close relationship ever since,” says Liu, who spends about half of her time in Yunnan.
WWF now has a Sustainable Development Education Centre inside the monastery, decorated with pictures, painted by lamas, depicting Buddhist stories about protecting nature. When laymen and tourists come, lamas explain the meaning in these pictures: “a vivid approach to raise awareness about the issue,” says Liu.
In 2003, WWF invited faculty members from Tibet University to the monastery and delivered a series of lectures to more than 200 lamas.
Last summer, 17 lamas from Dongzhulin Monastery took part in a WWF training entitled “Environmental Thought from Tibetan Buddhism, Purifying our Minds to Solve Environmental Problems.” At the training, lamas discussed how Tibetan Buddhism can contribute to environmental protection. The course touched upon the interdependence of all life, issues of poaching and killing animals, compassion for all living beings, and protecting ecosystems.
After this “train the trainers” programme, lamas took what they learned in class into the community and encouraged people to play their part in mitigating threats to natural areas and species populations.
“Environmental protection in deeply rooted in Buddhism teaching. However, they don’t always have the awareness to single it out. What we do is to help them re-emphasise the issue and pass clear messages to the public,” Liu explained.
Now WWF has extended this model to more than a dozen Tibetan monasteries as an important part of a Shangri-La Sustainable Community Initiative. This supports a wide range of conservation, development, and education activities in the region to improve the management of the reserve, reduce conflicts between the reserve and local communities, and improve the livelihoods of local people.
Liu tells China Development Brief that WWF tries to explore a unique environmental conservation model.
“Instead of government enforcement or intervention by external NGOs, we rely on local resources and raise local people’s awareness. It is an educational process through which the local communities are empowered to make decisions and take action for a sustainable future.”
Holy Mountains, Sacred Lakes
Conservation International (CI), another well-known international NGO, has also been developing programmes in ethnic Tibetan areas, which have rich biodiversity.
Tibetan Buddhism regards the mountains and lakes around monasteries as sacred. Some well known sites are sacred for all Tibetans, but each village also has its own sacred land. In Sichuan Province, such areas occupy 51% of the land in Ganzi Prefecture.
Many monasteries have developed written or oral rules on wildlife, grassland and forest protection. Hunting, hewing, herding and littering are banned or strictly regulated in these holy complexes. They believe that destructive behavior by humans on the holy sites will result in natural catastrophe.
“For many generations, the sacred mountains and lakes have been isolated from the outside world and have become shelters for fauna and flora,” says CI’s Communications Officer, Chen Qi (陈琦).
However, as the economy booms and outside influences prevail, parts of traditional belief and culture tend to fade. It is more challenging than ever to keep people from entering the scared areas to extract natural resources.
To respond to the change, CI launched a Holy Mountain and Sacred Lake programme to enhance the elements in Tibetan religion and culture that contribute to a more sustainable way of life.
Starting from July 2004, it conducted a detailed survey in four Tibetan prefectures in Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region, covering more than 200 mountains and 40 lakes. So far two new reserves have been established as a result, and CI plans to introduce this model to other areas.
CI also hopes to have these religious boundaries codified into conservation law and recognized by not only Tibetan, but also lay people.
Chen tells China Development Brief in a telephone interview that the most effective way to promote conservation is to support grassroots organisations, which have better understanding of the community and usually find more localised and appropriate approaches to tackle the issues.
Snowland Great River Environmental Protection Association (三江源生态环境保护协会) is one such organisation. Some monasteries involve lamas and local communities in patrolling sacred sites, checking, for example, that valuable medicinal herbs are not over-harvested. The Association partners with these monasteries and provides environmental education for lamas, who in turn will spread the message to a wider and devoted audience.
Saving fragrant cedars
Another grassroots NGO, Kawagebo Cultural Society (卡瓦格博文化社), named after a holy mountain in Yunnan, has a similar approach.
The year 2003 was considered particularly auspicious for pilgrimage to Kawagebo Mountain. Many pilgrims made the 2-3 week journey around the base of the mountain to gain merit for future incarnations.
Along the journey, an important part of the ceremony is to burn incense, using small branches from the incense cedar tree (Platycladus orientalis) in woodlands around the mountain. As a result, these woodlands suffered from serious over-harvesting by both pilgrims and local villagers who trade in cedar.
The Kawagebo Culture Society, backed by several international organisations including WWF, CI and The Nature Conservancy, enlisted two prestigious Buddhist leaders to join their efforts to ease the over-harvesting. The two living Buddhas dissuaded pilgrims from chopping incense cedar and suggest alternatives at services and blessings. Consequently, the use of cedar in Buddhist ceremonies in the area fell to around 10 per cent of earlier levels.
“Working with monasteries and grassroots NGOs is a learning process for us,” says Liu Yunhua from WWF. “It makes us reconnect with tradition and provides a different angle to look at issues like environmental protection.”
Meanwhile, outside forces such as international NGOs assist Tibetan to review their culture and religion and link them to the modern world.
WWF has published several books about Tibetan Buddhism and its view on nature conservation and human-nature relationship.
However, co-operation with non-Tibetans is not always plain sailing. Guangpu had problems with lamas from Sexu Monastery when she first started working there, such as they were reluctant to set up a financial system in the foundation and did not see the purpose of donation registration.
“Although they have engaged in charity for generations, it’s all in a rather spontaneous way. It took quite a while before they understood the importance of management and followed it,” she says.
“But it’s all worthwhile and understandable as long as it’s well intended,” she adds.