Saturday, March 03, 2007

Much at Stake for Tibet at Remote Retig Monastery

By Philippe Massonnet

Agence France-Presse, Feb 28 -- In this isolated Tibetan Buddhist monastery, sitting in a majestic valley and little known to the outside world, much is at stake for Tibet's religious and political future.

The Reting Monastery, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) northeast along a bone-jarring road from the regional capital of Lhasa and 4,100 metres (13,530 feet) above sea level, offers spiritual respite from the rugged terrain.

In the valley below, yaks and pigs live side by side amid numerous Buddhist stupas where the faithful pray, further attesting to the region's unique spiritualism. The monastery, built in 1056 and partially destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, sits against the mountain, its white walls contrasting with the magnificent Himalayan junipers that surround it.

The phenomenal beauty is one of the reasons Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has said he would choose to live at Reting, rather than Lhasa, should he ever return from his exile of nearly 50 years. The monastery plays a further special role in Tibetan Buddhism because it is the residence of a line of rimpoches, or religious dignitaries, who have traditionally overseen the regency between the death of the Dalai Lama and the identification of his reincarnated successor.

However, in China, there is no separation of church and state as the ruling Communist Party, theoretically atheist, administers all religious affairs and appoints all religious officials.

Jinba, the 40-year-old head of the monastery, offered a warm welcome during a rare encounter with the foreign press this week, offering his guests dried yak meat and bowls of Tibet's famous yak butter tea. But with three "local government representatives" in constant attendance to monitor AFP's interview, asking sensitive political and religious matters did not appear appropriate.

Besides, the environment spoke for itself. On the wall was a poster of Communist China's first three leaders -- Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. A second poster hung nearby of the current Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second highest spiritual leader after the Dalai Lama. He was installed by the Communist Party nearly 10 years ago after the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnated Panchen Lama disappeared into official custody, never to appear in public again.

There are no photos of the Dalai Lama on the monastery walls, as they have been outlawed by the Chinese government which views him as a "separatist" intent on splitting Tibet from China. The Dalai Lama, who won the 1989 Nobel peace prize for his efforts to seek greater autonomy from Chinese rule for Tibet, has been exiled since 1959, nine years after Mao's troops moved in to "liberate" the region.

In 2000, China suddenly announced the enthronement at Reting of the seventh rimpoche, a boy who is today 12 years old. He is widely seen as a tool of Beijing to legitimise the successor to the current Dalai Lama. At the time monks at the monastery protested. But, under the watchful eyes of the government minders, Jinba, who has lived at Reting for 25 years, did not speak of the Dalai Lama and only briefly about the young rinpoche.

In the monks' study hall, he showed pictures of the previous rimpoches, including the one chosen by the Chinese government."Does the seventh rimpoche live at the monastery?" Jinba was asked."No, he lives lower down in the village," he said, without elaborating.

According to some sources, the rinpoche is living under police guard. During a visit to the rest of the monastery, Jinba discussed its history, its legends and its miracles -- as the three "people's representatives" scurried along to keep up.

"Not everything was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution," Jinba said."Reconstruction began in 1982 with the government spending 500,000 yuan (65,000 dollars) for rebuilding," he said.

The next morning at dawn, as the faithful pilgrims turn prayer wheels on the Tibetan plateau, Jinba was still not alone as the journalists departed for Lhasa.