How China Is Suppressing Tibetan Buddhist Nuns, ‘Erasing’ Identity

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese State is systematically suppressing voices of Tibetan Buddhist nuns & ‘sinicising’.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Samye, the first gompa (Buddhist monastery) built in Tibet (775-779) (Left) and Chinese flat (Right) used for representational purposes.
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With the increasing indoctrination and surveillance of Tibetan Buddhists, women practitioners / nuns have been suffering under the ‘sinicisation’ agenda of the Chinese State. The voices of Tibetan women practitioners are increasingly being suppressed under the Chinese colonial discourse of Tibetan women’s emancipation.

The Opposing Narrative About Tibetan Women’s Status

In contrast to the propagandistic and skewed projection – by State media – of Tibetan women as being empowered’ and ‘uplifted’ under Communist rule in China, the larger question of Tibetan women religious practitioners’ challenges under President Xi Jinping’s ‘sinicization’ is to be questioned.

The State’s mandated policy of how religion should function obstructs the way in which 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.

China’s Religious Policies In Tibet

After China's occupation of Tibet, religion in Tibet went through many transitions. The newly-established People’s Republic of China (1949) colonised Tibet and condemned Tibetan Buddhist practices and values.

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 manoeuvred 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 the 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 prioritise the national interest of the State.

This systematic appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism into a larger State’s rhetoric of socialism has become increasingly dominant in the Xi Jinping era.

Of Women Empowerment & Religious Upliftment: The Case of ‘Larung Gar’ &

‘Yachen Gar’

Serta Larung Gar and Yachen Gar are two of the most important Buddhist academies located in Kham province of Tibet, that have 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 women empowerment and religious upliftment 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 nuns from various parts of Tibetan regions have joined the institutions. However, the State's intensive intrusion into their spaces has caused great distress to nuns, in terms of how they uphold and practice their religious vows and advance their studies.

Erasure Of Cultural & Religious Identity Of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

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 certain 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 yet again met with the same fate – of demolition and evictions.

There is a greater drive to ‘sinicise’ Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet today, as evident from Xi Jinping’s statements at the Seventh Tibet Work Forum held in August 2020.

Most Tibetan monasteries, nunneries and institutions are becoming the centres of the Chinese State’s manipulation – to realise the ‘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 spaces of Chinese domination – is a step towards these nuns’ disempowerment.

It is the equivalent of 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 Chinese Communist State.

(Tashi Choedon is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor represents the same.)

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