Chinese authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan have slapped tight restrictions on anyone planning to study at the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy following a mass demolition program that has seen thousands of student-residents evicted and sent home.
Many thousands of Tibetans and Han Chinese once studied at the sprawling Larung Gar complex, which was founded in 1980 by the late religious teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and is one of the world’s largest and most important centers for the study of Tibetan Buddhism.
Now, some 9,000 people have been expelled from makeshift dwellings that once lined the hillsides around the monastery in Serthar county, local sources told RFA.
A Serthar-based monk who gave only a single name Tenzin said the mass evictions had continued for several months straight, sending 8,000 or 9,000 people back where they came from.
"Tibetans went there to study Buddhism, but the Chinese government said they couldn't do that, and wouldn't allow them into the monastery," Tenzin said.
"Now, around 9,000 people from all over the place, including Tibetans and Han Chinese, have all gone back home, because the Chinese government says they can't stay here," he said. "They can't become resident here."
An official who answered the phone at the Dapba (in Chinese, Daocheng) county religious affairs bureau in the Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture said anyone wanting to study Tibetan Buddhism must now pass a "political examination" administered by the police.
Tourists, visitors barred
He said the movement of potential Larung Gar students is now being restricted by authorities at the county level.
"You'll have to ask the United Front Work Department of the Serthar county government, or their religious affairs committee," the official said.
"But you'll have to pass a political examination administered by the police first; they won't grant you a permit unless you pass it."
"In the past, anyone could go there and study, but now it has got pretty big, and they are gradually bringing it under control," the official said.
"Now nobody can go there and study Buddhism without the approval of the local party committee and local government."
He said laypeople are now highly unlikely to be given the necessary permits at all.
"They are in the process of clearing out all the monks and nuns from there, including monks and nuns from here [in Dapba]."
"You'll have to go to the police and ask them, but they are only issuing permits to actual monks and nuns from here."
He said tourists and visitors are currently barred from traveling to Larung Gar.
"What are you going there for? It won't work if you are going there for tourism, or just a visit to check it out," he said. "There are no guarantees you'll make it even if you're studying Buddhist texts."
An official who answered the phone at the Sichuan provincial nationalities and religious affairs department confirmed the official's account.
"You want to go and study in Serthar? There aren't any classes left to attend in Serthar now," the official said.
Meanwhile, many monks and nuns have been subjected to "patriotic re-education" on returning back to their hometowns from Larung Gar, sources told RFA.
Video of such "classes" seen by RFA showed organized performances by Buddhist nuns, who were singing patriotic anthems to the ruling Chinese Communist Party and dancing traditional Tibetan dances.
'Beyond anyone's control'
Overseas-based Tibetan author Li Xianke said it is now hard to get reliable information about what is going on inside Larung Gar, or other teaching centers for Tibetan Buddhism.
"The channels of communication have been cut off, so we don't know exactly what problems they are having," Li said.
"I have also heard that if we in the international community kick up a fuss about the injustice of it, then the Communist Party will use this as an excuse to say that hostile foreign forces are involved, and the consequences for [former Larung Gar students] will be even worse."
"The situation is really beyond anyone's control."
He cited unconfirmed reports that have emerged of suicides by protesting Larung Gar evictees, many of whom were studying for a traditional Khenpo degree in Tibetan Buddhism, which typically takes 13 years of study to acquire.
He said while some 4,000 to 5,000 were accommodated inside the monastery, more than 10,000 had clustered in the makeshift town on the slopes outside.
"Local Tibetan officials must have their own private feelings about all of this, but they have to act in accordance with the Communist Party," Li added.
"They daren't come out and say anything, because as soon as they do, they'll lose their precious livelihoods ... They are expected to toe the Communist Party line."
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.