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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism for Sale

By March 19, 2008

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At the Guardian, Jonathan Watts shows us something about what's at stake for Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet.

Kumbun Monastery is on the outskirts of Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, Tibet. Watts writes that Kumbun seems an oasis of calm. The monastery is still open to worshipers and tourists. "For the Chinese government, Kumbun has for many years been the model monastery: commercially orientated, politically conservative and obedient to the orders of Beijing," writes Watts.

Kumbun has become a commercial center. It's a showcase for tourists, and the surrounding streets "are a virtual cash'n'carry of Tibetan Buddhism," according to Watts. This is the place to go to buy beads, incense and Tibetan Buddhist art to take home and show your friends. Craftsman are busily creating bells and prayer wheels to be sold in the shops.

Kumbun functions under tight government control. It once housed more than 3,000 monks; now it is limited to 700. Monks are required to denounce the Dalai Lama. "We can't conduct any religious ceremony without government approval," complained one monk. But as a commercial enterprise, Kumbun is doing very well, although some monks say their religious practices are interrupted by tourist chatter and the ringing of their cell phones.

Even Kumbun is under intense scrutiny, however. It is monitored by security cameras, and the surrounding streets are patrolled by riot police. The monks fear that some among them may be spies or informants and speak with great caution to foreign journalists like Watts.

There are other issues, notably economic ones, that touched off the demonstrations in Tibet. But for years China has been accused of trying to turn parts of Tibet into a kind of Buddhist Disneyland. The next step may be to clear the 700 monks out of Kumbun and replace them with animatronic ones.

Photo Caption: A monk at the Jokhang Monastery, Lhasa.

Photo Credit: China Photos/Getty Images

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