Rediff Logo News Rediff Book Shop Find/Feedback/Site Index


E-Mail this special report to a friend There is a strange coincidence worth retelling. Three army generals -- one from Britain, one from China and one from India -- at different points in time this century had to deal with Tibet and its lama leaders, most of whom combined their spiritual and temporal duties. All three, after completing their military tenures, went on to become mystics seeking moksha (salvation) through the unique Tibetan Buddhism faith and the lama way of life!

What is it about Buddhism as practised by the Tibetans (who for the record are part of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism) that so many find so appealing? Is it their quiet dignity, deep spiritualism and control over emotions that lures people to become lamas? A life of wandering from place to place or leading spartan lives in monasteries?

Monks are an integral part of Buddhism and can be seen across Asia with their tonsured heads, most of them in deep orange robes. However, the Tibetan monks wear deep maroon-coloured robes.

Driven away from Tibet by the Communist Chinese, who with their ideology of atheism have little patience with the monks and their monasteries, Tibetan lamas today play a dual role. First, the traditional one of providing spiritual guidance to the lay people, and second, of keeping alive the Tibetan culture, especially the unique Tibetan form of Buddhism. The second cannot be overemphasised as the zealous communists have destroyed over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet and hounded monks with a vengeance, forcing many to either practise their faith in secrecy or to escape to India.

One can become a lama at any age, and some do so even after leading a family life. But most become lamas in their late teens or twenties. At the Nechung monastery in Mcleodganj, there were young boys with barely any stubble on their chins roaming around. Tenzin Tsepak was one such 15-year-old, who had chosen this narrow, straight path two years ago. By becoming a lama, Tsepak now leads an extremely regimented life, studying Buddhist scriptures most of the time besides English, and having little time to play. He insists that he is happy and his parents are proud that their son will soon become a respected lama.

Incidentally, lama is a generic term for all Buddhist monks and also a specific term for the senior monks, achieved after going through various other junior ranks such as, in ascending order, gheni, gyatsu, ghelong, ghishek and khempo. The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama are a class apart, considered reincarnations of Buddha, and therefore revered as the two top gurus of the Tibetan Buddhist faith.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tenzin Phulchung also became a monk at the age of 13. "Even as a youngster I used to admire the life of a lama and used to regularly visit Nechung monastery. I made friends with the other monks here and then joined as soon as I could," he said.

Phulchung said he did not mind not marrying. "One gets used to it, though I must admit that some lamas do leave the monastery after a few years to lead family lives again," he added.

The young lama said the advantage of joining the monastery at a young age was that one could then study the Buddhist scriptures in greater depth. Yet, the emphasis on theological studies was at the cost of temporal knowledge.

"I do keep track of what's happening through newspapers. Also, learning English is compulsory in the monastery and this helps us keep track of events. It is very important for us monks to be aware of what is happening all around and to spread the cause of Tibetan independence," he said.

Tenzin Jamchen (it is purely coincidental that all the monks mentioned so far are named Tenzin!) is not Tibetan. Some of his friends call him Sean. However, seven years ago, this Englishman decided to become a Buddhist monk and adopted the aforementioned name.

"What I like most about Tibetan Buddhism is its extremely logical approach, something that appeals to westerners," he stated, adding, "The path to enlightenment is by changing oneself."

While Jamchen has only a limited knowledgeable about the Tibetan cause, he is certainly pained at the news about the destruction of monasteries in Tibet and the unwillingness of the Chinese authorities to allow lamas to practise their religion in peace. However, he has so far not openly spoken out about Tibet, preferring to study Buddhist philosophy and seek enlightenment from within.

However, the lamas are acutely aware that they play a crucial role in keeping alive the struggle for Tibetan independence. Buddhist monks across Asia have played pivotal roles in political battles. The lay people consider them as guides during both spiritual and temporal crises. In fact, it is today acknowledged that one reason why the United States lost the Vietnam War was because it was unable to win the support of the Buddhist clergy in South Vietnam. Similarly, the support of the clergy is seen as crucial if the Tamil imbroglio in Sri Lanka is to have any chance of being resolved.

Aware of the lamas' potential, China has today sought to place restrictions on monasteries and those who live in them. During the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, lamas were forced to flee into hiding. Later, with China pursuing economic liberalisation, some laxity was allowed, but any hint of a political struggle and controls were clamped.

"Today, China has allowed a few persons to become monks, but they only serve as tourist attractions," said Thupten Shompu, 45, a lama for over 25 years. "Beijing did this after they saw how the monks and monasteries in India were earning precious foreign exchange from Westerners."

Shompu resides at the Namgyal monastery, located outside the residence of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in Mcleodganj. He claimed that the lamas in China were not allowed to study Buddhist scriptures (in the Tibetan language) and were only allowed to perform pujas and conduct ceremonial rituals.

"If a monk studies, then he ends up going against the Chinese. Yet, to be a true lama, one has to study and understand Buddhism, not just do puja and ceremonies," he said.

The Chinese crackdown has, however, only driven the lamas underground. "They are present in Tibet, but in secret, often in rural areas. And strangely, the crackdown has only made many Tibetan monks more resolute in their efforts," he added.

Buddhist monks are not allowed to beg, but go around from house to house living off the charity of the people. Most people are only too happy to be able to donate to lamas. "In Tibet, monasteries owned farms and lived off the farming proceeds. But today, we get sufficient donations from both Tibetans and foreigners and hence can now spend all our time simply studying," pointed out Shompu.

Many religions today suffer from a crisis of faith, with fewer and fewer youngsters taking up the study of religion and seeking opportunities out in the big, wide world. And though it is considered prestigious for a family to boast one member as a lama, a monk is unable to contribute to a family's income.

Karma, a mother of two boys, said she was not at all keen on any of her sons becoming monks. "If they do become, then it is okay, but nowadays parents really don't want children to become lamas," she said.

Reason: "In the olden days, there was a lot of respect for the lamas, but nowadays it is much less," she claimed. Yet, she doubted if there was a crisis looming. "I am not interested in my children becoming lamas, but there are many mothers and fathers who are," she added.

Jampa Dorje perhaps proves this example. This 32-year-old businessman had no interest in becoming a lama. "But my elder brother is a lama and a Sanskrit scholar. So there are enough people to keep the monasteries full," he said.

Phulchung saw another reason for monasteries to thrive. "Today people are fed up of the material world and many are seeking a different life. This is especially true of Westerners, many of whom join the monasteries," he stated.

Yet, were the Westerners who took up Buddhism serious or was it just a fad? "One really cannot generalise. There are both kinds," said the Englishman Jamchen, "The fact that I have been practising Buddhism for seven years and there are many others Westerners like me speaks loudly for the Tibetan faith and philosophy."

Phulchung added, "No doubt, for some it is just a fashionable event, but there are some who are genuinely interested and practise Tibetan Buddhism for many years."

"Also, unlike some other faiths, in Buddhism one can become a monk even later on. So many become monks after their children have grown up," pointed out Shompu.

And as long as there are monks, there will be people to lead the case for Tibetan independence.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

Little Lhasa

Exile and the kingdom

The Flight From Lhasa, 40 Years On

Dharamshala: A refuge from Shangrila

The Rediff Specials

Tell us what you think of this feature