The New York Times

February 23, 2003

From a Chinese Cell, a Lama's Influence Remains Undimmed

Erik Eckholm/The New York Times
Tradition and change blend in Litang. A man in a fox-fur hat rides a motorcycle bearing a photo of the late Panchen Lama, a spiritual leader

ITANG, China It is dawn at the Litang Monastery, and Tibetan spirituality seems to be alive and well, if slightly disheveled.

As a brilliant Venus fades in the rising sun, the 300 monks straggle to their prayer stations, chants mingling with trumpet calls in the thin crisp air. Dozens of robed novices, many no older than 12, stream through the temples, rubbing their eyes as they start lighting endless rows of yak-butter candles.

Even on the commercial main street of this remote mountain crossroads, evidence of rapid social change is countered by strong displays of ethnic pride.

Former yak herders, now earning cash at construction jobs, strut the sidewalk wearing not the latest Chinese styles displayed on television, but flamboyant versions of traditional Tibetan garb. The men sport towering hats fashioned from fox pelts, or coif their hair into elaborate spikes, braided with ivory rings. At their belts, they wear showy two-foot swords.

Officially, Litang, situated in a treeless valley at 15,350 feet, is part of China's Sichuan Province. Historically and still culturally, though, it lies at the heart of the unruly region the Tibetans call Kham a distant land that opened to foreigners only a few years ago.

Only in front of the Litang police station is there any visible clue to the tensions now wrenching this society.

Lest any residents miss the message, two large fliers proclaim, in Chinese and Tibetan, the harsh penalties recently dealt to a senior Tibetan lama and a younger follower suspected of being accomplices in bombings and separatist activities.

In a secret trial in December that has been condemned abroad as a travesty, the lama, Tenzin Deleg Rimpoche, 52, was given a suspended death penalty, meaning it could be converted to life in prison. The younger man, Lobsang Dondup, 27, was executed the same day in January that his appeal was denied. Both had proclaimed their innocence.

In hushed conversations, many Tibetans here question whether Tenzin Deleg was really behind the several small explosions reported during the last two years in Litang, Kangding and the provincial capital, Chengdu. Property damage was slight, though the police say that in one case a person was killed.

"Tenzin Deleg was the most beloved of all the lamas around here," said a Tibetan businessman in his late 20's who recently moved to Litang from the south, where Tenzin Deleg had his ministry.

"He taught the Tibetans to lead good lives," the man said. "He said Tibetans shouldn't fight each other, shouldn't drink or smoke and shouldn't wear Chinese clothes or hair styles."

Considered a "living Buddha" by his followers, Tenzin Deleg was a charismatic lama who quarreled with the local establishment Tibetan and Chinese over religious doctrine and monastic goals.

He established his own monastery and gained respect through his own example of austere living. He used herders' donations to build schools and roads. Tenzin Deleg was also an ardent supporter of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader vilified by Beijing, but so is virtually every monk in the region. Local people insist he did not spend his time campaigning for a separate Tibet, as the Chinese authorities have charged.

Many who live here suspect, instead, that it was his own independent spirit and large, loyal following, rather than any crimes, that led to Tenzin Deleg's condemnation.

"Because the Tibetans loved him so much, the Chinese took him away," the businessman said.

Wang Lixiong, the Chinese author of a book on Tibet who has visited the Litang region several times in recent years, said that in the mountain communities dispirited by cycles of repression, poverty and alcoholism Tenzin Deleg was revered for "showing a new path."

"What he did was to set a moral example, and that had a big effect on the people," Mr. Wang said. "But the government saw him as a threat."

Tenzin Deleg first entered the Litang Monastery as a child in the 1950's, when it was still a thriving institution housing some 3,000 monks. He drifted after the temples were shut down by the Communists in 1959 and later destroyed, but he eventually spent years in India, studying with exiled Tibetans under the sway of the Dalai Lama. He returned to the monastery in 1987, as it was rebuilding in the post-Mao era.

Tenzin Deleg soon broke with the monastery's leaders, and although the reasons for the split are not clear, they apparently included his fierce campaign against the worship of an avenging angel called Shugden. This practice, one of many variants in Tibetan Buddhism's world of spirits, had gained a following in the Litang area, but had been discouraged as cultish and divisive by the Dalai Lama, who was seeking greater unity among the major Tibetan sects.

In the early 1990's, Tenzin Deleg set up his own monastery in the nearby town of Yajiang with satellite outposts in the hinterlands.

More than once in the last several years, the police sought to arrest him for starting an illegal monastery all religious institutions in China must be approved by the state and for other alleged crimes. But the outpouring of public support forced the authorities to back off, which they did until the arrest and trial last year.

The emotional struggle over a Buddhist deity and the rise of a populist maverick like Tenzin Deleg may be signs of the stresses roiling this long-isolated region as Tibetans seek better material as well as spiritual lives, and the Chinese government tries to buy peace with economic development, and a large military presence.

Litang's population is now around 50,000 people, 94 percent of them ethnic Tibetans, according to official statistics. But ethnic Chinese are a growing and sometimes resented presence. Many of the town's multiplying shops and restaurants are run by energetic migrants from overcrowded areas of China who have come here in search of opportunity.

The Chinese influx may be matched, however, by the rush of Tibetan herding families into Litang and other towns, where they are happy to have access to electricity and schools, and the chance to earn cash working casual jobs.

Some Litang residents, especially those who admire Tenzin Deleg, express suspicion about their town's government-sanctioned monastery.

But nothing here is simple. The dozens of young monks in the monastery are proof that many families remain happy to give over a son.

In the inner sanctums of the Litang Monastery, large pictures of the Dalai Lama are openly displayed. The senior lamas may have made their peace with the Chinese authorities, but they make no bones, either, about their loyalty to their exiled spiritual leader.

While Tenzin Deleg may be in prison, over the last decade, after firmer dictates from the Dalai Lama, the Litang Monastery and nearly all others in the region have halted any worship of Shugden.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company