Revival for Tibetan Buddhism in Chinaís ethnically mixed north

To the rhythmic beating of drums and the trance-inducing recital of prayers, monks burn a wooden pole adorned with silk and paper slips, and a skull, exorcising the evil spirits of the new year.

It was the weekend in Hohhot, the frozen capital of north Chinaís Inner Mongolia region, and hundreds had turned up at the Dazhao temple, a center of Tibetan Buddhism for the past more than four centuries.

"Itís important for me to visit at least once a year," said Tuoya, a courteous 55-year-old woman, who like many Mongolians has just one name.

As the Great Prayer Festival culminated Saturday and Sunday, the thickening crowds were testimony to the regionís religious revival, even if the different generations did not display exactly the same degree of devotion.

"I believe in it, but only a little," said Sharina, Tuoyaís 25-year-old daughter, returning home from her university studies in Beijing, and entering the Dazhao temple only for the second time in her life.

"Maybe Iíll start believing more once I reach my motherís age," she said with a shrug.

As China becomes a freer society, Mongolians and other ethnic minorities are allowed to quietly trace their cultural roots, and usually those with memories of life before Communist times are the first to seize the opportunity.

"Itís mostly elderly people who really fervently believe," said Tengus Bayaryn, an anthropologist at the Inner Mongolian University, his long gray hair tied flamboyantly in a pony tail.

"There are also some young people who think life without religious belief is empty, and that some problems are hard to solve without the aid of religion, but itís not very common."

The narrow temple yards at the center of the Dazhao complex filled with the sweet, penetrating odor of burning incense during the weekendís rituals.

But even the dense smoke could not disguise the constant and, it seemed, deliberately visible presence of uniformed police.

While post-reform China boasts of its religious tolerance, the authorities remain watchful for any signs that spiritual emotions could challenge the existing social order.

This is especially the case in areas such as Inner Mongolia, where different ethnic groups mix to an unusual extent, bringing together Mongolians, Han Chinese and Muslim Huis, the descendants of Arab and Persian traders.

Further complicating the situation, the Mongolians have adhered to the unique Tibetan style of Buddhism since the late 16th century.

Recognizing the power of religion, the Chinese government is unlikely to ever allow the monks to regain the sway they had in society prior to the Communist revolution of 1949.

This is partly for pragmatic reasons, as the monks of old contributed little to the regional economy, paying no taxes and producing almost no offspring as the vast majority never married.

"The number of monks today is extremely small compared with the past, and they have much, much less influence on society than before," said Baladugqi, a professor at the Inner Mongolia Modern History Research Institute.

"Since 1949, the monks have been sealed off from the rest of society," said the scholar, himself an ethnic Mongolian.

Despite the concerted effort to wipe out the monks as a social force, Dazhao and other temples have seen a steady stream of young men wishing to devote their lives to religion.

"It was my own decision to become a monk," said 20-year-old Delenebolok, clutching a Palm Pilot which he used to show how to write his name.

"Itís not like the old days, when people let their sons become monks because they didnít know how to support them," he said.

Even so, much of Inner Mongolia remains destitute, and it is reported that many still are forced by dire circumstances to send their sons to temples and monasteries.

"Of course, itís not going to be the same as in the past, if only because the government puts limits on the number of monks allowed at each temple," said Bayaryn, the anthropologist.

Political pressure is not the only concern for followers of Tibetan Buddhism in todayís Inner Mongolia.

Traditional temples had their own independent revenue sources in the form of large land holdings, but in modern China all land is in government hands, forcing clerics to scramble for new types of income.

The Dazhao temple made brisk business at the weekend, selling entrance tickets at 15 yuan (a little less than two dollars).

"If you pay money, youíll get good luck," said a monk asking for contributions for reconstruction work at the temple, still not entirely recovered from destruction during the Communist era.

Politics and commerce are irritants for an ancient religion reasserting itself, but the biggest menace may come from ordinary people finding it hard to reconcile their faith with the requirements of everyday existence.

"Itís impossible to be a one hundred percent believer if you also want to have a life," said Geyile, a middle-aged woman.

"If you have to follow all the rules, like the ban against harming any living being, you canít even step outside your own home." (AFP)


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