During the northern summer of 2001 thousands of Chinese security personnel, backed by an army of labourers armed with sledgehammers, massed at the entry of the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. In this almost impossibly remote place, sitting high on the Tibetan Plateau, 9,000 monks and nuns had found a home, defying decades of China’s aggressive atheist policies to learn from its charismatic and avowedly apolitical founder, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok.
PRC authorities had long been skittish about the institute’s remarkable growth, and particularly alarmed by its growing appeal to ordinary Han Chinese. By 2001 over 1,000 Han also called Larung Gar home.
Both Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar (gar translates as camp) have remained largely hidden from the outside world, as much because of their inaccessible geography as the tight controls on freedom of movement put in place by the Chinese government. Both sit at elevations of over 4,000 metres, sunk deep into hidden valleys of the Hengduan mountain range, which cuts across China’s south-western Sichuan province.
Both Yarchen and Larung Gar are part of what is known as the Garzê Semi Autonomous Prefecture, where 77 percent of the inhabitants — some 800,000 people — claim ethnic Tibetan heritage. As is the case in the similarly named Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the people’s future has long been out of their own hands.
In theory, to move around Garzê as a foreigner, one only needs a Chinese tourist visa and bucket loads of time, patience and fortitude. This is in stark contrast to the neighbouring TAR, at the border of the lands known to the wider world as ‘Tibet’. Visitors to the TAR are required to first negotiate a complex and shifting permit process, before joining an organised and highly controlled tour of the region.
Yet Garzê and nearby Qinghai are also restive. Tibetans here have openly protested against Chinese control, most notably as part of a violent uprising in 2008. Referred to by the Chinese as the 3-14 riots, unrest had spread from the TAR into Sichuan. This unrest effectively slammed the door shut to the region’s hidden treasures until 2013. Today, despite relative calm, nuns and monks continue to take the extreme measure of self-immolation in towns and villages. Reports of random arrests and the disappearance of accused activists are common. Recently Garzê has been open, yet regulations can change overnight and information is scarce.
During China’s breakneck boom the mountainous Garzê region represents ground zero in the great ‘go west’ campaign — viewed by the People’s Republic as integral to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy.
The wealth of natural resources found here, as well as the nation-building railway into Tibet (completed in 2006) have been the catalyst for extraordinary development. In the regional town of Sertar, which sits astride the Larung Gar complex, the reality of the security situation quickly hits home. I was challenged in the main square and taken to police headquarters to sign in and face a barrage of questions.
Mercifully, one officer spoke English and took my story of being a history teacher at face value. This would be just one of my almost daily encounters with the local police force over the coming weeks.
During the following days I was left free to explore the vast warren of huts, temples and study houses that surround the complex. One morning I witnessed a loud monks’ debate; where the men and boys almost come to blows over competing theological arguments.
The monks and nuns live their lives separated by the main road which slices Larung Gar camp down the middle. I found both groups to be generally welcoming and curious, and the tinderbox atmosphere and police presence of Sertar is replaced by the constant hum of worship, with the sound of prayer and Tibetan horns a constant.
Many Chinese tourists visit Larung too. The biggest draw for them turns out to be the opportunity to witness a traditional Tibetan ‘Sky Burial’. At 1pm every day, the Rogyapa (“body breaker”) arrives to dismember recent human remains, which are then fed to aggressive flocks of resident vultures on a hillside set back from the complex.
Macabre to some, this ancient ritual is both a practical way of disposing of human remains whilst also adhering to jhator, the principle of kindness to all living things, which includes feeding these huge carrion creatures. Few of traditional these sky burial locations remain operational, mainly due to religious marginalisation, urbanisation and the decimation of vulture populations.
The institute at Larung Gar currently attracts followers of Tibetan Buddhism from all over China. Its regrowth after the 2001 evictions was swift; students began to illegally return and rebuild almost immediately. After Jigme’s death in 2004, countless followers made a pilgrimage to Larung Gar to pay homage to their spiritual master. Many stayed and contributed to the already rapid regrowth of the population. Today, Larung Gar is home to an estimated population of 50,000 people.
Yarchen Gar, founded in 1985 hard against the border of the TAR, has deplorable living conditions. Without even basic sanitation, every corner of the complex is permeated by a breathtakingly toxic smell. Around 9,000 nuns live in ramshackle huts on an island, while the more solidly built monks’ quarters sit more favourably on the surrounding hills. Monsoon rains bring regular flooding; on my visit ankle-deep raw sewage flowed into the streets on more than one occasion.
No electricity runs to the island where the nuns live. Cholera and typhoid outbreaks are a daily threat. In winter, the temperatures plunge to a life-threatening minus 25 degrees. Yet this does not deter the nuns. Winter meditation sessions, referred to as the “direct crossing”, can last for days, with nothing more than a blanket to shield worshippers from the cold.
The reward for this remarkable display of self-deprivation is the chance to learn first-hand from some of the most revered figures in Tibetan Buddhism. The current leader in residence is Asong Tulku. ‘Tulku’ is a title given to a person who has reached the highest level of spiritual enlightenment, and Asong is considered a living Buddha by his followers. To assist in his teaching at Yarchen, Asong is aided by senior nuns, called khenmos. Many nuns begin their life here at the age of just six.
Not only do the nuns dedicate themselves fully to their studies, they are also responsible for almost all physical labour at Yarchen, constructing houses, unloading trucks or building roads. The monks, who rarely participate in physical labour here, seem to have it easy in comparison.
Despite the challenging living conditions, vast amounts of money are being funnelled into gigantic, ornate temples and monuments in the heart of the camp, while the surrounding slums continue to crumble.
Han Chinese money has poured into this region, with relatively wealthy converts to Tibetan Buddhism bringing much needed funds to the camps. These wealthy benefactors, hoping to improve their karma for the next business deal, or through a “cover all bases” spiritual mentality, have sparked a huge construction boom on the far western Chinese frontier.
During my time in Yarchen I had several memorable brushes with the revered leader, Asong Tulku. As he piloted his gleaming white Lexus around the slum, our paths would meet on my early morning photo shoots. Watching people fall into the putrid mud at his feet wherever he walked, all rushing to pay tribute with cash and gifts, I found myself wondering if the money for the Lexus couldn’t be better spent elsewhere.
The abrupt change from the monsoon season to the biting cold of winter was a fortuitous time to be visiting Yarchen. A ceremony in which almost the entire population of nuns empty from the confines of their island home for a month of meditation in the hills was due to take place. For days, preparations for this ritual, translating roughly to the “circle of life”, had provided a preview of what was to come.
Basic supplies were taken by foot to a hidden nook outside the complex, the location of which was strictly off limits to outsiders. When the fortuitous day finally arrived, the sight of 9,000 nuns in their bright red robes streaming into the hills was a privilege to see.
At the entrance to the valley I reached a sign hammered into the ground, with a message written in bold letters, announcing that any man who followed the nuns on their trek would return blind. With this, I knew that my luck had held out for long enough; it was time to go.
By rights Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar shouldn’t exist, and at different times the authorities have tried to sweep them away. Draconian restrictions on the freedom of movement and religious practices in the TAR itself means that nothing exists there to rival these two sites.
Quite possibly, the future leadership of Tibetan Buddhism rests not within the more recognisable white-washed walls of Lhasa’s hillside fortresses, or within the Dalai Lama’s inner circle, but within China itself.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Brook Mitchell is a photographer + writer with Getty & The Sydney Morning Herald.