In a Silent Monastery, Gods, Tears and Fears


The following article is from the Autumn, 1987 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


Special to The New York Times

LHASA, Tibet, Oct. 5. The name of this room is 'Where the Dalai Lama Stayed,' the old monk said, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he was not overheard. Then he sat on a small platform covered with a matted rug.

We made flags secretly here, he said. We painted big pieces of cloth.

The flag was that of Tibet, two facing lions before a snowcapped mountain with a sun behind radiating rays of red and blue. Display of the Tibetan flag is prohibited by the Chinese, who annexed Tibet in 1950.

The monk bent forward and slowly brought his hands to his face. He wept slow, choking sobs, trembling, his thin body wrapped in a coarse maroon robe.

'Every night the Chinese come. Everyone is scared.'

'I Am Very Sad'

One of my students is in prison, he said. I  am very sad.

There are 21 monks from Drepung in prison, the monk said, referring to Drepung Monastery, founded in 1416 and once the largest and richest Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

An eerie quiet engulfed Drepung today, five days after several people were killed in this capita] during a protest for Tibetan independence.

Another elderly monk talked of how the demonstrations came about. We've been planning something like this since 1959, he said.

Courtyards and prayer halls, normally filled with pilgrims, were empty and silent today. Occasionally a solitary monk would hasten up a rough flagstone passageway.

Gods Amid the Gloom

Where normally a prayer drum would thump leadenly from a high open window, or a bell would dong rhythmically in the hand of a chanting monk, the monastery was still. Inside the halls, monks scooped liquid yak butter from a brass bucket to fuel lamps.

The monk who spoke of his imprisoned students walked clockwise around the Ganden Phodang prayer hall and stood before an eight-foot-tall brass image of the god of wisdom. He bowed slightly, cupping his hands together.

Small flames seemed to whisper in the gloom. Photographs of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' exiled spiritual and civil leader, hung on scarves of white draped over statues of gods.

The monk said that 21 of his monastery's youngest monks traveled with a Tibetan flag to the Jokhang Cathedral in central Lhasa on Sept. 27. With that flag, they walked around the cathedral, Tibet's most sacred place, until they and five other monks were arrested.

'A Sort of Independence'

Four days later, a crowd of Tibetans, again led by monks, circled the cathedral. There was a confrontation with the police, cars were burned, a police station was gutted by fire. At least nine Tibetans were reported shot to death by the police in the largest protest against Chinese rule since 1959.

For the old monk, Sept. 27 was a turning point. This is a sort of independence for us, he said.

All the new students are in prison. We counted the people who didn't come back. We tried to send blankets to the monks in prison but the Chinese wouldn't let us. The monks don't have enough clothes to keep warm.

The old monk talked on, jumping from one thought to another, nervousness softening his words but fueling his emotion. He was frightened, yet confident in the justice of his cause.

'Everyone Is Scared'

The demonstrations are' good, he said. When the people protested we thought we would have no problem because we had the blessing of the Dalai Lama.

After the demonstration, the police came. They came to queston the abbot, the old man said. Nobody said anything. Now there is a Chinese man with one of the senior monks, to see what he does.

Every night the Chinese come, with guns. Mostly they come at night, but they watch in the day. Everyone is scared, so the pilgrims don't come.

On Sept. 25 there was a round rainbow over Drepung. Then on the 26th there were three earthquakes in the morning. The earthquake was a bad sign. It was decided that the demonstration would begin on the 27th.

The monk, his ash-gray hair clipped close to his skull, said he was not afraid. I spent 21 years in prison, he said. Nine years in the I know what electric shocks are like.

There is unity in prison, he added, his voice little more than a whisper. We say, if you kill us, the Dalai Lama is still alive.

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