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Buddhism meets the Chinese economy

Just after dawn in Lhamo, a small town on the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, horns summon the monks of Serti Monastery to prayer. Juniper incense smolders in the temple’s courtyard as monks begin arriving in huddled groups. Some walk the kora, a clockwise circumambulation around the building. Others hustle toward the main door, which sits just inside a porch decorated in bright thangka paintings. A pile of fur boots accumulates outside. When the last monks have arrived, the horn blowers leaning out of the second-floor windows retire indoors.

When I visited Lhamo in 2015, most monks at Serti attended the morning prayers, but not Ngawang Chötar, the vice president of the monastery’s management committee, or siguanhui. Instead, he could usually be found doing business somewhere on Lhamo’s main street. Like all Tibetan monks, he sports a buzz cut, and his gait, weighed down by dark crimson robes, resembles a penguin’s shuffle. When he forgets the password to his account on WeChat, China’s popular messaging service—a frequent occurrence—he waits for the town’s cell phone repairman at his favorite restaurant, piling the shells of sunflower seeds into a tidy mound.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

I first met Chötar that June, at a noodle shop in the center of town. I was sitting by myself having breakfast and he waved me over with an amused expression. 

Chötar was sitting with Boss Pan, a Han Chinese man who had been living in Lhamo for a year. Thin, in his forties, with a weathered face and a gap-toothed smile, Pan was a construction manager. His latest project had been the subject of much controversy in town—a new hotel to be run by Chötar’s monastery. He didn’t see it that way, of course. Lhamo, he told me, wasn’t much different from other outposts where he’d worked. He’d spent twenty years doing construction in a remote corner of Xinjiang, in the northwest, which felt even more distant. (In imperial times, dissidents were often exiled there.) In a bored tone, Pan explained that Tibetans were destined for the same modernization that had brought hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty over the past thirty years. Chötar listened calmly; in China, it’s common to hear people talk about ethnic minorities this way.

We added one another on ­WeChat, and I told them I’d be exploring the area for a while. It had been eight years since I’d last visited, and Lhamo remained as beautiful as I remembered. Situated at 11,000 feet, the remote town is tucked into rolling grasslands next to a mountainside spring, with upland buzzards soaring on thermals above the peaks. The monastery overlooks the town from its perch at the edge of a cliff. 

As I made my way around town, I had to cover my ears—businesses were scrambling to open before July’s tourist wave, and a cacophony of jackhammers, cement mixers, and backhoes rang out everywhere. As in many regions in China’s interior, the government was trying to kick-start development via tourism, promoting Tibetan culture, horse trekking, and hiking. The authorities had recently doubled the length of the town, building a half-mile-long commercial strip that extended from a central intersection. The strip had two stories that could be used for a variety of commercial establishments—the textbook approach to design around Tibet. The local government had provided interest-free loans, and new businesses alternated in a predictable pattern—restaurant, hotel, souvenir shop, corner store. Noodle shops were everywhere. A hodgepodge of vehicles rushed up and down the street: peasants’ trucks with their diesel engines thumping, BMWs and Audis filled with tourists, speeding local buses, every species of moped imaginable. Cowboy nomads in dark brown robes mixed with monks, tourists, and shop owners.

Lhamo’s main street marked the boundary between Gansu and Sichuan provinces. Serti sat on the Gansu side, and the town’s other monastery, Kirti, sat in Sichuan. In town, the division was invisible, save a Gansu province Rural Credit Union on one side and a Sichuan Rural Credit Union on the other. But out of sight brewed another conflict. In the mid-Aughts, a low-simmering religious dispute intensified as the monasteries struggled to contend with the Chinese economy. They responded in dramatically different ways. Serti has expanded its business significantly while Kirti has remained largely apart from local commerce. Across Lhamo, monks have ceased speaking to one another. 

Later that morning, as I passed the central intersection, Chötar shouted at me from a hotel window; this was the Dacang Lhamo, Serti’s first hotel, which opened in 2003. “Ni hao! Hallo! Hallo!”

I saw myself up. The room was a standard double with a sleek bathroom. It had been converted into an office, swapping out the beds for desks and a table, where Chötar took business calls and worked on plans for the new hotel. He sat at a desk next to the window, reclining in his chair so that his robes obscured the seat entirely. Chatting on his ­iPhone, he carried himself like a CEO sitting for a Forbes shoot—“the monk mogul.” Another monk, younger, sat nearby, frowning at no one in particular. He greeted me in Mandarin with a heavy Tibetan accent and poured some tea. His name was Tsültrim Drakpa; he looked about thirty years old. He’d been in the hotel business for barely a month but already had a few gray hairs. Chötar was training him to be the new manager. I asked him how the process was going, and his frown deepened.

“It’s hard. In the beginning it was even harder. Doing business uses a different part of your brain. I sometimes can’t get it moving.” He gestured to the pen in his other hand. “If I bought this for ten kuai, I wouldn’t sell it for three hundred.1 That’s what most people do. I’d sell it for maybe eleven—at most fifteen. All this still makes me uneasy.” 

“Monks don’t do business,” Chötar added from his chair. He nodded. Then he smiled. Then he giggled. He did that whenever he talked, opening his eyes wide as if everything were a small, entertaining revelation. Chötar explained that the monastery capped room rates below market price, and that the profits went to support the monastery.

Serti had bought the best real estate in town—fourteen units that wrapped around a corner of the new strip. Monks were operating a souvenir shop in one, but Chötar planned to rent out the rest to other businesses. Behind their shops, across the river and just below the monastery, loomed the beginnings of their second hotel. It was an enormous, half-finished cement structure shaped like a Tibetan palace, scheduled to open the following year. A hospital that specialized in traditional medicine would operate next door.

“We can’t profit too much,” Drakpa said. “But we have to yang ziji”—to take care of ourselves.

I nodded. In the Nineties, the Dalai Lama had encouraged Tibetan institutions in China to achieve economic self-sufficiency. But the direction contained a paradox, since economic health was hard to sustain without tapping into the Chinese tourist economy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hopes that such development can stabilize the region politically and bring the Tibetan Plateau—the site of more than 140 self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule—more deeply into the fold.2 Some of the oldest Tibetan institutions—including Serti—have chosen to do more business with the Chinese than have others. To Kirti monks and more resistant Tibetans, arrangements such as Serti’s partnership with Boss Pan are tainted. To engage with China, some feel, is to become cultural, political, and even spiritual sellouts.

Chötar has served as the vice president of Serti’s siguanhui on and off since 2001. The committees date back to the early Eighties, when Tibetans began rebuilding monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Such projects required a political body to coordinate with Chinese authorities, and the siguanhui became the main liaison between the monastery and the CCP.

Though the abbot technically leads every monastery’s board, the vice president does all the hard work. Depending on the region of the plateau, or the monastery’s relationship with the local government, monks appoint their representatives with varying degrees of independence. Sometimes the boards are mostly laymen, but not always: though government officials have final approval of the nominees, they often avoid rejecting the monks’ selections for fear of angering local communities. Monasteries, they know, enjoy far more respect on the plateau than the CCP.

Because of their position, siguanhuis negotiate a variety of delicate issues, but none more important than their monastery’s finances. Before Chinese occupation, monasteries owned about 35 percent of the plateau’s territory, supporting themselves mostly by leasing land to nomad families who farmed and grazed yaks. (Because of this, Chinese authorities have often considered monasteries to be remnants of the feudal era, when high-level lamas were some of the wealthiest members of Tibetan society. Abbots could amass fortunes for their monasteries—and often themselves—by pooling donations, charging pilgrims for blessings, or controlling their monastery’s trade in markets like Tibetan jewelry.) But since the Fifties, only the government has been permitted to own land, leaving monks stripped of a major source of revenue. Siguanhuis are expected to make up the difference.

Without land, monasteries have essentially three options: raise money from donations and religious services, charge tourists entrance fees, or run businesses. Deciding whether to exploit the colonial economy can be an emotional choice, and each option demands its own cultural and political sacrifices. How funds are invested often generates controversy and suspicion as well: many monks believe that the Chinese government prefers that money be spent on temple renovations over, say, scholarship funds for advanced Buddhist studies, since the party is suspicious of Buddhist masters at Tibetan institutions of higher learning. But without land, monasteries have few options beyond engaging with the Chinese world.

Over the next few months, I spent time with Chötar whenever he was in Lhamo. He traveled frequently on monastery business, and his itinerary changed constantly, sometimes less than a day in advance; we’d arrange to meet, and then he would be nowhere to be found when I arrived at our designated spot. Usually, he’d taken off to attend an economic conference sponsored by the Chinese government. “I’m in Lanzhou now!” “I’m in Sichuan!” “I’m on the grasslands!” “I’m in Qinghai!” he’d text. 

Most of the conferences were held to discuss private and public financial tools—loans, bonds, government development programs—and featured officials pontificating on the importance of a “harmonious society” for minorities in China. “That part wasn’t so interesting,” he once told me, with a sheepish smile. The lectures shared the defining characteristic of many government meetings in China—the audience dozing off or playing on their cell phones. Like many in the room, Chötar was a pragmatist, attending to maintain good relations with the CCP.

It was hard to know how Kirti dealt with such conferences. When I went looking for its committee members, I always hit a dead end. That was by design: Kirti monks kept to themselves. Like many monasteries, they ran a modest hotel next to their entrance, but it was a small operation compared with Serti’s vast real estate holdings. “We raise our own money,” one Kirti monk told me, adding that they never accepted loans from Chinese banks. Stubbornness was one of the few acts of defiance they had left; Kirti monks were allowed to shop at only a handful of stores in town.

In the middle of the summer, Serti went on vacation. Chötar took a ten-day road trip with a few other monks and sent me updates—mostly pictures of them playing volleyball, in full robes, or picnicking with his best friend, a chubby old monk whom he called the Fatty. Once he invited me to tag along with him and the Fatty to the bed-and-breakfast yurt of a nomad family in the grasslands looking for business advice and perhaps a loan. Before we left, Chötar assured me that the Fatty was a good driver because, unlike many Tibetans who drove, he actually had a license.

Business was good that summer. Soon after I arrived in town, Chötar delivered a lease to a new tenant, who was opening a Sichuanese restaurant. The large stack of papers written in the Chinese legal code made Chötar giggle. A few days later, we returned to eat with the restaurant staff, a mixture of Chinese and Tibetans.

At the restaurant, there were clear signs that the forces changing Tibet weren’t solely Chinese. The monks were watching the NBA finals on their iPhones, and some of them noted that Steve Jobs was a Buddhist. That explained, they said, why iPhones had the most user-friendly Tibetan script. When the Warriors won the series, one monk sent around a photo on WeChat, the crying face of LeBron James superimposed on a basketball Steph Curry was shooting. They’d been rooting for Curry. 

Chötar’s spontaneous business travel was complemented by a conversation style that featured a lot of abrupt subject changes. At first I found it a little rude, but soon I grew accustomed to it. Many monks talked this way, perhaps because Buddhism stresses a mindfulness in the present moment that rarely lends itself to planning ahead. “Mindfulness should never be displaced from the fate of the mind,” wrote one eighth-century lama. “If it is gone, it should be reinstated while recalling the anguish of hell.” 

I imagined that this approach to life must confuse the Chinese government, which organizes its economy in five-year plans. At dinner one night with a few friends, I heard Chötar mock the term “monastery economic development”—a popular phrase at party conferences. The table, full of Tibetans, broke out in laughter. 

After Chötar and I spent more time together, he mentioned that he had a nephew named Sangyal in Canada. Chötar hoped to visit him one day but wasn’t optimistic. The government rarely granted passports to Tibetans, concerned they’d be radicalized by dissidents abroad. Monks had it worse than anybody. In November, Chötar asked me to contact Sangyal on ­WeChat, without explaining why he couldn’t reach out himself.

Sangyal picked up my call in a Toronto grocery store. “We don’t talk,” he said of Chötar. “They worship Shugden at his monastery.”

I’d heard about Dorje Shugden before. For centuries, the spirit—a deity known as a dharma protector, who defends believers from harm—had been a minor figure in the Gelug tradition, the dominant sect of the four denominations of Tibetan Buddhism. But in the middle of the twentieth century, a series of prominent lamas dramatically elevated his status and made him a central figure of the faith. In the Seventies, a lama named Zimey Rinpoche published an influential text known as The Yellow Book, which also promoted devotion to Shugden. The text consists of stories of lamas whose lives were cut short by Shugden because they worshipped deities of other sects. True Gelugs, Rinpoche argued, should not worship other gods lest they incur the wrath of Shugden, whose punishment could include even death.

The current Dalai Lama—a Gelug, like all those before him—rejected The Yellow Book. In 1977, after the text was published, the Dalai Lama began to restrict Shugden worship, causing a rift within the community.3 In extreme cases, monks have been murdered, allegedly because of the schism, and the division exists in many areas of the plateau. In Lhamo, Serti allows worship of Shugden. Kirti does not.

One widely shared rumor holds that the Chinese government, looking to divide the Tibetan community and undermine the Dalai Lama, favors monasteries that worship Shugden. Serti’s investments in the local economy seemed to reinforce the notion, but academics close to the issue told me that no hard proof of favoritism exists, mostly because the subject has grown so taboo that it is nearly impossible to research. Still, perception is powerful, and pro-Shugden monasteries are often held in contempt by institutions like Kirti, which follow the Dalai Lama’s guidance more strictly. Families, too, are divided on the issue.

On the phone, Sangyal, now twenty-seven, spoke English with a hint of an Indian accent. In 2004, when he was just fourteen, he’d left Lhamo to seek the Dalai Lama in India. He attended school in exile and then found his way to Canada. His family still worshipped at Kirti in Lhamo, and Sangyal believed that Chötar’s position at Serti and his devotion to Shugden had cursed them, causing Sangyal’s younger brother to die and his mother to develop eye problems.

“He’s a good monk,” Sangyal told me on the phone. “But I don’t ever want to talk to him.” 

“We all believe in the same Buddha!” Chötar told me later. “How can family members refuse to talk to one another because of something like this?” It was the only time I ever saw him grow angry.

Later that summer, Chötar left on another trip, this time to visit museums in nearby monastery towns. Serti was considering building one in Lhamo, but Chötar didn’t like the proposals for it. One potential model—a massive stone construction built above a huge plaza—brought to mind Tiananmen Square. The architecture was a hybrid of communist brutalism and Tibetan traditional styles, and it made him wince. It was too big, larger than any of his temples. He thought Serti could design something better. Having seen the beginnings of the new hotel’s construction, I wasn’t optimistic. A Chinese firm out of Lanzhou had designed the structure, basing it on their idea of what a Tibetan palace should look like.

But those concerns were minor compared with others. The trash, overcrowding, and noise in Lhamo deeply bothered Chötar. The river running through town was filled with litter, and I’d seen many groups—Chinese, Tibetan, Hui—throw trash everywhere. One night, when Chötar and I were walking along the hotel construction site next to the river, he gazed at the banks covered in discarded plastic. “This much development isn’t good,” he said. At the Sichuan restaurant, he had covered his ears when drunk tourists began to shout, then politely suggested that they drink less. Fifteen years ago, he’d rarely encountered such problems. Still, he always projected a jovial energy, waving hello to shop owners, shuffling down the road and checking his cell phone.

The work of managing the monastery’s finances was also tiring, as was staying in the party’s good graces. He often criticized government policy. The passport denials frustrated him, and there had been a difficult period after 2008, when the plateau had erupted in anti-Chinese riots. In the crackdown that followed, two Kirti monks had self-immolated. Like most Tibetans, Chötar believed that harming oneself contradicted Buddhist principles, and the act confused him. Since so many of the self-immolators were young, like suicide bombers, he diagnosed the problem as one of misguided youth. But he sympathized with their grievances; during the upheaval, soldiers from the Chinese army stationed themselves in Serti’s first hotel, and monks were interrogated. The military left in 2014, but the local police still targeted monks in roadside stops.

“China has a good constitution,” Chötar told me once, “but they don’t enforce what’s in the law.”

When I asked whether the events of 2008 had driven the final wedge between the two monasteries—as some in town speculated—Chötar disagreed. He traced the split to around 2005, when cell phones and the internet arrived in town. It was then that he began to hear more and more rumors about his monastery, its Shugden followers, and the favoritism they were alleged to receive. Many of the rumors, he said, were transmitted from the Tibetan exile community abroad, often thousands of miles away. He pointed out that government money was made available to every single monastery in the prefecture, regardless of its stance on Shugden. At one point, his tone became almost pleading. He was exhausted by accusations he considered baseless. “Everything they say,” he said, “it’s all to trick the people. Really!” He recalled fondly the days before the split, when monks of Kirti and Serti spoke to one another and the monasteries’ tulkus—or living Buddhas—remained cordial. Now they no longer spoke.

Government policy, Chötar said, encouraged unity between the monasteries. Officials frequently invoked the word “harmony”—a favorite term for China’s former president Hu Jintao. The CCP probably feared that isolated monasteries would drift closer to the exile government. One of Kirti’s sister monasteries, founded by the same lama, maintained a close association with the government in exile, and their town had seen more than forty self-immolations since 2008—more than anywhere else in Tibet. The attitude of those less hostile to touristic development, the CCP hoped, would rub off on others. The goal was one that Chötar shared, but not for the political reasons the Chinese did. What he wanted was a return to how things were—monasteries, and families, reconciled.

A year later, I came back to Lhamo. In the interim, Chötar continued to send me Buddhist greetings, pictures of conferences he attended, and photographs of the town. One set of photos came from a beach on a plush CCP-sponsored trip to Hainan, China’s tropical island province. In the spring, he told me I should come see the new hotel in its finished form. It had opened in May.

When I arrived, the hotel looked bigger than I remembered. The rubble from the construction had been cleared, and a large parking lot had been paved. The exterior of the hotel was painted in traditional Tibetan whites and reds that made it look even more palatial.

I sat down in one of the leather chairs in the lobby and looked around. Everything glistened, and a sparkling chandelier hung over the room, which was as cavernous as a church nave. Behind the front desk loomed an enormous fresco of Lhasa’s Potala Palace. The hotel wouldn’t have looked out of place in Las Vegas. I imagined that Kirti monks must have hated it: everything about the hotel felt ostentatious and overdone, a betrayal of Buddhism’s humbler messages. 

Tourist season hadn’t quite arrived yet, and there were no cars in the lot. The concierge stared at me, confused at having a foreigner sitting in her palace. A few minutes later, Chötar emerged from one of the hallways. He was smiling, walking faster than usual and talking with one of the hotel managers, all of whom were Chinese. As he approached, I noticed he was wearing rain boots.

After we greeted each other, Chötar called the concierge over for some tea. She placed two glasses on the table between our chairs. Chötar sat down. The armrests were so large that it was hard to reach the tea, and the distance made conversation awkward. You had to lean over to one side to talk to the person sitting next to you.

Chötar began to take off his boots; the past few months had been rainy, and the ground around town was muddy. “The basement is flooded. So much rain!” He shook his head in disbelief. “It wasn’t supposed to flood at all.” I mentioned that I’d heard Lhamo rarely got this much precipitation. “That’s true. More than I have ever seen. But this basement flooded earlier in the year. And now it flooded again! It was supposed to be fixed,” he said, chuckling.

Chötar took me upstairs to look at some rooms. As we walked down the hall, trailed by hotel staff, he pointed out problems and asked about supplies the hotel still needed. He showed me their most expensive suite, a unit with a living room, a big-screen TV, and a view of the mountains. Chötar inspected the room and made a few notes to one of the managers. He didn’t ask me what I thought of it. The hotel had been open for less than a month now, and he looked tired from all the work.

As we toured the building, my incredulity grew. I couldn’t possibly imagine why Chötar’s monastery needed such an enormous hotel. It looked like a vanity project of exactly the sort the Chinese government had encouraged, and which Kirti would certainly resent. Chötar sensed my confusion.

Before Chinese occupation, Chötar said, his monastery had owned the land next to the river—about the size of a football field—on which the hotel now stood. They often performed prayer ceremonies there. In the Fifties, it was taken away, and then used by different work units through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and China’s recent reform period, until just a few years ago. When the government began planning the new strip in town, they returned the land to Serti—perhaps, I thought, a sign of pro-Shugden favoritism. But the transfer came with a catch: if Serti failed to build commercial property on it within two years, the government would take the land back. Later, I learned that local officials might have misled Chötar: exactly how nonprofit institutions were expected to use land granted to them was left vague—regulations didn’t necessarily require them to build. The monastery had simply taken the party’s word for it.

Had Serti left the land underdeveloped, they were convinced that the government would have found a different buyer to build another strip. Instead, they’d chosen to construct the biggest structure possible. It was a defensive move, to occupy the maximum amount of the land the monastery had once owned. Behind the hotel, a narrow shortcut led up the hill and into the monastery residences, no more than a few hundred feet above. A hand-painted sign at its entrance read tourists keep out. That, more than anything else, felt like an expression of the true purpose of the hotel.

Chötar left to tend to the basement, and I pondered the absurdity of the situation. To protect itself, Kirti had distanced itself from the local economy, while Serti—the alleged sellout—had taken the colonizer’s money and built a defensive castle.

When it comes to integration with the Chinese world, the choice between these two approaches, engaging with Chinese institutions or shunning them, underscores nearly every decision surrounding the plateau’s future. The Chinese economy offers a support railing—or perhaps a bribe, impossible to refuse, with a veiled threat behind it. The most defiant institutions avoid holding on to it, hoping to maintain balance on their own. Others, like Serti’s siguanhui, grasp it carefully as they make their way up, hoping that they won’t fall were it suddenly to vanish. For the most idealistic Tibetans, especially those in the exile community, reaching for the railing is completely unacceptable. But that condemnation ignores a sobering reality. Under colonial rule, the economy helps entrap citizens, leaving the occupied with only imperfect choices. Pragmatism forces them to work within the framework set by the powerful, even if the railing may become an encircling fence.

And on the ground in Lhamo, those delicate decisions were made amid deafening scenes of chaos. One day, I attended a store opening at the height of the tourist season, and a Tibetan café manager invited me to sample her Western menu. I found a table and sat down to an overly spiced pizza. Outside, a staff member was arranging boxes of fireworks. Behind her, a parade had begun on the street. A living Buddha was due to arrive at Kirti Monastery, and a pickup truck, followed by a trail of monk-driven cars, rolled through town. Two young monks stood in the bed of the truck holding an ornamental yellow parasol to receive the tulku. Tourists’ SUVs tried to maneuver around the parade, and trucks on delivery runs threw themselves into the fray. The monks smiled, tossing white prayer flags into the street. As the traffic jammed, the café staff set off the fireworks, jackhammers sounded, and I covered my ears. The monks laughed at the commotion. The staffers cheered. When I looked up, the parade hadn’t moved, and a backhoe came into view, carrying a set of steel rods. It was Boss Pan, the Chinese contractor. He kept his eyes fixed on the road as he advanced toward the hotel. It was hard to imagine him turning around.

lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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May 2018

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