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January 23, 2010

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Monks, money and mouses

THE material world encroaches on one Tibetan monastery in Qinghai Province where young monks surf the Net and record teachers on MP3. Older monks suggest they're getting lost on the path to nirvana. Zhou Yan and Lu Xueli report. Losang Takhe clicks his mouse to browse Web pages and play online games after a busy day of sutra study and debate.

The 37-year-old monk has a desktop computer and high-speed broadband service in his dorm at the Taer Monastery in northwest China's Qinghai Province.

"Many young lamas here are hooked on the Internet. It's a symbol of the modern society," he says.

Almost a decade after Taer Monastery's executive committee bought the first computer in town, the Internet has brought the monks closer to the outside world.

Today, about a quarter of the 785 monks have personal computers, and the committee is creating the monastery's official Website in Mandarin, Tibetan and English, hoping to promote Tibetan Buddhism online.

Gyaltsen Wangden, deputy chairman of the committee, says the prevalence of computers and the Internet among the monks was a result of economic growth and rising incomes.

Last year, monks at Taer Monastery reported an average annual income of 9,000 yuan (US$1,324), triple that of local farmers and herders. Most also had additional earnings by chanting sutra at religious services.

With more money in their pockets, many monks have bought TVs, solar-energy water heaters and other household appliances. Many young monks use MP3 players to record their masters' interpretations of the Buddhist sutra, which they may revise.

Taer Monastery, perched atop the Lotus Hills in Huangzhong County, 26 kilometers from Qinghai's provincial capital, Xining, and 2,000 kilometers from Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, was built in 1379 in memory of Tzongkaba (1357-1419), founder of the Yellow Sect.

A decade after China moved aggressively to develop western regions, its monks have seen opportunities -- and challenges in the economic boom.

On the one hand, the "west development plan" has brought flocks of tourists from the inland regions. Taer Monastery receives about 800,000 pilgrims and tourists a year, says Gyungnyi, an official with the monastery's executive committee. Many Tibetans use only one name.

While Taer Monastery, like all Tibetan monasteries, opens to pilgrims for free, its admission fee for tourists has risen from 0.2 yuan in the 1980s to 80 yuan.

With ticket revenues, alms paid by pilgrims and donations from celebrities and local businesses, the monastery has raised enough to keep itself running and help impoverished Huangzhong County build primary schools, says Gyaltsen Wangden, deputy chief of the executive committee.

"The central government has spent almost 100 million yuan on heritage protection at Taer Monastery in the last five years," he says.

The Qinghai provincial government has also revealed a 370-million-yuan plan to reinforce the monastery, including 86 million to be spent this year, he says.

The railway linking Xining with Lhasa, which opened in 2006, has taken almost every monk at Taer Monastery to Lhasa and enhanced exchanges between Buddhists.

"I'd say the monastery is at its best period of development," says Wangden.

Despite the revenue rise and all the benefits of economic boom, Wangden points a critical finger at the booming tourism.

"The monastery is a place for monks to meditate and for pilgrims to pay their ritual observance," he says. "It's not a tourist destination or a money machine."

Each day, Wangden and his colleagues need to keep an eye on tourists who try to cross the line and take a photo or two of the centuries-old thangka paintings and other priceless relics. They fear the flashlights will damage the already fragile treasures in the long run.

"With more tourists coming, there are more pickpockets, peddlers of substandard souvenirs and even fake monks around, which damage the monastery's reputation," he says.

While young monks enjoy the modernity with their computers and the Internet, older ones worry these "addicts" might get lost on their way to nirvana.

"How can they concentrate on sutra studies when their minds are on the games and other 'exciting' content online?" asks Tenpai Nyidron, a revered monk who has spent more than 50 years at the monastery. "Some young monks stay up so late that they doze off during their studies."

All monks at Taer Monastery follow a strict daily schedule for sutra study and debate to get a daily allowance of 40 yuan.

"But in their spare time, it largely depends on their self-discipline for revision and meditation," says Wangden, who has been a monk for almost 30 years. "As monks we must never forget our role, regardless of the hustling crowd around us, temptations of wealth or fun."

He says the executive committee might expand the areas off-limits to tourists to minimize the impact of tourism.

Taer Monastery is a 40-hectare complex noted for its outstanding architecture and about 20,000 religious paintings, appliques and yak butter sculptures.


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