Monday, May 2, 2016

Nuns at Yarchen Gar Monastery in Sichuan Province Defy Poverty in Pursuit of Learning

Craig Lewis

 Yarchen Gar Monastery in Gandze Prefecture, Sichuan Province. From smh.com.au

Situated high on the Tibetan Plateau, Yarchen Gar Monastery nestles at an elevation of more than 13,000 feet in a remote valley of the Hengduan mountain range in China‘s southwestern Sichuan Province. With a monastic population numbering about 10,000—most of them nuns—Yarchen Gar is widely considered to be the world’s largest monastery.

However, living conditions at Yarchen Gar, which was founded in 1985, are spartan at best, especially for the monastery’s nuns, who live in decrepit huts on an island without electricity or even basic sanitation as they struggle to learn and practice the Dharma. Monsoon season rains flush raw sewage through the streets, making cholera and typhoid constant dangers—Australian photographer and journalist Brook Mitchell describes the conditions as “deplorable,” and giving off “a breathtakingly toxic smell.” In the winter, temperatures drop to as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. The more fortunate monks occupy somewhat sturdier quarters on the surrounding hillsides.

The nuns, many of whom enter the monastery from as young as six years old, also carry out most of the day-to-day manual work at Yarchen Gar—unloading trucks, constructing houses, and building roads. However, far from being deterred by their dire living conditions, they remain committed students, eager to receive the teachings of some of the most revered scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, including the monastery’s most senior monk Asong Tulku (tulku is a title given to the recognized incarnation of a great teacher).

The sun sets over the slum the nuns call home. From smh.com.au

Like the better-known Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in the same province, Yarchen Gar is associated with the Nyingma school of Vajrayana Buddhism. Indeed, much of Yarchen Gar’s monastic population is made up of evictees from Larung Gar. Founded in 1980 by the revered lama and Buddhist teacher Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (1933–2004), Larung Gar is perhaps the largest center of Buddhist learning in the world—although considered a monastic encampment rather than a monastery—with a current population of monks, nuns, and lay students that some estimates put as high as 40,000.

In 2001, government authorities had become unsettled by the rapid population growth at the institute. Alarmed by what they termed “splittist” activities, and particularly unnerved by its growing popularity among ordinary Han Chinese—at the time, Han Chinese at the academy numbered more than 1,000—the authorities sent in thousands of security personal and laborers, who evicted all but 1,400 of the monastery’s 9,000 inhabitants and destroyed 2,400 dwellings.

Many of the nuns and monks turned out from Larung Gar made their way southwest to Yarchen Gar, still largely hidden from the outside world by its geographical remoteness as well as political restrictions put in place by the government. Because of these restrictions most of the monks and nuns are not officially recognized and live in fear of eviction.

This article is originally published on BuddhistDoor Global.

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