High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written on May 25, 2011 for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and posted on her blog on June 3, 2011.
In this blogpost Woeser recounts a trip to Chengde, a city in Hebei province that is a popular destination for tourists, especially on day trips from Beijing. As Woeser mentions in her post, Chengde has had a long association with Tibetan Buddhism and the main Putuo Zongcheng Temple was built to resemble Lhasa’s Potala Palace.
A quick translation note, the Chinese word Woeser has used 师傅 (shifu) is a general term to describe anyone skilled at a particular craft and in English is usually rendered as “Master”. Seeing as the intention is to fool tourists into thinking these people are Buddhist Masters or somehow highly trained in Buddhist practices, even noting how they are dressed in Buddhist robes, High Peaks Pure Earth has opted for the phrase “Tibetan Lamas” in English, strictly speaking this is not an accurate translation.
Chengde’s “Little Potala Palace”, built in the Emperor Qianlong era, has become a commercialised place and moreover there is political propaganda everywhere.
These two men are wearing what seem to look like Tibetan shirts, these are the costumes worn by “Tibetan Lamas” at the “Panchen Palace”
This is a “Tibetan Lama” hidden away in a Buddhist prayer hall who tells the fortune of visiting tourists, has a Sichuan accent, reminds me of something I read on Twitter, Leshan in Sichuan Province is the biggest producer of general managers of temples in the whole of PRC, these people go all over the country to work at the tourist spots and are contracted by temples or cooperate with the Chief Abbot and then develop marketing plans for the tourists such as through selling incense or the fortune telling business. Also I know that this kind of person has also been sent to Lhasa, Zhongdian (Shangri la), all over, they were all given the green light by the local religious authorities; of course these kinds of people are not always from Sichuan’s Leshan.
Sellers peddling their own “Mani flags”, at first glance they look like prayer flags,
each one is not cheap.
I have always wanted to go to Chengde, not because it is home to the Qing Imperial Summer Residence but because there are also the temporary Imperial residences of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, which were established by the Qing Emperor and are commonly referred to as “Little Potala Palace” and the “Panchen Palace”. Recently, a foreign friend of mine made his way to Chengde, which lies over 200 kilometres away from Beijing. Chengde used to be a camp site for the Manchus and Mongolians to take a rest and recuperate. But today, the place is almost void of any traces of ethnic minorities, except of course for the various advertisements found in scenic tourist spots. During the journey, a man dressed in camouflage wanted to sell my friend a pair of binoculars which he claimed was used by the military, but the American friend, an expert in Tibetology and Sinology, would of course not be fooled by this. This was going to be the first out of many swindlers he encountered on his trip.
A quick online search for some information about Chengde would prepare people for this. I am referring to the time when we entered “Panchen Palace” and came into what looked like a Buddhist hall; I overheard a tour guide saying to the tourists that inside there is the “Tibetan Lama” was preaching and giving blessings. I curiously walked over to see for myself and what I saw was a group of tourists putting their palms together and facing a man dressed in what seemed to be Tibetan clothes. This man was first muttering “May Bodhisattvas protect you”, “May you get promoted”, “Become rich” etc in Mandarin and then he handed everyone a small candle and finally read out a “Tashi Delek” to everyone, his Tibetan, however, sounded extremely shoddy.
I knew at once that the person was not a “Tibetan Lama” and the small candles were not given out for free. I told my friend in a low voice that this person was a swindler. My friend suggested to go up to him and ask him in person. So we went towards him and my friend used Tibetan language to ask him in a very refined and courteous manner: “Could I kindly ask you a question?” I could tell that the self-appointed “Tibetan Lama” felt bewildered. He obviously did not understand any Tibetan. “Do you understand Tibetan”, I asked him. “Of course, but I am very busy right now”, he replied, searching for the right words in a panicky manner.
This scene is by no means unfamiliar. I have previously written about Lhasa’s Gyume Buddhist College being taken over by Han Chinese tourist agencies; they have not only opened shops inside the temple, selling expensive Buddhist merchandise, they also have their employees dressing up in Tibetan clothes, some even wearing robes pretending to be Tibetans or Lamas, performing ceremonies for tourists, giving initiations and calculating their fortune and bad luck, all at a very high price. Because the college had come under criticism from the local authority’s religious and tourism departments, they had no choice but to consent; the monks felt resentful but dared not say a word about it.
Because the tourists have no idea that they are being fooled, they believe that those people are genuine Tibetan monks, so when they find out they naturally do not hold back with angry criticism, as one can see online. The internet also reveals that in Palhalupuk Temple on Lhasa’s Chakpori Hill, there are so-called “Tibetan volunteers” who sell small butterlamps for as much as 299 RMB. I especially invited a photographer to go there and met a few self-appointed “volunteers” who claimed to be helping the monastery; although they wore Tibetan clothing, they were by no means Tibetans, they were also Han Chinese sent by the travel agencies to fish for a quick buck. We went and took photos of these people.
In fact, these swindlers have long spread throughout China; whenever one visits a famous place of historical interest or walks into a monastery, it feels like entering a market place: tour guides have become salesmen, monks are fake or have become businessmen, Buddhist culture has become a bait, and Buddhist accessories have become merchandise. Also, many visitors are not real pilgrims, they think that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are just the same as the authoritative powers of the profane world who have to be bribed with money and materialistic items in order to reciprocate; and the swindlers who gather around monasteries induce this even further; nowadays one almost can not receive any blessings without bribing the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas first. One does not have to spend a long time in these places to notice that they entirely resemble today’s vulgar world of giving and receiving bribes, the only difference being that they are wrapped in a cloak named Buddhism.
Traditional Tibetan Buddhism, which is closely related to those two Imperial family temples in Chengde, is being exploited to the utmost extent; even “Tibetan Lamas” trick people into spending money and the fooled tourists often direct their anger towards traditional Tibetan Buddhism, which the so-called “Tibetan Lamas” claim to represent. Thus, traditional Tibetan Buddhism has become a scapegoat, and even worse, fake Buddhism has infiltrated the monasteries, which originally existed to purify people’s hearts.
May 25, 2011