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Teaching Tibetan Ways, a School in China Is an Unlikely Wonder [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2012-2-1 11:06:07 |Display all floors
This post was edited by waiboshu at 2012-2-1 11:06

From New York TimesBy DAN LEVIN

ZHANDETAN, China — There are many marvels at the end of the punishing dirt road that skirts the edge of this stark white glacier high on the Tibetan plateau: thousands of fluttering crimson prayer flags, planted on the slopes by the religious faithful; wild goats scrambling across impossibly steep cliffs; and Buddhist monks meditating as they have for centuries in a place where newcomers find themselves gasping for air.

But perhaps the greatest marvel unfolds each morning in the newly built classrooms here at the foot of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest mountains — six hours from the nearest city and far from the circumspect eyes of Communist Party technocrats — where dozens of young men and boys learn to write the curlicue letters of the Tibetan alphabet and receive their first formal introduction to a history, culture and religion that many Tibetans describe as embattled.

“Tibetan language is the key to our culture, and without it all our traditions will be locked away forever,” said Abo Degecairang, 25, a ruddy-cheeked monk who is among the inaugural class of young men enrolled at the school, the Anymachen Tibetan Culture Center, which opened in September here in southeastern Qinghai Province.

More striking than its improbably isolated setting is the fact that the Chinese government allowed Rinpoche Tserin Lhagyal, 48, the school’s spiritual guide and soft-spoken founder, to set up an autonomous institution dedicated to promoting Tibetan culture and language. Although Tibetan areas of China are flecked with Buddhist monasteries, their mandate is to teach religious devotion through ancient texts and long hours of prayer. Nonreligious schooling is typically controlled by the state, most often anchored in Mandarin, although poverty and geographic isolation deprive many children of any formal education.

It was those young people whom the Rinpoche — a title bestowed on high-ranking teachers in Tibetan Buddhism — has sought out, eager to give them a future that he hopes will help preserve their heritage. Today, 30 shepherd boys, orphans and novice monks are learning the fundamentals of Tibetan culture, as well as Mandarin and English. Some are garbed in burgundy monks’ robes, others in jeans and trucker hats. A few arrived unable to read or write in any language, but the Rinpoche has faith that these challenges can be overcome, just as he succeeded in establishing this center despite the daunting political and financial odds.

“If your heart is in the right place, everything else will fall into place,” said the Rinpoche, who raised more than $3 million to build the vermilion-painted building topped by shimmering gold roofs. The main building, which dominates a breathtakingly picturesque valley, also houses an ornate temple filled with colorful Buddhas and altars illuminated by butter lamps. The school is so far off the grid that it must rely on solar power.

The Rinpoche, who has achieved the status of a “living Buddha,” says the idea for the center came to him in a vision one morning six years ago. Dismayed by the growing number of Tibetans unable to decipher the written form of their mother tongue, he dreamed of a sanctuary where young Tibetans left behind by China’s progress could study their culture and pass it on to the next generation.

“Monasteries just teach monks about Buddhism, but they don’t teach the full range of how to be a Tibetan,” he said. “From a cultural point of view, it’s an emergency.”

This frustration over a struggling culture, shared by a great many Tibetans, has fueled the ethnic unrest that has roiled Tibetan areas of China in recent years. Part of the anger stems from the influx of Han Chinese migrants to the region and other policies, including a renewed emphasis on Mandarin instruction, that some feel is undermining an ancient way of life. Last year, thousands of middle and high school students in Qinghai took to the streets in protest over proposals to eliminate academic instruction in Tibetan.

Rather than be deterred by the tense relationship between the Communist Party and Tibetan people, the Rinpoche spent years cultivating “guanxi,” or personal relationships, with Qinghai officials. Through those efforts he methodically obtained approvals from numerous government departments. The government, he says, hopes the center, which he says will eventually house 600 students, will attract tourism and raise local living standards. To raise money, the Rinpoche traveled across China seeking donations, and received them largely from Han Chinese, who make up 80 percent of his 1,000 contributors. “Han people give me money for the same reason Tibetans donate: they want to do good,” he said.

Many donors — most of them newly affluent Han — say they view Tibetan Buddhism as an antidote to the materialism and greed that have flourished alongside China’s breakneck development.

Zhu Chuanhong, 35, a banker in the southern city of Guangzhou, says she was deeply inspired after meeting the Rinpoche at a dinner party there last year. “I was so moved by his love, mercy, devotion, selflessness and determination,” she said in a telephone interview. Soon afterward she traveled to the center and handed over more than $15,000 for a well and a passenger van. Friends of hers contributed money for the center’s cafeteria and religious statuary. “That money can buy a lot more, do a lot more and mean a lot more in Qinghai than in Guangzhou,” she said.

In addition to his fund-raising quest, the Rinpoche traveled to poor villages and orphanages across Qinghai in search of those young people most in need of an education. While room and board for each student costs only $2.50 a day, teaching is more expensive. He said it cost $1,000 a month to employ an artisan from Tibet to teach the students how to paint thangkas, the intricately vibrant scrolls that depict Buddhist religious scenes.

The Rinpoche hopes to enroll girls too, but given religious norms that forbid monks from mixing with women, that means building another dorm and a suite of classrooms.

Those who now call the center home have seen their world profoundly altered. Some, like Tuzansanzhi, 19, a shy youth dressed in monks’ robes who, like many Tibetans, uses a single name, had never been to school before. “I’m an only child, and my parents needed me to care for our sheep,” he said in Tibetan, the only language he knows. Before he arrived in July, Tuzansanzhi was illiterate. Now, he sits at a desk writing a Tibetan script that is crisply uniform.

For Tuzansanzhi and his classmates, academic instruction may be hard, but it beats their old lives. Wearing a blue track suit and brushing long black hair from his eyes, another boy, Jiuxuejop, 18, said the school had saved him from a bleak future. “I don’t want to be a herder,” he said. “I did it for over 10 years, it’s exhausting. Better to be a teacher and keep Tibetan culture alive.”

Mia Lee contributed research.

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