Pilgrims pray at the Jokhang Temple, in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, 16 June 2023. EFE/EPA/FILE/ALEX PLAVEVSKI

Tibet prays under the Chinese flag

By Jesus Centeno

Pilgrims at the Potala Palace, in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, 16 June 2023. EFE/EPA/FILE/ALEX PLAVEVSKI

Lhasa, Tibet, Aug 4 (EFE).- Pilgrimage to take refuge in the Buddha at the Potala Palace, the crown jewel of Lhasa, is still a tradition among the Buddhist monks in Tibet, but now it has to be done under Chinese cannons and surrounded by the curious gaze of tourists.

The red flag of the People’s Republic of China flies over the Potala Palace, built more than 1,300 years ago by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gambo to commemorate his marriage to Princess Wencheng of China’s Tang Dynasty.

The majestic architectural structure has more than 1,000 rooms, corridors, passageways and a large central courtyard, as well as rooms that exhibit murals, scrolls and statues of lamas, or Tibetan Buddhist monks.

This EFE journalist was a part of a government-organized visit for foreign correspondents – the only way for the media to access Tibet.

Such visits are aimed at refuting the accusations that the Chinese Communist Party does not allow Tibetans to practice their faith freely.

Several nonprofits have denounced that Tibetan Buddhists need special permits to go to the capital, and are made to promise “not to instigate or participate in any protest that disturbs social order.”

Moreover, the pilgrims are said to encounter a multitude of problems once they begin their travels, usually on foot.

“Monks can visit Lhasa normally. Many even work in the palace to help preserve it,” officials told reporters during the visit.

They added that there are 1,787 places for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, and that more than 46,000 monks and nuns reside in the region.

According to Beijing, its policy is that believers “value the happy life they now enjoy” and “distinguish religious devotion from separatist sabotage.”

However, nonprofits such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have accused the Chinese government of instructing monks to adopt “a rational view of religion.”

According to HRW, adapting religion to China’s socialist system implies an increasing subordination of religious freedom to the demands of the government, so that the Tibetans end up without expressing their identity.

In the neighboring Jokhang Temple, another important spiritual center of Lhasa, devout monks grow oblivious to the presence of photographers and pray tirelessly, with prayer grinders in their hands and making offerings to the Buddha statues.

Prayers are a part of daily life in Tibet, and in counties such as Nyemo, on the outskirts of Lhasa, its inhabitants try to make a living by making incense to be used in temples.

“Making Tibetan incense takes time, more than six months, and it takes more than thirty herbs and spices that are only found here,” said Dondrup, a local who has been in business for more than 40 years.

“It has become our way of life because many tourists come specifically to our village to buy. There are also interested companies. We can earn more than 10,000 yuan ($1,398) a month,” he added.

The officials said during the visit that there are more than 300 families who are dedicated to the manufacture of incense and in the months of July and August, Nyemo often receives more than 100 tourists a day.

They further claimed the Chinese government finances the renovation and preservation of Tibet’s cultural relics and historical sites, with investments of more than 700 million yuan ($97 million) in the maintenance of the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, among others.

During the trip a debate arose about the future reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama, currently in exile in India.

In this regard, the officials stressed, without further explanation, that the appointment of the next Dalai Lama should be “subject to approval of the Chinese central government.”

Beijing sees the current Dalai Lama, 88, as a separatist seeking Tibet’s independence from China, and wants to ensure the next reincarnation is aligned to the goals of the Communist government.

The issue has become particularly thorny as a result of the United States passing the Tibetan Policy and Support Act in 2019, which stated that deciding the next Dalai Lama was solely the responsibility of the Tibetan Buddhist community.

It further included the possibility of imposing sanctions on senior Chinese officials who try to decide the future Dalai Lama.

Beijing, on its part, has criticized the law and accused Washington of “interfering” in its internal affairs. EFE