Photo Fees in Tibetan Monasteries, or On Tashilhunpo Monastery

I’ve always thought that there is something slightly unseemly about admission fees at religious sites. Of course being a tourist attraction does result in expenses, in terms of staffing and whatnot, but charging admission highlights the sometimes commercial and parasitic nature of organized religion, and seems to fly in the face of evangelism, which one would think would be an aim of any group that believes that it holds ultimate truths that others do not. That said, I understand that for some institutions admission fees help with capital projects, further charitable missions and fill other gaps in budget. The tourist is getting something of value, and it’s not totally unfair for the faith to benefit.

As we expected, Tibetan monasteries, like all tourist attractions in China (see post of 2008.07.25), charge fairly hefty admission fees (50 RMB, or USD 7.50, on average, I would say).

What we did not expect, certainly at this level of frequency and magnitude, are the camera fees. In order to take pictures inside most of the most visited Tibetan monasteries, you need to pay an additional *per-chapel* charge ranging anywhere from 10 RMB, or USD 1.50, to over 100 RMB, or USD 15–and monasteries can have a dozen chapels (outside pictures are included in the regular admission fee). We’ve encountered camera fees in other parts of the world, mostly in India and ex-Soviet republics, but the photo fees we are encountering in Tibetan monasteries are particularly pernicious, not only because they are on top of relatively high admission fees, but because they are administered in a way that is annoying and demeaning to the monks and the monasteries–on a per chapel basis.

I understand that charging per chapel might result in higher proceeds, but, in an era when photography is so much of a traveler’s experience, it turns each monastery visit into a sort of shopping expedition, where one pauses to evaluate each chapel to decide whether it is “worth” memorializing at whatever price is being asked. It turns each monk into a sort of ticket enforcer (a task some seem to relish), and since there is no clear receipt or anything given, even after one has already paid one is still bothered with questions regarding the photo fee.

Even then, at the first monasteries that we visited, I was willing to give the Tibetans the benefit of the doubt. I told myself that the per chapel fee made sense because they sort of took the place of per chapel donations that the faithful would leave (though of course at many multiples). Until I got to Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse.

Tashilhunpo Monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, second only to the Dalai Lama in spiritual authority (and a “recognizer” of new Dalai Lamas), and one of the principal tourist attractions of Tibet, with a prominent place on almost any Tibet itinerary. Admission is a steep 85 RMB (USD 13), befitting its prominence and size, and perhaps the extensive restoration work done. What really sets the monastery apart, however, are the photo fees, which range from 75RMB to 160RMB (USD 11 to 24)–per chapel.

The mercenary character of all this came into full light when we were told that the monks of Tashilhunpo–which is said to be more closely affiliated with the Chinese government than other monasteries–actually work office hours, like civil servants, taking public holidays and an hour off for lunch. Now, I’m not saying that monks have to pray 15 hours a day, but certainly there is something about a religious calling that should be distinguished from regular salaried employees. I knew that the Chinese government was “involved” in the affairs of the Tibetan monasteries, sometimes even requiring monks to profess allegiance to the Chinese government ahead of the Dalai Lama, but did not think that monks would simply be government employees. Through this lens, like so many things in China, Tashilhunpo appears like an operation optimized solely for profit.

Sign at the monastery promoting a sister site, widely reputed not to be worth the admission fee. Why is a monastery advertising tourist attractions?

Our disdain for the photo fees being charged at Tashilhunpo made me reconsider not only the merits of photo fees at all Tibetan monasteries, but also made me feel offended by their general funding tactics, so common to many organized religions. Most Tibetans are extremely poor, yet when they come to these gilded temples, some with fabulous amounts of government support, they throw heaps of (small) bills at each shrine. The money is displayed extremely prominently, sometimes the deities surrounded by bills, apparently equating holiness and material wealth. When a holy man dies, a memorial stupa is raised with obscene quantities of gold and precious metals (the weight of their gold now a favorite fact on tours). Seen this way, the monks are almost predators, feeding on the superstitiousness and awe of the people (who are not even invited to the esoteric knowledge of the monks) in order to maintain their livelihood. The priestly class as parasites–not an uncommon motif.

The stupa of the Tenth Panchen Lama, said to contain 614 kg gold, 868 precious stones and 246,794 jewels

Poor pilgrims, offering their meager savings

Tibetan Buddhism

Mural of Hayagriva, a Vishnu-related protector deity depicted in a tantric embrace with his consort, inside Gyantse Kumbum

I once read a quote from former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens arguing that maintaining the fantasy of a “pristine” Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for liberal city-dwellers on the east and west coasts was not sufficient reason not to exploit the land for the country’s energy needs and profits.  It is true that, from far away, it is easy to idealize something as untouchable and sacred.

Although I was born in a country that is largely Buddhist, being from a Catholic family I knew little of Buddhism.  In my travels I’ve seen quite a few Buddhist places, from Kyoto (Japan) to Kandy (Sri Lanka) and from Sarnath (India) to Sukhothai (Thailand), but I still haven’t gained as deep an insight into Buddhist belief and practice as I have into Christian or Muslim worship.  Some of this is probably due to my lack of a foundational understanding (I read some of the major texts in college, but I guess the esoteric nature of Buddhist thought didn’t penetrate), but I think it’s also because the Buddhist religion, certainly in East Asia but even in parts of Southeast Asia, doesn’t play as large a role in how societies are structured as the Abrahamic faiths do in the Middle East and West.  I would argue that it’s not as important that you understand Buddhism to understand Vietnam as it is to understand Catholicism to understand Mexico or Islam to understand Egypt.

In this my trip to the roof of the world, I finally have been compelled to learn something of Buddhism, in this case Tibetan Buddhism, in large part because the religion plays such a central role in Tibetan society, perhaps as dominant a role as any religion anywhere. And I discovered that I had, to an extent, orientalized the religion, recreated in my mind a sort of Western fantasy version of how Buddhism might be experienced in Tibet.  I had pictured remote monasteries, and with their remoteness a vision of asceticism and austerity, the latter perhaps associated with the practices of fellow Mahayana believers in East Asia. I imagined Tibetan Buddhism to be even more austere, as stark as the landscape of the high plateau. Finally, I thought that with the isolation of the geography came some sort of “purity” of belief–that Tibetan Buddhism would be a sort of concentrated isolate, relatively free of foreign influences.

In this post, some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that were not known to me prior to this trip and did not to comport with my preconceived notions. All this is not to say that Tibetan Buddhism is somehow less holy, or any less worthy of awe or respect, but I do want to bring to light that in Tibet as elsewhere, religion is a manifestation of history and culture, a messy accretion tied equally to historical accident as to relevation or faith.

Links to Hinduism

Buddhism of course originated in (Hindu) India–in a sense could be said to have arisen from Hinduism–and Hindu influence is very much visible in Buddhism, wherever it is found.  (I recall speaking to one woman in Laos who recognized this and newly considered Hinduism a sort of ancestral faith, one that she might ultimately find to have supremacy over her native Buddhism.) However, in most Mahayana Buddhist countries, the link is somewhat more difficult to make out, as East Asian austerity reigns in certain Hindu excesses and geographical distance has diluted more obvious theological and iconographic connections. In Tibet, however, baroque aspects of Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the individual connection between a person and a deity of his/her choosing and the actual identification of certain Tibetan Buddhist deities with corresponding Hindu gods all make clear the strong link between Hinduism and Buddhism as practiced in Tibet. If I could say one thing about Tibetan Buddhism, it is that, as may have been guessable from geography, it is very much a bridge between Hinduism and Buddhism as practiced in other places.

Avalokiteshvara, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is clearly identifiable as Shiva in his many-armed form. Other Tibetan Buddhist deities, and their depictions, are readily tieable to Hindu gods, and just as a Hindu may be a Vaishnava or Shaiva, individual Tibetans seem to have connections to particular deities.

The Bon Religion

Before Buddhism came to Tibet, the Tibetans already had a state religion–the Bon faith–which was deeply enough entrenched that Tibetan Buddhism came to adopt many Bon practices, including the worship of physical places and deities related to those locales, shamans and other concepts that would not be considered “orthodox” Buddhism.  The Bon faith survives to this day, with a relatively small number of adherents and dedicated monasteries, but has come to be influenced by Buddhism as much as Tibetan Buddhism was affected by Bon, making it hard to determine definitively whether certain practices are originally Buddhist or Bon in origin. However, one would suspect that many of the practices that are unique to Tibet (and do not appear in other Buddhist countries) may be originally Bon.

The prayer wheel appears in both Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, as at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa (above) and the Yungdrungling Bon monastery (below).

On the hillside of the immediately preceding picture prayer flags are visible. Prayer flags are strung all over Tibet, often in places of natural/shamanistic significance, such as mountain passes and river crossings. Below, prayer flags at Nam-Tso (Lake) north of Lhasa.

The kora, or circumambulation, of holy places is also common to both Tibetan Buddhist and Bon religious practice. First, pilgrims on the Barkhor circuit around the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa; second, pilgrims on the Lingkhor on the Saga Dawa holiday. Circumambulation is also performed around certain mountains and lakes.

Talismanic markings on the outsides of houses appear to be a Bon practice that carried over into Tibetan Buddhism. First, markings on a Bon home near Yungdrungling Monastery; second, Buddhist markings as well as animal horns (see post of 2008.6.23 on pre-Islamic animal horn shrines in the Pamirs).

The coloration is reminiscent of Hindu gods, but this is also a god associated with a particular place–Nam-Tso (Lake) north of Lhasa–suggesting a pre-Buddhist origin.

Protector Deities and Violence

Definitely in the category of things I would not have associated with Buddhism, let alone Buddhism as I imagined for Tibet, fearsome Tibetan gods known as “protector deities” have an especially powerful and mystical connection to worshippers, holding court in their own mysterious chapels decorated with violent images (some of which are not open to women).

Flayed human skins on the doors to Nechung Monastery in Lhasa

Inside Nechung Monastery, a mural showing protector deities in their wrathful forms, with assorted human body parts hanging at the top

Below, pictures from inside the protector deity chapel in the Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantse. In the first picture, depictions of a Tibetan sky burial, where corpses are laid out to be eaten by animals (rather than corrupting nature by burying or burning the bodies–in a pre-Buddhist practice not dissimilar from Zoroastrian “burial”). In the second picture, a protector deity in his wrathful form is covered, because it is believed that the visage is too powerful for regular worshippers to view directly. In the third picture, frightening masks and an array of weapons. It was not uncommon, in Tibetan history, for monks to serve as armed soldiers in a political or theological dispute.


Other Mysterious Mystical Practices

In the pictures below, ritual cake–a sort of “cake” made primarily of flour and butter and presented at shrines (sometimes for up to a year) before being distributed and consumed. The decoration of the ritual cakes is about as strange as such things come.

To put it one way, Tibetans seem to subscribe to a range of “superstitious” practices that one would not imagine to have any connection to “orthodox” Buddhism. In the first picture, a woman in charge of a small shrine sells medicinal powders (ground up local rocks) to worshippers. In the second picture, pilgrims crouch and walk under shelves of books for blessings.

Islam in China

This is a post similar to others I have written broadly summarizing certain aspects of Islam in various countries/regions we have traveled in (see post of 2008.08.16 on Indonesia, 2008.11.14 on the Balkans and 2009.03.06 on India).

No-one would consider China a Muslim country, and it is not.  At no point in history was China majority Muslim nor was it ever ruled by a Muslim power (although it came close during Mongol rule, since more westerly Mongol rulers converted to Islam).  There are, however, almost 20 million Muslims in China–a number that may be small in relation to China’s population of over a billion but is still larger than the Muslim populations of countries such as Syria, Malaysia or Senegal or the total number of Muslims in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman combined.

China has 55 official ethnic minorities, ten of which are predominantly Muslim.  Below, some photos showing the diversity of Muslim history and experience in China.

Ruined mosque, Quanzhou, Fujian Province.  This Iranian-style mosque ruin on the south coast of China marks a city which was, in the 13th century during the time of Marco Polo, a great and important port for Persian and Arab traders known as Zeitoun.  One can imagine an era when Persian and Arab sailors did substantial business in the region, setting up local operations and perhaps even converting some locals.

The 13th century Quanzhou ship is a particularly tangible relic from the city’s era as an international port. See this link.

Huaisheng Mosque, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.  The Great Mosque of Guangzhou is said to be the oldest mosque in China, established by no less than an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, who traveled east to spread Islam.  The mosque was rebuilt in the 14th and 17th centuries and is, like many other Chinese mosques and unlike the Quanzhou mosque, in Chinese rather than Arab or Persian style–it looks like a Buddhist temple.

Yunnan Province is said to have developed its significant Muslim population during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, after Emperor Kublai Khan appointed a Muslim governor (whose family originally hailed from Bukhara). The most famous Yunnanese Muslim is probably Zhang He, the great 15th century eunuch navigator who one author recently argued traveled all the way to the Americas before Columbus. Zhang He definitely sailed his huge ships as far as East Africa and is said to be in part responsible for outposts of Chinese Muslims in Southeast Asia. The Muslim population of Yunnan currently numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Mosque, Dali. Again, in the style of a Chinese temple, but note the Arabic calligraphy on the doors, in gold.

Minaret, Dali

Some Dali Muslims. Almost half of Chinese Muslims, including those in Yunnan, are classified under the geographically dispersed Hui minority group. While all Hui are Muslim, Hui people fit in, in most respects (linguistic and cultural), with the local majority, be it Han in Guangzhou or Xian, or Bai in Dali.

Great Mosque, Xian, Shaanxi Province.  While Islam landed on the south Chinese coast with seaborne trade, it came to Xian through the overland Silk Road.  As the longtime imperial capital, Xian was not only the ultimate destination for Xuanzang, who brought the sacred Buddhist texts from India, an accomplishment commemorated by Xian’s great Big Wild Goose Pagoda, but the city also became a center of Chinese Islam, primarily in the city’s Muslim Quarter.

Yet further east, the Turkic Uyghurs of Xinjiang make up the greatest of China’s distinct Muslim minority groups. See my post of 2008.07.23 for more thoughts on the Uyghurs and the other Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang.

Inside the Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar

A Tajik woman, another of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang

Mosque, Lhasa, Tibet.  We were told by one local that this mosque was over 1000 years old, and only one of three mosques in the old part of Lhasa.  Although the Muslim presence in Tibet goes back hundreds of years, our small sample revealed that most of the city’s current Muslim inhabitants were recent immigrants, just like the Han Chinese who have flocked to the city.  However, instead of settling down with the Han in the more modern part of Lhasa, it seems that the Muslims (mainly from Gansu Province) prefer to live with the Tibetans in the city’s historical core.

Muslim man in Lhasa

There are certain ethnic groups in the world that have the advantage of having a great and popular culinary tradition to draw on, when emigrating and trying to make a buck.  Chinese people in the U.S., it seems, have often resorted to opening a restaurant; Egyptians and Turks are proliferating halal/shawarma/doner shops around the world; and in Tibet most of the new Han restaurants are owned by Sichuanese.  The usually Hui Muslim noodle shop can similarly be found in almost any city in China (and thankfully so, since they sell some of my favorite kinds of food).  Easily identifiable by their “Islamic” exterior–lots of green, strings of Arabic and pictures of sites such as Mecca or the Taj Mahal–friendly immigrants, many from Gansu Province, cook up delicious fresh made noodles all over China. Here, a Hui man making noodles in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province.

Inside a noodle shop, Lhatse, Tibet

A man selling nan in Shanghai

Muslim Seoul

Korea is one of the most homogenous countries in the world–through most of history, save the many invasions, nearly everyone in Korea has been ethnically Korean and Korean-speaking. What regional dialects there are are largely mutually intelligible (though perhaps still surprising for such a small country), and outside of a small number of Chinese, ethnic minorities are virtually non-existent.

Well, things are changing, due to two great forces at work.

First, as has been much noted in the U.S. press, a relative lack of young women (as a result of historical sex selection by parents) and the undesirability in marriage of relatively poor Korean farmers have resulted in a large number of international marriages between Korean men and Vietnamese and other women from poorer Asian countries. This has led to quite a large number of Vietnamese women in the Korean countryside and resulting children of mixed marriages.

The second cause is Korea’s prominence in the global economy. Korea is, more or less, a rich country now, and many people from countries around the world are attracted to live and work in Korea. This ranges from American, Canadian and Australian 20- or 30-somethings who get jobs teaching English to Uzbeks and Indians coming to Korea to work in factories. Among these of course are some Muslims, who have carved out a niche in Seoul.

I knew that there was a mosque in Seoul because I could see it from the Seoul Grand Hyatt, where I would occasionally stay on business, but didn’t bother to seek it out until recently. As it turns out, there is in Itaewon (Seoul’s primary “foreigner” neighborhood) a whole mini Muslim Seoul, an unexpected and interesting facet of the huge metropolis.

Sign for the Seoul Central Masjid, seen from the main road in Itaewon (note Dubai Restaurant)

Gateway to the Seoul Central Masjid, just up the hill

Seoul Central Masjid. While the mosque is located in Seoul’s “foreigner” neighborhood, I was surprised to find several Korean Muslims inside. Since I do not believe there is any historical presence of Islam in Korea, I assume they are all relatively recent converts.


Islamic School attached to the mosque

The mosque forms the center of a mini Muslim Seoul, complete with Islamic bookstores, travel agencies catering to Muslims and restaurants ranging from Pakistani to Uzbek to Turkish. We chatted briefly (in broken English and Korean) to a very nice Syrian man working at an Turkish/Arab sweets shop (many Korean women seem to drop by to flirt with him).


The Muslim footprint in Korea is not limited to Itaewon. Here, an Iraqi man carves up doner to patrons near Namdaemun market.

Jewish Terrorism, Christian Terrorism, Hindu Terrorism

In the twenty-first century, not only because of the hideous crime of September 11 but also because of several other incidents of especially Arab Muslim violence, terrorism has, in the eyes of many, become a crime associated with Muslims and Arabs. Muslims ostensibly motivated in part by religion were behind the September 11 attacks, the March 11 bombing of trains in Madrid, the 2005 London bombings of buses and trains and the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombs. Terrorism is of course, however, not the sole domain of Muslims–people of all faiths have been guilty of heinous acts against civilians, in order to terrorize, often in the name of religion. In this post, a reminder of (in part) religion-motivated terrorist acts throughout history by non-Muslims.

Jewish Terrorism

It is said by some that the first terrorists in history were a first century Jewish group opposing Roman rule called the Sicarii (“dagger men”), who directed attacks and assassinations of Jews, including priests, who were collaborating with Roman authorities.

Some of the most active and notorious terrorist groups in the 20th century were Jewish Zionist groups in now Israel: Irgun and Lehi.

Irgun was formed in the 1930s by Zionist Jews who believed that Jews had to be more aggressive in their self-defense in order to support the Jewish Zionist enterprise. In the 1930s, most Irgun actions were retaliatory–conducting “eye for an eye” type campaigns in response to Arab violence against Jews–but by the end of World War II Irgun had begun engaging in actions against the British authorities, who they believed were managing Palestine against Zionist interests, including by limiting Jewish immigration. Irgun attacks included bombings of British government buildings, such as the immigration, tax and police offices, the bombing of the British Embassy in Rome and a car bombing of a British officers’ club.

The three most infamous terrorist attacks by Irgun were the 1946 King David Hotel bombing, the 1947 Sergeants affair and the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre. On July 22, 1946, Irgun operatives bombed the King David Hotel, a luxury hotel in Jerusalem used by the British authorities as a headquarters, resulting in 91 deaths. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks of the 20th century, allegedly in part because warnings to evacuate the buliding were unheeded. In 1947, in retaliation for recent executions of Irgun operatives by the British administration, Irgun kidnapped and hanged two British sergeants. Their bodies were then booby-trapped with IEDs and hung up in trees, and a third British soldier was injured trying to recover the bodies.

The deadliest of the three, however, was the Deir Yassin massacre, an attack against an Arab Palestinian village. The attack was so heinous that prominent Jews in the west (including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt) wrote a letter to the New York Times condeming Irgun as a “terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization” and described how “terrorist bands attacked [the] peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants – 240 men, women and children – and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem.” Orphans were left at Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The Deir Yassin massacre was conducted by Irgun in coordination with a second Jewish terrorist group called the Lehi. Lehi’s politics were so confused that it actually proposed joining the Nazi cause in World War II in order to weaken British control of Palestine. A Lehi newsletter defended its acts thus:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah, whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

Just as some Palestinian organizations have taken an ethno-national cause–the cessation of the occupation of Arab Palestine–and turned it into a religious conflict, with violence activated by faith, Lehi justified violence in the nationalist Zionist agenda with a virulent reading of Jewish religious texts. Lehi was also responsible for the assassination of a British minister in Cairo and a UN mediator in Jerusalem.

Leaders of Irgun and Lehi went on to powerful positions in the State of Israel. Menachem Begin, the sixth Prime Minister of Israel, was head of the Irgun from 1943 to 1948. Seventh Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was among Lehi’s leaders. Although both Irgun and Lehi have been labeled terrorist organizations by the State of Israel, in 2006, Natanyahu and former Irgun members celebrated the King David Hotel bombing’s 60th anniversary, and Lehi members have been honored by the Israeli government as martyrs of the state.

Christian Terrorism

There have been many Christian terrorists of various stripes, but the two groups that come to mind are anti-abortion terrorists in the United States and Serbian troops and their assistors in Bosnia.

Anti-abortion terrorists in the U.S., angry with the constitutionally protected (though circumscribed) right to abortion, have waged a terrorist campaign for decades against abortion clinics and doctors, justified by their own religious beliefs. Since 1977 in the U.S. and Canada, there have been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders and hundreds of death threats, as well as hundreds of bombings, arsons and bomb threats.

The Bosnian War was to a large extent an ethnic war among the different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia, but it took a decidedly religion-based terrorist slant in the massacres of Muslim Bosnians in Srebrenica, where about 8000 defenseless Bosnians were slaughtered by Serbians and other Christian “volunteers” from countries such as Russia and Greece.

Hindu Terrorism

The most widely publicized terrorist attacks in India have been those in Bombay by Muslim groups, but there has also been substantial violence by Hindus against Muslims, as in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which almost 800 Muslim Indians (and 200 Hindu Indians) were killed, aided by local Hindu authorities and political leaders. (Hindu-on-Muslim violence was memorialized in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.) Some Muslim-targeted bombs have also been attributed by some to Hindu “Saffron terror.”

Although the Tamil Tigers primarily represented an ethnic struggle rather than a religious one–the Tamils were both ethnically and religiously distinctive from the majority Sinhalese–some of the attacks of the Tamil Tigers against Tamil-speaking Muslims could be said to be religious terrorism perpetrated by the Hindu Tamils. As far as I am aware, however, the attacks were not justified on religious grounds.