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.