Revered teacher leads Tibetan Buddhist revival

By Seth Faison c.1999 N.Y. Times News Service

SERTHAR, China -- Nearly every day, Tibetan monks and nuns wearing
blood-red robes arrive at this distant outpost after a long trek
through a forbidding range of mountains.

Drawn by word that a brilliant teacher resides here, they climb a
twisting path up a narrow valley to find a freshly built metropolis of
Buddhist worship. It is a stunning sight in an otherwise barren setting
and a potent symbol of the revival in Tibetan Buddhism under way here.

A vast assembly of log cabins, spartan inside and out, covers a pair of
steep hillsides. At dusk, crowds of monks and nuns buzz in
conversation, their hair shorn and their gazes serene, as they gather
for evening prayers outside a ramshackle collection of meeting halls
that are connected by a criss-cross of muddy pathways.

In just a few years, Serthar has emerged to become one of the largest
and most influential centers for the study of Tibetan Buddhism in the
world. Despite its extremely remote location in an ethnic Tibetan
region of Sichuan Province, more than 500 miles by dirt road from the
nearest city, Serthar has attracted nearly 8,000 monks and nuns who now
live and study here.

Like countless sects of qigong, traditional meditative and physical
exercises that have enjoyed popularity among Chinese who believe they
can enhance vital energies, Tibetan Buddhism seems to be filling a
spiritual void in the hearts of many adherents. (A new variant of
qigong, Falun Gong, which has attracted a wide following, was banned on
July 22 in a high-profile crackdown.)

Serthar is now the brightest star among a number of Tibetan Buddhist
temples that are being built or rebuilt with private donations from
Tibetans and reluctantly accepted by Chinese authorities. Economic
growth has fattened the pockets of some Tibetans in recent years, and
their generosity is funding a gradual replacement of the thousands of
temples that were demolished by marauding Chinese leftists during the
1960s and 1970s.

Tibetans still bristle at the myriad restrictions by Chinese
authorities on religious worship, both in Tibet proper and in the
Tibetan-populated regions in adjoining provinces like this one.

But at the same time that Chinese officials take steps to tighten
control over large monasteries that are wellsprings of political
dissent, Serthar is an example of how difficult it is for Chinese
authorities to fully control places of worship where popular support is
surging among the ordinary faithful.

At Serthar, set up as an institute for Buddhist study instead of as a
monastery, the principal magnet is a master teacher, Khenpo Jikphun,
known by followers as a "living buddha," and believed to be the
reincarnation of a holy figure.

Khenpo Jikphun, 66, set up the religious center here in 1980 in an
entirely uninhabited valley. It began in a haphazard way, with a
handful of disciples gathering around the modest home he lived in.
Spreading word slowly attracted more followers, and in recent years,
attendance has surged so fast that there is now a desperate shortage of
living quarters.

Monks and nuns here say they were drawn by their teacher's reputation
as a deeply insightful scholar who is devoted to reviving a rigorous
study of Tibetan Buddhism that was devastated when monasteries were
closed and monks defrocked in political campaigns directed by Chinese

"We know our teacher is a great man," said Sonam, a 23-year-old nun,
who arrived 18 months ago and who, like many Tibetans, uses only one
name. "He has attained a higher level of knowledge than anyone in the
nation, and what he cares most about is teaching."

One of the most surprising elements of Serthar is that more than half
of those who come to study are women. Entry is limited at the
relatively small nunneries that exist in areas populated by Tibetans,
but Serthar is open to virtually anyone who is a genuine student of
Khenpo Jikphun's brand of Buddhism.

Another surprise at Serthar is that it attracts ethnic Chinese students
as well as Tibetans. Of the nearly 8,000 students here, roughly 800 are
ethnic Chinese, who attend separate classes taught in Mandarin, while
larger classes are taught in Tibetan.

It costs nothing to study here, yet monks and nuns have to find their
own housing. Wooden cabins are going up all over the place, but not
fast enough to handle all the new arrivals.

Nearly everyone at Serthar seems to credit Khenpo Jikphun's ingenuity
with the spectacular growth here. Khenpo Jikphun maintains good ties
with both Beijing and with the Dalai Lama, in part by discouraging
political discussion and encouraging students to focus on Buddhist
study alone.

"Khenpo's revival of the devastated Tibetan Buddhist systems of
educational training has been nothing short of remarkable," wrote David
Germano, a Tibet scholar at the University of Virginia, in a recent
essay about Serthar in which he argues that stressing ethics over
political activism is a powerful model for survival in today's

On top of the intellectual and religious vigor Khenpo Jikphun brought
to Serthar is his mythic, and charismatic presence. Followers believe
he is omniscient and say he was born with the ability to speak and
recite scripture. He even emerged from his mother's womb, they say,
with the placenta wrapped over his shoulder like a monastic robe.

Khenpo Jikphun claims to be the reincarnation of a holy figure who
taught the previous Dalai Lama, and who died early this century. Khenpo
Jikphun's followers believe it gives him a special relationship with
the current Dalai Lama, whom he visited in India in 1990.

Eager to keep up good relations with Chinese authorities, Khenpo
Jikphun participates in an advisory committee in the local government.
He often travels and even visited the United States in 1993.

Khenpo Jikphun is extremely popular in the region. Beyond religious
devotees, many ordinary residents in the area display his photograph
next to the Dalai Lama's in stores, homes and even in the cabs of the
hefty cargo trucks that traverse rutted mountain roads.

Khenpo Jikphun declined a request for an interview. One of his top
lieutenants, Sudaji, said there had never been any serious political
problems at Serthar, and pointed out that Khenpo Jikphun has never
encouraged monks and nuns to come to Serthar but simply welcomed those
who show up.

Several monks here said that authorities in Beijing have expressed
concern about the fast growth of the community at Serthar, apparently
worried about the inherent threat posed by any organization they do not
fully control. Yet suggestions that some of the new arrivals should be
turned away and sent home have apparently been met by a gentle
insistence from Khenpo Jikphun that it is not his role to police or
discourage the faithful.

Enthusiastic monks and nuns here point to a rigorous curriculum of
Buddhist study that encompasses a large body of texts in diverse genres
that include painting, medicine, history and poetry, as well as

Yet they are also inspired by Khenpo Jikphun's personal example of
strict celibacy and ethical norms as the best path to spiritual
revitalization. Although many Tibetan religious leaders have been
seduced by modern comforts, they say, Khenpo Jikphun has consistently
criticized moral lapses among others, which has created a number of
enemies among other Tibetan religious leaders.

"If everyone can learn from our teacher, there will be fewer problems
in the world," said Tsering Gyaldyup, a monk who has studied here for
eight years. "I want to stay here forever, because there is no better
place to be."

Distributed by The Associated Press (AP)