By Xinhua Writers Cheng Yunjie, Guo Yaru, Xu Lingui, Nick Yates
LHASA, July 10 (Xinhua) -- Tibetan child monks are being consigned to history as parents' modernizing attitudes, as well as recent practical changes to the education system, are seeing more kids sent to public schools. Monasteries, though relegated to a lesser position in education, have found positives in the shift.
"It is customary for Tibetans to send their children to monasteries to learn. Now, most hope to send them to schools out of consideration for their kids' futures," notes herder Mu Monlam of Tashi Lemoin village of Marqu county in Gansu's Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture.
This is largely driven by increasing access to affordable modern education, and policies affecting monasteries' recruitment. In 1985, Tibet adopted free full-time boarding schools for China's nine years of compulsory education between primary schools and junior high. Since then, cash-strapped Tibetan parents, especially concentrated in farming areas, have no longer needed to worry about education.
In March 2012, kindergartens and senior high schools likewise became free in Tibet.
The opening-up of education has proven popular. A survey conducted by the Beijing-based Minzu University of China in 2008 in the Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Golog in Qinghai province shows 95 percent of the responding Tibetan herders "very much like" or "like" to send their kids to public schools. Parents aged between 20 and 50 particularly objected to sending their offspring to monasteries.
Zhao Wujiu, Party secretary of the Tibetan Middle School of Marqu county, said Tibetans had made a U-turn in attitudes toward education. "In less than 10 years, the number of students in my school has risen from 400 to 1,844. When we call a meeting, no students' parents are absent. In the past, however, few attended," he says.
Phuntsog Dorje, a lama and member of the management committee of Samye Monastery in Tibet, attributes the disappearing tradition of monastery education to the rapid growth of public schools. "Sixty years ago, when there were no modern schools in Tibet, monasteries were the only places parents could turn to for education," he remembers.
While schools have become more accessible, monasteries have become less open to youngsters. Under the Management Method of Tibetan Monasteries promulgated by the State Administration for Religious Affairs and put into force in late 2010, Buddhism institutes can only be opened in fixed locations, and in cases where there is a tradition of Buddhist study, qualified scripture teachers and a legitimate source of capital. Students should normally not be ordained as monks before the age of 18.
As a result, monasteries are no longer able to ordain school-age children, although exceptions can be allowed for those recognized by the religion as reincarnations of the living Buddha.
The stipulations are consistent with China's Law of Compulsory Education revised on June 29, 2006, to clarify that nine-year compulsory schooling is a "public undertaking" provided by the government.
It says, "All chinese children and teenagers of school-age, whatever their gender, nationality, race, family financial status and religion, enjoy equal rights and must perform their obligation of compulsory education according to laws."
Although these regulations have constituted a de facto age threshold for monastery education, few Tibetan clergy worry about the corresponding decrease in the size of the "Sangha," or Buddhist clergy. While their number has perhaps decreased, the quality has increased, they observe.
"Since the 1990s, no newcomers to our monastery are illiterate. Compared with those who had never been to school before joining the clergy, these students are quicker learners and often get better grades in Buddhist study," says Phuntsog Dorje of Samye Monastery -- which, having been built in 779 AD, is the oldest institute of Buddhist studies in Tibet.
For him, the age restrictions guarantee students don't rush into being ordained, and may only do so with a sound mind when they have matured.
"At the age of 18, one is old enough to independently make a serious decision. Being brought up in a monastery is no guarantee that one may not be distracted to resume secular life, as studying and practicing Buddhism centers around one's heart, not the external environment," according to the senior Buddhist.
Tudong Tarqin, lama and deputy director of the management committee of Namah Monastery in Kangding county of Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province, explains that Buddhism's concept of a "predestined bond" means "if someone was meant to be a Buddhist monk, however far he might have gone, he would be brought back here anyway," irrespective of their age.
He also agrees that monks who have received compulsory education are "more open-minded, more effective with their study and more skillful in communicating with laymen."
Even after the age of 18, there are still strict screening procedures candidates have to pass if they are to become monks. According to Phuntsog Dorje, in Samye Monastery, for instance, they must first get permission from their parents and then the endorsement of local religious authorities. What ensues is a year-and-half observation by senior monks to see if they can uphold the training precepts for a Mahayana Buddhist.
Only after passing the observation can they be ordained as a monk and start formal study for six to seven years.
More than 140 students have graduated from Samye's program, with some continuing to pursue higher study at the same institute and others tapped to be assistant teachers or abbots elsewhere. Some 70 monks began such training last spring.
Namah Monastery's Tudong Tarqin sees screening as even more significant for adults who want to join the Sangha. "If they take monasteries as an escape from family feuds, frustrating jobs or depression, or are simply cynical about the world, we have to say 'sorry.' To be a Mahayana Buddhist, one should be altruistic," he warns.
MONASTERY EDUCATION'S DEFICIENCIES
Public-school-educated students who go on to become ordained monks will have a head-start over those who have spent their whole lives in monastery education, a fact increasingly recognized by senior Buddhists.
Sonam Wangchug, a graduate of the Buddhist Study Institute of Samye Monastery, is the deputy in charge of the management committee of Drathang Monastery in Tibet's Shannan prefecture. Recalling his change of role from a monk to a monastery manager, he says there was a lot more to be learned.
"If we read scripture only, know nothing about science and technology, and treat Buddhist doctrines and earthly life as two different things, we will not be able to explain profound Buddhism in simple language to laymen, let alone help them get rid of troubles," he explains.
Sonam Wangchug -- who recommends traditional monastery education be expanded to include at least Mandarin, English and basic computer skills -- has already capitalized on the value of educated youngsters.
He has hired returning college students to use their summer breaks to teach monks how to operate computers. All scriptures frequently used by the monastery but previously passed word-of-mouth from generation to generation have now been digitally preserved as a result.
The forward-thinking monastery manager summarizes Buddhism's gains from the sweeping changes in education: "A Tibetan monk of the 21st century should have the confidence to embrace modern science and technology, because science and technology will not only facilitate social development but also uphold Buddhism. If possible, I hope to go to a secular college. The most important thing for the clergy is not to be isolated from society."
(Wu Guangyu from Qinghai, Dang Wenbo, Sun Yang from Sichuan and Nie Jianjiang from Gansu also contributed to the reporting)