The shanty town monastery

From the verge of the cliff, my gaze sweeps over the monastery town on either side of a river spanned by two footbridges. The countryside all around is untouched, vast grasslands under a blue sky. This is probably not unlike any other makeshift settlement around the large cities of the world’s poorest countries, but it’s funny that I should have the direct experience of a shanty town here in Sichuan. The monks’ shacks are built with timber boards and no concrete to withstand the harsh winter climate of this highland, where temperatures can sink to as low as -20° C.

No serious-looking insulating or waterproof materials are used to keep out the wind and protect the occupants from arctic cold. Instead, they have pinned patches of tattered plastic on the most exposed walls, nailed crumbling panes of polystyrene or even glued circles of umbrella fabric in different colours.

The only concrete buildings are the temples, the refectory and few others, among which a construction in the shape of a pyramid of superposed square levels, each lined with stupas. It is made of thousands of carved prayer stones and at its base are aligned rows of prayer wheels.

The hygienic conditions are appalling. If you wander along the watercourse you can smell the revolting stench of sewage wafting in the air and it’s no wonder, given the lack of sanitation and running water in the cabins. From this height a concrete platform can be seen protruding over the river. With a pattern of slits cut in its floor, it’s designed to serve as a communal toilet with direct discharge into the current. No separation walls are erected to provide privacy.

This is a shanty town where people live by deliberate choice. I had a talk with a young monk and his plain-clothes visiting friend. The former gave up all he had in urbanised Fujian (i.e. house, job, fiancé and family), turned his back on his university education and retired in this community four years ago. Despite the hardships, his heart is content and he’s found inner peace and enlightening guidance in the teachings of the late leader. As I shook the monk’s hand I could feel the rough skin that was probably not so, as long as he was living in his home town.

Over ten thousand monks live in this settlement that was founded only in 1985. They are for the most part nuns who live in an area, stretching on one side of the river, roughly three times as big as that occupied by the monks on the other bank.

Large numbers of pilgrims have been queuing up all day to pay homage to the mortal remains of the deceased leader, who was held to be endowed with supernatural powers. Some come out visibly moved or in tears. Now, at dusk, the numbers have dwindled, and I too join the line.

The waiting is long, I am kept standing in the beams of dazzling floodlights that come on after sunset, slowly moving up to the little door that gives access to a courtyard. Whiffs of acrid incense rise from bunches of joss sticks. The faithful carry scarves and artificial flowers they will lay in front of the coffin. As I stand waiting, I hear my name called Andelu! It’s Niong, who’s also bought a white scarf and gaudy plastic chrysanthemums.

At last, we are showed in and file in front of a brightly lit altar adorned with trinkets and garlands, and topped with what looks like a huge pink cake, but there is no visible trace of the spiritual leader’s body. Niong and I are left wondering about the meaning of this. We are too handed the blurry photo of streaks of light and the late lama’s portrait, whose forehead wrinkles are said to have magically formed a sacred symbol after death. All is shrouded in mystery and magic.

At dawn, as I turn the prayer wheels in the line of other worshippers, I realise that when a wheel is not turning it needs quite an effort to be set in motion. On the contrary when you find one that’s already spinning it takes just a flick of your hand to keep it going round for a long time still. How well this represents religion: praying by oneself is not very engaging, but when a ceremony is carried out in conjunction with masses of people, the dragging effect works at full strength, and it is easy to get the smoke of make-believe into your eyes.

These monks are guilty for starting and nurturing these feelings, if they hand out photos of souls allegedly leaving the body or circulate ridiculous tales of supernatural powers. These fantastic stories won’t win me to their side, but I do respect the beliefs of these people, and I am sincerely moved by their faith and commitment.

There is no harm in religion when it preaches peace, understanding, meekness, when it is functional to enduring hardships and poverty, when it helps unravel the mystery of life. Let’s not forget that it also represents the unity of the Tibetan people who have been with no political autonomy for decades, humiliated and oppressed by an alien rule that has systematically set out to annihilate their heritage and blot out their cultural and religious identity. If it is so, all gullibility is excused even by a would-be rational mind.