South China Morning Post's religious potpourri includes Buddhist nuns and winter spirituality

I love perusing through the South China Morning Post, surely the world’s most exotic mainline news outlet. A glance at their web site reveals everything from a journey through southern Tajikstan and a list of the best cities on the Silk Road to a piece on minimalist Japanese design and Chinese rice entrepreneurs.

Put “religion” in its search bar and you’ll get wonderful literary morsels about a monastery in remote Sichuan where wine-colored-robed Buddhist nuns must spend 100 days outside in unheated huts during the winter; how the actress who inspired India’s MeToo movement felt “inspired by God” and how a second ethnic Chinese politician, who is also a Protestant, is facing blasphemy charges in Indonesia.

The Indonesian piece is fascinating in how it openly wonders if religious freedom is at all possible in Muslim-majority Indonesia these days. And then there’s another piece on rampaging Hindu mobs angry with anyone who transports cows to slaughter houses or sells beef.

I wanted to draw attention to the Buddhist nuns piece, by freelance photographer Douglas Hook, because it’s related to other news on how China oppresses its religious minorities. We’ve all heard about the criminal behavior the Chinese government is showing toward its Uiygar minority in western China.

High in the mountains of Sichuan province, more than 10,000 Buddhist monks and nuns live in the austere surroundings of the Yarchen Gar monastery. Here, they follow the teachings of leader Asong Tulku, who counsels meditation and atonement for his disciples, and is revered as a living Buddha.

Established in 1985 by Lama Achuk Rinpoche, Yarchen Gar – officially known as Yaqing Orgyan – is located in Baiyu county, in western Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. At 4,000 metres above sea level the difficult-to-reach monastery boasts one of the largest congrega­tions of monks and nuns in the world.

Because most of the devout here are women, Yarchen Gar has been called the “city of nuns”.

One reason this monastery has been growing is because Communist cadres have been taking over a larger monastery to the north.

Numbers at Yarchen Gar are rising once again due to evictions of Tibetans from a larger monastery, Larung Gar, to the north, where author­ities are acting to reduce the 40,000-strong congregation. Preparations are ongoing in Yarchen Gar to accommodate this influx of devotees. Roads are being built and sewers installed, and a massive temple is being erected in the eastern section, near the monks’ quarters.

Read this piece to find out how the Chinese government is borrowing from its Uighur Muslim playbook in terms of weakening religious groups by forcing them into jails or by installing atheist leaders as administrators.

Despite the use of smartphones along with other modern conveniences,

…life is still hard for the nuns – and potentially dangerous. Toilets are positioned over a river bank while water is collected down­stream for personal sanitation, washing clothes and food preparation, making typhoid a real threat. But efforts are being made to modernise, with rickety wooden toilets being replaced by more stable, concrete outhouses.

Despite improvements, hardship remains funda­mental to the philosophy at Yarchen Gar. For 100 days every winter, each nun will inhabit a hut, measuring about one square metre, on a hillside on the peri­meter of the encampment, to meditate while enduring sub-zero temperatures.

Unfortunately, the article stops there rather than explaining to us why meditating in cold temperatures is considered virtuous among Buddhists. The same author rewrote the same piece for Al Jazeera but, once again, didn’t explain there either why sitting outside in cold winter months is helpful to one’s spirituality.

Meditation in beautiful, isolated places is apparently central not only to Chinese Buddhism but Taoism as well. I speak here as not an expert in the slightest but as someone trying to glean the most possible from various publications. Maybe, as this article suggests, the nuns don’t really feel the cold.

Hook obviously is no religion scholar or researcher, so he’s going to let his photos do the talking. It’s a shame, though, why he could not have talked with some of these nuns to find out more about how their austere life benefits them. Who are these women and are they nuns for life or are they only in it for short periods of time? We’re not told.

What China does with its religious minorities will be a fascinating story in coming decades, as religious belief is growing everywhere despite persecution. Communist Party members are outnumbered 4 to 1 by religious adherents, according to this Washington Post piece. Just this fall, the Chinese government forced the closure of the largest Protestant house church in Beijing.

Even though the Vatican signed a historic agreement with China in September allowing the Catholic Church to operate in country with more freedom, the government turned around and imprisoned Bishop Shao Zhumin, a head of a Vatican-aligned unofficial Catholic Church. As the Atlantic magazine said Dec. 4, China is known for reneging on deals. The Vatican is just the latest entity to figure this out the hard way.

Considering how China is railroading other religious groups, one wonders what made the Vatican think they’d be the exception. I think every pope dreams of visiting China but I doubt that will happen any time soon.

I think we’ll be hearing more from Yarchen Gar as sooner or later, it will clash with the Chinese government. It’s now if but when. I’m hoping more journalists can make their way there to explain it to us.

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