Amdo, especially the areas around Lanzhou 兰州 and southern Gansu 甘肃, and Xining 西宁 and northeastern Qinghai 青海, has seen an influx of Han Chinese and Hui Muslim settlers. Many villages, even in the highlands, are almost entirely Muslim, and this is reportedly the case throughout much of Qinghai province. Xining has a population of 100,000, yet there are only 2,000 Tibetan inhabitants, of which only about 250 are literate in Tibetan.
The Status of the Tibetan Language in Amdo
In the cities and towns, only the older Tibetans know the Amdo language, while most speak Chinese, though with an extremely strong Amdo accent, even in their homes. The young Amdowas are not interested in learning Tibetan, since they feel it is useless, and some feel they are too stupid to learn it. Only the nomads and in some remote villages do the people speak Amdo and have Tibetan schools, and it is these people who enter the monasteries. If the others enter, they must learn Tibetan from the beginning. In Kumbum (Sku-’bum, Chin.: Ta’er Si 塔尔寺) monastery, most of the monks speak Chinese with each other, not Tibetan. Many cannot even speak Tibetan. In Labrang (bLa-brang bKra-shis-’khyil, Chin.: Labuleng Si 拉卜楞寺 or Xiahe Si 夏河寺) the monks speak Tibetan since it is in a nomadic area. There are no longer any collectives, and the nomads with their private herds are quite prosperous. They are the main financial and material supporters of the monasteries. Many come on pilgrimage to make offerings.
Tibetan Culture in Amdo
As in the rest of Tibet, the culture in Amdo is still strong and the people have rebuilt to a certain extent and restarted most of the major monasteries. This work has been going on since 1979, whereas in Xinjiang 新疆 and central Gansu, only since 1986. Thus the monastic situation is the best in Amdo, second best in Kham and third in Central Tibet. Since the Tibetans themselves had been forced by the Chinese to destroy their own monasteries, many feel they must rebuild in order to counterbalance their karmic debt. The traditions of architecture, painting, sculpting and woodcarving are very much intact. Mostly laypeople and disrobed monks do the building and woodcarving, while both monks and lay do the painting and statue-making. The buildings are reconstructed according to older people's memories, to be as similar as possible as they were before. The only monastery being repaired and rebuilt by the Chinese government seems to be Kumbum.
Tibetan Buddhism in Amdo
The main thing lacking is, again, teachers of Buddhism. Almost all were killed during the Cultural Revolution, and the older monks left are not well educated. They can teach the young monks to read and perform the rituals, but cannot explain the meaning very much. Most monks and nuns are either very old or very young, with hardly anyone middle-aged.
The few teachers they have, have studied in one of the five Nangten Lobdra (Nang-bstan slob-grva), or Government Buddhist Colleges established by the Panchen Lama (Pan-chen bla-ma):
(1) That next to Nechung Monastery (Gnas-chung, Chin.: Naiqiong Si 乃穷寺) in Lhasa for Central Tibet, started in 1982,
(2) That at Labrang for Gansu, started in 1986,
(3) That at Kumbum for Qinghai,
(4) That at Kardze (dKar-mdzos, Ganzi 甘孜) for Sichuan 四川, and
(5) That in Beijing 北京 for any Tibetans, started in 1987.
Now only the ones in Beijing and Labrang are still open: the one in Beijing for propaganda purposes, and that in Labrang because the Chinese supervisor likes Buddhism. The others were closed one by one, starting in 1988, supposedly due to lack of funds. The one in Kumbum was purportedly closed because the Tibetan supervisor disliked Buddhism. These teachers could study only two to four years, and so are very limited in what they can impart. Although Leninism was always a subject in the curriculum, it has been stressed and become very prominent since the Panchen Lama's death.
If Rinpoches return from India to teach, they can normally stay at their monasteries for only a few weeks before the Chinese authorities ask them to leave. If Geshes return from India to teach, most monks will not listen to their teachings without a long period of acquaintance, which is not usually possible.
(1) Kumbum is the showcase monastery in Amdo for foreign and domestic tourism. Many local Chinese, as well as Tibetans, come to pray and make offerings. There are a small number of Chinese in Xining and Lanzhou sincerely interested in Tibetan Buddhism, while many more have general faith in it as in any other form of Buddhism in China. The main language of the monks at Kumbum is Chinese.
The monastery is supported financially by selling Tibetan medicine, statues, books that it prints and from donations that come from the families of the monks. Tibetan patrons will give donations once or twice for building temples or statues, but not on a daily basis for the monks' general food and other needs. Unlike at any of the other monasteries, the Chinese government is currently helping to finance the reconstruction and repair of Kumbum. Most of the workers are Han Chinese, which is also unlike the situation at other monasteries.
Officially the Chinese government allows 400 monks at Kumbum, but there are presently 500. This includes 100 Monguor Mongols and 100 Kokonor and Inner Mongols (Me-sog, sMad-sog), and a few Xinjiang Kalmyks. There are four Datsang divisions: Tsen-nyi (mTshan-nyid) for debate, Gyupa (rGyud-pa) for tantra, Dukhor (Dus-’khor) for Kalacakra and astrology and Menba (sMan-pa) for medicine. As in the past, the majority of the debate students follow the Jetsunpa textbooks, while one smaller division follows the texts of Jamyang Zhepa. Only some of the monks attend to the constant flow of tourists, while the others study.
The tradition of Tibetan astrology is very much alive, with schools not only at Kumbum, but also Labrang and at the Mentsekhang (sMan-rtsis-khang) in Lhasa. All three produce yearly almanacs. The best school for Tibetan astrology, however, is in Beijing at the Government Buddhist College. Akya Khutugtu (A-kya Ho-thog-tu), the Abbot of Kumbum and Head Lama of Qinghai, is currently building a three-dimensional Kalacakra mandala at Kumbum, the size of a three-story building.
Kumbum had one of the five Government Buddhist Colleges but this was closed in 1988 due to the lack of interest by the Tibetan supervisor. In 1990, Akya Khutugtu started the Kumbum Gonpai Lobdra (sKu-’bum dGon-pa’i slob-grva) or Kumbum Monastic College. It is a four-year school, currently with ten teachers and 100 students between the ages of ten and 25, from throughout the Qinghai area of Amdo. The main subjects taught are Tibetan poetry, composition and astrology. There are also classes for the preliminary debate topics of Dura (bsDus-grva) or “Study of Collected Topics,” Lorig (bLo-rig) or “Way of Knowing” and Tarig (rTags-rig) or “Lines of Reasoning,” according to the Jetsunpa textbooks. The monastic college admits new classes each year, while the Government Buddhist College had admitted a new class only when the old one had been graduated.
(2) Labrang is the largest and most active monastery in all of Tibet. Although the Chinese officially allow only 800 monks in the Tsogchen (Tshogs-chen) temple, there are about 2,000 monks at the monastery. This includes 70 old Inner Mongolian monks, though no new ones, 200 both old and new Kokonor Mongol monks, and a few Yellow Yugurs. There are six Datsang divisions: Thosamling (Thos-bsam-gling) for debate according to the Jamyang Zhepa textbooks, Gyuto-pa (rGyud-stod-pa) and Gyume-pa (rGyud-smad-pa) for tantra, Du-khor for Kalacakra and Kar-tsi (sKar-rtsis) for astrology, Kye-dor (Kyai-rdor) for Hevajra and Nag-tsi (Nag-rtsis) also for astrology, and Men-ba for medicine. Labrang also has a large library with eleven Kangyurs, three Tengyurs and 20,000 volumes of Sung Bum, or collected works. The entire collection has been catalogued.
Labrang traditionally had 108 monasteries under it. Most were in Gansu, to the north of Labrang, but to the south of Sunan. They did not include the Yellow Yugur monasteries. At present, there are still many monasteries under the supervision of Labrang, but the exact number is not clear.
The Government Buddhist College at Labrang has 20 teachers and 84 monk students from nine prefectures of Gansu, including Sunan. Started in 1986, it awards a college degree after four years of study. Most of the teachers in the monasteries of Amdo are graduates of this college. The Chinese government provides the funding for food and upkeep. Monks can enter from the age of fifteen or sixteen if they pass an examination in Tibetan grammar, poetry and Leninist theory. Both ordinary monks and young tulkus are admitted and, unlike the government college in Beijing, both groups study together. The curriculum consists of Tibetan grammar, poetry and composition, “Lamrim chenmo,” “Bodhicaryavatara,” debate and Leninist theory. The debate classes follow the Jamyang Zhepa textbooks, and cover only Prajnaparamita (Par-chin, phar-phyin) and Pramana epistemology (Tsen-ma, mtshan-ma). They do not study Madhyamaka (U-ma, dbu-ma), Vinaya (Dul-wa, ’dul-ba) or Abhidharma (Dzoe, mdzod). It is assumed that the students have studied the preliminary classes in Dura, Lorig and Tarig before joining.
In 1992, Labrang established the Labrang Monastic School, modelled after the Kumbum Monastic School. It has the same curriculum as at Kumbum, but without any astrology classes since they are so strong in the Du-khor and Kye-dor Datsangs. Gungthang Rinpoche, the Abbot of Labrang and Head Lama of Gansu, lives mostly in Lanzhou.
(3) Cha-Kyong Monastery (Bya-khyung, pronounced Sha-chong in the Amdo dialect, Chin.: Xiaqiong Si 夏琼寺), with three teachers from the Government Buddhist College at Beijing, one 74 year-old Tulku and 400 monks. Founded by Tsongkhapa’s teacher, Dondrub Rinchen (Don-grub Rin-chen), it previously had 6,000 monks. It has three Datsang divisions: Tsen-nyi for debate following the Jamyang Zhepa textbook tradition, Gyu-pa for tantra and Men-ba for medicine. The main emphasis is on debate. They have been unable as yet to restart two further Datsangs: Du-khor for Kalacakra and astrology, and Ngon-chung (sNgon-byung) for history. The main protector of the monastery is Gyalwa Ku Nga (rGyal-ba sku-lnga) or Nechung.
(4) Rongwo Monastery (Rong-bo, Chin.: Longwu Si 隆务寺) in Rebkong (Re-skong, Chin.: Tongren 同仁), with 400 monks and two old Geshes from Ganden Jangtse (dGa’-ldan byang-tse) and fifteen less learned monks as teachers. Originally a Sakya monastery, it became Gelug from the time of Dondrub Rinchen. Previously it had 2,000 monks. It now has three Datsang divisions: Thosamling for debate following the Jetsunpa textbooks, Gyume-pa for tantra and Du-khor for Kalacakra and astrology. The main emphasis is on debate.
(5) Nyenthog Monastery (gNyan-thog, Chin.: Nianduhu Si 年度乎寺), currently with 40 monks. It previously had 300 monks and only one Datsang division: Gyu-pa for tantra. At present, the monks perform tantric rituals and all of them study painting. The master artists at the monastery also teach painting to 150 laypersons.
(6) Gomar Monastery (sGo-dmar, Chin.: Guomari Si 郭麻日寺), with 100 monks, previously had 300 monks and only one Datsang division: Gyu-pa for tantra. At present, the monks perform tantric rituals and are constructing a three-dimensional Kalacakra mandala the size of a building.
(7) Sengge Shong Monastery (Seng-ge gshong, Chin.: Wutun Si 五屯寺), with 100 monks in two sections, Yar-cha (Upper) and Mar-cha (Lower), studying mostly painting. The area where this monastery is located near Rebkong was originally inhabited by Hui Muslims. The local Hui converted to Buddhism and now call themselves Tibetan.
(8) Gartse Monastery (mGar-rtze, Chin. Guashize Si 瓜什则寺) with 130 monks, studying mostly debate, invites teachers from nearby Labrang.