By Edward Wong
New York Times
In the Tibetan regions ruled by China, one religious institute stands out — Larung Gar, in the county of Sertar. There, thousands of monks and nuns live in rows of cells that sprawl across the undulating hills. It has been described as the largest Buddhist institute on the planet.
But Chinese officials have begun demolishing many of the monastic homes, in another attempt to shape and control Tibetan culture and religious life, say representatives of two Tibetan advocacy groups outside China. The decades-old monastery, in northern Sichuan province, is also a popular destination for Chinese Buddhists.
Demolition work began last week, and images of bulldozers and piles of rubble have circulated on social media, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington. The lamas in charge of the institute have urged people in the area to stay calm, the group said.
“Larung Gar in Sertar has become increasingly prominent in both Tibet and China in recent years as a vital center for the study, practice and promotion of Buddhist teachings otherwise difficult to access or nonexistent in regular monasteries and nunneries due to restrictions put in place by the Chinese government,” the group said.
The institute houses about 10,000 people; official orders say no more than 5,000 should be living there after the demolitions.
Free Tibet, a group based in London, said the demolitions began at 8 a.m. July 20, when a Chinese work team accompanied by police officers and government officials arrived.
On a news site of Garze Prefecture, where the institute is, Hua Ke, a senior provincial official, said in an article posted in June that this was a construction year for Larung Town. It would be turned from a village into a town, he said.
In addition, he said, “the goal is to build a Buddhism-practicing place that is more orderly, beautiful, safe and peaceful, so that Buddhist practitioners will be more at ease, learners will be more focused, and elderly people living their retired life here will feel more comfortable.”
He added, “Meanwhile, it is also for accelerating the urbanization and construction of Larung Town.”
The same official article said that the site was a mess and that it would “be badly threatened if torrential rain or geological disasters such as landslides and mudslides happen.”
“The living areas and toilets are scattered with rubbish and have a foul smell, posing hygiene concerns in the summer and dangers if major epidemics break out,” the article continued.
The article also said there had been nine fires at the institute recently. One, in January 2014, destroyed rooms, injured monks and nuns and resulted in an economic loss of 2.3 million renminbi, or about $344,000.
Calls to offices at the monastery this week have gone unanswered.
This month, Human Rights Watch issued a statement demanding that China suspend plans to demolish buildings at Larung Gar.
Officials are restricting access to the area for foreigners. One of the last foreign journalists to work around Sertar, Kevin Frayer of Getty Images, took photographs of the Bliss Dharma assembly, an annual conclave that temporarily increases the number of people at the institute.