As our car climbed along the twisting path up the Larung valley on the south edge of the Tibetan Plateau at 4,200 meters, so did my heart rate. However, it had more to do with the breathtaking view than altitude sickness. A mass assembly of myriad red-painted wooden huts blanketed the flanking pairs of steep hillsides, clustering around a grand golden-topped monastery. Swarms of monks and nuns in sanguine robes and with hair shorn short were praying and conversing in serenity, as they were walking along the muddy paths towards the monastery.
We were entering the largest and most influential Tibetan Buddhist academy in the world, which, however, was virtually unknown in China. “During its zenith in the 80’s and 90’s, here were nearly 10,000 monks studying and living in Serthar Institute founded by Khenpo Jikphun. The government was intimidated by its rapid growth beyond their control, even though it served no political purpose. So they expelled the monks away, destroyed their dwellings, and scaled back the settlement down to 1, 500,” said Kelang, a local Tibetan official and my father’s friend who offered us guidance and special admission to the secluded village. “But in recent years, they are coming back regardless of the policy.”
In the past thirty years, hearsay of a sagacious lama preaching there had been bringing thousands of disciples from all over the world to this Arcadia of Buddhist worship after a pilgrimage across a forbidding range of mountains. Even after Jikphun’s death in 2004, they continued their living and studying for enlightenment in the huts built by themselves, with no government support, but reluctant toleration and suspicious restriction. In such a place both spiritually and literally near the heavens, the monks yet still had to perform mundane routines. The mess hall, grocery shop, wireless retail and other infrastructures, funded by private donations, were filled with crimson robes.
Standing on the top of Larung, which meant “the place to learn” in Tibetan, I wished that I were a religious scholar, historian or sociologist, to tell the story of Serthar Institute more comprehensively. However, after all, I could still act as a citizen journalist to pursue the goals of social empathy and investigation.
After returning home, I penned an account of my three days in Serthar and submitted it to several newspapers. Unfortunately, they all declined to publish it due to the politically sensitive content. I was not surprised by the blackout though; I had not found the institute even in the official brochure of Serthar before.
When I left Serthar I presented my Canon to Kelang, as he promised to record the happenings there in the future until I come back with more finely-honed journalistic instincts.