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Phase II: Regional expansion

China

Monks and Nuns are presenting Kata to welcome guests along the path leading to monastery, Kangding, Sichuan © UNESCO

Buddhism arrived in China through various routes, which is now reflected in the parallel existence of several sects of Buddhism, including Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism. The project is implementing in China reaching southernmost prefecture of Yunnan Province – Xishuangbanna, where community members are Therevada Buddhist devotees, and westernmost area of Sichuan Province - Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture where Vajrayana Buddhism has a strong connection to local culture.

Vajrayana Buddhism is the underlying core of traditional Tibetan culture, which is manifested in a notable artistic tradition of esoteric images, mandalas, and block prints. The traditional influence sphere of Tibetan culture is larger than the present day Tibet Autonomous Region, and reaches within China far into its neighboring provinces, and across the border into Bhutan, Nepal, India and Mongolia.

Kang Ding County in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Sichuan Province, which borders Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), is the stronghold of the Tibetan Minyak Tribal Society. The Minyak Tribal Society is an ethnic minority group within the Tibetan culture group. Therefore, in terms of linguistics, they not only speak Tibetan but also the Minyak dialect. The earliest recorded history of this area dates from the Western Xia Dynasty (BC2000-1600).

Towards the south, the Xishuangbanna region in southeast Yunnan has been a traditional crossroads of trade and culture.  It shares borders with Myanmar and the Lao PDR.  Although now part of China, until the mid-20th century, this region was politically autonomous, and consisted of a federation of kingdoms loosely held together under the leadership of a local prince.  Ethnically diverse, the area is home to more than seven different groups, including the Tai Lue, who are the majority, comprising more than 50% of the total population, and who are devout Theravada Buddhists.

During the Cultural Revolution, temples all over China were either destroyed or transformed into structures with secular functions, such as schools or factories. The monks were defrocked, sometimes punished, and sent back to their homes and families.  It was not until 1982 that the practice of Buddhism was once again permitted.  Since the late 1980’s Buddhism in the Xishuangbanna experienced a widespread revival. Villagers set about to rebuild the temples which had been destroyed; repair those that still existed, and, most important, revive the tradition of sending young boys into the temples to learn. Because of so much loss of their knowledge, the Buddhist communities of the Xishuangbanna turned to northern Thailand and the Shan States in Myanmar for assistance of helping replace the Buddha images which had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, for support of the physical reconstruction of the temples themselves and for reinvigorating the Buddhist Dharma teaching. While these external influences have helped to revive the places of Buddhist worship, their approach has also lead to the erosion of the local styles and techniques that marked the uniqueness of the Xishuangbanna.  The current trend in temple restoration is not in keeping with traditional Tai Lue style, and furthermore does not support the skill of local artisans who are still alive.

In a similar case, since 1983, the lamas at Minyak Guwa Monastery have been providing training in traditional arts and crafts.  However, because this area is located outside Tibet and does not benefit from any budgets made available there for these kind of activities, Guwa Monastery has limited funding and, consequently, the impact of these activities have also been limited.  The danger is that they are not keeping up with the speed of disappearing skills when old masters die.

[Kang Ding - Sichuan...]