TECH-SAVVY MONKS EMBRACE NEWAGE
Devotees are using
Becoming a member of a Tibetan Buddhist order doesn’t mean becoming totally divorced from the outside world, cellphones and tablets to stay in touch, report Chen Bei in Qamdo and LuoWangshu in Xigaze in the Tibet autonomous
If you spend 30 minutes checking Tenzin Yontan’s social networking posts, you’ll quickly get a good idea of his three main interests: Tibetan Buddhism; his family; andsocial engagement.
And if you’ve never met Tenzin, his posts will satisfy your curiosity because he occasionally posts “selfies”, self-portraits that show a 20-something monk with chiseled features, dressed in a crimson robe.
Tenzin lives at the Champa Ling Monastery, the largest in the Gelugpa school of Buddhism in Qamdo, a city in the east of the Tibet autonomous region. The 27-year-old member of the Tibetan ethnic group said his daily routine revolves around listening to the teachings of the Buddha, analytical debates with fellow monks and reading the sutras.
It seems a world away from his peers in the outside world, yetTenzin’ssmartphonereveals that monastic life is not totally divorced from modernity.
“Social media applications such as Weibo (a Twitter-like service) and WeChat (a popular Chinese social networking platform) are among the most used apps on my iPhone,” he said, adding that he mainly uses social media to read the news, interact with friends and promote Buddhist culture.
Tenzin updates his WeChat “moments” about five or six times a month. He obviously adores his relatives who live several kilometers away, posting photos of his newborn niece and sending his best wishes to his parents on Father’sDay andMother’sDay.
One of his latest updates contained prayers for those killed in a recent explosion at a chemical warehouse in the northern port city of Tianjin, China’s worst industrial accident in decades.
Just a few hours after news of the initial death toll and the number of serious injuries began flooding China’s social media networks, he posted: “Pay silent tribute to the dead, pray for the living and show respect for the courageous firefighters.” The post was accompanied by a photo of a statue of the Buddha.
“Being amonkdoesn’tmean living in a sealed world, reading scriptures and praying for the release of dead souls from purgatory,” Tenzin said. “A monk also needs to educate the living to do good works and help each other in this world. That means we have to know what’s going on and communicate with society.”
He said mobile gadgets such as smartphones and tablets help the younger generation of monks to keep their fingers on the pulse.
“With the help of social media, we can perform charitable works in a more effective way,” he said, citing an instance in 2013 when he helped to raise 25,000 yuan ($3,900) in five days via WeChat to pay the medical bills of a 1-year-old named Losang Senge who had fractured his skull.
Tibet has a high rate of cellphone penetration and Internet usage. About 95 percent of the regional population is registered as cellphone users, and by the end of July about 70 percent used the Internet regularly, according to the latest data from the regional development and reform commission.
The majority of Tibetans use smartphones, as indicated by a 2014 consumer-spending report by Alipay, the payment arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holdings, which showed that Tibetans accounted for the highest number of mobile payments — 62.2 percent— in the first 10 months of last year.
The Champa Ling Monastery is home to about 1,200 monks, and more than 700 of them own tablet computers and smartphones, including top brands such as Samsung, Huawei and Apple, according to Champa Kalzang, a 26-yearold monk.
Champa also uses WeChat, sharing his “moments” with friends. “I don’t think mobile gadgets will distract me from Buddhist practices,” he said, adding that he likes to “take things as they come”.
“Social networking helpsme keep up with the times, and I can also use it to promote Tibetan Buddhist culture because photos about rituals, religious stories and art are always given more ‘likes’,” he said. Champa downloads Buddhist scriptures onto his 11-centimeter-screen phone, which helps him to recite the sutras outside study periods.
The widespread use of electronic devices at the Champa Ling Monastery is not uncommon, according to Tenzin. “Most monks in Tibet’s monasterieswhowerebornafter 1980 use mobile devices, although the senior monks are slow to adapt to such gadgets,” he said.
Located more than 1,200 km west of Qamdo, the TashihunpoMonastery has adopted technology to benefit visitors and pilgrims.
Since the beginning of this year, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama in Xigaze, Tibet’s second-largest city, has used a quick-response code system, and the code is posted in front of every assembly hall.
Visitors can scan the QR code and select audio in three languages, Tibetan, Mandarin and English, to learn about the monastery’s history on their cellphones.
“We invited some experts, including faculty members from Tibet University, to improve the quality of the translations,” said Kachen Buchung, a high-ranking monk, who added that the system has proved a hit with visitors.
“When tour guides are in short supply, the audio instruction system is an alternative, free measure to fulfill visitors’ needs,” he said.
About 70 percent of the monastery’s monks have smartphones and 20 percent own laptops, according to Kachen, who said many of them use electronic devices to read scriptures and learn Mandarin and even English.
“Many translation apps are fantastic. When we input something in Tibetan, the Mandarin translation just pops right out,” he said.
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Being a monk doesn’t mean living in a sealed world, reading scriptures ...”
Tenzin Yontan, a monk at the Champa Ling Monastery
A Tibetan man hangs colorful prayer flags in Ngaqu prefecture, Tibet.
A Tibetan monk makes a phone call in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.