“Aha! A Chinese policeman opens a barrier for us and lets us enter one of the greatest monastic cities of all time. It's even more difficult than crossing a border between two countries, because our foreign passports could have been a good reason for us to be turned away without even an explanation. But luck smiles on us and we enter Yarchen Gar, where about 10 people live and meditate. Here we are at 000 meters above sea level. We have just completed several hundred kilometers from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, on roads and sometimes on difficult tracks.
After dropping off our belongings in the only hostel in the area, we walk through a maze of dirt streets. The loudspeakers broadcast a teaching throughout the city. We arrive at the place where thousands of devotees listen to the word of the master, Asang Tulku, who is barely visible on the balcony of the main temple. They are seated cross-legged or in lotus, a book on their knees in a platform as big as a football stadium. Most use an umbrella to protect themselves from the sun. The monks take the opportunity to beg for a few yuan (Chinese currency) in order to be able to feed themselves for the rest of the week.
Asang Tulku who leads the ceremony is the successor of Achuk Rinpoche (1) who, in the early 80s, initiated this camp for monks and who opened it, a rare thing, for Buddhist nuns of the Nyingmapa lineage, the school ancient. Her goal was to teach meditation and the direct experience of the path to everyone and especially to nuns, too often put aside from quality teachings.
Guru Rinpoche, the second historical Buddha
Considered by Tibetans as the second historical Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, originally from the Swat Valley in Pakistan, was invited in the XNUMXth century by King Trisong Detsen to teach Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. It was Shantarakshika, an eminent monk from the Nalanda school in India, who advised the Tibetan king to appeal to Guru Rinpoche. Together they translated Sanskrit texts, founded the Nyingmapa school and Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Other great masters then continued their work; and over time, other lineages emerged.
Among them, the Kagyupa line descended from Marpa the translator and then from his disciple Milarepa, that of the Sakyapas founded by Khön Konchog Gyalpo and that of the Guelugpas by Tsong Khapa.
Women, at the heart of the city
We walk the streets again. The nuns live, sometimes in groups, in makeshift shelters built of odds and ends with recycled materials, plastic sheeting, cardboard, bricks, wood and dry stone walls. Not having access to running water, they line up every day at the single tap that serves several hundred huts to fetch water for cooking, washing, doing housework... To do the laundry, they move near the neighborhood water points or go directly to the meandering river. Women occupy the heart of the city. The men are installed around.
Between the makeshift shelters, we observe a dozen nuns setting up giant prayer wheels. They are at the beginning and fill the scrolls with prayer texts printed on fabrics or paper. The scroll will then be crimped and set up so that practitioners can spin it. Each turn made, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of prayers, will be sent to the spirits and the heavens.
A little further, some join a business, a small shop which, thanks to its few fixed telephone lines, will allow them to communicate with their family or friends who are often several thousand kilometers away. Some come from Shanghai or other parts of China. Their motivation is unfailing, because to find themselves in the midst of thousands of Tibetans and to spend harsh winters that can reach -20°C during the day without heating or running water reveals not only abnegation, but also bravery. Their days start around 5am and breakfast takes place two hours later. Male and female practitioners meditate eight to twelve hours a day.
On the high plateaus of the Himalayas, determined, the ants of Dharma work so that each being finds inner peace and for the peace of the world.
A hill covered with strange huts also attracts our attention. The latter are tiny, a man or a woman even of small size could not stand there or lie down. They are meditation cells. Apart from direct oral transmission, the Nyingmapa school emphasizes practice. In the heat of summer and the intense cold of winter, the nuns spent whole days there.
Although the Chinese government regularly organizes destruction of the site, as was the case in 2001, then between 2016 and 2019, the place remains alive, but remains subject to the goodwill of Beijing. Thus, between the moments that can lead to "purges" and the imprisonment in atrocious conditions of certain religious, it also happens that practitioners can come to study at Yarchen. But no one ever knows on the spot what the next day will be like.
I measure the incredible chance that I have to be able to visit this place with certain political and religious stakes, to be a witness of the history of the country and to attend a slice of life certainly not easy, but still and always possible meditators from Eastern Tibet. The enthusiasm and determination of the women we met touched me deeply and I hope that their paths will not experience the pitfalls that some have experienced in the past.
On the high plateaus of the Himalayas, determined, the ants of Dharma work so that each being finds inner peace and for the peace of the world. They know that other tantric centers such as Larung Gar, which had up to 25 meditators, experienced massive evictions and destruction. Yarchen Gar could meet the same fate, but in a world of impermanence, there is also hope.