How monks aided in the Yushu earthquake relief effort


Giving aid amid the rubble (Wang Yi/SW)

The role of local monks in the aftermath of the earthquake in Yushu, Qinghai Province, has been reported in the New York Times and the Guardian. In the Chinese press, the China Daily looked at monks rebuilding religious structures. More recently the AP has reported that monks from outside the province who came shortly after the quake to help out in the relief effort were being sent home.

Last week, the Southern Weekly published an account by Chen Jiang of monks from Gyegu Temple (结古寺) who worked to save earthquake survivors in the first days after the earthquake.

The translation below is by Dave Camp.

Lama Rescue Team: The Special Nature of Yushu’s Relief Effort

by Chen Jiang / SW

As a result of distinct ethnic and religious traditions, Gyegu Temple has become one of the centers of rescue-effort organization in disaster-hit Yushu. The Lamas’ rescue efforts, consisting of digging with their bare hands and intoning sutras to pray for blessings, have proceeded in parallel with the modernized rescue efforts of the government and military; the people of Yushu have obtained what they need from each side.

Gyegu Temple: An Alternative Relief Center

The sun has sunk behind the hills, and yet, in the town of Yushu which has seen in excess of two thousand human lives taken away by earthquake, the mournful cries of the entire town are nowhere to be heard. As day turns to night, the sound of sutras being intoned resounds from all over; those who sleep outside on the streets pick up their rosaries, and the low hum, unclear yet rhythmical, replaces the daytime confusion, and takes command of night-time in the small town.

On the same night, on a hilltop not far off in the hills and valleys, Tempa Rinpoche, Tulku* of Gyegu Temple, and his 550 disciples have eaten their first meal in two days. The reality of destroyed temples and human death has forced this ancient temple of the Sakya sect to confront the most extreme circumstances since its foundation several hundred years ago. The corpses of those who died in the disaster, sent from the valleys below, have been placed on the sacred altar to the side of the temple. Tempa, the youthful Tulku, has not, in this lifetime, seen so many dead bodies. According to the customs of the Tibetan region, the lamas will intone sutras on behalf of the deceased, in order to seek as much happiness as possible for them in their next life.

The monks of Gyegu, after miraculously surviving the collapse of their own temple, rushed towards the rubble in the valleys below the temple, and dug out survivors with their own bare hands. Although they have in the past two days rescued over one hundred people buried in the ruins, this still lags far behind the speed with which the natural disaster took away human lives. The exhausted lamas shrug off their own feeling of weakness by ceaselessly intoning sutras to extend the boundaries of their physical strength. Both before and after the commencement of the government’s large-scale rescue effort, Tempa Rinpoche and his disciples were viewed by the devout Buddhist laity of this ancient town as one of their sources of hope. As a result of distinct ethnic and religious traditions, it is already as though Gyegu Temple were a center for organizing the rescue effort in disaster stricken Yushu.

The strong earthquake caused the almost total destruction of Yushu; separated by 700 days, Yushu has now entered the same arch of fate as Wenchuan. The scene within the town is no different from any other disaster area. Democracy Road was previously the main road in the city center; here, the rear building of a hotel now leans out crooked, hanging in mid-air. At the side of the nearby police station, an entire restaurant has been smashed to pieces. If one heads further towards the hills, not far from a sky burial terrace, a Tibetan style white pagoda has been broken in half; it’s not known where half of the tower disappeared to in the quake. The six-storey teaching block of a high school within the prefecture was broken apart from the second floor and collapsed in front of the shocked faces of its own students. On Tashi Datong hill, only a few iron gates still stand erect out of an entire compound area.

On top of this incomparably huge expanse of rubble, professional rescue workers and completely untrained monks strive for the same goal. As soon as the rescue workers using machinery and life-detecting systems confirm the location, some monks dive into the midst of the rubble with no thought for their own lives, finding and even pulling out the living and deceased.

On the afternoon of the 18th, amidst startled shouts and joyful cries, lama Zhongga, with a group of companions, dived across the mechanical arm of an excavating machine and jumped into a recess that had just been opened up. Turning his body, he shouted loudly at the driver of the excavating machine to stop digging. His Chinese isn’t very good but he’s desperate and immediately starts digging with his own bare hands. This is one scene that occurs at the rescue point on the site of the Nationalities Hotel. From the 16th right through to the 20th, this location was a focal point for joint efforts by rescue teams and monks to find survivors. This hotel, which previously had four storeys was, in the moment the earthquake struck, transformed into the largest pile of cement and strewn waste in the city center. In the aftermath of the earthquake, many monks began to intone sutras here, praying there would be survivors. As a result, the rescue site is often blanketed with the sounds of the Buddhist faithful.

At midday on the 18th, in an area of rubble near to Tashi Datong hill, two soldiers are striving to find traces of survivors, but the two men are not used to the low-oxygen environment of the Tibetan plateau. After a few attempts at digging, they are panting and out of breath, yet they carry on regardless. A lama approaches, takes over their tools and begins to dig with all his might. Since they do not speak each other’s language, the two sides are unable to communicate throughout.

In the vicinity of the horse-racing ground, 23 year-old lama Jiangnai and his companions were dragged away to rescue three members of the same family. In the instant that a pre-fab slab was raised, Jiangnai saw the feet and hands of two of the family members; he didn’t dare look at their faces and turned his head aside. The person next to him cried out: “They’re dead”. Jiangnai saw a child underneath a wooden board and leapt forward to wrap up the child inside his own monk’s robes, the child coughed, “it’s alive!” Jiangnai was overjoyed and brought the child to eye level for a closer look. The child, long dead, had merely had the dirt in its mouth shaken out. “I told them to go down to the valley to rescue others, but I myself walked around aimlessly. In the face of such a huge disaster, I simply didn’t know what I was doing.” The enormous disaster also made the young Tulku aware of one aspect of his own mortal nature: “A woman came and begged me to save her father and husband, but when I got to them, they were already dead. The house was on the verge of collapse, no-one would dare enter it.” Tempa Rinpoche calmly narrates his own cowardliness at that time.

At about 8pm on the night of the 18th, the sky above the plateau finally grew dim with dusk; the golden first 72 hours after the quake were drawing to a close. In one area of rubble by the banks of the river, one young lama, unable to find survivors among the rubble, covers his face and lets out a cry of grief.

Government & Lamas: Mutually Intersecting Relief

Beginning from the moment the forceful earthquake struck, in this mountain valley covered with the dead and injured, the hilltop temples and valley bottom government have put their own rescue efforts into action at the same time; the two’s efforts frequently intersect.

In Gesar Square, the monks have constructed a tent in which to pray for those who died in the disaster. The center of the tent is filled with lit, long-burning butter lamps; the voice of a grey-haired old man repeatedly intones the sutra for the trans-migration of the deceased. Those victims of the disaster who walk by this place will invariably prostrate themselves a few times, and intone the sutra for a significant amount of time. And yet opposite the prayer shack is the material distribution point for the military units involved in the rescue effort. Here, three television sets broadcast the CCTV news ceaselessly, displaying the results of the official disaster relief effort. The two sounds waft at the same time throughout the vicinity of Gesar Square, and the victims of the disaster take what they need from each.

Monks from all over the Tibetan region continue to set out for Yushu, though the majority of them will be too late to participate in actual rescue efforts, but for the Buddhist faithful of the earthquake area, both the lama’s prayers for blessing and material aid are equally important.

On the road from Gyegu Temple towards even more remote disaster-affected areas in Yushu, people gather by the road side waiting for the relief vehicles which pass by daily. Invariably, sitting on many of the vehicles are lamas in charge of distributing material aid. The government’s relief personnel invited the monks to distribute aid in order to demonstrate fairness. The people stretch out their hands one after another, hoping to obtain aid. The lamas accompanying the vehicles will on the way throw aid directly to the disaster victims.

“At the moment we normally send all our aid directly to the most remote disaster-affected places. As much as possible, we don’t distribute items on the way; many areas are places which the government or volunteers are still unable to pay attention to at this time. I think this will probably enable the relief effort to be even more effective. This is about merit, we’re not interested in material reward.” So thinks Phuntsok, the lama in charge of transporting aid material at Gyegu temple. “Before they depart, I’ll tell them: ‘do more, speak less; if you don’t know how to say it then there’s no need to say it; it’s just about accruing merit, saving people’s lives, this is mercifulness.” Tempa Rinpoche, the Tulku, has his own opinion about the difference in the temple and government’s relief system: “Of course, being able to co-operate with the government is best.”

The lamas’ “co-operative” partners are certainly not only limited to the government. On the 17th, movie star Jet Li’s One Foundation invited a Tulku to participate in their relief distribution effort. The disaster victims were jumping with excitement yet maintained order. They hoped to look upon the visage of a Tulku while at the same time gaining material aid.

Three days after the earthquake, Gyegu temple’s relief mission gradually turned from material assistance toward psychological aid. The local government transferred the right to carry out cremations to Gyegu temple. Tempa Rinpoche says the reason for this was that the local government took into full account the religious beliefs of the local Buddhist faithful.

As a Tulku, Tempa Rinpoche is also reflecting whether, from a psychological perspective, he can do more for those who died in the disaster, and not just focus on material aid. Two days after the earthquake, an elderly blind woman over 70 years-old stopped Tempa Rinpoche, prostrated herself and said: “Tulku, I’m so distressed; I’m so old, and my eyes are no use; why was it my grandson who died, and not me?”

“I told her: ‘You can still do many things on his behalf, such as intone the sutras and pray for blessings; you shouldn’t be as you are now.'” He goes on: “I said: ‘You shouldn’t weep and wail or kill yourself, those are all great sins and will prevent your relatives from ascending to Nirvana.'”

“Of course, first and foremost it’s about preventing disease; at the same time, three days is exactly the time at which Buddhism preaches the soul and flesh depart from each other, so in choosing to carry out cremations at this time, I hope this will enable the souls of the deceased to ascend to Nirvana. Speaking from the perspective of our Buddhist faithful, the ultimate salvation is the trans-migration of the soul of the deceased.”

“From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, a person is merely wandering ceaselessly back and forth in the midst of one eternal life; perhaps each person will experience countless individual lives, death is certainly not the final end.”

Note: The Tibetan term “Tulku” is rendered in Chinese as 活佛, a word whose literal translation is “living Buddha.” The transliterated names of individuals have been checked against various online sources, but given the reporter’s own notes that the Chinese renditions of several names are unverified, corrections would be greatly appreciated.

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