A news story in Reuters India last weekend describes the increasing problems of Buddhism in Sikkim, which may threaten the peaceful lifestyle of the minority Lepcha people. Carried by the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and other sources, the article by Simon Denyer describes the superficial health of the Buddhist monasteries. But it indicates that cracks in the masonry of one monastery—it lacks the money to repair structural damage from a recent earthquake—are symbolic of the growing fissures in Sikkim, a small state in northern India where many of the Lepchas live.
The Buddhist Bhutias and Lepchas are minority peoples in Sikkim, which is controlled by the majority Nepalese peoples, most of whom are Hindus. The Buddhists peoples attempt to maintain a strong minority voice in the legislature to protect rights that were guaranteed by the state constitution, though the majority Nepalese people feel the Lepcha-Bhutia interests should be represented in proportion to their population.
The major political group representing these two Buddhists peoples, the Sikkim Bhutia-Lepcha Apex Committee argues, “we are becoming like refugees in our own land.” The state government dismisses their argument as so much nonsense. The Bhutias and Lepchas have seats reserved in the legislature, the government maintains. “We have shown magnanimity, and no Bhutia-Lepcha can deny that fact,” one official said.
The primary interest of this article, however, is the discussion of the peaceful way of life of the Lepchas and Bhuttias. The journalist quotes the head lama of Pemayangtse monastery, Yapo S. Yongda, who is also the head of the Assembly of Monasteries of Sikkim, as saying, “the peaceful way of living is slowly and gradually disappearing.”
The monasteries are being increasingly neglected, and some in the more rural areas show the lack of maintenance. Some have few monks and are literally falling to pieces. Yongda, commenting about the lack of public funding to help maintain the monasteries, argues that the state’s ecclesiastical department does not spend money on Buddhist development as it should. “The spiritual path should be taken care of, if you want to keep Sikkim as a peaceful state, an example to others.”
Christian missionaries, with relatively greater funding from outside sources, are making headway in Sikkim. They have the money and resources which the Buddhists lack to build schools and develop social programs. One monk, describing the increasing conversions, said, “our people are very simple and can be easily taken away….Even some of my family have converted because of money.”
The Buddhist monks that Denyer interviewed are not entirely without hope. Tashi Densapa, Director of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, which houses a large collection of materials taken out of Tibet when the Chinese invaded in 1950, has a positive outlook. He indicates that some young people are showing an interest in Buddhism, even if the religious values of the Buddhists have been neglected by the state in favor of development priorities.
Twenty-six years ago, Yongda took the positive step of setting up a school that teaches modern subjects as well as an hour of non-violence each day. But while he may complain of the lack of public assistance for monasteries, another monk is opposed to state support for the monastic school at which he teaches. Acknowledging that rich Buddhists send their children to the Christian schools and only the poor send their young to the Buddhist ones, this man believes that the Buddhists have to compete in the educational market.
The dialog, and the fact that Reuters India carried the story, suggests there is still a healthy interest in the values of Buddhism and what they may mean to the old Lepcha and Bhutia societies of Sikkim as they continue to change and adapt to modernity.