By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Nov 11, 2014
Abroad, China wants to woo and win genuinely Buddhist hearts and minds in South-East, East and Central Asia. At home, it hopes to solve the problem of Tibet by saddling Tibetans.
Buddhism is the new age Communism. It’s the ideology with which governments hope to win friends and influence people. For China, which is emerging as the strident protagonist of what can only be called a form of politicised Buddhism — that is, more politics than religion — the aim is twofold. Abroad, China wants to woo and win genuinely Buddhist hearts and minds in South-East, East and Central Asia. At home, it hopes to solve the problem of Tibet by saddling Tibetans and the world with an officially-approved successor to the present exiled Dalai Lama.
Of course, there are genuine Chinese Buddhists. I have seen diners in restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai stand up with deferentially folded palms as small groups of monks entered. These ordinary people suffered a great deal for their faith during the Cultural Revolution. There are indications that Zhou Enlai was sympathetic to them. Jiang Zemin is said to have been a secret Buddhist. Xi Jinping also reportedly veered towards Buddhism until he decided that revolutionary credentials would serve him better. But none of this makes China the vigorously Buddhist nation it pretends to be.
Last month’s 47th general conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Baoji, in Shaanxi province of north-western China, which China hosted for the first time, marked a watershed for China’s strategic Buddhism. It was attended by the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama whom not many Tibetans accept. Of course, the Dalai Lama wasn’t even asked. The conference’s message was that China doesn’t only supply the world with goods and services. China is also the global source of Buddhist wisdom and the custodian and protector of Buddhism and Buddhist values and culture.
The contradiction is that China wants to be taken seriously as a Buddhist nation while suppressing Buddhism in Tibet, denying the Dalai Lama his rights, causing the mysterious disappearance of the rightful Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, and making things so difficult for the 17th Karmapa Lama, head of the Karma Kagyu sect, that he had to flee to India. Chinese Red Guards destroyed most of Tibet’s more than 6,000 monasteries. Buddhist worship is severely discouraged, most of those who are recognised as Buddhist officials being trusted employees of the Chinese state.
If Xi Jinping nevertheless says Buddhism has a role to play in China’s public life, it is because Buddhism is seen as a useful political instrument. Not that such exploitation is exactly new. China’s non-Han rulers promoted Buddhism to limit Confucian influence. The first emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534) who made Buddhism a state religion wrote that the Han Chinese wouldn’t worship the Buddha because he was a barbarian (i.e. non-Han) god. But his own people being also barbarian deserved “the privilege to worship the Buddha and adopt the Buddhist faith”. Kunwar Natwar Singh says in My China Diary that even at the height of Communist militancy, China always produced the right number of Buddhist monks for visiting dignitaries like Burma’s U Nu and Nepal’s Tanka Prasad Acharya.
India’s problem is that today’s most active Buddhists are not people who were born in the faith but Dalits who feel the need to emphasise their rejection of Hinduism. Also, though most Indians seem unaware of it, the Brahmanical revival stamped out Buddhism by force. Rabindranath Tagore’s poignant poem, Pujarini, describes how Ajatasatru, the 5th century BC Magadha ruler, exiled or executed anyone who dared to practice Buddhism. Buddhism is a dead faith, not a contemporary culture in modern India.
Nevertheless, Indian exhibitions titled “Kala Chakra” and “On the Nalanda Trail” in Singapore dwelt on Buddhism’s Indian roots to claim a cultural kinship with South-East Asia. The Indian Museum in Kolkata has put together an elaborate exhibition of 91 priceless items of stone, wood, silver, parchment, silk and other materials to be displayed in Shanghai from December to next February, and thereafter in Tokyo. After that, the Indian Buddhist Art exhibition (which includes the first piece of carving from Gandhara) may go to Singapore and Thailand. In recent years, the Indian Museum has displayed in South Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan and Australia.
China doesn’t deny that “Buddhism originated from India, and was introduced to China 2,000 years back”, but takes pride in having introduced the faith to Japan, South Korea and South-East Asia. When China’s consul-general in Kolkata, Wang Xuefeng, says “Buddhist culture has been integrated into ordinary people’s life, cultural tradition and ideology no matter whether we are Buddhists or not”, he is underlining that, unlike in India, Buddhism is a way of life in China. He is possibly also replying to the one-upmanship of the Indian diplomat in Singapore who argued that even if the Chinese introduced Buddhism to South-East Asia, they only gave what India had given them earlier.
Master Xuecheng, abbot of Longquan Monastery and vice-president of the Chinese Buddhist Association, seems to be orchestrating and choreographing China’s contrived emergence as a Buddhist power. He is a prolific blogger whose micro-blog is updated every day in eight languages. Since 2006, he has logged nearly nine million page views. In an information era world and multi-cultural society, Master Xuecheng says, “Buddhism as an important part of Chinese tradition, can be better spread through media interaction between the faithful and us.” Hosting the World Fellowship of Buddhists reflected “the fast growth of Buddhism, and the increasing numbers of Buddhists in China”. According to him, Chinese society is well qualified “for promoting the Buddhist beliefs”.
Buddhist nations might be sceptical. But China is master at home and in Tibet. There is nothing to stop it from taking over the task of creating what China calls “Living Buddhas”, i.e. incarnate lamas. The Dalai Lama is the biggest Living Buddha of all.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.