Sunday, December 7, 2014

Will China take the leadership of the Buddhist World?

The Chinese Panchen Lama addressing the WFB Confrence
On October 27, 2014, The Buddhist Channel, a global news platform which provides news on Buddhism, reported the recently-held Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB).
The Channel titled “China lays claims to Leadership of the Buddhist World”.
Is it a correct assessment?
According to Xinhua, China’s official news agency: “Hundreds of the world's Buddhists gathered at an ancient temple in northwest China's Shaanxi Province to open the World Fellowship of Buddhists' 27th general conference. Congregating around a relic said to contain one of the Buddha's finger bones at the Famen Temple in Baoji City, more than 600 representatives from 30 nations and regions were in attendance.”
It is not new that Communist China believes in the Buddha’s relics. Remember in 1957, Zhou Enlai brought some relics to India on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of Gautam Buddha’s birth.
It was however the first time that the three-day event, organized by the Bangkok-headquartered WFB met on the Chinese soil (from October 16 to 18).
Xinhua says: “Buddhist leaders at the opening ceremony included the 11th Panchen Lama, Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu [Gyaltsen Norbu], and Nichiyu Mochida, chief abbot of Japan's Sogen-ji Temple.”
Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, who attended the WFB on behalf of the German Dharmadutta Society delegation from Sri Lanka, commented on the impressive display of Chinese Buddhist culture and hospitality.
There is no doubt that the Chinese are good hosts.
Like many other delegates, Seneviratne praised China: “Though not officially acknowledged, China is today home to between 200-300 million Buddhists thus making it the country with the world’s largest Buddhist population. The restored grand Buddhist temples in Baoji and in close by Xian, and the impressive Buddhist cultural display at the opening ceremony of the WFB meeting is anything to go by, it indicates that Chinese Buddhism has undergone a remarkable revival, after Buddhist temples were destroyed and Buddhist practices disrupted during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s.”
Interestingly, according to the Buddhist Association of China (BAC) – the Conference’s co-organizer with the Shaanxi Province – there are only 240,000 Buddhist monks and nuns in China, living in some 28,000 monasteries (over 3,000 in Tibet alone) – and 38 Buddhist Academies.
These 240,000 practitioners are officially registered followers of the Buddha Dharma. What about the non-registered monks and nuns?
For example, it is said that Larung Gar monastery in Eastern Tibet hosts more than 30,000 monks and nuns, while the official ‘government quota’ is 10,000 only. We shall come back on these discrepancies.
Lou Qinjian, the Governor of Shaanxi Province opened the conference by stating: “Buddhism has become an important part of Chinese civilization for over 1800 years [sic] and Shaanxi has been the gateway for the flow of Buddhism from India to China. …Over this period Buddhism has spread the ideas of equality, benevolence and harmony that have become important parts of Chinese civilization.”
Lou affirmed that the Chinese government has been renovating many historic Buddhist monuments in recent years and has also been encouraging the development of Buddhist cultural practices.
It is not what the Tibetans say.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) recently reported that the Chinese authorities have expelled more than 100 Tibetan nuns from a convent in a southwestern Tibetan county near the border with Nepal, sending them back to their family homes and forcing them to wear lay dress.
The same source affirmed that the Party has “tightened restrictions on monastic life in a restive county in Tibet [Driru in Nagchu prefecture], expelling 26 unregistered nuns from a nunnery and study center offering courses in Buddhist philosophy,” adding that “the nuns were not among the 140 allowed to live in Jada nunnery.”
The authorities had only approved 140 nuns to reside at Jada. Only ‘official’ nuns were permitted to continue their studies.
At the WFB's conference, Lou Qinjian praised the Buddhist community in the Shaanxi Province “for practicing Buddhist charity and carrying out many charitable activities outside China”. He concluded by hoping that: “with the new project of the Chinese government to revitalize the Silk Route that originates from here [Shaanxi] , the conference will help to carry forward the virtues of Buddhism to contribute to social harmony and peace in Asia.”
This was a small ‘political’ aside and indirect praise of President Xi Jinping, who is very promoting the Silk Road project (for economic reasons).
At the Conference, many speakers pointed out that Shaanxi was the native place of the famous Buddhist monk-pilgrim, Xuanzang, “who took the Silk Route to India in 605 AD and spent some 12 years at Nalanda University to bring back Buddhist scriptures to China. …Over 20 years, he translated these into Chinese and other languages, which helped to spread Buddhism to other parts of China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam”, wrote a commentator.
The organizers took the international delegates on a special tour to the newly renovated temple in Xian, about 150 km from Baoji, where the famous pilgrim lived and translated the Buddha's words.
In a message to the Conference, Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) said: “Buddhism, which extols peace, compassion and virtue, has been an example of the exchange and two-way learning of different civilizations.”
Yu mentioned Xuanzang’s journey as one of the wonderful episodes of ‘cultural exchange’ (with India?). The member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo looking after religious affairs (as well as Tibet and Xinjiang), declared that “Buddhist tenets can help mankind tackle current challenges and hoped that Buddhist circles in various nations could make concerted efforts in promoting the mutual understanding of people in different nations and contribute more to lasting peace and prosperity in the world,” adding that “the focus of the conference on charity and good will, is significant because it reflects the shared attentions of Buddhists in different nations on enhancing the well-being of mankind.”
Du Qinglin, vice chairman of the CPPCC's National Committee and a former interlocutor of the Dalai Lama’s envoys affirmed that “China supports Buddhist circles to play a positive role in shoring up economic development and social harmony and encourages Buddhists and other religions to promote cultural exchange with other nations.”
Of course, there was no question or even a mention about the Dalai Lama, a taboo subject for the Party.
More interesting was the speech of the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama Gyalsten Norbu. He said that the WFB as an organization has strengthened Buddhists' communication and the development of different schools of Buddhism.
Norbu urged Buddhists worldwide to jointly strive for deepened exchange and cooperation and work together to boost environmental protection and safeguard world peace. He also told the international gathering that the Chinese government’s support for this conference was “a proof that religious freedom which exists in the country.”
In this case why not inviting the Dalai Lama?
The young Lama added: “Buddhism has already integrated into the Chinese culture and it is recognized by the Chinese government. For over thousand years Tibetan Buddhism has become the precious gem of the Chinese nation.”
But there is another side to the coin.
While Buddhism is promoted for ‘political reasons’, it is banned for entire sections of the Chinese society.
Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the CPPCC and former senior official of the United Work Front Department wrote an op-ed in the Global Times soon after the visit to Tibet of an inspection team of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
The team had criticized local party members for following religion and taking part in religious activities: “Communist Party members cannot follow any religion – this is the important ideological and organisational principle which has been upheld since the founding of the party. There is no doubt about it,” affirmed Zhu who continued: “Without the foundation of the worldview, the mansion of the party’s ideologies, theories and organisations will all collapse. We could no longer be called the ‘Chinese Communist Party’.”
Zhu affirmed: “If the stronger the religion is, the higher a society’s moral level is, then Middle Ages Europe under the influence of the Vatican should have been the golden age of human morality, and there would have been no need for the Renaissance”. Zhu denounced scholars “who advocate that party members should be free to follow religion”.
As mentioned on this blog, last month The Tibet Daily had had reported a speech of Chen Quanguo, the Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Religious (TAR). He had vowed to severely punish Communist cadres in Tibet who 'harbor fantasies' (or illusions): "As for cadres who harbor fantasies about the 14th Dalai [Lama] Group, follow the Dalai Group, participate in supporting separatist infiltration sabotage activities, (they will be) strictly and severely punished according to the law and party disciplinary measures."
Reuters had commented that "Chen's denunciation of the Dalai Lama signals a hardening stance against the Nobel Peace Prize winner whom they label a 'wolf in sheep's clothing'."
China today faces a serious dichotomy.
On one side, Beijing would like to become the ‘World Buddhist Leader’, but on the other hand, the Party which leads the nation bans Buddhism for its members on ideological grounds.
One understands that 200-300 million ‘official’ Buddhists could be very subversive for the regime. Today, the membership of the Communist party is a small percentage of these figures, how could Buddha be more popular than Karl Marx?
And if Party card holders are not allowed to practice, does it mean that for the Party, there is something wrong with these practices.
This half-hearted promotion of the Buddha Dharma is certainly an obstacle to the rise of China as the world leader in this field.
Then, the continuous denigration of the Dalai Lama is also an impediment to become ‘the leader’.
Who in the West (and in India) is going to follow China when it constantly bashes the revered Tibetan leader?
Beijing’s famous hospitality may get China a few 'pliable' delegates to attend a Conference in China, but more is required to take the leadership of the Buddhist movement.
This is true for China’s ‘soft policies’ in general.
Veteran China watcher, Willy Lam wrote in the latest volume of the China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation, 'China’s Soft-Power Deficit Widens as Xi Tightens Screws Over Ideology'.
Lam explained his point: “Even for a country that is notable for its myriad contradictions, the gap between China’s hard and soft power has never been more pronounced. The year 2014 has witnessed the kind of global hard-power projection that is unprecedented in recent Chinese history. The two-year-old Xi Jinping administration has used China’s growing economic and military might to impose its stamp on the world order. Yet the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasingly draconian efforts to impose ideological control on 1.3 billion Chinese has not only stifled their creativity but also detracted from the worldwide appeal of the ‘China model’.”
China can’t be a hard power and a soft power at the same time.
In the meantime, some participants to the conference they that they would like to develop a global voice for Buddhists, something like the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) for Muslims.
A Chinese Dream which will never manifest.

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