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China-Tibet Tiff: Will Dalai Lama & Buddhism See The Communist Party Eye To Eye?

The Chinese warming upto Buddhist ideology & practice could very well be part of Xi Jinping's expansionist agenda.

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(This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the waning relevance of Tibetan monk Dalai Lama and the subsequent rise of Buddhism in its colonizer China and the political implications these may have.)

The enthusiasm of the Han Chinese for Buddhism is expanding openly and rapidly.

As mentioned in Part I, the Chinese are intrinsically religious. The Communist Party with its penchant for atheism is only a hundred years old. Buddhism, in one form or the other, has been thriving in China for 2000 years.

During my 1994 traverse of Tibet, the two accompanying Chinese academics seemed to scorn us when we worshipped at the Buddhist monasteries affiliated with the Dalai Lama. However, at Shigatse, at the Gilded Stupa of the Great Tenth Panchen Lama, the two professors eagerly prostrated themselves in front of the glittering statue and performed all the rituals associated with Buddhism.

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Once Banned Practice, China Opens Its Arms to Buddhism

From 1958 onwards, the Communists banned the practice of Buddhism in China. Monks were forced to disrobe. Monastic land and property were nationalised, and the buildings were transformed into factories and offices.

During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the surviving monasteries were ransacked, their relics and sculptures destroyed, and the ancient scrolls and manuscripts torched.

It was only under Deng Xiaoping’s rule from 1978 to 1989, that religious worship was partially authorised. The state took baby steps to restore and rebuild the moldering ruins of monasteries, albeit as uninspiring museums without any dynamic religious life within.

It was not just benevolence that led the communists to ease restrictions. The party realised that overregulating religious practice would lead to public discontent. The country had between 185 to 250 million Buddhists, mostly Han Chinese. The party could not throttle or root out so many harmless believers.

Restoration of these monasteries continued under President Xi Jinping who became China’s supreme leader in 2012.

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Restoration of Monasteries, Statues Mark China’s Buddhist Agenda

Labrang Monastery, located in the Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Gannan and sprawling across 200 acres, has undergone an eight-year, USD 56 million renovation—the first since it was built in 1709.

In West Beijing, the Wanshou Temple, the temple of longevity, originally constructed during the 14th century, reopened in September 2022 after a five-year renovation. Wall paintings and Buddha statues have been restored. However, it is said to be more of an over-commercialised heritage museum than a lively monastery full of chanting monks swaying their bodies, their noses digging into the holy scriptures. Nevertheless, crowds of Chinese are congregating at the temple.

In 2015, in Nangchen, a remote county of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, a stupa, one of the nineteen built to house the relics of Lord Buddha sent by Emperor Ashoka to China and Tibet, was renovated and restored and festooned with lofty prayer flags. It was consecrated by an Indian monk from Ladakh.
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Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, have been flocking to the hundreds of renovated Buddhist monasteries both as tourists and disciples.

Larung Gar, in Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, had 2,000 Han disciples in 2019. The teachings of Jigme Phuntsok who founded Larung Gar in 1980, spread online. Across the country, Han Buddhists formed study groups and met privately in homes and local temples. Jigme Phuntsok’s successor, Khenpo Sodargye was voted as one of its “people of the year” by Renwu, a state-controlled magazine.

Today, he has three million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social media platform. Religious groups have proliferated on WeChat and Weibo. Internet websites propagating Buddhism have mushroomed. Han Buddhists are even burning digital incense and performing rituals online!

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How Chinese Tech & Social Media Is Making Buddhism Go Viral

Technology is also fanning the spread of Buddhism. A two-feet tall, saffron-robed robot with a shaven head is creating waves at the Longquan Temple in Beijing. Xian’er, the cyber monk chants mantras, explains the glorious tenets of Buddhism in Chinese and English, discusses humdrum matters of daily life, and cracks jokes in unsanctified language – much like the affable Dalai Lama. He can even take you through a meditation session on WeChat. Timorous Chinese are lining up to visit Longquan.

According to one report, Xian’er has become so popular that an average of 13 articles appeared on him on social media every day.

Rocked by the Han enthusiasm for Tibetan Buddhism, the meddling Communist Party cautiously reassessed the situation – and once again tightened controls. The Central Religious Work Conference discussed the challenges posed by the Internet. The Buddhist Association of China, the official government organisation overseeing Buddhism in the country, promulgated new guidelines for religious worship. The State Council and the State Administration of Religious Affairs, with vindictive enthusiasm, imposed regulations to check the growth of religious media. These new guidelines and regulations have been compacted together in a document titled “The Need to Give Attention to the Issue of Online Religions” – and signed by President Xi Jinping.

These regulations ban religious groups from posting messages that criticise or oppose the principles of the Communist Party. Online religious activities that do not correspond to practices existing offline are prohibited. Sites offering online worship of buddhas and bodhisattvas or any kind of memorial ceremony are forbidden to solicit donations. Burning incense or conducting rituals online is not allowed. Livestreaming of teachings from monasteries is banned. Monks cannot travel for religious purposes without the permission of the authorities.
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Further, Buddhist study groups are being harried not to meet furtively in homes or offices. The 2000+ Han disciples at Larung Gar have been evicted.

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How Dalai Lama's China Return Can Impact Communist Party's Iron Grip

Instead of “keeping an eye on China”, weaponising its neighbours, and attempting to cripple its robust economy – China’s adversaries should focus on creating conditions for the Dalai Lama’s peaceful return to China. He may not be allowed to preach but even his silence will be more effective than words. Just his radiating presence would lift up the silent heirs of a glorious civilisation, dry their tears, fill their bruised hearts with joy and gratitude, and give them the belief that they are no trampled and godforsaken outcasts but brothers and sisters in the Sangha.

He is a one-man army whose spiritual power and influence, perceived or real, could arouse the nation to break the shackles of the communist regime.
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However, speaking to reporters on 19 December 2022, Dalai Lama said that there was no point in returning to China and he prefers living in India. “Kangra, Pandit Nehru’s choice, this place is my permanent residence,” he said.

Once the basic needs of the people are met, they want freedom – of choice, speech, assembly and religion. More and more Han Chinese will adopt Buddhism to counter the astonishing materialism of the Communist Party. The idea fires my fancy. 

Read the Part 1 here.

(Akhil Bakshi a Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA, and Editor of Indian Mountaineer, has authored 27 books including three on Tibet: Silk Road on Wheels, Train to Lhasa, and Stairway to Heaven. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Dalai Lama   Buddhism   Communism 

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