Return of Buddha

Are Buddhist nations coming together to form a bloc that is as much religious as it is political? And is India ready to assume leadership of the group? If it is, China is clearly unhappy about it. But a churning has begun. Sunday Times reports from the first Global Buddhist Congregation

By Shobhan Saxena | Times of India

Shobhan Saxena Sharad Saxena
With the smell of incense floating above their shaven heads, the Thai monks in grey robes walked in a single file, eyes to the ground and their hands softly beating the prayer drums. Following them were the Tibetan lamas, Sri Lankan monks and Taiwanese priests — all walking elegantly, murmuring mantras under their breath and forming a circle around a chosen spot. Then a shiver passed down the crowd as the Dalai Lama arrived at Nehru Park and placed into freshly dug-up holes saplings of the Bodhi Tree — a cutting of the same pipal under which the Buddha had found enlightenment 2600 years ago and which was slashed and burned by King Sasanka of Bengal, an anti-Buddhist iconoclast, in the 6th century AD.
On 30 November, as the first Global Buddhist Congregation in Delhi decided to form a new global Buddhist body based in India, delegates from 46 countries — from the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions — were handed over the Bodhi Tree saplings to be planted in their countries. Many leaders received the plants from the Dalai Lama, who also gave the valedictory speech at the congregation. The message was not missed on anyone: Buddhism is set to get more organized globally; India is to become the new centre of this unity; and the Dalai Lama is recognized as an unofficial leader of all Buddhists. “All Buddhist countries feel that in India, the land of Buddha, nothing is being done to promote Buddhism. Now, all the Buddhist organizations will be under the International Buddhist Confederation to be based here,” says Lama Lobsang, the head of Asoka Mission, which organized the Delhi congregation.
The idea seems to have been accepted. “The whole world looks to India because of Buddhism. If someone from India takes initiative, India can take leadership of the Buddhist world,” says Banagala Uptatissa, chief of Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka. Well, not exactly the whole world. On 26 November, one day before the Congregation began, China kicked up a diplomatic storm by putting off border talks with India after New Delhi refused to give in to its demand of not allowing the Buddhist meet. Earlier, 35 Chinese monks invited for the meet didn’t turn up, making it clear that Beijing was not happy with the congregation. “This conference had a very clear agenda to remind the scattered Buddhist communities that India is the home of Buddhism,” says Gabriel Lefitte, Australian academic and environmental activist who attended the meeting. “China has been quite vigorous in making sure that anybody with a Buddhist background feels connection with China but India has been a bit slow by comparison to restore the ‘Buddhist parivar’.”
It’s not that the officially atheist China has suddenly fallen in love with Buddhism. China is worried about the growing stature of the Dalai Lama as a global Buddhist leader; it’s also trying to build credibility among the Buddhists so that Beijing can pick the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama without any problem. “The current Chinese leadership is haunted by the Tibetan issue as there have been many cases of self-immolation by the Tibetan monks in mainland China. There is a feeling of urgency regarding the decision of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama,” says Binod Singh, who teaches at the India Study Centre of Peking University.
China faces an additional problem. It may have dazzled the world with its growth rate, but China has not been able to check social unrest and growth of religion at home. It’s believed that there are now some 100 million Buddhists in China, many of them followers of Tibetan Buddhism. “Of late, the Chinese leaders have been talking about a ‘harmonious society’ and they have eased restrictions on all religions. The Communist Party takes part in the selection of reincarnation of Tibetan lamas. They want to control Buddhism to keep control on their people,” says an Indian diplomat who served in Beijing till recently. “The friction with India is over the leadership of Buddhist countries and trade interest in east Asia, which China considers its area of influence.”
So the fight is not just for the soul of Asia. The tussle between India and China over Buddhism may be the beginning of a new cold war in the region where religion and commercial interest play a crucial role. “Some Chinese believe that China is losing friends in the world community , and India is developing new friends such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Mongolia. They also talk of India, Japan and US currently working on a grand strategy to encircle China,” says Singh of Peking University. Does this mean that the cold war will come out in the open? “That will be extremely unfortunate if Buddhists found themselves in a new cold war where they have to choose between two competing camps. Why should China feel threatened by this meeting where Buddhists are talking to Buddhists?” says Lafitte.
China has reason to fear Buddhist monks. In recent years, they have organized political agitations on the streets of Asia. Myanmar, where the monks led a people’s revolt against the junta in 2007, is slowly moving towards democracy. In Thailand, a Buddhist faction helped topple Thaksin Shinawatra’s regime in 2006. And in Taiwan, Buddhism has spawned powerful political movements.
With Buddhists monks becoming overtly political and the main drivers of nationalism in the region which China considers its backyard, Beijing is worried about its implication in Tibet. With the Dalai Lama being admired and welcomed in all these countries, it’s no wonder that China pressured India to cancel the Tibetan leader’s speech at the Delhi meeting. “The Dalai Lama belongs to the whole of humanity. China not only objected to the Dalai Lama’s presence, they wanted the whole conference to be cancelled. I don’t know what China is scared of,” says Lama Lobsang of Asoka Mission.
China is not scared, it’s being cautious because it fancies itself as the leader of Buddhist nations. In fact, China has been carefully promoting itself as a Buddhism powerhouse. In 2006, it hosted the first World Buddhist Forum in Zhejian. The second forum was organized at Wuxi in 2009. “At both the meetings, the Chinese paraded Gyancain Norbu, who is not recognized as Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama, as a top Buddhist leader,” says the Indian diplomat. “Their game is clear: organized the Buddhist world minus the Dalai Lama.”
This great game is now being extended to Lumbini in Nepal, where the Buddha was born. China has proposed a multi-billion dollar project to turn Lumbini into a Mecca for Buddhists; it’s also planning to expand its Tibet rail to the holy place, which has not allowed a visit to the Dalai Lama since the 1980s. The next game of this cold war over Buddhism between India and China may be played in Nepal.

About the author

Shobhan Saxena is an editor with Sunday Times of India. His interests range from international issues, human rights and politics to art & culture. He can be reached at: shobhan.saxena(at)

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