China seeks recognition for Panchen Lama, woos Taiwan Buddhists

By Mark O'Neill

China has organized the Third World Buddhist Forum in Hong Kong in an attempt to earn international recognitions for the 11th Panchen Lama and woo believers in Taiwan and southeast Asia.

The forum, which closed last Friday at the Hong Kong Coliseum, attracted about 1,000 monks, nuns and other faithful from China and abroad. The first such forum was held in Zhejiang in 2006, the second in Taiwan in 2009 and future ones in Lingshan, Wuxi, which will be its permanent home. The gathering is part of China’s battle with India to lead Buddhism in the world. In November, India organized the first Global Buddhist Congregation in Delhi, attracting delegates from 46 countries who established the International Buddhist Conference who are based in that country; it aims to be the world’s center of the religion, in the land where the Buddha was born and taught.

Thirty-five Chinese monks invited to Delhi did not turn up, probably because the Dalai Lama made a speech at the event. Similarly, none of his representatives attended the Hong Kong event. The split between the two schools is deep and intense.

The highlight of the Hong Kong forum was a speech by the 22-year-old Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, in his first appearance outside the mainland. He read a prepared speech, in Mandarin, for which he had been well groomed; he showed nervousness and took no questions.

"Buddhist teaching is sweet dew that ends human suffering and is a way to promote world peace," he said. "Greed has unbalanced ecosystems, contaminated the environment, caused natural disasters spread epidemics and induced wars." During his visit to Hong Kong, he received 24-hour police protection, such as that given to a person of Vice-Premier rank.

Beijing arranged the speech as part of its effort to win international recognition for him as a Buddhist spiritual leader, among believers outside as well as inside China, and groom him as the head of Tibetan Buddhism after the death of the Dalai Lama.

But his leadership is rejected by followers of the Dalai Lama who revere another man, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, now 23, as the 11th Panchen Lama; he was named in 1995 by the Dalai Lama but rejected by Beijing which has since held him incommunicado.

The bitterness between the two sides has intensified with the self-immolation of at least 33 monks in Tibetan areas of China since 2011, in protest against government policies. Buddhism forbids suicide. The Dalai Lama has said that he does not encourage such acts but has praised the courage of those who did them. Beijing accuses him of inciting them.

Another aim of the Hong Kong forum was to win over the Buddhists of Taiwan; they account for one third of the island’s 23 million people. Many participants at the forum were from Taiwan, representing its different Buddhist schools.

Beijing has been especially active in engaging Taiwan’s two largest Buddhist groups, the Tzu Chi Foundation of Master Cheng Yen and Fo Guang Shan of Master Hsing Yun.

Tzu Chi has been providing relief aid, housing, schools, scholarships for poor students and other projects in the mainland since 1991. In 2006 and 2008, it received the China Charity Award from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and in 2010, it was given State Council approval to set up a foundation, with its first branch in the eastern city of Suzhou.

Beijing gave Master Hsing Yun a large piece of land near his native place in Yangzhou in Jiangsu province, where he built a large library named after Jian Zhen, the Chinese monk who brought Buddhism to Japan. It has a built-up area of 16,000 square meters on a seven- hectare site.

China welcomes the charity and educational work in the mainland of these and other Buddhist groups from Taiwan. It sees them as a good channel to reach the Taiwan public and try to win their hearts and minds. It finds it easier to talk to these Buddhist masters than to politicians.

The forum serves the same purpose as a channel to the millions of Chinese Buddhists in southeast Asia; they are delighted that their native place is giving such status and encouragement to their religion.

Thousands will come to the Hong Kong Coliseum to see a relic of the Buddha’s skull bone that was brought from Nanjing on April 25 for 10 days of public worship. It is the first time that it has been brought out of the mainland.

But Beijing’s support of Buddhism is ambiguous. It welcomes the religion as a source of social cohesion and ‘harmonious society’ which President Hu Jintao often speaks of; it welcomes the work of Buddhist groups for the poor, the sick and aged, performing welfare and educational work that the government is unable or unwilling to do. But it insists on retaining control over all these activities, religious and social. It is nervous to see the power of the civil society of Taiwan and countries in southeast Asia, in which Buddhist masters have more moral authority and popularity than political leaders.

It never forgets that, in Chinese history, religious societies led rebellions against the central government. Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty in 1368, was a Buddhist monk who belonged to the Red Turbans, which was affiliated with the White Lotus, a Buddhist secret society. He used these groups as the basis of his army to overthrow the Yuan.

Consequently, Buddhist groups in the mainland, like those of other religions, are discreet about their activities outside the temple, church and mosque. While local governments welcome what they do, other agencies of the government may object to them.

The Party and the Enlightened One have found a modus vivendi, but they are not completely comfortable with each other.

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