By Elizabeth Pond
China is making its strongest bid yet to establish a reputation as the patron of global Buddhism. It will follow up its third World Buddhist Forum in Hong Kong (April 25-28) by sponsoring an international peace conference in the Gautama Buddha's Lumbini birthplace in Nepal (April 28-30).
Beijing faces a formidable hurdle, however, in explaining to international Buddhists why more than 30 young Tibetan monks and nuns have set themselves on fire in the past year to protest Chinese rule.
Back in the old days, it was easier for Chinese Communists to deal with the opiate of the people. Founding father Mao Zedong could simply outlaw religion during and after the Cultural Revolution and jail or kill adherents at will.
In the post-Mao era of globalization, things are more complicated. The party had no qualms about repressing the new Falun Gong movement in the 1990s and banning it altogether in 1999. Today's China wants to exercise soft as well as hard power, though, and it sees an opportunity in the estimated 350 million Buddhists worldwide. Half or more of this number live in China and provide a critical mass to attract others.
Domestically, the Beijing government has become tolerant and even appreciative of Buddhist temples' social charity and the current boom in Chinese religious tourism. It rehabilitated Buddhism in 2006, dropping its earlier suspicion of the religion as an ideological rival and for the first time describing it as a peaceful "ancient Chinese religion." Buddhism quickly came to enjoy pride of place among the five religions that are formally registered and allowed to preach, on the condition that the recognized Buddhist, Taoist, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim elders respectively accept government influence in naming their top officials.
In 2006 the first World Buddhist Forum—and indeed China's first international religious conference of any kind since Communist rule was established in 1949—opened in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. The second followed three years later in Wuxi and, in outreach beyond the People's Republic, in Taiwan. This year's third Forum will stress the familiar themes of peace and harmony, mount the first public showing of what have been identified as relics of the Gautama Buddha's skull excavated in eastern China two years ago—and once again showcase the controversial Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama, the holder of the second-highest rank in Tibetan Buddhism.
The highest-rank 14th Dalai Lama, revered by Mahayana Buddhists and global admirers as a religious leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was not invited to any of the three Forums. Nor is he invited to join the peace conference in the UNESCO and World Heritage town of Lumbini, 500 miles southeast of his exile headquarters in Dharamsala, India. He fled the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace as a young man in 1959, a decade after military conquest by the People's Liberation Army ended four decades of Tibetan independence. The Chinese have never allowed him to visit Tibet or China since then, despite his express wish to do so, and despite his insistence that what he seeks for his countrymen is real autonomy rather than independence from China.
The other notable absentee from the Lumbini conference will be the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. The organizers had originally listed him as a co-chairman of one session along with Prachanda. This most famous leader of the Nepalese Maoist guerrillas who helped dethrone the Nepali king in the mid-2000s is China's partner in hosting the conference and also in the $3 billion Chinese-funded project to develop Lumbini for mass tourism. Nepali Buddhists and representatives of the 20,000 Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in Nepal appealed to Ban not to endorse the Lumbini meeting by his presence, and Ban's press office now says that he does not plan to travel to Nepal this April. Various Buddhist spokesmen in Nepal are also objecting to what they fear will be the Chinese commercialization of Lumbini—so far to no avail.
Participants in the Lumbini conference will have no opportunity for a side trip 500 miles to the northeast across the Annapurna range to visit the majestic Potala Palace in Tibet. The Chinese would prefer not to give monks and nuns in Lhasa any occasion for further protests, and they would prefer not to let foreign Buddhists see the increased presence of Han Chinese living in Tibet, the strong deployment of security forces, or the continued resistance to them by what is now the third Tibetan generation after the Chinese re-conquest of Tibet.
Chinese authorities similarly discourage Tibetan pilgrimages to Buddhist holy sites in India and punish any attempts by those who do get travel permits to make contact with the Dalai Lama or his followers. In January, several hundred Tibetans who visited India and heard the Dalai Lama speak there were arrested when they returned home. Moreover, the Chinese have recently sealed their south Himalayan borders much more effectively than in the past, in large part by compelling tiny Nepal in 2011 to drop its earlier ambiguous stance and impose harsher control measures on Tibetan residents and refugees. Fewer than a thousand Tibetan escapees a year now manage to slip over the borders with India and Nepal.
Those potential Tibetan pilgrims too will be missing at the Buddhist conference in Lumbini.
[Photo courtesy of kwramm.]