“Congregationalism”

Elliot Sperling is far and away one of the most informed voices on Tibet, and his recent article on the Buddhist convention in India and China’s resulting fury is well worth a read:

The Global Buddhist Congregation (GBC) that convened in New Delhi from November 27-30 made a bit of news when China reacted harshly to the Dalai Lama’s role in the gathering. Throughout several weeks of buildup to the event (which was designed to bring together Buddhists from all over the world and culminate in the establishment of a new international Buddhist organization) there was no secret that the Dalai Lama was to be the featured guest and that high-ranking Indian figures—Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s name was mentioned—would likely also attend.

While the Dalai Lama was actually present for the gathering only on its final day, when he attended an interfaith function at Gandhi Smriti in the morning and delivered the gathering’s valedictory address before hundreds of participants at its final session in the afternoon, his presence hovered over the meeting from the very start. Over the course of the four days on which the GBC was held, several sangharaja, along with Buddhist sangha members from a multitude of countries and a variety of Buddhist traditions, were often unstinting in extolling the Dalai Lama. The unavoidable impression was that he now stands as the most visible living symbol of Buddhism in the world today. His spiritual preeminence was cited time and again over the course of the GBC, and not only by followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Many of those who follow the numerous other Buddhist traditions represented at the meeting acknowledged the Dalai Lama’s overarching spiritual position with language that, in one instance, described him as a lineage holder for all Buddhist schools.

The acclaim accorded the Dalai Lama by Buddhists from around the world added a certain significance to the meeting that China may find difficult to ignore and which makes its objections to the Dalai Lama’s participation in the GBC more complex than the sort of objections it visits on governments that choose to receive the Dalai Lama in an official manner. Indeed, its objections to the Dalai Lama’s presence are fundamentally different: after all, the Dalai Lama does reside in India. That aside, however, given persistent Chinese anxieties over the possibility of being surrounded by hostile powers intent on restraining “the peaceful rise of China,” it is hard to avoid the likelihood that a gathering of Buddhists from neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, etc., all acknowledging—regardless of sect or school—the Dalai Lama’s leading spiritual position among them, will be seen as a provocation or even a threat aimed at Buddhists (and not just Tibetan Buddhists) within China.

But the necessity of countering the display of veneration accorded the Dalai Lama also reveals how China has, in a sense, created its own conundrum. What counterweight does China have to the Dalai Lama? Well, there is one person, someone who has essentially been groomed for the role. But using him opens up a can of worms that one can hardly imagine China would like to see opened, for this person is none other than the Chinese Panchen Lama, so-called because he was chosen under coercion and foisted upon Tibetan Buddhists in opposition to the child recognized by the Dalai Lama as the incarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. The problem for China is that their Panchen Lama is not accepted—to say the least—by the large majority of Tibetans who do indeed consider him China’s (not Tibet’s) Panchen Lama. The irony of an officially atheistic state discovering and certifying incarnate lamas has been noted many times but the absurdity of the situation has not lessened. And a state bureaucracy that did not pay heed to popular rejection of a Panchen Lama that it foisted on Tibet over 16 years ago is, in a word, stuck. The situation is so abnormal that the Panchen Lama is not allowed to reside in Tibet, both to keep him tethered to the government and to avoid the unpleasantness that his presence among his ostensible followers might set off.

But now that the very moment has arrived in which China needs just such a figure, his problematic nature is obvious: the Chinese Panchen Lama, someone who was supposed to be the answer to a problem, is a problem in and of himself, residing in Beijing in a state of alienation from the general Tibetan populace. Put bluntly, he is a walking announcement of the lack of religious freedom in Tibet, a living and breathing advertisement for religious repression in the PRC.

Clearly, if the Chinese Panchen Lama is unusable in the situation created by the convening of the GBC and the establishment of an International Buddhist Federation it is more than a minor embarrassment for a China. He has been groomed for just such a task. But simply bringing up his name will bring to mind the Panchen Lama chosen by the Dalai Lama and held incommunicado since 1995. Indeed, from the time China forced its choice for Panchen Lama on an unaccepting Tibetan population it has been boxing itself in, tying the perception of its policy on religion to a rejected figure. It is a problem that China has wholly created for itself.

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Filed under Dalai Lama, India, religion

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