Buddhist monks
Buddhist monks

China using Buddhism to increase its influence in South Asia

By: Amitabh Mathur (ANI) | Updated: Dec 07, 2018 17:18 IST

New Delhi [India], Dec 7 (ANI): In a bid to increase its influence in South Asia, China is slowly using Buddhism as a soft power. From rewriting sacred texts by introducing Chinese narrative to developing Buddhist pilgrim sites and controlling monasteries in its own way, China is working slowly towards changing the narrative of India-centric Buddhism and emerge as leader of the Buddhist world.
While a lot has been written about China's emergence as a global power, its increasing assertiveness in India's neighborhood, attempted military encirclement of India, impact of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and acquisition of stakes in Dhaka and Karachi Stock Exchanges; China using Buddhism to augment its influence in south Asia has largely escaped adequate scrutiny.
With acknowledged 250 million followers, and informally estimated at 400 million, China is seeking to emerge as a leader of the Buddhist world. It finds Buddhism useful in creating the harmonious society Hu Jintao envisaged and Xi Jinping is promoting. In the last Party Congress, it declared Buddhism as indigenous having been destroyed in India and nurtured in China from where it spread to south East Asia and Japan.
China has sought to dominate the narrative by taking control of the Common Text Project (CTP) undertaken by the International Council of Day of Vesak (ICDV) under the stewardship of Maha Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. The mammoth project will create one text of over 250000 words and around 425 pages of selected translations from Tibetan, Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese representing Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions into English. Tibetan scholars associated with the project have been eased out and reports indicate that Tibetan textual sources, which had formed major part of the CTP have been reduced to a few chapters and footnotes. Instead, Chinese texts are credited as the source. The Tibetan texts origins of which are traced to the Nalanda tradition are being relegated to a position secondary to the Chinese texts.
Besides, China has gained considerable influence over international Buddhist organisations such as the ICDV, World Fellowship of Buddhists and the World Buddhist Forum, which recently held its 5th session in the city of Putian in the eastern province of Fujian. Apart from other things the session resolved to support the BRI.
The Nanhai Buddhist Academy modeled on the ancient Nalanda University has been set up in Hainan province with courses taught in Chinese, Pali and Tibetan. 200 monks have already enrolled while India's own initiative languishes. To add insult to injury, the Academy worksite has been named Brahmlok! Buddhist holy sites in India are being replicated with the Brahma Palace in Wuxi being touted as Rajgir. Abodes of Bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara, Amitabha and Manjushri are being promoted as religious pilgrimage destinations.
China is particularly active in India's neighborhood. It has arm-twisted Nepal Government to curb pro Dalai Lama activities on the Tibet-Nepal border and embarked on a tremendous initiative to extend its influence over followers of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal.
Lucrative offers have been made to develop Lumbini, birthplace of Prince Siddhartha to prop it against Bodhgaya where he attained enlightenment as Gautam Buddha. With a proposed rail link between Lumbini and Kathmandu which will in turn connect to Lhasa and Buddhist sites in China, a new globalised Buddhist network will be created that will be fuelled by well-healed Chinese tourists and pilgrims. And all this while Indian Buddhist pilgrimage initiative has not progressed beyond bold declarations. With the Chinese sitting in the Terai on Indian border one can only imagine the consequences.
Noteworthy is China's interest in developing and promoting the Gandhara trail of Buddhism connecting it to South Korea, Japan and Guru Padmasambhava. Pakistan has recently approved establishment of Gandhara University thereby reviving the ancient Taxila University. Buddhist monks from Bhutan are being taken to mythical Odiyana in Swat as the birthplace of Guru Padmasambhava. Under the patronage of ICDV, Pakistan this year celebrated the International Day of Vesak, Buddha's day of birth, enlightenment and parinirvana.
In Bangladesh, birthplace of Atisha Dipankar, credited with the second coming of Buddhism, China has extended financial and technical expertise for conserving Buddhist sites in Comilla adjoining Tripura. A joint China-Bangladesh team has excavated the Bikrampur ruins. What is significant about Bangladesh is that Atisha spent last 10 years of his life in Tibet where his foremost disciple was the founder of the Kadam School, progenitor of the Gelug School. Prominent members of the China-backed Shugden faction of the Gelug School, which is at loggerheads with the Dalai Lama, have made frequent trips to Bangladesh to engage with the local clergy. An annual Dipankar Atisha Peace Award has been instituted with financial help from Shugden group based in Switzerland.
In Sri Lanka, China has made hefty donations to the various Nikayas to engage and cultivate the influential Buddhist clergy. Such is China's influence that a prominent Sinhalese daily had to suspend publication of Dalai Lama's book My Life and my People.
Of particular interest to India should be China's preparations for the post 14th Dalai Lama phase. It has sought to create a loyal cadre of monks; it has downsized number of monks in monasteries, ensured appointment of pliant monastic heads. Through the Order No 5 on Management Measures for Reincarnation of Lamas, it seeks to control identification and recognition of reincarnations. A beginning has been made with the Panchen, Penor, Reting and Adoe Rinpoches asserting right to control reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. China is trying, though not very successfully, to chip away at Dalai Lama's image by propping up the Shugden group and disgruntled monks.
India needs to do more to use its unique position as the birthplace of Buddhism. It does not have to react to China but it would be doing itself disservice if it cedes soft power space in its neighborhood. (ANI)