Sunday, December 4, 2011

India and the Global Buddhist Congregation

Planting trees at Nehru Park
There was no harm in trying its luck; in any case, it did not cost China much and the ploy worked partially.
As the preparations for the Global Buddhist Congregation (GBC), organized by the Ashoka Mission with a projected attendance by some 900 monks and nuns from over 40 countries between November 27 and 30 were going on in Delhi, Beijing suddenly objected to the presence of the Dalai Lama in one of the functions.
This time, China went a step further than just protest; it threatened to call off the 15th round of the border talks between the Special Representatives (SR) if India refused to yield and cancel the Conference. Beijing also objected to the Prime Minister and the President attending the opening ceremony of the Congregation.
Eventually, India backed partially with the Prime Minister and the President suddenly becoming ‘busy’, but the program with the Dalai Lama was reconfirmed. The External Affairs ministry issued a bland statement "We are looking forward to the 15th round of SRs talks in the near future and the two sides remain in touch to find convenient dates for the meeting." Unofficially, it commented that the MEA had explained to China that the Congregation was of a religious nature and not a political event; further it had no power to cancel it. The Conference came at a time when Beijing has been trying to take on the leadership of the Buddhist world movement through its involvement in projects as in Lumbini and Nalanda.
One could think that the Communist regime in Beijing does not believe in Buddhism, especially after the tragic series of immolations by monks and nuns in Tibet, but on the contrary, Beijing recently seems to embrace the philosophy taught by Gautama Buddha. On 14 October, Nobel Prize Laureate Amartya Sen met the Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun; Sen was heading a delegation of the Nalanda University Mentor Group. According to the Chinese press: “The two sides exchanged opinions on the rebuilding of Nalanda University and China-India cultural and educational exchanges and cooperation …Nalanda University was known in ancient times as Nalanda Temple where Monk Xuanzang of Tang Dynasty fetched Buddhist scriptures.”
The Chinese are said to have pledged one billion dollars for the project. Unfortunately, today Buddhism is just a propaganda tool in Beijing’s agenda which dreams to spread its ‘soft power’. The Economist recently reported that China plans to invest $3 billion in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. The Economist explained: “After Prachanda, the leader of Nepal’s Maoists, stepped down as Prime Minister in 2009, he several times met representatives of the Asia Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF). In July, the Chinese media reported that the Hong Kong-based foundation ~ which is widely thought to have China’s backing ~ had signed an agreement with UNIDO, the UN’s industrial development organisation, to invest $3 billion in Lumbini.” The objective is to make a ‘Mecca for Buddhists’.
The Economist said that the news caused an uproar in Nepal as neither the central government nor the local authorities responsible for Lumbini were consulted. Later, the Nepalese government refused to entertain the deal. “If this was an exercise in Chinese ‘soft power; it was a disaster’, The Economist commented.
Today’s China seems to have a different definition of ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ than the rest of the world. In an official Chinese publication, Outlook Weekly, a Chinese professor of the Party School explained what Beijing means by ‘culture’: “The socialist core value system is the soul rejuvenating the country and the essence of the socialist advanced culture. …The core value of socialism is to liberate mankind. The four basic elements that make up the socialist core value system are the guiding principles of Marxism, the common ideals of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the national spirit and the spirit of the times, and socialist morality.”
Lama Lobzang
Unfortunately for Beijing, the dynamic 82-year old Lama Lobzang from Ladakah and his colleagues from the Himalayan belt decided to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the Enlightenment of the Buddha and to do it in India.
After three days of purely religious deliberations, the GBC passed a resolution, stating in its Preamble: “Whereas Buddhists all over the world recognize India as the country where the Buddha Dharma originated with the Sambodhiprapti or Enlightenment of Buddha at Bodhgaya, and where he taught the Dharma for 45 years.” This was to remind the world that Buddha does not belong to China.
The GBC resolved to “preserve and conserve sacred sites and holy relics worldwide, particularly those that are historically connected to the life and times of Buddha such as Lumbini in Nepal, and Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar in India”.
But perhaps more interestingly, most of the delegates were of the opinion that Buddhism can help the human civilization which “today faces many challenges such as conflict, violence, extremism, discrimination, injustice, inequality, materialism, environmental degradation, natural disasters” and that solutions “to these issues of global concern can be found within the principles and values contained in Buddha’s teachings.”
India certainly has a role to play in most of these issues whereas China remains an authoritarian regime where the individual liberties are still very restricted and Buddhist ethics cannot flourish.
The GBC decided to form a new international Buddhist body based in India to ‘serve as a common platform for Buddhists worldwide, wherein Buddhist traditions are well represented’.
It will be known as the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC). Though the IBC will be headquartered in India, the resolution made it clear that “it will operate under the over-arching themes of collective wisdom, united voice and universal responsibility” and “complement, and not compete with, the work of existing Buddhist organizations”.
Speaking to many foreign participants one got from them an over-all feeling of joy at being in the sacred land where the Buddha lived, preached and passed away in Nirvana.
Every delegate knew that India has been the source of his/her faith. One wonders how the Communist Party of China could even dream of taking a lead in this domain. Billions of dollars are not enough, a deeper understanding of the philosophy and ethics is required and what the Buddhists will call as a ‘blessing’. The Land of India has had this for 2600 years and it has remained in the atmosphere.
Beijing’s deception, not too say frustration, shows their deep need to be recognized as a great power; but there are some obligations too, one of them being democracy and freedom of thought and belief.
In a Message, the Dalai Lama explained: “On 29th November 1956, on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s Parinirvana, I had the opportunity to meet Indian leaders and Buddhist representatives from many countries here in New Delhi. …Since then the world, including India and Tibet, has witnessed many changes and so have the Buddhist traditions in different countries”.
Nobody can deny the changes the world has been going through.
He added: “Until the last fifty years or so, the world's diverse Buddhist communities had only a distant inkling of each other’s existence and little appreciation of how much they held in common.”
First and foremost, the GBC was a common platform for discussing not only issues linked with religion, but also global and contemporary topics.
In the Dalai Lama’s words: “In an increasingly interdependent world our own welfare and happiness depend on many other people. Other human beings have a right to peace and happiness that is equal to our own; therefore we have a responsibility to help those in need. Today, in a new millennium, our world requires us to accept the oneness of humanity. Many of our world's problems and conflicts arise because we have lost sight of the basic humanity that binds us all together as a human family.”
The Buddhist family had to come together for the first time since a long time and in the Land where the Buddha preached.
The Dalai Lama addressing the valedictory function
But as the Tibetan leader reminded his co-religionists, the important  thing is not to preach or spread the message of the Buddha but to live it in one’s heart.
I have rarely seen the Dalai Lama speaking such strong words. He made it clear that this message was addressed to all the monks and nuns, high or low. The precepts of the Buddha are not mere words, they have to be lived in day-to-day life.
One issue which has apparently not been solved is gender parity. Tenzin Palmo, a famous British nun concluded her remarks by saying that in a hundred years, the delegates, in their next lives would hopefully meet again. They will probably witness a sea of changes and there will hopefully be an equal number of monks and nuns on the dais. It was not the case in 2011.
The BIC has a lot work on its plate, but Buddhist ethics can certainly play an important role in this changing impermanent world.
And China still has a lot to learn if it wants to become a truly great ‘soft’ power.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, providing the context for the GBC as well as sharing (some) details of the proceeding. In general, media did not report much on proceedings / final resolution, apart from India-China contentions.

As embodiment of compassion, Buddha belongs to all beings. So it would be ironical if certain countries or organizations are engaged in tussle to claim Buddha's legacy.

Also, the primary land and language of Buddhism is Magadh (India) / Paali, so any attempts to portray otherwise would be doomed. However, powers which have been successful at changing course of rivers, changing geographies and even history, might believe that there is nothing they can not change. Only time will tell how far this notion of 'conquest' would lead before collapsing.


Kalanidhi said...

Good News. Would like to submit two point here. 1.) Buddhism and all other Dharmic traditions (Jainism, Sikhism, Vaishnavaism, etc.) can survive only in a mutually respecting-connection somewhat like, what we call Sanatana Dharma. This is the danger of getting into western trap where, a spiritual concept becomes sectarian and then it becomes religion. West has hypocrisy in religion 2.) The eastern trap brings down the spiritual things to Mundane, making keeping man honest but unable to see the wider connection, the Dharma. There is need for middle path, good that they have chosen India for the mission.
- samir