China Now Claiming And Exporting Buddhism As Its Own
NEW DELHI (IANS) – During a National Conference in 2021 focused on religious affairs, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of Chinese-oriented religions in China. The Chinese government has been actively shaping a controlled and regulated narrative around Buddhism, recognizing its relevance as a soft power tool to counter associations with atheism and to promote China’s economic and political interests globally.
The Communist Party Congress of China has declared Buddhism as an indigenous religion that originated in India but was destroyed there and nurtured in China before spreading to Southeast Asia and Japan. As part of its efforts to create a new globalized Buddhist network, China has introduced the “Buddhism Belt Road Initiative (BRI)” aimed at reviving ancient Buddhist connections and fostering cultural exchange.
China has adopted a unique form of diplomacy by utilizing Buddhism to enhance its international influence, leveraging its rich Buddhist heritage and engaging with Buddhist communities worldwide. This approach involves cultural exchange programs, infrastructure development, financial support, and the establishment of Buddhist organizations.
In 2006, China demonstrated its commitment to Buddhism by establishing the World Buddhist Forum. The forum’s recent fifth session, held in Fujian province, focused on various aspects of Buddhism and expressed support for the BRI. The promotion of Bodhisattvas and sacred Buddhist sites as religious pilgrimage destinations is another significant aspect of China’s strategy to strengthen its Buddhist influence.
China has also been replicating Buddhist holy sites, such as the Brahma Palace in Wuxi, which is touted as a replica of Rajgir in India. Furthermore, China has been supporting the Shugden faction of the Gelug School and collaborating with the Shugden group based in Switzerland to propagate Shugden teachings through initiatives like the Dipankar Atisha Peace Award.
Beyond its borders, China has shown a keen interest in Nepal, aiming to counter the religious influence of Bodh Gaya by developing Lumbini, the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha. A proposed rail link between Lumbini and Kathmandu, connecting to Lhasa and other Buddhist sites in China, is intended to facilitate the movement of Chinese tourists and pilgrims.
China has also focused on promoting Buddhism in Pakistan, with the development of the Gandhara trail connecting Pakistan to South Korea and Japan. Additionally, China has provided financial and technical expertise to conserve Buddhist sites in Bangladesh, excavated the Bikrampur ruins, and engaged influential Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka.
Notably, China’s efforts in Tibetan Buddhism have been significant, as it seeks to control the selection and recognition of reincarnate lamas, including the future succession of the Dalai Lama. Through measures like Order No. 5 on Management Measures for Reincarnation of Lamas, China aims to exert control over the identification and recognition of reincarnations, shaping the religious leadership and narrative surrounding Tibetan Buddhism.
Financial support plays a crucial role in Chinese Buddhist diplomacy, as China donates to Buddhist organizations and monastic communities worldwide. By financially supporting influential clergy and organizations, China aims to cultivate relationships and gain influence within the global Buddhist community.
China’s influence over international Buddhist organizations has been growing, particularly in its sway over the International Council of Day of Vesak (ICDV) and the World Fellowship of Buddhists, as well as other organizations in Korea and Taiwan. This influence can be seen in initiatives like the Common Text Project (CTP), where Chinese texts have been given prominence over traditional Tibetan sources, marginalizing Tibetan scholars.
In 2021, China established the South China Sea Buddhism Foundation to exert influence over Buddhist countries in the South China Sea region. Roundtable discussions have been organized to cooperate with Buddhist temples and monasteries in the South China Sea.
China’s efforts to create a new Buddhist order and expand its influence in the global Buddhist community are significant. By promoting Buddhism as an indigenous Chinese religion and leveraging its economic power, China aims to shape the future of Buddhism and foster cultural exchange through initiatives like the BRI. However, these actions have garnered both support and criticism, and the world also looks to China’s overall human rights record and religious freedom landscape.