Tibet and China: Dharma-centric Societies at Odds by Jai Mirchandani

Entrance of Buddhism into China and Tibet

In the lands of both the Tibetan plateau and Chinese hinterlands, the foreign-born religion of the Dhammapada, the teachings of the Buddha, lies at the crux of spirituality, values, and politics.

The earliest significant mentions of Buddhism in the eastern Sinitic territories appear to be through a revelation of the Buddha himself in the mind of the great Han emperor Ming Di [reign: 58-75 CE]. In 65 CE, following the delegation of the Eighteen (lead by Chung Hu [Zhong Hou], the minister of Ming Di, and headed by Ts’ai Yin [Cai Yin], Ch’in Ching [Qin Jing], and Wang Tsun [Wang Zun]) to the Samarkhand region of present-day Afghanistan in search of Buddhist sutras and monks. The ministers not only returned with texts, but also with the capture of the Dhammapada in their hearts.

Following this self-conversion of the ministry arrived the period of the San Chan Kuo [Sanzhan Guo] or “Three Warring States” [220-589 CE]; a Mongol invasion, political turmoil and economic demise posed the question of the existence of prosperity and peace in China from Confucianism; thus, Buddhism, with its doctrine to self-liberate from suffering so psychologically appealing, entered full-force the gateways of China.

The great monk Tao-An [Daoan] (312-385 CE) introduced the practice of meditation and the doctrine of voidness, Tao-Sheng [Daosheng] (360-434 CE) preached that all beings possess the Buddha-Nature; an Indian monk, Kumarajiva, versatile in Mandarin Chinese, began a translation of the Mahayana Sutras from Sanskrit; today he is revered as Guo-Shih [Kuo-Shih], or “Teacher of the Nation.” Following the First Persecution (446 CE) to execute all monks, the Second Persecution to restore Confucianism (574 CE), and the subsequent collapse of the Han came a wave of Buddhism that would come to be accepted by modern historians as the Golden Age of Chinese Buddhism (581-845 CE). Whereas Buddhism never solely captured the Chinese people, it most significantly left its impact through a three-realm expansion of the populous’ conscience: 1) the time-space continuum, 2) creation as a continuum, and 3) the association of eternity, infinity, and essenceless with emptiness.

Today the common Chinese laymen hardly worship Confucian and Taoist deities in their exclusivity; rather exists equal devotion to the Three Sages or San Sheng in Lao Tzu, K’ung Fu Tzu, and the Buddha, resulting in a three-religions synchronism in the San Chiao [Sanjiao]. Perhaps, Ronald Eyre’s words (paraphrased here) in Long Search: Taoism – A Question of Balance – China sums up the Dharma’s lasting influence: Buddhism is the axis upon which Taoism and Confucianism balanced, though it did not affect China’s prime cultural balance. It checked the rigidity of Confucianism and the abandonment to nature of Taoism.

The entry of Buddhism as the religion of the Tibetan people began during the reign of the revered King Songsten Gampo (618-650 CE) and his Yarlung dynasty. Upon the defeat of the Emperor T’ai Tsung of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the conquered King agreed to give his daughter Wen Ch’eng, a devout Buddhist, in marriage to King Songsten Gampo. Upon her arrival to his court, she was vehement about bringing Buddhism to the Tibetan people.

King Songsten Gampo, reluctant to accept the religion of the defeated people, instead wished for Buddhist monks from India; the event remained a palace affair and the laymen still remained devotees of the primitive, animistic, and magical religion of the Bon-Pa. No more than a full century later, the grandson of the late Songsten Gampo, King Trisong Detsen, raised as a Buddhist, called upon the Abbot-President of the Nalanda Buddhist University, monk Shantaraksita to bring upon Buddhism to the laymen. As a high philosopher of the Yogachara School, he was unsuccessful in his elitist approach. In 747, the charismatic Bengali monk Padmasambhava was invited by his guru Shantaraksita to uphold the role of bringing Buddhism to the Tibetan plateau.

Padmasambhava, today revered as the “Precious Teacher” [Lopon-Rinpoche (Tibetan) or Guru Rinpoche (Sanskrit)], converted some of the native Bon-Pa priests and established the first Tibetan-born Sangha; with the conversion, he recommended that the first monastery be established with the ordination of these Tibetan monks. The result was the birth of the Vajrayana branch of Mahayana Buddhism, differing from the Parmitayana branch mainly by way of its native Tibetan elements.

The Need for Dharmic Reconciliation

Since the solidification of Buddhism into the Sino-Tibetan lands over eight centuries ago, the landscape has largely shifted. In the case of Tibet, its people have remained believers of the Vajrayana Buddhist faith. In Mainland China, Buddhism never managed to snuff out the local traditions of Daoism and Confucianism (though, of which the latter revived and emanated with the immense influence from the Dharma). Neo-Confucianism was born, as Daoism paired with Buddhism. From Zhang Zai’s [Chang Tsai’s] claims that Buddhism did not understand the importance of social stability to Ch’eng Hao’s assertion that monks are selfish and did not embrace the Golden Mean, the revival of Confucian thought had been much dependent on anti-foreignism. The strength of Buddhism undoubtedly could not be denied, as its influence on the Hsin Hsueh (monistic) school of Neo-Confucianism (more popular) was vast. Its philosopher Wang Yang Ming once said that “it is the rational principle that gives rise to matter;” in other words, the notion of “oneness,” or Tai Chi [Taiji] gives rise to the “mind,” or Li, which gives rise to Ch’I [Qi], matter.

This epistemology bears no difference to that of the Yogachara School, which emphasizes the notion that conscientiousness throws light on existence; the power of the mind over matter, yielding the practice of Ch’an, or meditation, most evident in today’s most popular form of Chinese Buddhism, the Hua-Yen school (Sanskrit: Avatamsika).

The end of thousands of years of dynasty, and a brief period of colonialism, forced the ideology of freedom and democracy eastward to Taiwan. Mainland China was now led by the sickle and hammer, much to the demise of the religious community. At the time of its formation, the Communist Party of China (CCP), the single and only party in the political sphere, embraced an ideology of atheism. According to the Marxist-Leninist approach of leadership, the party is God and any attempt to foster religious pluralism would create factions and dissent. As T.S. Tsonchev describes in his article on Religion and Communism in Modern China, “The presence and the will of this God are visible, it punishes immediately and rewards generously. It is an active power.”

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, initially published in 1954, included in Article 88, a clause permitting that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.” After its removal during the Cultural Revolution, the 1982 Constitution revived the clause with the inclusion that, “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.” The latter and following clauses of (present) Article 36 have allowed for the state and the Party to mitigate religious affairs in favor of its brittle adherence to Marxism-Leninism: ”The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that distrust public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” This exploitation of Marxism-Leninism to suppress religious pluralism and Buddhism in particular both stems from China’s everlasting struggle against the immigration of the Dharma and the CCP’s grip on power, however paradoxical its ideology.

The mention of “freedom” in reference to religion is largely unknown to all, as the State only recognizes five main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. All entities must register with the state organization the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). According to the Council on Foreign Relations, religious groups that do not associate with one of the main, aformentioned religions are not protected under Chinese law.

Since the rise of state-led capitalism and economic reformation, the country has seen a large influx from Christianity. Reasons for this lay in the state’s distinct recognition of the two major branches of Christianity of its total five, the ability of the Christian religion to survive underground during the Cultural Revolution as a result of its registration with and endorsement of the CCP, the Vatican’s support for “house churches” – informal gatherings that are not subject to state regulation – and lastly, the suppression of the Dharma. With the purpose of this piece centered on the Dharma, the latter point will be the purpose of the remainder herewith.

The suppression of the Dharma in the Chinese societal context has come in many forms, throughout centuries (as aforementioned), and with both soft and hard power. Since the 1959 annexation of Tibet, the CCP has been vehement in crushing for example, Tibetan Buddhism (not to mention that it has always ridiculed Buddhism as preposterous mysticism).

Seeing as though the Chinese have always seen Tibet as a part of their broader sphere of influence, if not part of their larger homeland, this comes to no surprise. As mentioned, though the CCP embraced the party policy of atheism, the Confucian way of moral and pragmatic, thought, embedded deeply in Chinese society, helped support the loyalty and ritualism upon which the rise and strength of Communism in China depended. Neo-Confucianism, though influenced by the Dharma in its monism, bore a large contrast with Confucianism of the past; the latter was even emphasized and supported by Mao (the CCP particularly supports the Hsun Tzu [Xunzi] school of Confucianism, as it accentuates training and discipline).

So Confucianism, as opposed to Neo-Confucianism, with its stark contrast to the doctrines of Buddhism, bore both more similarities to the CCP’s aim of wielding support from the masses, and thus suffered the Dharma. The present-day CCP has taken a more hardline approach, however. From its arrest and disappearance of the Panchen Lama – the Tibetan Buddhist leader that recognizes the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama – in 1995, direct control and monitoring of Tibetan monasteries, and state-mandated educational campaigns of Buddhism in Tibet to its crackdown on protests in Lhasa in 2008, the offering of rewards to leads on self-immolations, and denial of the right to trial for “wanted” monks (which the CCP believes to be “pawns” of the Dalai Lama and organizers of dissent). The most creative of its policies has been the ban of Tibetan spiritual leaders from reincarnating without Chinese government permission.

The growing acceptance and embrace of Buddhism amongst the Chinese people will produce the reconciliation based on the Dharma. Buddhism is providing the mercifulness and inner harmony that is needed to combat the injustices of authoritarian rule; particularly, those among the rising economic ranks have embraced Tibetan Buddhism. As the economic might of the Dragon increases, the voices of its representatives against the suppression are also increasing. In his repeated remarks, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama has emphasized no wish for immediate independence, but rather a policy of reconciliation.

With November 8th marking the 10-year change in leadership for the CCP, the world will undoubtedly be watching China as it wields what is left of the sickle-and-hammer and begins to embrace the political and religious reforms insiders such as outgoing Premier Wen Jia Bao have been deeming necessary. What is certain is that commonality lies in the Dharma. Perchance, the watch given to Mr. Xi Jingping, the People’s Republic soon-to-be President, by the Dalai Lama years ago is symbolic not only of the shift in power, but also of the ever-present moment. The time for reconciliation has come now.

Photo by alebuddha, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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One thought on “Tibet and China: Dharma-centric Societies at Odds by Jai Mirchandani

  1. I love this idea that Buddhism is a middle-way balance upon which the looseness of Taoism and the rigidity of Confucianism can be mediated. Do you have any ideas on what exactly it is about Buddhist cosmology that enables it to carve out this “sensible” third way path?

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