To Deploy the Soft Power of Buddhism, India Needs to Embrace the Sangha

One-off events and 'competing' with Chinese Buddhism isn't the answer. India needs to embrace the spiritual traditions and depth of Buddhism.

The Thiksey monastry in Ladakh. Credit: Michael Day/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The Thiksey monastry in Ladakh. Credit: Michael Day/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi prudently decided to emphasise India’s rich tradition of Buddhism in a soft-power approach to Asian geopolitics.

Apart from countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Mongolia and others, he even struck a direct chord with China to revive India-China ties. He visited China’s ancient temples in Xi’an and made an offering in front of massive golden statues of the Buddha amidst monks chanting sutras.

Moreover, the Modi government undertook several diplomatic measures, mainly organising Buddhist cultural festivals – gathering Buddhist leaders and experts from Asian countries to attend conferences, conventions and shows. But two years down the line, these efforts show no mark of desired progress on the ground.

The reasons could be many, but India’s lack of a credible institution for espousing Buddhism or a traditional sangha order leads to the recurring failure of Indian cultural diplomacy.

In the past, India nurtured the institution of sangha “assemblage” which epitomised the idyllic order (arya) – followed traditionally by ordained monks and nuns (or the monastic community known as bhikkhu-sangha or bhikkhuni-sangha). The higher form is called the ariya-sangha (noble sangha).

The sangha stood for selflessness or freedom from existential dilemma; it claimed no moral authority but set a path for individuals and communities to attain higher form of virtues, impelling them to form a common vision and concord. The nature of the sangha allowed communities to adapt to changing times.

This powerful concept spread from India to find roots far and wide.

The mistake often made in India is that Buddhism is an alien or a rival religion, forgetting that Indian watchwords ‘Buddha, dharma, sangha’ or tri-ranta (three jewels) still defines the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Asian societies.

Buddhism underpins core Asian values. Ninety-eight percent of dharma followers live in the Asia-Pacific region. Fourteen Asian countries are more than 50% Buddhist in their populations, seven of which have over 90% of their populations practicing Buddhism.

In fact, the powerful Indian sangha concept not only intersects deeply with the social, political and economic contexts of many Asian nations, but also anchors their nationalist assertion. In modern times, Buddhism powerfully spurred the Asian quest for modernity, spirituality, democratic values and economic prosperity.

It is no surprise that even China, after a gap of several decades, is now fervently taking to the ‘three-fold refuge’ – appropriating sangha ideals to try and arrest the deep fraying of China’s moral and social fabric. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is fully aware of how China’s already flared middle class population, affected by the economic slowdown, would crumble under the weight of deepening social problems. Sustaining people’s modern, consumerist living and avoiding the risk of triggering friction between poorer farmers and affluent state elite, which could even potentially affect the CPC’s lifespan, is the biggest worry.

China’s approach to Buddhism

It is ironic that India no longer has the fuel for spinning its own dharma wheel, leave aside replenishing others’. Instead, China’s version of Buddhism is already having immense consequences for the Asian landscape.

The spectre of China’s economic rise has certainly boosted people’s quest for spirituality. In fact, after having failed to project Confucianism as an ideal alternative guide for ethical standards, the Chinese state has been patronising Buddhism as an important social and spiritual movement, realising that it would also make China more acceptable to the world outside.

The world didn’t realise how and when China injected new life into the hitherto moribund Buddhist Association of China (BAC), established in 1953. The BAC’s activities have grown phenomenally both within China and outside.

Within China, the number people who believe in Buddhism seems to have risen at an astonishing rate. As told to this author recently by the prominent Chinese scholar Hu Shisheng, the total number of people professing a combination of Buddhism and Taoism in China would be almost one billion. In fact, for the Chinese, Buddha is not just a teacher but also considered a God to be worshiped by those seeking salvation.

But it is the external dimension of Buddhism that the Chinese are keenly promoting. The Chinese are already translating their economic weight into spiritual might – aggressively projecting China as the chief patron of Buddhism at a global scale. In fact, Beijing is doing everything possible to build psychological links with the people of other nations through Buddhism.

Not only has the BAC deepened links with overseas Chinese Buddhists, but also with other Asian Buddhist nations. With the idea of setting up Confucius centres world over being abandoned, China seems to be using Buddhism as the latest tool to project the country’s softer image and its ‘peaceful rise’ onto the global stage.

Never has China project Buddhism at a global scale like this before. After 1949, China held the World Buddhist Forum for the first time in 2006. The forum, held four times since, drew thousands of monks from across the world. China now plans build Lingshan city as the Vatican for Buddhism.

Almost every prominent Buddhist institution in the world seems to have fallen into the BAC’s fold. The most prominent, the World Buddhist Sangha Council founded in Sri Lanka in 1966, is run directly by Chinese masters.

Similarly, the prestigious World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB), founded in Si Lanka in 1955 by 25 nations (headquartered in Bangkok), is currently headed by Masters Hsing Yun and Yi Chen of China and Taiwan. China also hosted the annual general conference of the WFB in 2014 in the city of Baoji, that drew global Buddhist leaders.

China’s outreach programme extends to cover the sanghas of both Therāvāda and Mahāyāna traditions in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Korea, Mongolia and other countries. Chinese Buddhists make generous donations to deepen institutional ties through funding Buddhist projects and assisting educational systems, such as the daham pasala education system in Sri Lanka. The Chinese Mahāyāna institutions devote funding for reviving new bhikkhu and bhikkhuni-sanghas across Asia.

It is another irony that Buddhist globalisation and diplomacy, originally practiced by Indian emperors such as Ashoka and Kanishka, is now being lifted by the Chinese to embed into their soft power game. Beijing has started helping friendly countries repair, renovate, resurrect and even build new Buddhist institutions. China garners support in favour of friendly countries to hold major international events such as the UN Vesak Day.

What does this mean for India?

One shouldn’t lose sight of the strategic dimension of Buddhism. China sees a great advantage in employing Buddhism alongside its hard power pursuits, especially to seek political and economic leverage. Cultural tools also seem embedded into China’s latest One Belt One Road initiative in Asia.

For quite a few years now, China has been conducting Buddha relic diplomacy to improve ties and win important economic and infrastructure projects, such as in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In Nepal, the BAC tried to invest $3 billion to develop Lumbini as a Buddhist Mecca or mass pilgrimage destination.

With its eye on India, Beijing has even propped up Pakistan this year to initiate a project to revive the ‘Gandhara trail’. Islamabad is doing its own bit. Sri Lanka sent a Buddhist delegation to Takshashila to mark Buddha Purnima this year, while top Bhutanese monks visited the Saidu Sharif monastery in Swat Valley (birthplace of Guru Padmasambava) this year. Pakistan also dispatched the most sacred Buddha relics from Takshashila for public exposition in Sri Lanka during the Vesak month this year.

In the north, the Chinese are reaching out to rebuild monasteries in Mongolia that were destroyed during the Stalinist era. Beijing is also trying to replay the Ching-era legacy of directly patronising Mongol Buddhism. A visit by China’s Panchen Lama to Mongolia was planned this year. It may also be trying to take control over a moribund Soviet-era outfit, the Asian Buddhist Conference of Peace that enjoys UN recognition. Mongol Buddhism is key when it comes to the selection of the next Dalai Lama.

Beijing also may have taken a cue from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) strategic practice of using Tibetan Buddhism as a useful vehicle for enlarging its sphere of influence and projecting its power from afar. In fact, the very powerful theology of Tibetan Buddhism is among the list of weapons that the Chinese seem to have considered best suited to employ even in the Indian Himalayan belt. This may have already achieved some results, starting with gaining control over vital Indian monastic resources and institutions through the shadow influence of Tibetan cultural connectivity. In any case, the Chinese always considered the Himalayan region its playground.

To be sure, all these moves have an impact on other nations’ political and economic security. China’s ability to edge in on India’s cultural influence has geopolitical benefits for Beijing.

Modi was quick to gauge how Buddhism could play an attractive role for India in a globalising marketplace. He certainly pegged the Buddhist connect at the centre of his cultural diplomacy with key Asian countries. He took up the legacy left by his predecessor Manmohan Singh of resurrecting the glory of the ancient Nalanda University.

Unfortunately, Buddhism is being used as yet another front for the rivalry between India and China.

However, there are also systems operating in India that prefer to use Buddhism for meeting some narrow interests, such as using the ‘Tibet card’ to offset China’s influence. Already, the objective of Modi’s diplomatic initiatives may have been hijacked by vested interests. Such a myopic approach has always damaged India’s ability to manoeuvre in the outside world and worked against the growth of India’s own Buddhist legacy.

Instead, India’s responsibility should have been to build its own Buddhist profile and employ this for advancing its interests and making sure that China does not gain primacy in Asian Buddhism.

Seeking a rivalry with China over Buddhism is even more unnecessary. Instead, the challenge should be to reach out to the swelling number of Buddhists in China, like Modi did by reaching out to a new generation of Chinese through Weibo microblogging on Buddha Jayanti in 2015. It should make India happy to see China culturally transforming from within and lead to imagining the impact of such a change on India’s future ties with China and Asia at large.

More importantly, India needs to take immediate steps to restore millennia-old tourist Buddhist heritage sites lying in ruins. They are directly linked to spiritual destinies of millions. By improving infrastructure and connectivity, India could tap into the potentials of Asian pilgrims. This could provide lucrative employment to millions of our youth.

Need for a clear strategy

Buddhism is now definitely gaining a strategic dimension and, to be a serious player in the game, India needs more than posturing. Initiatives like fixing events and conferences through NGO-style outfits that enjoy neither the spiritualism nor the depth of Buddhist scholarship are doomed to end in failure. For India to seriously reaffirm its central role, it must facilitate its own Buddhist sangha (Buddhist council) to emerge in strength.

Creating a powerful council has never been easy, given the fractious nature of monastic communities within the Indian Therāvāda and Mahāyāna traditions. The Maha Bodhi Society of India, established in 1891 by Anagarika Dhammapala of Sri Lanka, ostensibly for the resuscitation of Therāvāda traditions, remains fractured. The All India Bhikkhu Sangha, All India Bhikkhu Maha Sangha and other splintered groups carry no weight on the world stage.

Similarly, India’s diverse Mahāyāna traditions are rife with sectarianism. The foray of Tibetan religious leaders to India may have caused serious disarray among the Indian Mahāyāna community and affected the growth of Buddhist leadership in India.

It is rather ironic that Buddhanet’s World Buddhist Directory does not list a single Indian amongst the world top masters in any of the major Buddhist lineages – Therāvāda, Mahāyāna, Zen or Tibetan Vajrāyāna. It reflects the sorry state of Buddhism in the region where Siddhartha attained enlightenment.

It is rather hard to visualise creating a pan-Indian sangha comprising both Therāvāda and Mahāyāna traditions, so there is a strong case for creating a Mahāyāna Buddhist Sangha (Council) of India on a priority basis. It is needed not only for handling the complexities of Buddhism-related affairs at the domestic level, but also for anchoring India’s soft-power projection at the global level.

This council can be carved out of Himalayan Buddhism and other institutions sprinkled all over the country. There are over 100 big and small Mahāyāna Buddhist monasteries and centres in the country, with over 12,000 monks and nuns.

Instead of wasting resources on needless activities, the government of India under its own aegis should draw a plan to set up a sangha with the president or prime minister heading the council. It is only through the powerful institution of the sangha order that India would be able to reconnect with the Buddhist world and retain its role of leadership.

P. Stobdan is a former ambassador and a scholar of Asian affairs.