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How China Got Religion

By SLAVOJ ZIZEK, New York Times, Oct 11, 2007

London, UK -- THE Western liberal media had a laugh in August when China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs announced Order No. 5, a law covering “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.”

This “important move to institutionalize management on reincarnation” basically prohibits Buddhist monks from returning from the dead without government permission: no one outside China can influence the reincarnation process; only monasteries in China can apply for permission.

Before we explode in rage that Chinese Communist totalitarianism now wants to control even the lives of its subjects after their deaths, we should remember that such measures are not unknown to European history.

The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the first step toward the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War, declared the local prince’s religion to be the official faith of a region or country (“cuius regio, eius religio”). The goal was to end violence between German Catholics and Lutherans, but it also meant that when a new ruler of a different religion took power, large groups had to convert.

Thus the first big institutional move toward religious tolerance in modern Europe involved a paradox of the same type as that of Order No. 5: your religious belief, a matter of your innermost spiritual experience, is regulated by the whims of your secular leader.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Chinese government is not antireligious. Its stated worry is social “harmony” — the political dimension of religion. In order to curb the excess of social disintegration caused by the capitalist explosion, officials now celebrate religions that sustain social stability, from Buddhism to Confucianism — the very ideologies that were the target of the Cultural Revolution. Last year, Ye Xiaowen, China’s top religious official, told Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, that “religion is one of the important forces from which China draws strength,” and he singled out Buddhism for its “unique role in promoting a harmonious society.”

What bothers Chinese authorities are sects like Falun Gong that insist on independence from state control. In the same vein, the problem with Tibetan Buddhism resides in an obvious fact that many Western enthusiasts conveniently forget: the traditional political structure of Tibet is theocracy, with the Dalai Lama at the center. He unites religious and secular power — so when we are talking about the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, we are taking about choosing a head of state. It is strange to hear self-described democracy advocates who denounce Chinese persecution of followers of the Dalai Lama — a non-democratically elected leader if there ever was one.

In recent years, the Chinese have changed their strategy in Tibet: in addition to military coercion, they increasingly rely on ethnic and economic colonization. Lhasa is transforming into a Chinese version of the capitalist Wild West, with karaoke bars and Disney-like Buddhist theme parks.

In short, the media image of brutal Chinese soldiers terrorizing Buddhist monks conceals a much more effective American-style socioeconomic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of the Native Americans in the United States.

Beijing finally learned the lesson: what is the oppressive power of secret police forces, camps and Red Guards destroying ancient monuments compared to the power of unbridled capitalism to undermine all traditional social relations?

It is all too easy to laugh at the idea of an atheist power regulating something that, in its eyes, doesn’t exist. However, do we believe in it? When in 2001 the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, many Westerners were outraged — but how many of them actually believed in the divinity of the Buddha? Rather, we were angered because the Taliban did not show appropriate respect for the “cultural heritage” of their country. Unlike us sophisticates, they really believed in their own religion, and thus had no great respect for the cultural value of the monuments of other religions.

The significant issue for the West here is not Buddhas and lamas, but what we mean when we refer to “culture.” All human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies. While there are of course many religious believers in the West, especially in the United States, vast numbers of our societal elite follow (some of the) religious rituals and mores of our tradition only out of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong: Christmas trees in shopping centers every December; neighborhood Easter egg hunts; Passover dinners celebrated by nonbelieving Jews.

“Culture” has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset”: they dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today, we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance.

Perhaps we find China’s reincarnation laws so outrageous not because they are alien to our sensibility, but because they spill the secret of what we have done for so long: respectfully tolerating what we don’t take quite seriously, and trying to contain its political consequences through the law.

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Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, is the author, most recently, of “The Parallax View.”



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