Chinese Buddhists and the Dalai Lama: Friends or foes?
by Nelson Ho, San Francisco Buddhism Examiner, May 17, 2009
San Francisco, CA (USA) -- This year marks the 50th anniversary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's escape to India, an occasion celebrated by the Chinese Communists as the "liberation of Tibetan serfs." Some Chinese residents of the Bay Area share this same belief with the Chinese government.
<< The Dalai Lama delivers remarks at the start of session in the New York state Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Wednesday, May 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
At a Mother's Day dinner on May 15th a family friend -- a Chinese pastor -- criticized the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for leaving the Tibetans to suffer and derogatorily referred him as the "monk head" several times. My uncle echoed the pastor's criticism, saying that the Dalai Lama was the leader of a secret cult which took advantage of many illiterate Tibetans.
Two weeks prior to the dinner, the Tibetan spiritual leader gave a peace talk at the University of Berkeley that attracted three thousand attendants and a dozen protesting Chinese students. One of these students held a 5-star red flag while smoking his cigar. Another young lady handed out pamphlets with black-and-white photographs, including those of an emaciated Tibetan and a Tibetan drum "made with human skin". Do the Chinese really resent the Dalai Lama this much?
Many devout Chinese Buddhists will answer with an emphatic "no". Since the Lam Rim Chenmo -- or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightment -- started garnering the attention of Buddhists in Taiwan about twenty years ago, Chinese practitioners have begun to see His Holiness as a religious leader. Dharma Master Ri Chang, already an extolled Buddhist teacher when he decided to study with the Dalai Lama, introduced this Tibetan text to Buddhists in Taiwan and widely spread Tibetan Buddhist teachings in Greater China.
His students recorded his explanations and teachings on this Gelugpa text, serving the foundation of Lam Rim discussion classes throughout Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Mainland China, and North America. Every week the Dharma Master's enthusiastic students -- mostly first generation Chinese from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong -- would gather in the Sunset district to review and discuss teachings he imparted. Every meeting would end with dedicated prayers, including the dedication prayer to the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
"We would like to dedicate the merits we have generated tonight to His Holiness," the group leader would say before ending the discussion. "We hope His Holiness will stay with us for a long time, guiding us and all sentient beings to enlightenment."
Ri Chang's students are not alone. At Tse Chen Ling, a Tibetan Gelugpa Buddhist center in the Hayes Valley, avid Chinese-speaking Buddhists regularly attend classes, ceremonies, and empowerments. Though intended to service anyone interested in Buddhism, the center is sometimes occupied by more than 50% Chinese students. Many classes, especially those conducted by senior monks and lamas, provide Mandarin Chinese interpretations.
I have had the fortune to meet many Chinese practitioners at Tse Chen Ling, one of whom is a lady originally from Beijing. She told me that she had thought about Tibet and the Dalai Lama the same way as all her friends in Beijing, who see Tibet as an inseparable part of China and the Dalai Lama as an evil separatist. About 10 years ago, she had the opportunity to listen to Buddhist teachings from prominent teachers in her hometown, some of whom were high lamas who moved to Beijing with the late Panchen Lama, the most important Gelugpa lama other than the Dalai Lama. Her views on Tibet gradually changed after secretly attending Buddhist teachings and services, and one day she asked the lama how he felt about the predicament of Tibet.
"Yes, many of us were killed, were forced to disrobe, were forced to separate with our family members," the lama answered. "But without this historical event, Buddhism would not have spread to the West and to the rest of the world at such quick pace. We shall thank our enemies for helping us clear our negative karma and spread the Dharma."
Some Chinese practitioners are more interested in seeking worldly results in the religion, however. A middle-aged member of the center started practicing Buddhism in Taiwan, and she has developed a great relish in receiving blessings and empowerments. She has told me numerous accounts of how some of her teachers had performed miracles, of how blessings from the lamas brought her prosperity, and of how some practices helped her fend off imminent calamities. As a matter of fact, I have noticed quite a number of Chinese practitioners who would only show up for blessings and empowerments.
But no matter whether Chinese practitioners see Tibetan Buddhist teachings as methods to obtain englightment or tools to achieve materialistic results, many of them nevertheless have utmost respect for their spiritual guides. Like the Tibetans, they train themselves to consider their gurus in their lineage as the human manifestations of the Buddha, and the Dalai Lama almost always belongs somewhere in the lineage chart. Between the Chinese government and their precious gurus, it's arduous not to side with their spiritual friends.
There are also temple-goers who find Dalai Lama's books and teachings beneficial to their understanding of Chinese Buddhism. In the past twenty years, scores of his teachings on emptiness, compassion, and the path to Buddhahood have provided traditional Chinese Buddhists insights to teachings that they have repetitively studied in classical Chinese. Whenever the Dalai Lama visits the Bay Area members of the center as well as other Chinese Buddhists -- practitioners and non-practitioners of the Tibetan schools alike -- would ardently attend his speeches and teachings. During his two-day teachings in April 2007, a dozen monastics dressed in Chinese robes sat in lotus positions in front of the Dalai Lama's throne; multitude of people followed along when three Chinese nuns led the chanting of the Heart Sutra in their mother tongue; and hundreds of partakers took advantage of the simultaneous interpretation service in Mandarin Chinese.
While the Chinese Communists have been vilifying the holy man for the past 50 years, more and more of their people have been espousing the Dalai Lama's teachings both inside and outside of China. Calling the man "a wolf dressed in Buddhist robes" -- as a spokesperson for the Chinese government commented right after the insurgency in Lhasa last year -- has not stopped the mainlander Chinese, deprived of spiritual cultivation for decades, from investigating this popular branch of Buddhism. As a matter of fact, traditional Chinese Buddhist institutions and monasteries have been including translated texts from the various Tibetan sects in their curriculum. No sign of cessation appears for the increment of Han Chinese Buddhists studying Tibetan Buddhism in Indian and Tibet.
Soaring influxes of Tibetan lamas continue to bring teachings to Chinese cities hundreds of leagues away from the Snow Mountain. These trends have inevitably generated many favorable conditions for the Han Chinese Buddhists to learn about the situations of their Tibetan Dharma brothers, and have fostered their sympathy towards the nomadic people. The government's continuation of the demonization policy -- along with its intervention in religious affairs such as the selection of Panchen Lama's reincarnation -- will only make Chinese Buddhists like myself to perceive the Chinese government, not the Dalai Lama, as our foe.