Buddhist conclave trips China, gives India a boost

by Rajeev Deshpande, TNN Oct 8, 2013

NEW DELHI, India -- Passing almost unnoticed, a recent conclave of senior Buddhist figures in Delhi marks a remarkable step to redeem India's legacy as the font of Buddha's thought while queering China's bid to snatch the baton from India.

Delegates came from far corners of the Buddhist world to energetically air views on subjects ranging from religious freedom, development of sites and pilgrimages in India, inter-faith conflict and environment.

The International Buddhist Conference even pitched for "full" ordination of nuns in all Buddhist traditions, arguing that Buddha's teachings envisage an equal role for 'bhikkhunis' and 'upasikas' as for male 'bhikkhus' and 'upasakas'.

The IBC also formed a widely representative executive committee and its patrons include the supreme patriarch of Thailand, the prelate of Sri Lanka, the supreme head of the Mongolian order and venerable pontiffs from Vietnam, Korea and Cambodia.

The 14th Dalai Lama's role as a patron is understated, but he lends a moral force to IBC's actions given his standing in the Buddhist world, although he remains a red rag to China that refuses to see him as anything but a "splittist".

If a fusion of maroon, marigold and saffron robes, deeply lined faces and an enticing menu of agendas hinted at a knottier tale, an active imagination was not the only culprit given the serious realpolitik at play.

Failing to quell Tibetan religious and cultural identity despite decades of coercive policies, a new approach has shaped Chinese strategic thinking with Beijing looking to reposition itself as a benefactor of Buddhism.

Beijing's success in snapping up a role in the redevelopment of Lumbini in Nepal with the assistance of Communist party leader Prachanda and the staging of a conference of Buddhist leaders in China made the Indian establishment sit up and take note.

IBC's ability to rope in Buddhist masters from far and near gave India an opportunity to host a body that can effectively voice major concerns facing all traditions of the religion while keeping Chinese influence at bay, an objective Indian foreign policy makers are bound to appreciate.

Lama Lobsang, head of Asoka Mission, and one of IBC's moving spirits, says the organization is now on a firmer footing since it first met in 2011. "There is now an executive committee that will function to follow our discussions and organize events and meetings," he says.

Though he see IBC as a religious and cultural body, denial of visa to Chinese citizen Xiao Wunan, a senior functionary of a foundation that promised to mobilize big funds for the Lumbini project, is significant as Indian authorities regarded his presence as "unhelpful".

Given the breadth of its representation and success in putting relevant issues on the agenda, the conference seems a handy platform to promote India's unique position in the Buddhist world, hosting not only sites sacred to the life of Buddha, but a thriving tradition of religious learning and the Dalai Lama himself.