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Inside China and India's Battle for Buddhism

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Source: British Museum

In his 2017 book, The Souls of China, the Canadian scholar, and longtime Beijing-er, Ian Johnson makes the point that each year hundreds of shrines, of all religions and denominations, are “attracting millions of new worshippers [as] faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life”.

Johnson notes that this aspect of contemporary Chinese society is not well understood. “For decades, we have been accustomed to thinking of China as a country where religion, faith, and values are marginal. Our images of Chinese people are overwhelmingly economic or political,” he writes. “All of this exists and is true but misses a bigger point: that hundreds of millions of Chinese are consumed with doubt about their society and turning to religion and faith for answers that they do not find in the radically secular world constructed around them.”

This incertitude about materialism and its implications is one of the least understood and examined aspects in all the reams of commentary on China and its rise. It could even be argued, with some justification, that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried hard to keep the light of analysis from this area of the country’s public life.

But with limited success.

On peripheries, the CCP is in incessant and brutal conflict with the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang which has seen the incarceration, and ‘reeducation’, of millions.

Even more central, though much less commented upon, is the increasing importance of Buddhism in Chinese strategic aims. What began as a trickle, a sort of societal accommodation of the desires of millions of Chinese people in the 1970s, has become a socio-political tool in the regime of Xi Jinping, the incumbent Chinese premier who has even made assiduous efforts to soften the ideological requirement of ‘inflexible atheism’ with stories about his early encounter with, and influences from, Buddhism.

While it is ambiguous whether Xi Jinping is a Buddhist, it has been noted that the premier’s father, also a CCP leader, had once warned his party that trying to eradicate religion might be futile. The emphasis may have been more specifically for homegrown faiths like Buddhism and Confucianism.

In fact, a Chinese experiment of asserting soft power by opening Confucius Institutes which had been mushrooming around the world for more than a decade has recently run into rough weather. Many countries initially welcoming of such centres today look askance at them as fears (and evidence) of Chinese espionage and surveillance have surfaced widely. Several American universities have shut their Confucius Institute chapters.

Buddhism, a far more well-known and well-regarded, philosophy in the West, and elsewhere, has therefore been adopted as the new theological arm of Chinese strategy making.

The adoption and promotion of Buddhism brings many benefits to China. Any wide acceptance of China’s ‘ownership’ of Buddhism would give the CCP greater leverage to discredit the Dalai Lama, who has lived in India since he fled Tibet during the 1959 uprising against the military takeover, and his Tibetan government-in-exile. The CCP wants to ensure that the next Dalai Lama is born in mainland China and fears that the incumbent Dalai Lama might ensure that his reincarnation is discovered in India.

By owning Buddhism, the CCP hopes to end any further challenge on the Tibetan question. Having ensured through monetary and military muscle that the incumbent Dalai Lama is not officially welcomed in most parts of the world – even though he is well respected – the CCP hopes that the next Dalai Lama would be their man.

As the Chinese government struggles against criticism from around the world in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, Buddhism is seen as the tool that could reenergize Chinese soft power to complement its relentless application of hard power.

The trouble is – the natural home of Buddhism is India, the land where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Buddhism travelled from India to China. Since China cannot access Bodh Gaya (in India’s eastern state of Bihar), the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, it has invested heavily in Lumbini (in Nepal), where Prince Siddhartha, the pre-monastic avatar of the Buddha, was born. This is one of the important factors of China’s increasing influence in Nepal, which India’s considers its natural area of influence.

There is now a battle for Buddhism between China and India. The ramifications of this tussle ricochet across south-and-southeast Asia, from Bhutan to Japan. As Chinese influence has infiltrated some of the most important, and old, monasteries in Ladakh, India has responded with a host of Buddhist gatherings including inter-faith dialogues with ‘Indic’ faiths (meaning non-Abrahamic religions) and events like the Dhamma Chakra Diwas to celebrate the Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath (near the ancient Hindu holy town of Benaras). Several of these events have been attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Also coming up in Ladakh is a new Centre for Buddhist Studies housed in the recently create University of Ladakh.

As India counter’s Chinese aggression amidst its northern neighbours by building deeper ties in southeast Asia using common grounds of Hinduism and Buddhism, what it often describes as ‘civilisational values’, China pushes its own Buddhist virtues to compete. In turn, as China enters Ladakh monasteries, India is pushing its Buddhist ties into Mongolia, right at China’s doorstep, recently distributing through the Indian culture ministry the republished 108-volume set of the Mongolian Kanjur, a Buddhist canonical text, to all the monasteries in Mongolia.

Chinese critics like to point out that while Buddhism was born in India, it also swiftly ceded pre-eminence to Hinduism, while Indian scholars counter that not only has India played a welcoming host to the Dalai Lama but Buddhism continues to thrive in India, in pockets, and a wider embrace faces no hurdles compared to the fundamental Chinese Communist objection to religion.

Like in other spheres of activity, from economics to military, this competition for Buddhism between India and China has only just begun. It is likely to define the future of the faith and have a deep impact on geopolitics in Asia and elsewhere.


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