Tearing Down the Buddha: How Xi Jinping is Destroying Traditional Buddhism in Tibet
Updated: Apr 26, 2022
The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is determined to elimate traditional Buddhists and Buddhism in Tibet. Even the most revered statues are being destroyed.
China follows the example of the Taliban as it destroys a giant Buddha statue in Tibet. Image Credit: TPI
It has been twenty years since the bombing of the giant Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001. This not only hurt the sentiments of millions of Buddhists around the world, it also coincided with the quick collapse of the Taliban regime and two decades of continous chaos and conflict in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, another giant statue, a 99-feet tall Buddha statue in Tibet was destroyed on 12th December 2021, not by the Taliban, but by the Chinese government. The statue was built by and with the contribution of the local community of Drango in eastern Tibet after securing all necessary permissions from the local Chinese government. The primary reason for the construction of the giant Buddha was a collective decision by the community to invoke divine benevolence to prevent further natural disasters as the region witnessed unprecedented number of forest fires, earthquakes, floods and landslides in recent years. According to reliable sources, prior to the destruction of the statue, the Chinese government also forcefully demolished a school that provided education to around a hundred students in the region and tore down 45 Buddhist prayer wheels.
This is utterly contrary to the Chinese government's claim of religious freedom in Tibet and is a signal for more religious repression across Tibet. The destruction carried by the two Chinese county chiefs in the region where the statue was brought down has deeply hurt the cultural and religious sentiments of all Tibetans, deepening their permanent sense of fear and loathing towards the Chinese.
In the Seventeen Point Agreement of 1951 which was signed after the occupation of Tibet by the People's Liberation Army of China, the Communist party promised to respect Tibetan tradition and religion.
However, China’s oppressive actions have continuously targeted Tibetan Buddhism since Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and with renewed vehemence after Xi Jinping's rise to power in November 2012, when drastic repressions have been introduced within China, Tibet, East Turkistan (Xinjiang), and Inner Mongolia. This continued persecution has curtailed the little space available for religious freedom, worsening the situation as a whole.
Tibetan culture and religion are strongly interconnected and difficult to differentiate. All the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism have a role in Tibetan culture, in terms of propagating education and preserving not only the religion but also the rich cultural heritage and language of Tibet. Tibetan monasteries as a whole, have played a major role in learning and development even before Tibet had an established system of education. The curriculum of almost nearly every monastic centre is almost the same, with slight differences according to specific traditions.
Tibet possesses literature that stretches back to more than 1,300 years. It is one of the great literary traditions of Asia, in terms of both its extent and influences. Also, within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition lie some of the most essential religious philosophies conveyed through oral transmission and not merely text; from master to disciple. The Tibetan philosophical perspective has strengthened the religious and political authority of those in control of educational institutions and they are thoroughly prepared to provide the requisite training in logic and philosophy. Consequently, Tibetan monasteries strongly influence national identity, language, religion and cultural traditions.
However, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has employed many methods to eradicate Tibetan Buddhism not only within Tibet but also outside Tibet. In many locations, Tibetan monasteries have been demolished or restrictions on the number of monks and nuns have been severely limited.
For an example, the monastic population of Sera Monastery had somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 monks, making it the second largest monastery in the world after Drepung Monastery. During the final seizure of Lhasa by Chinese forces in 1959, Sera Monastery was bombed and the monastic living quarters were completely destroyed. At present, Sera Monastery has a resident population only about 500 monks due to limitations set by Chinese authorities.
The book, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by the award-winning journalist Barbara Demick, mentions that currently in Chinese-occupied Tibet nobody can become a monk under the age of eighteen and all of the monks have to undergo the CCP propaganda instruction lectures. This is in complete violation of ancient Tibetan traditions.
These continued revisions are meant to replace the religious identity and cultural identity in the hearts and minds of Tibetans through harassment and torture. The effort to control the internal activities of monasteries is increasing across Tibet. All of these drastic policy shifts against different religions (other religions like Islam in the Xinjiang region have been deeply affected too) including Tibetan Buddhism demonstrate Xi Jinping's mounting repression and his indifference towards the religious sentiments of millions of believers in Tibet and throughout China.
The paper titled China: First CCP National Conference on Religion Held Since 2016 written by a dissident scholar Hu Zimo (pseudonym) on 12th August 2021 detailed how President Xi Jinping had announced plans for a more severe crackdown on religion. The author further detailed that the conference was attended by all the top leaders of CCP signalling the scale at which these oppressions had been planned. In that speech Xi had noted 'problems' that still existed in religious propagation, according to him. Xi Jinping asked for more Marxism, surveillance of the internet, and Sinicization. He also demanded prevention of what he called 'religious propaganda' on social media.
One example of how these plans have unfolded comes from one of the largest social networks called Blued, launched in 2012, which is quite famous in China within the gay community. But on 12th April 2021, an article titled 'Chinese LGBT social media app banned users from posting religious content' by Chen Tao detailed that homosexuals in China are strictly prohibited from expressing their opinions on religious matters on this network. Though religious posts still continue, if they are caught by the Chinese authorities, the accounts of the authors are blocked.
On 3rd January 2021, The Global Times, the CCP mouthpiece, published an article, 'Observing Historical Convention: the Reincarnation of Tibetan Living Buddha under Central Government Jurisdiction'. The author mentioned that the reincarnation of the living Buddha is meant to settle the problem of the succession of leaders of Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In January 2016, the State Administration of Religious Affairs had announced that all reincarnated lamas must be approved by the CCP. This list of reincarnated lamas also included all official 'living Buddhas'. The living Buddha-in-exile however, the 14th Dalai Lama's name was not found on the list. The CCP is working to bring every aspect of Buddhism under its control to ensure that only spiritual figures who have its 'approval' are allowed.
Recently, on 14th December 2021, in the paper written by Sophie Richardson, 'Chinese Authorities Double down on Tibetan Reincarnation', the author indicated that the Communist party's objective is to looking to ensure full control on also the selection of the next Dalai Lama. Thubten Samphel, the former Director of the Tibet Policy Institute has written that if Beijing’s appointment of the next Dalai Lama succeeds, it would rope in the whole of the Buddhist Himalayan belt under its influence without firing a shot.
Tibetan monasteries are the greatest contributors to the field of education and national identity in Tibet. Scholarly training provided in Tibetan monasteries has sustained the region's culture, religion and language. Monasteries are providing education which ultimately brings about faith in tradition, and means and ability to prevent the disappearance of one's (endangered) nationality. This is a firm counter to Communist ideology. Therefore, the majority of self-immolations (protesting Chinese oppression) that occur in Tibet are committed by monks. This is why Xi Jinping is against traditional Buddhism in Tibet, and why his troops are tearing down revered Buddha statues.
(Dr. Tsering Dolma is currently a Research Fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute)