Thursday, 29 May 2014

Buddhism Old In Tibet

Buddhism Old In Tibet
Dharamshala: A presentation by Mr Gabriel Lafitte, an Australian academic and development policy consultant to the Environment and Development Desk (EDD) of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile was held in Dharamsala, northern India, on Monday (Nov 22). Entitled China's innermost Secret Fears, the talk was organised by the Tibetan Women's Association and attended by 30 Tibetans and foreign tourists, who took part in a question-and-answer session.

Mr Lafitte told the audience that on November 1 repressive new regulations intruding into management of Tibetan monasteries came into force. These were denounced by Kalon Tsering Phuntsok as "an evil design on the part of the Chinese government to obstruct Buddhist teachings and its sacred transmissions inside Tibet, and makes it extremely difficult for monastic institutions to undertake their important religious activities".

Paradoxically, a leading academic analyst of Chinese policy wrote the following about the new regulations: "China's new religious policy expands the institutional autonomy of religious organizations, limits the power of religious affairs bureaus, and provides for administrative appeal, judicial challenge, and sanctioning errant officials...

"We thus view the new religious policy as an effort by the Chinese government to fold the management of religion into its larger systemic reform portfolio, to synchronize an anachronistic policy, and to integrate religious policy that diverges from its systemic socioeconomic and political reforms."

What sense can be made of this contradiction? The most common exile response is to say the Chinese leaders are liars and atheists, with no business interfering in what they cannot possibly comprehend. The Kalon Tripa (Tibetan Prime Minister) said that the People's Republic of China, which claims itself to be officially an atheist state, cannot have the authority to formulate rules and regulations on the management of religious affairs of Tibetan Buddhism.

But the contradictions go deeper

Why do China's leaders insist they must oppress Tibet? There are many obvious answers to this most basic of questions, yet none of the usual answers get to the heart of China's fear and loathing of Tibetan culture, especially its leaders' hatred of Tibetan religion. People say it is because the Chinese are communists and communists hate religion, as if nothing in China has changed since Mao told the Dalai Lama in 1954 that religion is poison. Now the Communist Party is barely communist in its ideology, but the ferocious antagonism to Tibetan culture continues. We cannot create dialogue with China's elite until we understand what drives that negative attitude. So we need first to clarify our own thinking. We can do this by looking back at the past century of China's violent struggles to achieve modernity, discovering deep hostility to institutional religion throughout.

If it is not communism but modernity that is the antagonist of Tibetan Buddhism, in the eyes of China's elite, then we can identify the core problem, and stop blaming communism. One reason the world is not listening to Tibetans, though it used to listen not so long ago, is that Tibetans continue to name communism as the enemy, and those who deal with China every day see little sign of communism.

Once we identify China's total determination to attain complete modernity as the reason why Tibetan culture has to be repressed - and Tibetan language removed from the classroom - we know what we are up against. China's quest for modernity is older and deeper than communism. The Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) was just as committed as the Communist Party to strictly controlling religion, because it holds back modernity and a strong state.

How did it come about that modernity sees public religion as its enemy? What are the origins of this antagonism? Can religion play a constructive role in public debate and policy, without being a hindrance to modernity? When Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche once said he was anti-modern, did he mean he wanted to go backwards, or further forward, beyond the limitations and materialist obsessions of modernity?

Japan, like China, was suddenly faced with the challenge of modernity but took a different path, and now manages to be both modern, developed, prosperous and entirely Japanese. Why is the Chinese path to modernity more violent, contradictory, repressive, fragile and fearful of collapsing into chaos?

The fundamental question is: How did it come about that the project of creating a modern society, of literate, productive individuals, made religion into its enemy? To answer this we must go beyond China and Japan, to Europe, to discover assumptions inherited by Asian modernisers. We must look at the European invention of modernity, as a new way of understanding the purpose of human life, a new set of assumptions about the sources of human happiness. We must look at the great revolutions in France and Russia - violent attempts at attaining modernity as fast as possible.

Modernity is much more than railways and bridges, power stations and skyscrapers. It is a mindset, an aggregation of assumptions that have become naturalised and no longer visible.

In the modernist world view, religion can be reduced to being merely an expression of psychological and social needs. The inner legitimacy and inner subjective experience of religious practice is denied and obscured. Instead an aloof, distant, objective, scientific stance is taken, in which religion can be explained by the sciences of sociology and psychology, as the yearnings of people for happiness, which has sedimented over time into specific practices. Religion is no more than its observable practices, and those practices do not promote rational productivity, so at best they are useless and at worst are obstacles to the creation of a new focus for the aspirations and yearnings of the masses - i.e. the nation-state.

All of the above were core beliefs of not only the Communist Party of China but also the Kuomintang; and of the Kemalist revolutionaries of Turkey, the PRI revolutionary regime in Mexico, Soviet Russia and revolutionary France.

James Tong, political science professor at the University of California and close observer of China has expressed the hope that: "Once the modernizing state has consolidated its power, state-religion relations may evolve from competitive conflict to accommodative cooperation." This is a similar optimism to regular hopes expressed by the Dalai Lama - that as China matures it can relax and become more tolerant. It is the hope that modernity is not an endless, all-embracing project, forever requiring the exclusive loyalty and energy of all citizens - that at a certain point China can feel confident it has attained modernity, has at last caught up with the leading developed countries, can stand among the great nations as an equal, and no longer needs to prove anything.

But is modernity a destination, and an attainable one which is known to have been attained when it arrives?

Above all, the party-state clearly does not feel it has 'consolidated its power' in Tibet. In fact, it reads the unhappiness of the Tibetan people, so obvious since early 2008, as a clear sign that it has yet to consolidate the power of the modern nation-state and must crush the disloyal Buddhists ever more fiercely. Elsewhere in China, modernity is flowering and maturing, but in Tibet the modernity project remains at a preliminary and tenuous stage, and might collapse altogether if tight control is relaxed. So Professor Tong may be right about other parts of China, where the modern state may be willing to curb the harsh and arbitrary powers of the official religious bureaus - but not in Tibet, where their obnoxious intrusions into the realm of the transcendental is as zealous as ever.

This is not an academic debate about vague terms like modernity, religion, superstition and the nation-state. We need to understand what drives the antagonism. Why is it that the Communist Party remains locked in seeing the Tibetan monasteries as a seriously threatening enemy? Until we understand how this has happened, we cannot say we have found a language in which any future negotiations may begin. Until we acknowledge the roots of China's fears, it is a dialogue of the deaf, on all sides.

But are there ways in which this conflict can be reframed? Modernity's foundational assumption is that religion is an irrational yearning for security in an unpredictable natural world where the forces of nature are untamed, and that the modern alternative, of conquering nature, can successfully replace irrational yearnings with rational productivity guided by a strong state.

In vain do religious practitioners protest that the modernizers know nothing about the true purpose and practice of Buddhism. But what if Buddhism could demonstrate it is actually rational and scientific?

This is where, as usual, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been way ahead of everyone. He has pioneered a dialogue with neuroscientists, over a long period, and given much of his precious time to it, even when many of the scientists seemed to have little to offer. Yet he persists to this day in the collaborative rediscovery of Buddhist logic, philosophy, epistemology and ontology as rational - long predating the insights of 20th century physics and quantum mechanics, and 21st century neuroscience.

His Holiness, while unafraid to drop old metaphors such as the earth being flat, has not sought to change Buddhism, as Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi more radically repackaged Hinduism to accommodate modernity. Buddhism has not changed, but it is open to science.