Friday, August 23, 2013

The Yong-he Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Beijing, part 1



Sean Lin, a brilliant Taiwanese student and friend, once wrote a long paper for me on the history of Chinese-Tibetan relationships over 10 centuries. There is a story here of conflict but also of sometimes diplomatic, perhaps even a cordial though distant relationship.

So I and my wife and a Chinese friend – one who has been told that Tibet is simply part of China and resistors, including the Dalai Lama, are criminal elements – went to the leading Buddhist temple in Beijing. It is not a Chan monastery. It is a Tibetan Buddist monastery (popularly called "the Lama Temple").


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It opened in 1694. It was fully built during the Ching dynasty out of the Emperor’s brother’s house by the Qianlong emperor. It is today a rich place, beautifully restored, where large numbers of ordinary Chinese Buddhists come, buy incense from the women selling it outside the gate or from the monks in one of the stores in the temple, and burn the sticks in front of images of the Buddha and four sky guardian/kings. There are many, many worshippers.

Each is expected only to burn incense once. Some kneel and do it in more than one place. We sit resting from the heat and watch the monks come and burn one and then another great heap of incense sticks contributed by worshippers.

It is a very active temple with many Chinese…

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My friend points out the Tibetan language on some of the signs. The Chinese government has worked to restore writings in Tibetan in Tibet, he says, and to see that Tibetan children, in the schools, learn Chinese and Tibetan (one wonders about the balance...)

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It is, he says, a wealthy monastery (there are some images of the Buddha on sale here for 5 times my salary for a three week course). He has a feeling that the monks are wealthy and tells a story that the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks lived off the "slavery," under feudalism, of the peasants, cause disruptions. That the Dalai Lama initially welcomed the Chinese revolution, had meetings with Mao, and was the Vice President of the National People’s Congress from 1949-59 (when he fled) is not part of his account.

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But the aura of reverence and respect, here in Beijing, is – for me and my wife both – dissonant.

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The Qianlong emperor married off his daughter to a Tibetan prince. That was one of the dynastic efforts to consolidate a relationship with Tibet through diplomacy, shown also in the centrality of this Temple. Some 200 million Chinese are today Buddhist; Christianity is the growing religion, the Churches bustling, many with three gatherings a day, several prayer halls, but Buddhism, as one can see in this Temple, also has some vigorous hold, including on the young.

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The claim that Tibet is part of China is not irrational. Yet China is huge; my wife often asks: why do they want to be so big? Why not have several parts go their own way? That is a perfectly sensible question in international politics – particularly for China whose regions and regional claims – to Tibet, to Taiwan, even to inner Mongolia - are troubled, and especially in the 21st century (many such movements have emerged in the world). Holding Tibet and trying to secure Taiwan by force are a continuing source of belligerence and antagonism toward China, of the scary image of China, cultivated in the United States. Yet the US government is a great aggressor in Asia far from home as in Korea and especially Vietnam; except for fighting Japan, America is a doubtful defender of freedom, all the modern and distant wars veiled by the domestically powerful name of anti-radical or anti-communist ideology.

Peter Minowitz wrote to me, suggesting that China is especially aggressive in Tawian. Today, the Taiwanese want to be in the United Nations, and China stops them.

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I think this is unwise on the Chinese part, but it is hard to see this policy as strongly aggressive. Taiwan is the place to which Chiang Kai-Shek and many well to do Chinese fled (alomg with many less well to do supporters) after the Chinese Revolution, taking their wealth with them.

If the Loyalists had fled to Florida (once held by Britain and Spain) after the American Revolution (both territories were eventually ceded to the United States) and set up an independent colony backed by Britain lasting through the Civil War and maneuvering on the side of the South, backing the independence of the slave-owners, how would most Americans have felt about it?

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The United States government backed the anti-radical forces, even after Chiang fought the peasant–Communist movement – the one that was fighting Japan allied with…the United States – in World War II. American arms and threats against China continue in an array of military bases in the area and 28,500 troops in Seoul (close to North Korea, a small country of 20 million, and China’s rare, old and troublesome ally).

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The triumph of the Chinese revolution was a shock. In 1950, Life magazine ran a front cover: "Commies Eat Babies." The mind-numbing fanaticism of anti-communism could not be questioned – the endless worries about "Chinese blue ants," "Manchurian candidates" - without Truman-McCarthyism taking one down in the State Department or the film industry or Universities for having a thought.

Freedom of speech and the press then in America resembled the kinds of freedom practiced in fascism or the level of freedom practiced today in China toward democrats…. See here.

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Though it is hardwired in – China is a country of a billion people, and taking them in as the diverse community they are would take work – the image does not, as Andrew Bacevich noticed of East Germany after the Wall fell (see Washington Rules, introduction) have much basis in life.

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Are there any living shrines to the religions of native Americans in Washington or the rest of the country which rival the Temple I and my wife entered in Beijing? As I said, this is dissonant.

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The Dalai Lama, fiercely and foolishly attacked by China (another person here mentioned how the Dalai Lama is revered in Russia; he is thought, all over the world, to be, among religious leaders, one of the wise) as a “bandit” and an enemy, has long striven for a “middle way,” to make Tibet an autonomous province of China. In his Autobiography as a colleague noted to me with some surprise, between pages 90 and 100, he describes the relationship between Marxism and Buddhism as compatible. He was, as a young man, a friend of the Chinese revolution and struck by Mao, whom he found charismatic.

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Mao, who also took to the Dalai Lama but got lost in some hubris, told him one evening: "there is nothing in religion, you know." That was probably as dumb a thing as Mao (to the Dalai Lama yet!) ever said.

Mao probably saw (one senses from the Autobiography) his error – the Dalai Lama was horrified – and tried to reach out. But the policies in Tibet were too repressive, the Chinese settlement and army too threatening, the danger too great.

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The Dalai Lama and many others adventured to Dharmasala in India.

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The Dalai Lama thought that the Chinese revolution was vigorous and would lead to the establishment of a modern China. That was an accurate judgment. The Tibetan Buddhists had long had a difficult relationship with the Chinese, and the Dalai Lama's relations with Mao were complex. That the Chinese government would project its power and settlers into Tibet was hard to foresee. But the ruthless pattern resembles that of the US government into “Indian country” or the state of Israel into the illegally and immorally Occupied territories….

The founding myth of China is that it is modernizing and cooperative regime, a radical one, encouraging egalitarianism and the poor to rise socially – something that except for economic improvements and a recognition of the 56 minorities for educational purposes – there are free universities in China for some Tibetans who want to go to college – and in the selection of officials, is now in the background in this rapidly growing, state-guided capitalism (consider the legion of foreign stores, for instance in "Joy City" in Shenyang - there is a large transformer with a Burger King insignia on it, KFC, McDonald's, Mango, every store American or European; similarly, "Star Mall"...).

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I should emphasize the affirmative action in China. This idea is to make the leadership of the society diverse. It does not have the recognition of past or current oppression that, say, slavery and Jim Crow in the United States are (or for indigenous people, that ethnic cleansing was), but the contrast with today’s racism in the United States is glaring. This is a regime moving from a kind of cooperative society to a kind of state influenced capitalism, rather than a society taking some steps out of the most extreme racism and then – the 5 Klansmen on the Supreme Court, even though Roberts is a very sophisticated lawyer and Clarence Thomas is…black – moving back towards it. Read Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow on the prison-industrial complex to see how extreme this is. But for the recent turn by Eric Holder and the judicial halting of New York's stop and frisk policy toward blacks and latinos, see here).

The role of women and “ethnics,” is, in China today, surprising.

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In the late 1950s, the Chinese government, with few Tibetan officials, moved swiftly and coercively to resettle Chinese in Tibet. The growth of military action frightened many Tibetans into leaving. Many monks have since been murdered.

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Yet the Dalai Lama calls for a “middle way,” in which Tibet becomes an autonomous region of China. He seeks to pursue this nonviolently. Like many indigenous leaders in the United States – Moketevato/Black Kettle for one – he sees no point in a violent war with the Chinese army. The Han population, 4/5ths of China, is very large, the army of 2 million well armed. The Tibetans are…small.

But Moketevato was ambushed and his people massacred at Sand Creek and murdered with his wife at dawn in another raid, this time by the aggressor George Armstrong Custer (the US army was often synonymous with massacre among indigenous people) at the Washita River in today's Oklahmoa in 1868.

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Trusting the powerful and armed and "modern" is a dubious matter anywhere in the world. Switch the cases of China and Tibet and the United States toward indigenous people in your mind – a Rawlsian move – and this will become clear to you.

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But it is not clear there is much to be gained except with international pressure and thus a spotlight, and pursuing the Middle Way if the Chinese leadership were to be wiser about Tibet. The oppression of the Tibetans is the leading sore spot for China in the world, the continuing, glaring sign - bright and big as "Joy City" - to everyone else that it is a cruel and untrustworthy regime. The Chinese leadership needs to back off these policies, do something to heal the relationship and pursue economic growth focused on green energy. Do that, and many will see the industrialization of China as a great benefit to humanity, emulate it (the Europeans and the Americans - viz. Solyndra - are currently being outcompeted by it), could also come round to contribute to saving the planet. China will then acquire friends...

Otherwise, that China is a nation of persecution will remain glaring in the rest of the world, China will remain politically isolated and very likely, unstable, and of course, humanity, through rapidly unfolding global warming, will be endangered.



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