WUXI, China (Reuters) - The Beijing-backed Panchen Lama addressed an international Buddhist audience in English on Saturday, as officially atheist China turned to Buddhism as a balm for internal unrest and international tensions.
Gargantuan, baroque recreations of Tibetan and South Asian prayer palaces, built in a vast park that holds an ancient Buddhist site, show the resources and the historic symbolism that the Chinese state can draw on to claim the Buddhist mantle.
The second World Buddhist Forum jointly hosted by Communist China and Taiwanese Buddhists in Wuxi attracted over 1,000 monks, nuns and adherents from around the world. Its theme of “harmonious world” echoed the “harmonious society” slogans of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
“I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to our central government for their kindly concern in hosting this forum,” the Panchen Lama said in clear English.
“This event fully demonstrates that today’s China enjoys social harmony, stability and religious freedom, and also shows that China is a nation that safeguards and promotes world peace.”
The use of English implies that the 19-year-old Panchen, who was selected and raised by Beijing, is being groomed as a foil to the exiled Dalai Lama, who used his celebrity to keep the Tibetan cause in the international eye.
On Friday, the Panchen issued a veiled warning against the Dalai Lama in a speech delivered in Chinese in Beijing.
Tibetan areas are under military lockdown, one year after widespread protests against Chinese rule. Fifty years ago this March, the Dalai Lama fled to India following a failed uprising, and China has declared Saturday a holiday to commemorate the end of serfdom in Tibet.
But there was a note of conciliation in the presence of Abbot Hsing Yun, one of Taiwan’s most influential monks and an advocate for improved relations between the Dalai Lama and China.
“All the exiled Tibetans should support China; the Communist Party should welcome them back,” Hsing Yun told reporters on Friday. He noted the “positive merits” of the monk Beijing demonises as a separatist.
Cooperating on the forum could help strengthen ties between China and self-ruled Taiwan, which have been warming since the Nationalists, or Kuomintang party, regained the presidency last year. Over 1,000 delegates fly directly to Taiwan on Monday, a trip that would have been impossible a few years ago.
“I hope for increased exchanges, back and forth. The more exchanges there are, the more people can’t distinguish between the two, and that will lead to unity,” Hsing Yun said.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and has vowed to bring the island under mainland rule, by force if necessary.
The Communist Party tried to root out Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism during the first three decades of its rule, but now recognises the potential of religion to maintain stability.
“Buddhism has proven to have two benefits, it brings a spiritual peace to society and it also helps materially, for instance in disasters and in serving the weakest segments of society,” said Shih Lien Hai, president of the World-wide Buddhist Development Association based in Taiwan.
“Religion is a force for stability in society. If government could understand religion’s attributes, if it could bring religion’s strengths into play, it would be more effective.”
The Chinese government may also hope to gain moral sway through adopting the mantle of traditional religion, even as Maoism once inspired idealists throughout the developing world.
It already enjoys increased international stature, thanks to careful diplomacy and the spectacular economic growth that has made it the world’s third-largest economy, but the crackdown in Tibet has damaged perceptions worldwide.
There was little that was spiritual about the forum, which featured speeches by officials and dignitaries and a precisely orchestrated spectacle that required a cast of thousands.
But the Panchen Lama urged Buddhism’s relevance to a world worried by environmental degradation, the growing disparity between rich and poor, the financial crisis and terrorism.
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim