Whilst China technically remains a communist country, it has over the last two or three decades relaxed draconian Mao-era rules, for example by opening the door to private sector capitalism and by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice, so long as it is not to be perceived as a potential threat to the stability of the state or of the Communist Party.
There are now almost three times as many Buddhists in China as there are Party members. An official communiqué released in July this year estimated the membership of the Communist Party of China at just under 90 million. Meanwhile, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs estimates there are some 250 million Buddhists in China, more or less evenly split between Tibetan Buddhism and Han Buddhism, and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks.
Chinese authorities monitor religious adherence closely, and are extremely sensitive to any challenge, real or imagined, that certain religions may represent. While the Chinese regime’s approach to Buddhism has been liberal – for example, no bans have been issued and open religious expression is permitted – it clearly takes the religion’s influence seriously, given its importance in Chinese society.
Above all the regime fears religious divisions or unrest, as evidenced by the swift outlawing of the Falun Gong movement and imprisonment of its leaders after a series of demonstrations by Falun Gong members prompted fears that the group’s swelling support could one day rival the Party. The regime is also acutely sensitive to the possibility of what it sees as external interference – especially on the delicate subject of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.
A particularly divisive issue for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and abroad is the devotion to the Dorje Shugden deity, a 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Critics of Shugden devotion say worship of the deity promotes divisions among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, all of which share the same fundamental philosophy, and whose differences lie in their interpretation of the extensive collection of Buddhist scriptures and the emphasis they place on various aspects of Buddhist philosophy.
At the origin of the controversy lie a number of ambiguous declarations from the current (14th) Dalai Lama. On the one hand, he has appealed for non-sectarian cooperation among all branches of Tibet’s religions. However, he has also effectively excluded Shugden practitioners from such cooperation despite once regarding Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being and authoring one of the most popular liturgies to this deity. Some Shugden devotees have claimed that these ambiguous declarations amount to a de facto ban on their practice and this exclusion is tantamount to being exiled in their own communities. The Shugden de facto exclusion has already existed for two decades since it was initiated by the current Dalai Lama and has slowly stirred disunity in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China and among the exiled Tibetan communities.
In 2014 the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, which is chaired by the actor Richard Gere, said it had obtained a ‘directive’ from the Communist Party Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in China in February 2014 whose title translates as, “Some opinions on dealing correctly with the ‘Gyalchen Shugden’ issue”.
The International Campaign for Tibet’s evaluation of the directive accuses China of seeking to gain a political advantage from the controversy. Entitled “China’s new directive on (the) controversial Shugden spirit in Tibet in (a) further bid to discredit Dalai Lama”, even the title of the critique dispels any expectation of objectivity.
While the Chinese position is that the authorities are aiming to guarantee the right of all Tibetans to choose who and how they worship, the directive issued by the Communist Party Committee of TAR is couched in rather divisive language. It calls the Shugden controversy "an important front in our struggle with the Dalai clique" and “a deceitful ploy by the 14th Dalai’s clique to split the country…”
The Chinese directive was made in response to the de facto religious ban implemented by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Government in Exile, and to their suspected destabilizing activities inside the TAR. The directive proposes educational and law enforcement measures to be implemented inside the TAR to mitigate the risk of division and unrest that the controversy may cause. Tashi Tadchen, a representative of the European Dorje Shugden Society which was set up to create awareness of the supposed ban, says that following the exiled Tibetan leadership’s edict against the Shugden practice, there have been frequent clashes which at times have led to loss of lives between those who feel obliged to follow the Dalai Lama’s decree and adherents of the Shugden practice.
The directive mirrors Chinese fear of discord within Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism in general. What it does not do, despite the International Campaign for Tibet's claims, is take a specific position on Shugden devotion outside the TAR. In spite of the content of the directive, the Exiled Tibetan Government and related NGOs around the World have repeatedly used it as evidence to attest that Shugden practitioners are "spies of the Chinese Communist Party."
A late 2015 report from the news agency Reuters looking into the Shugden controversy relied heavily on the Communist Party Committee of TAR directive, and especially the International Campaign for Tibet’s interpretation of it, as solid evidence that China is financing various Shugden groups in the West, in particular the The International Shugden Community (ISC) which has seen strong support from individual members of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and Tibetans living in the West. The NKT has meditation centres around the world and has been vocal in its public opposition to the Dalai Lama’s position.
Even so, no concrete evidence has ever been supplied. However, whilst the intended objective is unclear, the Dalai Lama’s Shugden exclusion has created unrest amongst Tibetans inside the TAR. This is precisely what China fears. China sustains a "One China" policy to maintain stability and prosperity of the state. Any divisive conflict in the TAR such as the Shugden split, does not augur well for it’s objectives. This is not an objective the exile Tibetan Government necessarily shares and its ability to influence affairs in the TAR is one of it key bargaining chips.
What we have, in effect, is both sides calling for unity while at the same time continuing to bicker. The Communist Party of TAR has certainly sought to politicise the rift, as the Dalai Lama and his supporters also appear to have done. The Dalai Lama’s comments have served to alienate Shugden devotees from other Tibetan Buddhists, and are somewhat jarring when considered alongside his calls for unity in the Tibetan diaspora. Shugden adherents have insisted that if indeed the exiled Tibetan leadership believes that the Communist Party of China is leveraging this issue, then a simple pronouncement by the Dalai Lama declaring an end to the de facto ban would have the effect of rendering it harmless.
Could the time now be ripe to call for closure of hostilities? The Dalai Lama has recently expressed a desire to return to his Tibetan homeland, a wish that would have no chance of fulfilment without a significant thawing of China’s attitude towards Tibet’s spiritual leader.
Harmony among Tibetan Buddhists is in the interests of both sides. Moreover, having said in November 2017 that “Tibetans want to stay with China” and that he would return to Tibet at once, if China agrees, the Dalai Lama has flagged a willingness to try and overcome the longstanding political impasse. In addition, a high ranking emissary of the Dalai Lama, Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche - former Prime Minister of the Tibetan exile Government - was nominated in the autumn as the Dalai Lama's envoy for talks with the Chinese authorities and is believed to have held secret meetings with senior Communist party leaders.
Given that one of His Holiness’ early reasons for his criticism of Shugden worship – that it “harms the life of the Dalai Lama” – no longer seems justified given his longevity and continuing fair health, a rapprochement with Shugden acolytes may be a good starting point if his desired return to Tibet is to be anything more than a pipe dream.