China's Buddhist 'harmony' divided by Panchen Lama

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns, their silk robes flapping in the wind, gathered yesterday for China's first international religious meeting since the Communist Revolution in 1949, which some interpret as a sign of growing religious tolerance.

The theme of the First World Buddhist Forum was supposed to be harmony, but proceedings were dominated by the presence of Tibet's 11th Panchen Lama, a controversial figure anointed by the Communists while still a child, and the absence of the world's best-known Buddhist monk, the Dalai Lama.

Gyaltsen Norbu was named as Panchen Lama, the Himalayan region's second-most important religious figure, in 1995. The Dalai Lama's nominee was whisked away and is thought to be held under house arrest.

Now 16, Gyaltsen Norbu shared the stage with eight Buddhist leaders from South Korea, Taiwan and Sri Lanka, and he defended China's record on religion from the podium.

The timing of the meeting to coincide with Easter is no accident; it sends out a positive message on religious tolerance shortly before President Hu Jintao travels to Washington to meet President George Bush, a devout Christian who has urged China to allow greater religious freedom within its borders.

About 1,000 Buddhist monks and theologians from 30 countries gathered in the picturesque eastern city of Hangzhou for the congress.

There have been numerous signs of warming relations between Beijing and the main organised religions of late. As well as signs that Beijing might recognise the Vatican by 2008, there have been indications that the Dalai Lama may be allowed to visit China.

The Chinese see the god-king as a dangerous separatist, who wants to wrest control of Tibet away from China and declare independence for 2.7 million Tibetans. He has lived in exile in India since 1959, when he fled his homeland after a failed uprising.

The Dalai Lama insists he wants autonomy, not independence, for Tibet. Last month, he asked to be allowed to come to China.

One Tibetan monk, the abbot of a monastery in Sichuan province, said the Dalai Lama was missed at the congress.

"The Dalai Lama should have been here and we would welcome him. It's a great opportunity and this congress is very precious to us," he said.

"We seldom have a chance to meet and we all believe in the same philosophy. We're one family and we can learn from each other, discuss ideas and communicate. It's very enlightening".

China has about 100 million Buddhists with about 16,000 temples. Buddhism is seen as less of a threat than other religions because it is not centrally organised and has its roots in Chinese culture.

Delegates emphasised the theme of the forum - "a harmonious world begins in the mind" - which mirrors President Hu's campaign to build a "harmonious society" in the face of rising domestic unrest.

"The world is not a peaceful place, there are wars and terrorism, and I believe the congress can help solve this - put people first, build a harmonious society, these slogans can help people purify their minds," said Yang Zengwen, a professor of world religion at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

Yuan Zong, deputy chairman of the Taiwanese Buddhist Association, said the congress could even help smooth cross-strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

"We advocate ecology and world peace and don't differentiate between races and people. If we treat one another as family members, we all become one family," he said.

Chor Wai, who is the abbot of Hong Kong's Po Lin monastery, said China had made a lot of progress on religious freedom.

Although human rights groups say the recent softening on religion is merely window-dressing ahead of Hu's first state visit to Washington, some commentators believe Beijing wants to foster relations with the major religions to keep at bay groups it sees as destabilising cults, such as the banned Falun Gong, while also improving China's reputation abroad.