Tibetan Buddhism: A Source and Strength of India’s Soft Power Diplomacy
Dr Tenzin Tsultrim

The relations between Tibet, India and China are best illustrated in the words of Claude Arpi, a noted historian and journalist who has written a series of important books on Tibet, India and China, including, The Fate of Tibet: When the Big Insects Eats Small Insects. Arpi writes:

“It is interesting to note that in the history of the three nations, Tibet and China always had a relation based on force and power, while Tibet and India had more of a cultural and religious relationship based on shared spiritual values.”

With the above Claude Arpi’s words as a background perhaps it is viable to say that the commonality between India and Tibet is far greater than any other neighbouring countries in the world. India’s greatest gifts to Tibet are Buddhism and Tibetan script. Both Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan script owe their origins and developments to the immense contributions from the eminent Indian gurus and scholars. And Tibet’s greatest gift to India is the preservation and development of Buddhism based on the Nalanda tradition. According to the Dalai Lama, the best interpretation of Buddhist tradition based on Nalanda masters is available only in the Tibetan language. Thus, it shows the bond and enduring connectivity between these two nations in the past.

Indian scholars and masters have contributed immensely to the development of Buddhism in Tibet. Hence it is no wonder that the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet at Samye known as Samye Mingyur Lhungyi Drupe Tsuklakhang which was modelled on Odantapuri Tsuklakhang in Bihar was officially patronised by the Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen (755-798 AD) and constructed under the guidance of Shantarakshita, the abbot of Nalanda, and the Master Padmasambhava, for the study of Buddhism and training of monks. During the same period, there was a great debate between Pandita Kamalasila, a student of Shantarakshita and a monk named Hoshang Mahayana from China. The main topic of their debate centred around the correct path to attain enlightenment. It is said that the debate lasted for two years (792-794). Finally, Pandita Kamalasila was declared a winner and he was presented a garland of flowers by Hoshang Mahayana. Later, the Emperor decreed that the doctrine articulated by the Indian Buddhist scholars must be studied and followed in Tibet. Emperor Trisong Detsen’s edict declared Buddhism as a state religion. Since then Tibetans followed Indian monasticism as developed and practised in Nalanda, the great Buddhist monastic university in northern India. This event validated the profound contributions made by the Indian scholars and masters in the development of Tibetan Buddhism as well as their flair and great erudition in the religious debate.

Soon under the guidance of Indian scholars and masters, the Tibetans translators were able to translate a tremendous number of Buddhist texts on tantra and dialectics into the Tibetan language. The translation work of the Tibetan translators was so rich and voluminous, that the great Bengali scholar and also the abbot of Vikramshila University, Atisha, when visiting Samye Monastery found many Indian manuscripts, and he also noticed many manuscripts which were not to be found in India. Highly impressed and pleased with the rich repository of collection, the great Indian Master Atisha had this to say: “It seems the doctrine had first spread in Tibet, even more than in India”

Tibetan Buddhism and its Significance to India’s Soft Power

Currently there are around 281 Tibetan monasteries and nunneries in India, which also serves as institutions of higher Buddhist learning. Because of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, every year millions of people from all over the world visit India.

For instance, in the state of Bihar, as early as 2005, the total number of foreign tourists’ visit to Bihar was 64,114. Out of this, the total number of foreign tourists’ visit to Buddhist destinations was 45,149 and the total number of foreign tourists’ visit to non-Buddhist destinations was 18,965. In short, foreign tourists accounted for almost 7% of the traffic at Buddhist destinations and less than 1% at non-Buddhist destinations. In 2017- 2018, the total number of foreign tourists' visit to Bihar was 1087971. Out of 36 states and union territories, Bihar is ranked at number 9, beating the popular tourist destination like Goa. Coincidentally, in January 2017 Kalachakra initiation was held in Bodh Gaya by the Dalai Lama. According to an official website of Private Office of the Dalai Lama, the Kalachakra garnered around 200,000 people, which includes both domestic and foreign visitors. According to Bihar tourism department data, the month of January had 75,250 foreign tourists to Bodh Gaya, which was the highest number of foreign tourists’ visit in the months of 2017. On the other hand, from 8-28 January 2018, for around 18 days teachings were given by the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya. In December 2018 the Dalai Lama gave ten days teachings. Accordingly, the month of January 2018 had 57,928 foreign tourists’ visits to Bodh Gaya, which again was the highest number of foreign tourists’ visit in the months of 2018. In December 2018, the number of foreign tourists’ visits to Bodh Gaya was 29,328, earning the fourth highest foreign tourists’ arrivals in the 2018. In short, in 2018 alone, the total number of foreign tourists’ visit in Bodhgaya was 270,787, and the total number of foreign tourists’ visit in the month of January and December was 87,256. Scholar Daya Kishan Thussu and researcher Shantanu Kishwar talk about a reinvigoration of Buddhist sites and India’s image in the global Buddhist community because of the presence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people.

Hence Tibetan Buddhism has attracted enough foreign tourists within the span of two months. This writer believes that this trend could be followed effectively all over the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. Because as the technology gets more sophisticated, there is a need for humans to find solace in someone they could find spiritual refuge. Buddhism has the potential to fill this spiritual vacuum in the future.

A Battle of the Narrative: Soft Power versus Hard Power

Greg Bruno in his book, “Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft Power War on Tibet”, published in 2018 revealed that, with 13.1 million followers, the Dalai Lama was more popular on Twitter than the Presidents of Turkey, France and Israel combined. Currently, the Dalai Lama has 19.3 million followers on his Twitter handle (@DalaiLama). This writer found that the Dalai Lama has more followers than the combined Twitter handles’ followers of extended propaganda departments of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): The Global Times, China Daily, the People’s Daily (China), spokesperson Hua Chunying, spokesman Lijian Zhao, Chinese ambassadors and embassy official accounts of the UK, USA, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Austria. This development shows that the Dalai Lama of Tibet is excelling in its battle against the CCP in the realm of soft power diplomacy.

Thubten Samphel, a former director of the Tibetan Policy Institute, CTA, Dharamshala, and also a prolific commentator on issues relating to Tibet and China in his monograph, “The Art of Non-violence”, writes: “On the overall fate of Tibet, China might be winning the war but in this specific battle Tibet’s soft power is making huge strikes in convincing increasing numbers of Chinese scholars and writers to tell the Tibet story to a Chinese audience.” He further added that, “Tibetan ability to tell their story convincingly to the Chinese might determine the outcome of the story itself.” Hence the victory of Tibet’s soft power is also a victory of India’s soft power as well. In order to make soft power roll effectively, one needs to lay the groundwork for the future. A few things the Government of India (GOI) could do to strengthen its base for its soft power diplomacy is to provide encouragement and scholarships to the Indian students interested in studying Tibetan language. Because almost all the rich essence of Buddhist tradition based on Nalanda is available only in the Tibetan language.

For this to be effective, encouragement should be given to the interested Indian students to learn Tibetan language as early as possible. Without an understanding of the Tibetan language, it is difficult to understand the concept of Tibetan Buddhism. And without the comprehensive knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, it is difficult to comprehend Buddhist tradition of Nalanda and to evoke India’s soft power diplomacy. This writer thinks now loyal Chela (disciple) is in a position to repay his guru-dakshina (It roughly refers to the tradition of repaying one’s teacher) in the form of preaching and teaching of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan language. For a beginner, GOI could employ the resources of Tibetan language teachers on a pilot basis in each state. And particularly more so, they could be employed in Buddhist religious sites.

For an advanced level, currently there are few Tibetan Institutes teaching the Tibetan language, Tibetan literature and Buddhist philosophy. They are Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Varanasi, College for Higher Tibetan Studies (Sarah), Dharamshala, the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education, Bangalore, Amnye Machen Institute, Dharamshala (is a research-based centre currently managed single-handedly by renowned Tibetan Tibetologist, historian, Tashi Tsering), and Songtsen Library (also called Center for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies) in Dehradun, north India.

Another thing the GOI could do is to lay the foundation and establishment of world biggest dedicated Buddhist Library, which may do wonder in attracting Buddhist scholars, teachers and millions of followers of Buddhism all around the world. In this part both the Bihar and Central governments are its stakeholders. The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) is already doing immense services and attracting thousands of scholars and students all around the world. LTWA and Songtsen Library could be the role models for the establishment of future Buddhist library (ies) in India.

Tibetan Buddhism in the Age of the Belt and Road Initiative

The CCP’s current legitimacy in China is largely based on performance based-legitimacy. Hence, in order to have a steady inflow and outflow of the resources and services to sustain their goliath economy, CCP under Xi Jinping has introduced a massive project in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The CCP-led government also spends millions of dollars in South and Southeast Asian countries to link their Buddhist heritage to the soft landing of BRI. The CCP is working through different projects such as the US $ 3 Billion Lumbini project in Nepal, and the recent US $ 1.1 billion loan to the island nation of Sri-Lanka to build a motorway, to soften its erratic image and woo countries having a significant amount of Buddhist population in their BRI projects. Nepal, Sri-Lanka, Mongolia, Bhutan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam, are countries where there is significant amount of Buddhist population.

In order to use Buddhism in the promotion of BRI, China is trying to legitimise and appropriate their asserted spiritual ownership of Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. In 2018, a two-day symposium was organised in Tsongon (Qinghai) region of Tibet to discuss how Tibetan Buddhism could better serve China’s Belt and Road Initiative and resist separatism. Qin Yongzhang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is quoted in the Global Times saying that, “Tibet Buddhism can serve as a bridge between Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries to better communicate with each other, since the religious and cultural beliefs are similar in Central and South Asia.” He further added that, “One immediate challenge of promoting BRI through Tibetan Buddhism comes from India, which has been holding back for geopolitical reasons…”

In the recent Seventh Tibet Work Forum held in Beijing on August 29-30, 2020, where Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the CCP, emphasised that, “Tibetan Buddhism be guided in adapting to the socialist society and should be developed in the Chinese context.” Hence, all the above developments indicate that the CCP is planning to promote BRI intensively through Tibetan Buddhism.

Unlike China, India has not only a younger population, but one already equipped with the English language. This means they are in a better position to express India’s soft power in a positive way. In the struggle for Buddhist soft power diplomacy, China will not only be struggling to learn both the Tibetan and English languages and also because of their past history and treatments toward religions in China and in their occupied territories: Tibet, East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia, it will be difficult for the CCP-controlled China to win the hearts and minds of Buddhist believers in other parts of Asia. In short, for this soft power diplomacy to succeed, India needs to take smart choices and hard steps.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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