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Sudha Ramachandran

Independent journalist and researcher

Over a millennium after its decline and virtual disappearance from India, Buddhism is making a comeback in the land of its birth. It has emergedas an important component of Delhi’s soft power diplomacy. Buddhism’s geographic spread, growing popularity, and image as a peaceful religion have contributed to its richness as a soft power tool, prompting several Asian countries like China, Japan, and South Korea to deploy it in their diplomacy.

Over a millennium after its decline and virtual disappearance from India, Buddhism is making a comeback in the land of its birth. It has emergedas an important component of Delhi’s soft power diplomacy. Buddhism’s geographic spread, growing popularity, and image as a peaceful religion have contributed to its richness as a soft power tool, prompting several Asian countries like China, Japan, and South Korea to deploy it in their diplomacy.

Spread of Buddhism

Although it was in Lumbini, Nepal, that Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha, as he came to be known, was born, India is regarded as the cradle of Buddhism. It was here that the major events in Buddha’s life – his enlightenment, first sermon, and death – occurred. Besides, it was from India that Buddha’s teachings made their way to other lands.

Monarchs, monks, and merchants played a vital role in Buddhism’s spread. Kings sent monks to spread the Buddha’s teachingsin distant lands, while merchants carried their faith and traditions to regions where their trade took them. Indeed, the Silk Route facilitated Buddhism’s transmission from India to Central Asia and Han China [1]. Buddhism had some presence in Han China by the 1st century CE, and by the 7th century it was an important part of Chinese culture. Indeed, by the 9th century, China, once a mere ‘borderland’ in the Buddhist world, “emerged as one of the central realms of the religion.” [2] Buddhism entered Korea in the 4th century and Japan in the 6th century [3]. After making its first contact in Southeast Asiain the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism spread there in the early centuries of the first millennium with the expansion of maritime trade between South and Southeast Asia [4].

Buddhism’s central principle of non-violence makes it a rich source of soft power in contemporary times.

Monks and pilgrims visiting India influenced Buddhism’s evolution and reach. Foremost among these were Chinese monks Faxian (337-422 CE) and Xuanzang (602-64 CE), who took home with them Buddhist documents, relics, and insights into Buddhism’s practice in India. Xuanzang initiated official exchanges between King Harshavardhana (590–647 CE) and Tang China and promoted Buddhist and diplomatic exchanges between the two courts [5]. Scholars from across Asia came to Indian universities, the most renowned among them being the Nalanda University, a centre of Buddhist studies [6].

Buddhism’s spread in Asia was about more than disseminating Buddha’s teachings. It was a tool, too, that kings used to extend their influence beyond their borders. It was a vehicle through which ideas, artistic and architectural styles, philosophies, and ways of life travelled. It paved the way for intense intra-Asian interaction and exchange. Kings reached out to each other over Buddhism-related issues, whether it was to send missionaries or receive them, acquire or gift relics, and so on. While there were instances of kings going to war to take control of relics [7], the spread of Buddhism gave kingdoms countless opportunities to work together. Translation of Buddhist textswas usually a collaborative effort of monks from different countries [8] and gifting of translated texts and relics was a valuable diplomatic tool in pre-modern times.

Buddhism’s decline and revival

From its origin in the 6th century BCE, Buddhism flourished in India for several centuries. However, it began to decline between the 4th and 5th centuries CE and faded away thereafter in the land of its birth. Elsewhere in Asia, colonial rule in the latter part of the second millennium dealt Buddhism a blow.

While the end of colonial rule paved the way for Buddhism’s revival in several Asian countries, it was the mass conversion of Dalits (former Untouchables) to Buddhism in 1956 that boosted Buddhism in India. In China, the end of the Cultural Revolution gave Buddhism a new lease on life with the government adopting “a new, relatively tolerant attitude toward Chinese Buddhism.” [9] This resurgence of Buddhism in Asia in recent decades has been accompanied by its revival as a tool of soft power diplomacy.

Buddhism’s central principle of non-violence makes it a rich source of soft power in contemporary times. Countries stress their links to Buddhism to project a peaceful image to the world. Besides, Buddhism has a large following in South, Southeast, and East Asia. Using it to reach out to countries here makes sense.

As rising powers, India and China are battling for influence in Asia and beyond. Besides wielding hard power, they are also using soft power diplomacy to win influence. Their exercise of soft power is seeing them draw on their vast Buddhist resources.

China’s Buddhist diplomacy

China first used Buddhist relics in its diplomacy in 1955 when the Buddha’s tooth was sent for display in Myanmar.

Contrary to the perception that Buddhism emerged as a tool of China’s soft power diplomacy only in the 1990s, “Buddhist diplomacy played an important role in China’s relations with its neighbors even in the 1950s and 1960s.” During this period, relations between China and its neighbors, including India, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Japan, Mongolia, and Indonesia, involved a number of Buddhism-related exchanges, the “most prominent being the diplomatic use of the sarira of the Buddha’s tooth that was preserved in China.” [10]

China first used Buddhist relics in its diplomacy in 1955 when the Buddha’s tooth was sent for display in Myanmar. Since then, the Buddha’s tooth and a part of a finger bone have been loaned to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand as well [11]. In 2011, when Sino-Myanmar relations cooled over Myanmar’s suspension of the Myitsone dam project, China dispatched the tooth relic on a 48-day tour of that country. This relic diplomacy paved the way for closer ties between the Lingguang Temple in Beijing, where the Buddha’s tooth resides, and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon [12].

In the 1950s and 1960s, Beijing’s use of Buddhist diplomacy was aimed at convincing the world that Buddhism was doing well in Communist China. It hoped that by creating a favorable impression of the country among Buddhist communities abroad, the latter would influence their governments to adopt more friendly policies towards China [13]. Over the past decade, it has drawn on Buddhism’s non-violent image to assure the world, and especially its neighbors, that its rise as a global power is peaceful. The theme of the World Buddhist Forum conferences in 2006 and 2009 underscored this message of harmony [14].
The Lama Temple (YongHeGong), Beijing, China

A significant part of Beijing’s Buddhist diplomacy is directed at Taiwan and Hong Kong. China encourages cooperation among Buddhist organizations from the Mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in the renovation of temples, disaster relief, etc. The 2006 and 2009 World Buddhist Forum meetings were “a crowning achievement of this diplomacy”, as they were jointly organized by Buddhist organisations from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and were held in cities on both sides of the Taiwan Straits [15]. The aim of the Forum was “to tie the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong closer together.” [16]

Another objective of China’s Buddhist diplomacy is to counter the negative media coverage it receives on its treatment of Tibetan Buddhists and their culture, as well as to influence the succession of the Dalai Lama. It used the 2006 World Buddhist Forum conference, for instance, to showcase the Beijing-anointed Panchen Lama as the successor to the Dalai Lama [17].

India’s Buddhist diplomacy

Unlike China, which used Buddhism as a soft power resource right from the 1950s, it is only in recent years that India has seriously adopted Buddhist diplomacy. In 2011, Delhi played host to the first Global Buddhist Congregation, attended by scholars and monks from 32 countries [18]. Then, in 2012, it co-sponsored a conference of Buddhist scholars in Yangon. The Indian foreign minister unveiled a Buddha statue in the Shwedagon Pagoda that it had donated earlier [19]. This was followed by its loaning of four bone fragments of the Buddha, known as the Kapilavastu relics, for a two-week tour of Sri Lanka in 2013 [20].

India’s Buddhism-related diplomacy in the region is often attributed to China’s heightened Buddhist diplomatic activism in India’s neighborhood [21]. However, while China’s mounting influence in South Asia worries India and could have sparked its string of recent Buddhist diplomatic initiatives, China is not the sole stimulant of India’s Buddhist diplomacy.

A significant part of Beijing’s Buddhist diplomacy is directed at Taiwan and Hong Kong.

India’s Buddhist diplomacy can be traced back to the adoption of its ‘Look East’ policy in the 1990s, which prioritized engagement with East and Southeast Asia. The shared Buddhist heritage was useful in Delhi’s diplomatic outreach to emphasize that India was not an ‘outsider’ in these regions [22]. Growing ties with countries like Japan and South Korea have resulted in their participation in the renovation and development of India’s Buddhist sites. India and China have also collaborated. In 2006, the Chinese helped restore the Xuanzang Memorial Hall in Nalanda and India simultaneously built an Indian-style Buddhist shrine in the White Horse Temple complex in Luoyang, China. Such collaboration is expected to promote more exchanges, expanding cooperation in other areas of Sino-Indian bilateral relations.

Of all India’s Buddhist soft power initiatives, it is the Nalanda University project that carries the greatest potential for expanding its appeal and influence in Asia, and indeed the world. While the idea to revive the university is India’s, as is its location, this is a giant multi-national cooperative effort that will see several countries, including China, Japan and Singapore, pitching in with funds, expertise, and infrastructural support.The members of the University’s mentor group, the Governing Board, faculty, and students are from different countries. Nalanda University could “emerge as a strong instrument of soft power at two levels; for the rising Asia in relation to the West and for India in relation to Asia.” [23]

Aftab Alam Siddiqui
Dalai Lama arrives in Patna, India.
January, 2013

India’s Buddhist diplomacy is shaped significantly by the Tibetan question. Its provision of sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and his followers in India has enhanced its image and influence not only among Tibetan and Asian Buddhists, but also in the West. Interest in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, and sympathy for the Tibetan cause, draws thousands of westerners to India.

Exercising influence

How effective have India and China been in expanding their influence through the exercise of Buddhist soft power? “Religious diplomacy being a long-term process of cultural exchange,” its effects are not immediately apparent. Still, China’s Buddhist diplomacy has brought a visible expansion and intensification of exchanges between the Buddhist communities across the Taiwan Straits and has come to “constitute a cornerstone in the relations between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.” [24] While it may not have convinced the Taiwanese of the need for reunification yet, China’s Buddhist diplomacy underscores their shared culture, thereby moving the idea forward that “reunification is natural.” [25]

China’s drawing on Buddhismhas failed to convince the world of its peaceful intentions. Its neighbors remain wary of its rise. Besides, it hasn’t succeeded in countering the negative image it has on the Tibetan question. Its attempts at projecting Tibetan and Chinese monks as leaders of the Buddhist world have borne little fruit,as none of them can match the Dalai Lama’s charisma. Indeed, China has been unable to counter the immense soft power of the global Tibetan movement.

India’s Buddhism-related diplomacy in the region is often attributed to China’s heightened Buddhist diplomatic activism in India’s neighborhood.

As for India, although it has “more Buddhist heritage than China does as far as international appeal is concerned,” it has “neglected this important asset for a long time and not fully tapped its resources.” [26] iIndia’s Buddhist diplomacy has lacked both energy – the lethargic implementation of the Nalanda project is one example – and ideas on how to use its soft power to forge closer ties. While India has been successful in building soft power influence among westerners, this is more due to the hard work of the Tibetan movement rather than any effort on the part of India. It has benefited from the Dalai Lama’s immense soft power appeal.

India and China’s Buddhist diplomacy has a competitive element to it. While competition to exercise Buddhist soft power is “constructive as it has resuscitated the great history of Sino-Indian Buddhist exchange that was interrupted in modern era,” [27] the rivalry is unhelpful. India and China see each other as rivals for the leadership of the Buddhist world today. China stakes its claims to this leadership on the grounds that its efforts were crucial to Buddhism’s survival long after it all but died in India and that it is home to most of the world’s Buddhists today. India counters this argument by pointing out that it is the cradle of Buddhism and its protector. After all, it has provided refuge for millions of Tibetan Buddhists fleeing Chinese oppression [28].

Pete Souza
The Dalai Lama with US President Barack
Obama at the White House

What is more, there are times when the Buddhist soft power diplomacy of one country is perceived as a threat by the other. In 2011, reports of China’s involvement in Lumbini’s development triggered alarm in India. Lumbini is located just 20 km from Nepal’s border with India and a Chinese presence there is of concern to Delhi [29]. Later that year, when the Dalai Lama gave the keynote address of the 2011 congregation at Delhi, an annoyed Beijing called off scheduled talks with India on the border dispute [30]. Apprehension that showcasing Tibetan Buddhism will attract Beijing’s ire has prevented India from drawing robustly on an important resource – Vajrayana Buddhism – for soft power diplomacy.

The road ahead

Asian countries have a rich reservoir of soft power resources, especially relating to cultural soft power. India’s Bollywood movies and Japan’s animation and manga comicsenjoy popularitybeyond their borders. While others can identify with it, these soft power resources are specific to these countries. In contrast, Buddhism is a shared heritage across vast swathes of Asia. The exercise of Buddhist soft power not only strikes a chord across Asia,but alsoprovides scope for cooperation.

However, Asian countries are yet to unleash the full potential of Buddhist soft power. India and China have vast Buddhist resources on which to draw to wield soft power, but their Buddhist diplomacy has lacked ideas and imagination. Much of their Buddhist diplomacy involves sending relics to other countriesand hosting conferences for monks. Rarely are their soft power initiatives forward-looking. It is in this context that the Nalanda University project breaks new ground.

While it involves reviving an old university and draws on past glories for its inspiration, this is a project whose benefits will be reaped by Asia, and indeed the world, over the centuries to come. India and China, as well as other countries, need to conceive more such collaborative, forward-looking soft power projects. Its long-term impact on building bridges, fostering connections, and creating shared vocabularies and visions could be significant.

1. Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

2. TansenSen, “Introduction: Buddhism in Asian History,” in TansenSen (ed.), Buddhism across Asia: Networks of Material, Intellectual and Cultural Exchange (Singapore: ISEAS and Delhi: Manohar, 2014), p. xviii.

3. Juyan Zhang, Buddhist Diplomacy: History and Status Quo (Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2012), p.13

4. Bentley, n.1.

5. TansenSen, “The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing: Sources for Cross-Cultural Encounters between Ancient China and Ancient India,” Education about ASIA, vol.11, no. 3, Winter 2006.

6. Sen, n.2, p.xvii.

7. For instance, King Candrabanu of Tambralinga in Southeast Asia attacked Sri Lanka in 1247 and 1262 CE to take control of the Buddha tooth preserved there. Ibid. p. xix.

8. TansenSen, “The Spread of Buddhism to China: A Re-examination of the Buddhist Interactions between Ancient India and China,” China Report, vol.48, no. 11, 2012, p,16

9. Trine Angelskar, China’s Buddhist Diplomacy, NOREF Report, March 2013, p.2.

10. Juyan Zhang, an expert on faith diplomacy and Associate Professor at the Department of Communication, University of Texas at San Antonio, interviewed via email on 6 July 2014.

11. Zhang, n.3, p. 29.

12. People’s Daily Online, 23 February 23.

13. Andre Laliberté, "Buddhist Revival under State Watch," in Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, vol. 40, no. 2, 2011, p.114.

14. Angelskar, n.9, p. 4.

15. Laliberte, n.13, p. 124.

16. Angelskar, n. 9, p. 4.

17. New York Times, April 13, 2006.

18. Lama Lobzang, “The Buddha Beckons,” Hindustan Times, November 25, 2011.

19. SubirBhaumik,” China and India use Buddha for regional karma,” Al Jazeera, Jan 11, 2013.

20. The Hindu, May 19, 2012.

21. Bhaumik, n.19.

22. SudhaRamachandran, “India has its own ‘soft power’ – Buddhism,” Asia Times Online, July 4, 2007.

23. S D Muni,” Nalanda: a soft power project,” The Hindu, August 31, 2010.

24. Zhang, n. 10.

25. Laliberte, n. 13, p. 123.

26. Zhang, n.10

27. Ibid.

28. Ramachandran, n. 22.

29. SudhaRamachandran, “Buddha’s birthplace courts controversy,” Asia Times Online, November 17, 2011.

30. Times of India, November 26, 2011.


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