New front for India vs China tussle: Coming battle over future Buddha Maitreya

Updated: May 25, 2021 12:56 PM

The Chinese legends suggest that the noble future Maitreya Buddha will manifest in China - in the land of Amitabha Buddha or in the Western Pure Land – Sukhavati as the Chinese describe.

Buddha MaitreyaThe Chinese have already declared a Bodhimanda (daochang) for Maitreya Buddha in Guizhou province.

By Amb P. Stobdan, 

As the world celebrates the 2565th Buddha Jayanti, China is seemingly fighting an intense theological battle over Maitreya Buddha who is yet to descend on earth. The myth of Maitreya is as old as the age of Buddhism – prophesied not only in the Theravada and Mahayana tradition, but also in the Vajrayana tradition. According to Buddhist belief, Maitreya on earth would be the physical emanation of the Amoghasiddhi Dhyani Buddha in the sambhogakaya realm.

The Chinese legends suggest that the noble future Maitreya Buddha will manifest in China – in the land of Amitabha Buddha or in the Western Pure Land – Sukhavati as the Chinese describe.

The tradition of notable Chinese claiming manifestations of Bodhisattva Manjushri, Maitreya, Avalokittesvara, Vajrapani and others are well known. The fact remains that even Buddha and the principle Bodhisattvas are extremely revered today more by the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Southeast Asians than Indians. They believe that the compassionate Bodhisattvas such as Samantabhadra, Avalokitesvara, Manjushri, Ksitigarbha and others are still delivering to the suffering beings since the time of Buddha’s departure.

Some of the ancient Chinese Buddhist schools such as the Pure Land (jingtu) and Ch’an schools that have least Indian connections are said to be involved in realizing the birth of the next Buddha in China. The latest quest among Chinese scholars is to work on the Maitreya Vyakarana Sutra, the first Sanskrit text composed in China. The projects could be having the backing of the CPC.

Why is China hurrying to appropriate Maitreya?

Apparently, it means to rescue Buddhism from the current state of decay and free Buddhism from the monopoly of others. With the largest number of Buddhist believers, probably crossing half a billion, China is keen to take ownership over Buddhism. The twist towards Maitreya is to supplant the historical Shakyamuni Buddha with the future Buddha or to make the Buddha less relevant in practice.

It is a means to gradually de-Indianize Buddhism and establish China as the fountain head of Human Buddhism overcoming its secondary place in Buddhism.

The Chinese have already declared a Bodhimanda (daochang) for Maitreya Buddha in Guizhou province. It is the Fantian Jingtu or “Brahma’s Pure Land” at Mount Fanjing which has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018.

Clearly, the Chinese Buddhist Association (CBA) has a declared plan since 2017 to draw a new battle line between Tianzhu Fojiao (Indian Buddhism) and new Zhongguo Fojiao (Chinese Buddhism), which was jointly proposed by Buddhists in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao through the World Buddhist Forum (WBF) held in 2006.

China has established its own Nalanda University at the Sanya Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone in 2017. It holds control over Mt Kailash, touted as Meru in Hindu and Buddhist cosmography. The battle is also over the trees. While Buddha is associated with the Peepal Tree (Ficus religiosa), Maitreya is believed to have association with Nagakesara (Mesua ferrea) tree.

All this is unfolding while India watches on. Surely, China edging in on its cultural space worries India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to gauge the importance of Buddhism after coming to power in 2014, and even put it at the centre of his diplomacy initiatives with key Asian countries. But 6 years down the line, his brilliant idea has seemingly been hijacked by those who are seeking to use Buddhism as a geopolitical tool to counter China rather than reviving India as the epicentre of Buddhism.

Worse still, Indian strategists likened the expanse of Buddhism with Tibetan Buddhism basket – perhaps due to a deficit in understanding – without realizing that Tibetan Lamaism itself has traditionally been a powerful tool in the hands of Chinese imperial dynasties – the Yuan, the Ming and the Qing. Tibetan variant of Buddhism is now being heavily appropriated by China.

The Indian counterpart to the Chinese-led World Buddhist Forum (WBF) is the government funded International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) established in 2011 that holds multiple events but devoid of any deeper philosophical plans.

The current Indian obsession appears working on the coming reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. But, in all probability, the selection process is going to be anchored by those who historically conceptualized the institution of the Dalai Lama in the 17th century as the Tibetan temporal head under the patronage of China’s Qing Empire. Any deviation from the set tradition would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater – not even good for the Tibetans.

It seems, deciding on the Dalai Lama’s future is a minor theme in the wider Chinese strategy of establishing itself as an eminent Buddhist superpower. Dalai Lama is considered to be an emanation of Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara. Whereas, China is focused on a higher goal of supplanting the Amitabha Dhyani Buddha (who’s earthly manifestation was Shakyamuni Buddha) to Amoghasiddhi (whose manifestation on earth would be Maitreya Buddha).

India needs to rejuvenate its Buddhist’s legacy, for Buddhism still defines the key moral foundations of Asian societies and intersects with the social, political and economic contexts of many nations.

Buddhism can still play a powerful balancing role, but for India to be a global leader, it needs to shed its myopic approach that not only limits its own Buddhist diplomatic maneuverability, but also risks undermining its own Buddhist legacy.

For now, India seriously lacks the fuel to spin its own dharma wheel, let alone replenishing that of others. Here, it miserably lacks credible institutions; not a single Indian is rated amongst the world’s top Buddhist masters. In 2007, India had launched the revival of Nalanda University with the support from East Asia Summit states. But no one knows its status. With such a slow pace it would be only a few more years when India would find itself isolated in the Buddhist world.

At the same time, seeking rivalry with China over Buddhism, as many are prone to do, appears somewhat misplaced. Instead, the efforts should be to reach out to the swelling number of dharma followers in China, as PM Modi did by reaching out to people using China’s Weibo site on Buddha Jayanti in 2015.

India should be rejoicing at the prospect of Buddhist revivalism in China and the positive impact this may have on India’s future ties with the country and with Asia at large. Recently, when a China Weibo post mocked India’s COVID-19 deaths, the Chinese Buddhist organisations quickly denounced it as bad propaganda.

India needs to seriously reaffirm its central role and embrace its own tradition of Buddha, dharma, sangha. It needs to take immediate steps to restore millennia-old tourist Buddhist heritage sites lying in ruins. They are directly linked to spiritual destinies of millions. By improving infrastructure and connectivity, India could tap into potential Asian pilgrims. This could provide lucrative employment to millions of our youth. This is the only way to offset the Chinese Maitreya narrative which is linked to their data-driven economy and its neo-imperial quest.

(The author works on the geopolitics of Buddhism. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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