Bridging Ancient Wisdom And Modern Realities At The Buddhism International Sangha Forum 2023 With Insights On India-Tibet Relations

The International Sangha Forum, 2023 concluded on December 22 in Bodh Gaya. This three-day conclave, which the Dalai Lama formally inaugurated on December 20, centred on the theme “Bridging Traditions, Embracing Modernity.” Its mandate was to focus on how the Buddha’s teachings can inform and inspire navigating the complexities of the contemporary world. The landmark forum brought together over 2,000 monastics from diverse traditions to explore the relevance of the Buddha’s teachings in today’s world.

Practitioners of the Pali tradition, hailing from Southeast and South Asian nations like India, Thailand, and Myanmar, mingled with those bearing the torch of the Sanskrit tradition, representing lands as far-flung as Tibet, Bhutan, and Japan. The air thrummed with a shared purpose: exploring the intricacies of Vinaya rules and navigating Buddhism’s role in the 21st century.

For three days, monks, nuns, and Bhikkhu scholars delved deep into the Buddha’s profound teachings, their voices crafting detailed narratives of dialogue. The objective of this global convergence of Buddhist thought leaders was not only a rediscovery of ancient wisdom but also the forging of a path for Buddhism to illuminate the modern world.

Capping off the insightful discussions from the forum, the final day culminated in a moving prayer gathering at the Mahabodhi Temple, the sacred site of Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya. This poignant closing ceremony symbolized the harmonious culmination of the ISF’s mission.

Throughout the event, the ISF has served as a bridge for meaningful exchange, nurturing a spirit of understanding and unity among diverse participants. It has also underscored the timeless wisdom of Buddhist principles and their profound relevance in our modern world.

Closing with a united voice, the International Sangha Forum 2023 adopted a series of resolutions to guide Buddhist communities into the future. The resolutions stand as a testament to their commitment to nurturing understanding and collaboration through regular dialogues and conferences. Buddhist communities resolved to delve deeper into their shared wisdom and address contemporary challenges as a united force.

By actively exchanging monastics across traditions, they aim to learn from one another’s unique perspectives and enrich the fabric of Buddhist practice. Honouring the forte of various schools of thought, the forum pledged to promote Buddhist wisdom and compassion as potent antidotes to global challenges. At the same time, recognizing the potential of scientific understanding to inform Buddhist practice, the forum committed to exploring this confluence for the benefit of all beings. Grounded in the Buddha’s teachings on metta, the forum emphasized the importance of fostering warmth and empathy in all aspects of monastic life and outreach.

India has strategically leveraged Buddhism in foreign policy over the past decade. They promote an “Indian vision of Buddhism” that connects ancient roots to modern interests. This outreach to Buddhist communities holds wider significance. It strengthens India’s foreign policy and global image. It counters China’s influence, particularly in Asia. China has also turned to Buddhism as a soft power tool of its diplomacy. They have two main goals. Projects like those in Lumbini, Nepal, aim to challenge India’s historical connection to Buddhism. Engagement with monasteries and communities aims to control the narrative around the Dalai Lama and Tibet. China seeks endorsements from influential leaders in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

India has consistently treated the Dalai Lama as a revered religious leader and esteemed guest within its borders. Prime Minister Modi further underscored this regard by personally extending his best wishes to the Tibetan spiritual leader on his 86th birthday.

It may be useful here to remember that Buddhism has been a bridge between India and Tibet since ancient times. From the fertile soil of India, where the Buddha himself walked, blossomed the noble teachings of Buddhism. These precious seeds found fertile ground once again in the majestic land of Tibet, where they took root and flourished. Before reaching Tibet through renowned masters like Shantarakshita, Kamalasila, and Padmasambhava, Buddhism had matured and evolved in India, its doctrines and practices refined by centuries of contemplation and practice.

Tibetan culture became intricately woven with the threads of Indian Buddhism. The foundational texts, known as the three Pitakas – Vinaya, Sutra, and Abhidharma – were meticulously translated and preserved, forming the bedrock of a vibrant tradition. Passed down through generations without break, they nurtured Tibet’s distinctive spiritual domain, where philosophy soared like mountain peaks, art echoed with mantras, and poetry pulsated with the rhythm of prayer.

Deeply rooted in Indian philosophy and embraced by Tibet since the arrival of Buddhism, the concept of reincarnation became a defining element of Tibetan society, particularly since the time of Gendun Drup, the first Dalai Lama. Unlike earthly titles, the mantle of Dalai Lama wasn’t passed down through family lines. Instead, a meticulous and discreet process guided the search for the deceased spiritual leader’s true reincarnation, known as a Rinpoche or Tulku. This rigorous selection, sometimes spanning years, could unearth the chosen one even thousands of miles away from the previous Dalai Lama’s passing. This remarkable practice stems from the ancient Indian belief in rebirth, where death is not an ending, but a passage for the soul to adopt a new vessel when the old one has served its purpose. Notably, the term “Dalai Lama” itself isn’t of Indian origin. “Dalai” is the Mongol translation of the Tibetan word “gyamtso,” meaning “Great Ocean,” a testimony to the cultural rootedness throughout this revered lineage.

Accentuate immediacy and strength of reaction: “As the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet in 1949, India swiftly condemned China’s invasion. A subsequent note on October 26, 1950, from the Indian Foreign Office to its Chinese counterpart declared the Tibetan incursion ‘deplorable’ and detrimental to both China and global peace.”

Focus on diplomatic language: “When Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1949, India’s official stance was one of firm disapproval. Through a diplomatic note dated October 26, 1950, the Indian Foreign Office expressed its considered judgment that the invasion ‘cannot but be regarded as deplorable,’ casting doubt on its benefits for both China and international harmony.

It was entirely reasonable, and not at all anti-Chinese, for India to recognize Tibet as an independent nation in 1947. At that time, Tibet governed its own foreign affairs, defence, and communications, operating through its established institutions, including the centuries-old tradition of the Dalai Lama as the head of state. Tibet had cultivated deep cultural ties with India for centuries, further strengthened by close political and military connections during the final decades of British rule in India.

In 1950, Mao Zedong’s China unleashed a torrent of upheaval, disrupting not only its internal structure but also the framework of international relations. The Tibetan invasion marked a severe erasure of Buddhist traditions, while the conflict with India twelve years later sought to eliminate a geopolitical competitor. Mao’s ambitions extended beyond purging Confucianism within China; he aimed to reshape the global landscape, side-lining established ties with nations like the US, USSR, Japan, and Europe. India, positioned as a beacon of relative neutrality between the US and the Soviets, became a particular challenge for China. Humiliating India served a dual purpose: asserting regional dominance and undermining a rival that dared to walk a tightrope between two superpowers. Despite Prime Minister Nehru’s sincere efforts to forge a lasting friendship, China’s aggression remained deaf to diplomacy, turning the tide of Asia towards conflict.

Still later, seeking sanctuary from turmoil in Tibet, the Dalai Lama crossed the border into India on the twilight of March 31st, 1959. Having declared the oppressive 17-Point Agreement with China null and void just two days prior, his steps into Indian Territory signified his embrace of freedom. Prime Minister Nehru’s subsequent press conference on April 5th in Delhi served as a grim validation of the Dalai Lama’s actions. He acknowledged the collapse of the 1951 Agreement between China and Tibet, revealing the stark truth of Tibet’s stifled autonomy.

Nehru’s dream of amicable relations with China soon hit a rocky patch. His unwavering pursuit of friendship was met with harsh accusations from the Chinese, who claimed India was holding the Dalai Lama against his will. Undeterred, Nehru addressed the Indian Parliament on April 27, 1959, declaring the Dalai Lama’s freedom of movement and extending an open invitation to meet him, even to the Chinese Ambassador. This response left the Chinese red-faced, their attempts to capture the Dalai Lama thwarted. Yet, in a stunning display of hypocrisy, they branded India as an expansionist power, inheriting the imperialist mantle of the British.

Tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees stumbled into India, after their valiant but doomed uprising against the Chinese, exhausted, ill, and destitute. They followed the Dalai Lama, who had just made an incredible escape from Lhasa over the soaring Himalayan peaks. The Tibetans granted asylum in India are not simply individuals seeking refuge. They embody a national entity that has fled the destruction of their homeland. Finding shelter in a neighbouring, friendly nation, they have not only secured individual safety but also safeguarded their cultural institutions. This simultaneous preservation of both people and cultural heritage demonstrates both their resilience and their enduring cultural identity. Captivated by the Dalai Lama’s wisdom, the leaders of the host nation, shaped by their own experience in a diverse land, readily grasped the rich tapestry of values woven into Tibetan culture. India’s courageous and unwavering support for the Dalai Lama and his people earned them well-deserved admiration.

Hosting the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala has been a strategic move for India. While it has boosted India’s reputation among Buddhists worldwide, it has also strained relations with China, which views the Dalai Lama as a threat to its sovereignty. This tension was exemplified in 2011 when India hosted the Global Buddhist Congregation. A monumental step in India’s Buddhist diplomacy, the event was marred by China’s strong objections to the Dalai Lama’s participation, leading to the cancellation of scheduled border talks.In conclusion, The Buddhism International Sangha Forum 2023, graced by the Dalai Lama in the sacred precincts of Bodh Gaya, brought together 2,000 esteemed monastics to discuss and assimilate the profound teachings of Buddha and their resonance in our contemporary world. The culmination at the revered Mahabodhi Temple stood as a true symbol of unity, shared knowledge, and understanding. The forum’s resolutions signify a commitment to cohesive guidance, steering Buddhist communities through ongoing dialogues. India strategically employs Buddhism, adeptly countering regional influences, notably China’s, while staunchly advocating for the Dalai Lama and the global preservation of cultural heritage. India’s swift response to China’s Tibet incursion stands as a testament to its unwavering pursuit of peace. This august assembly serves as a guiding luminary, intricately weaving unity, compassion, and sagacity, illuminating humanity’s path through the timeless wisdom of Buddha in our interconnected global discourse and lifestyle.

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