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Buddhism in China Under Mao Zedong by Barbara O'Brien

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By Barbara O'Brien

Mao Zedong's Red Army seized control of China in 1949, and the People's Republic of China was born. In 1950, China invaded Tibet and declared it to be part of China. How has Buddhism fared in Communist China and Tibet?

Although Tibet and China are under the same government, I am going to discuss China and Tibet separately, because the situations in China and Tibet are not identical.

Buddhism in China Under Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong was famously hostile to religion, and Buddhism and Communism disagree on many philosophical points. However, Buddhism had been under some degree of state control through most of its history in China, and Buddhist institutions in China submitted to Communist authority.

In the early years of Mao Zedong's dictatorship, some monasteries and temples were converted to secular use. Others became state-operated organizations, and the priests and monks became employees of the state. These state-operated temples and monasteries tended to be in large cities and other places likely to receive foreign visitors. They were intended for show, in other words.

In 1953 all of Chinese Buddhism was organized into the Buddhist Association of China. The purpose of this organization was and is to place all Buddhists under the leadership of the Communist Party so that Buddhism will support the party's agenda. It should be noted that when China brutally suppressed Tibetan Buddhism in 1959, the Buddhist Association of China fully approved the actions of the government of China.

During the "Cultural Revolution" that began in 1966, Mao's Red Guards did incalculable damage to Buddhist temples and art as well as to the Chinese Sangha. After Mao Zedong's death in 1976 the government of China relaxed -- somewhat -- its oppression of religion, and Buddhism made a slow comeback. However, Buddhist institutions are still controlled by the government, and the Buddhist Association of China still exists to keep Buddhism in line.

Olympic Good Behavior?

For the past couple of years, the government of China has made many conciliatory gestures to Buddhism in China. In April 2006 China even hosted the World Buddhist Forum, in which Buddhist scholars and monks from many countries discussed world harmony. (His Holiness the Dalai Lama did not, however, attend.)

On the other hand, also in 2006 the Buddhist Association of China expelled a master of Huacheng Temple in Yichun city, Jianxi province, after he performed ceremonies for the benefit of the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

It is hard for outside observers to know how much real freedom the Chinese Sangha has to practice Buddhism, and if the Chinese government's current show of tolerance will continue after the Beijing Olympic Games.



Please see "Behind the Turmoil in Tibet" for the basic historical background of the current crisis in Tibetan Buddhism. Here I want to look at Buddhism in Tibet since the March 2008 riots.

As in China, the monasteries in Tibet are controlled by the government, and the monks are, in effect, government employees. China appears to favor monasteries that are lucrative tourist attractions. Monasteries frequently are visited by government agents to ensure proper behavior. Monks complain that they cannot so much as conduct a ceremony without government approval.

After the March 2008 riots, Tibet was so well locked down that little verifiable news escaped. Not until June 2008, when a few foreign journalists were allowed carefully guided tours of Lhasa, did outsiders learn that large numbers of monks are missing from Lhasa. Of 1,500 or so monks from the three major monasteries of Lhasa, about 1,000 are being detained. About 500 more probably are accused of crimes and imprisoned. There is no official information about what happened to them.

Journalist Kathleen McLaughlin wrote on July 28, 2008:

"Drepung, the largest Tibetan monastery and once home to as many as 10,000 monks, is now a reeducation camp for monks involved in the March 14 uprising. China’s state media says an 'education work group' is being conducted inside the monastery 'to restore religious order.' Up to 1,000 monks are reportedly locked inside, human-rights groups say, being retrained in line with Chinese Communist Party directives. The monastery is one of Lhasa’s taboo topics these days. Questions to locals about Drepung are typically met with a shake of the head and a wave of the hand."

Zero Tolerance

On July 30, 2008, the International Campaign for Tibet accused China of "Sweeping new measures introduced in Kardze to purge monasteries of monks and restrict religious practice." The measures include:


Pervasive Oppression

It's true that China has invested a great deal of money into Tibet to modernize it, and that the Tibetan people overall enjoy a higher standard of living because of it. But that does not excuse the pervasive oppression of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetans risk imprisonment merely for possessing a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The government of China even insists on choosing the reincarnated tulkus. This is tantamount to the government of Italy muscling it's way into the Vatican and insisting on choosing the next Pope. It's outrageous.

A great many reports say that younger Tibetans, including monks, are much less likely to try to compromise with China as His Holiness the Dalai Lama have tried to do. The crisis in Tibet may not always be on the front pages of newspapers, but it is not going away, and it is likely to get worse.