Vas Shenoy

Buddhism, Prayer and China: are monks scary?

Tawang Monastery:
Vikramjit Kakati, CC license,
Tawang Monastery: Vikramjit Kakati, CC license,

It would seem that geopolitics and spirituality are very far from each other. In the case of the Communist Party of China (CCP) especially, given how hard the supreme leader Xi Jinping has worked in Xin Jiang to rid the local Uyghur population of Islam. However it would be very surprising that the recent clashes between the world’s most populous countries India and China, have a lot to do with Buddhism, a religion of peace.

On 9th of December 300 Chinese soldiers crossed over into Indian territory at 3am . Within minutes, 100-150 Indian troops responded. Given an agreement not to use firearms, the fighting involved clubs, sticks and machetes. Six Indians were grievously injured. The numbers are much higher for the Chinese. No deaths were reported unlike the 2020 clashes. Analysts have contended that the tension between the two neighbours who share a 3400 km land border spilt into a conflict at the border. One theory is that the attack was to distract India while gaining leverage in negotiations, underlining the distance in between Delhi and Washington DC. Its a hint to India to make peace with its neighbour rather than make alliances such as the Quad with the US. Chinese media indicated that the attack was an expression of China’s displeasure at joint US-India military exercises in nearby Uttarakhand, near the Indo-China border in October.

However Tawang, in the Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh, is home to the oldest and second largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhism outside of China’s control. The Tawang Galdan Namgye Lhatse monastery, sits at 10000 ft with a commanding view of the Tawang Chu valley near India’s borders of Chinese occupied Tibet (CoT) and Bhutan. It was established in 1681 on the instruction of the 5th Dalai Lama. Tawang is one of the very few areas where there are thousands of ethnic Tibetan families still in their traditional homeland outside China. The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born in this area in March 1683.

China claims Tawang as a part of South Tibet, which claims a large part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. However Arunachal Pradesh is a multi-party democracy, like all Indian states, a model for Autonomous Tibet, which makes the CCP nervous. With the current Dalai Lama ageing at 87 and reportedly not in the best of health, after his death, succession will be a huge question. China will try and nominate a new Dalai Lama, to control Tibetan Buddhism, however the Dalai Lama could also reincarnate in Tawang, home to several thousand ethnic Tibetan families who have lived around the monastery for generations. Having control of the mountains around Tawang would have helped the Chinese army to make a further push to eventually capture the monastery.

The Tawang monastery could be a part of the mysterious puzzle to the future of Tibet, its spirituality and its politics all of which are currently embodied by the 14th Dalai Lama. After his passing, how the Tibetan population will conduct the search and acceptance of the next Dalai Lama will largely dictate the amount of force China needs to employ to retain its absolute control of Tibet. With unexpectedly rising discontent in China, Tibet, Xinjiang against the supreme leader Xi Jinping that the CCP has reelected for an unprecedented third term, the CCP is nervous with the current Dalai Lama’s visits to a disputed area in Ladakh by Indian military helicopter. 

For India, Tibet is sacred as the home of Kailash and Manasarovar, the abode of Lord Shiva. For tibetans, India is the land of the Buddha and home to the Dalai Lama. Both prefer democracy to autocracies and share a 3400 km border and centuries of joint history and religion. While the current Dalai Lama lives, the status-quo in Tibet will remain, a young dynamic Dalai Lama from Tawang might disturb the equilibrium that Xi Jinping has endeavoured to maintain in Tibet, taking with it other provinces like Xin Jiang and strengthening the revolt in Hong Kong as well as Taiwan’s independence. 

This attack on Tawang was more about Tibetan buddhism, spirituality than Xi’s geopolitics.

Prayer has known to bring down empires, the question is China right to be nervous?

About the Author
Vas is a political researcher, consultant and entrepreneur who has worked in Europe, Middle East and Africa for two decades. He has had the privilege to interact with leaders, decision makers and work closely with people from all walks of life, all over the middle east.
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