Saturday, December 10, 2016

John Powers's "The Buddha Party"

John Powers is a Research Professor of Religious Studies in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and author of seventeen books including The Buddha Party: How China Works to Control Tibetan Buddhism and History As Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles Versus the People's Republic of China, and more than ninety articles.

Powers applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Buddha Party and reported the following:
The Buddha Party is a book about propaganda: its strategies, the worldview it tries to impose, and the ways in which it attempts to alter the way people think and believe. It’s also a book about how propaganda can successfully be resisted, even when it emanates from the world’s largest and best-funded propaganda apparatus, supported by the full coercive force of a totalitarian party-state. It focuses on the core aspects of how the People’s Republic of China attempts to surround the Tibetan people with a monolithic regime of truth. This regime is designed to fundamentally alter the content of their beliefs, but it has been strikingly unsuccessful despite more than sixty years of relentless pressure to conform.

Page 99 is part of a larger discussion of one of the more bizarre aspects of this program. The Chinese Communist Party—which is officially atheist and is dedicated to the eradication of religion—claims sole authority to appoint and recognize reincarnate lamas (tülku), despite an official rejection of the very possibility of rebirth. China claims a historical right to certify any reincarnation, and its laws are so comprehensive that they assert authority over tülkus in other countries. Only reincarnations born in China and given official recognition by Communist Party authorities are authentic. In a recent published list of tülkus, many who escaped China and now live overseas—most prominently the Dalai Lama—are excluded.

Page 99 discusses the strange case of the tenth Shamar Rinpoche, Chödrup Gyatso (1741/2–1792) who plotted with an invading army, hoping to gain a larger share of the estate of his deceased half-brother, the sixth Panchen Lama. The invaders sacked and looted Tashilhunpo Monastery, seat of the Panchen lamas, but Shamar was not cut in on the loot, and he was imprisoned. After he died in suspicious circumstances, recognition of his reincarnation was banned by government decree.

This incident, which was part of a pattern of abuse of the system by powerful families and factions, prompted reforms by the government, as well as interference from the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799). The emperor issued his own decrees, including one that ordered Tibetans to henceforth use lots placed in a golden urn to choose tülkus. One of the major debates between Tibetan exiles and the Chinese government concerns whether or not the urn was really ever the final determining factor in choosing reincarnations. China claims that it immediately became the sole legitimating factor, and Tibetan exiles deny that it was ever definitive and characterize it as a feeble attempt to influence Tibetan religion. To find out how the story ends, you’ll have to read the book.
Learn more about The Buddha Party at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue