The policies and measures to control the Tibetan monastic community produce a profound and negative impact on the practice, transmission and preservation of Tibetan Buddhism. The Communist Party of China and its mass organ UFWD not only control the ideas and thoughts developed within the traditional Tibetan Buddhism system, but also proactively coerce the system to become Chinese through the Sinicization of Buddhism, a five-year plan reportedly launched in January 2019.
Sinicization as a process to assimilate the identity of Tibetans is not new, as for decades the Chinese government has been trying to socio-culturally integrate and assimilate Tibetans into Chinese society. However, the Sinicization policy launched by Xi Jinping is particularly concerning because it specifically targets Tibetan Buddhism as a religion.
The authenticity of Tibetan Buddhism has been profoundly affected by the policies and measures imposed to control Tibetan Buddhism and the monastic community. The content of the teachings have been regulated to assure control and political indoctrination on “patriotism” for China. The relentless political campaigns in the monasteries and nunneries to “love your country and love your religion” coerce the monastic community and the religious leaders to self-censor their ideas and thoughts from public domains.
The Tibetan idea of the flourishing of Buddhism and the monastic community through dedicating one’s lifetime to the study and practice of the teachings has been controlled through government intervention. The minimum age requirement to join the monastic community, which is 18, is leading to a dwindling monastic population. The new generation of monks and nuns would be significantly smaller in number and their knowledge development would start much later in their adolescent life than would be the case through the system of traditional training right from childhood.
The reincarnation system is unique to Tibetan Buddhism and has been followed for centuries by recognizing reincarnate teachers and maintaining the bond between teachers and students with the continuation of a religious mission. State decrees and measures on the reincarnation of Tibetan religious teachers intervene directly to break the authentic Tibetan practice in favor of state and party ideology. The political indoctrination campaigns in Tibetan monasteries coerce the monastic community to comply with state decrees and measures on the reincarnation system. Unlike the traditional custom of a particular religious community following the traditional process of recognition of a reincarnate teacher, the Chinese state, by requiring its method of selection in accordance with its policies and measures, directly intervenes to stifle the authenticity of Tibetan Buddhism. Fundamentally, all the reincarnate teachers are required to get government permission to reincarnate and to be included in the government-maintained reincarnation database introduced in 2016.
Traditionally the Tibetan monastic community is bound by its code of conduct found in the Buddhist cannons. All the monastic affairs are conducted with the cannons as the source of authority. However, the implementation of policies in the monasteries requires the monastic community to hold the communist doctrine and leaders as higher authority than the cannons even on spiritual matters. By manufacturing a monastic community compliant to the doctrine of a one-party state, the authenticity of Tibetan Buddhism is profoundly being attacked and diluted.
International law provides for a number of safeguards for freedom of religion or belief, which are codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the People’s Republic of China has signed, but not ratified; in the Convention of the Right of the Child, ratified by China; and notably in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has been ratified by the People’s Republic of China. While the former protect rights pertaining to freedom of religion or belief, the latter addresses the protection of cultural rights that guarantee the freedom to practice one’s culture. Tibetan Buddhism is an integral part of Tibetan culture, and hence the cultural rights of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners enjoy the protection of international law. The control and surveillance exerted by the Chinese state over Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular over monastic life, inhibit the rights of Tibetan nuns and monks to freely practice and develop their religious life. As former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt notes, “freedom of religion or belief does not protect religious traditions per se, but instead facilitates the free search and development of faith-related identities in the broadest sense of the word.” This means that Tibetan Buddhism can only flourish if its traditions, its canons and its rules are learned, transmitted and further developed freely—i.e. free from the intervention of the Chinese state, and particularly free from control and surveillance.