Area Studies
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THE POTOMAC CONFERENCE, October 5 - 6, 1992

October 5, Afternoon Session II.

  Tibetan Culture and Modernization
  The Chinese Tradition of "Great Unification" and
     the Tibetan Issue
  The Ethics of Religion

Robert A. F. Thurman, Moderator

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Now, Mr. Xue Haipei, who is the president of Green China, Incorporated, 
who was already introduced in the earlier session on the environment.  He 
is the former Executive Director of The Independent Federation of Chinese 
Students and Scholars.  Mr. Xue.


I have to say a few words about Jamyang's words just now, even though 
that breaks the protocol.  I, myself, feel very bad all the time about 
one thing in China.  If you talk to people, even very educated, very 
brilliant people in China, and possibly even politically sensitive 
people, you will know that we all know that Chinese propaganda is false.  
We all know that.  We all know that everything they tell us in _The 
People's Daily_ everyday is false, _one hundred percent_.  And we have 
all developed a skill called "the Chinese way of reading between the 
lines of _The People's Daily_."  We apply that every day in our daily 
analysis, but when it comes to the issue of Tibet, that same skill 
doesn't apply any more!  We say we know that nothing happening there, 
because that's what _The People's Daily_ has told us, so how can we know 
anything else?  I feel this is very inconsistent, and I have to say I am 
ashamed of myself in this way.

Now I'll go back to my topic, a futuristic one, on civil religion and 
the future of Tibetan Buddhism.  I myself, from my own personal knowledge 
of Tibetan Buddhism is, I guess, no more than average of most people 

I want to give a footnote at the beginning.  This paper is more about 
possibilities than a real assessment.  It intends to raise some questions 
rather than find solutions at this moment.  It directs our attention to 
one very fundamental question, that is, what can we contribute to each 
other in the future, in whatever capacity - either one country or two 
different countries - autonomous region or federation?  For no two 
neighboring relations can live in real peace together if, instead of 
contributing to each other, each side engages in a zero-sum game.


The moment I mailed out the abstract for this brief paper, I started to 
regret the title:  it is simply is too broad an issue to be discussed for 
such an occasion; and, at the same time, I am ill-prepared for the topic.  
But the reason that somehow prompted me to venture into it, is the 
growing concern about certain developments in China:  that is, the 
wide-spread cynicism of politics, public interest, morals, and culture.

I do not think I have to stress here the centrality of Tibetan Buddhism 
to Tibetan society.  Abruptly thrown into the Twentieth Century, followed 
by a brief but painful encounter with Communist China, finally forced 
into a long odyssey into the outside world, and after more than one 
generation of non-religious, atheist education in Tibet, and given the 
still-experimental and growing practice of democratic, secular governance 
in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, the situation that Tibetan Buddhism 
faces tomorrow in Tibet hypothetically under His Holiness is a very 
different and challenging one.  Will Tibet remain a theocracy or [he nods 
to moderator Thurman] a "lama-cracy," that is, putting spiritual and 
temporal power in one religious leader or leading institutions, in this 
case the Dalai Lama?  What is the role that Buddhism will play in 
education, law, morals, politics, and even economics in the Tibet of 
tomorrow?  Will Buddhism itself needs to reform?  All these questions are 
there, and they have to be explored and answered when envisioning 
building the Tibet of tomorrow.

One thing that seems certain is that Tibetan Buddhism is not going to be 
as widely involved in every aspect of daily life as before, or at least 
it will be involved to a lesser degree.  A case in point to highlight 
this is the insistence of the Dalai Lama not to be the secular ruler of 
day-to-day government of tomorrow.  And we also know that education in 
Tibetan settlements are no longer centered around Buddhism, even though 
Buddhist teaching and knowledge is still an integral part of it.  On the 
other hand, Tibet today is also quite different from yesterday, whether 
one likes it or not.  It has been brought much closer to the influence of 
the non-religious, or even anti-religious Han people and Han culture (and 
in many other ways such as education, economic integration, Han people 
working and living in Tibet, modern media, and the much increased volume 
of exchange and contact, and communication itself). As a result, the 
significance of Buddhism may be less intense among the well-educated 
sector of populace, and some tension or uneasiness may develop.

As you can tell already this line of argument smacks of something that 
rings familiar.  I call it a by-product and integral part of the 
modernization paradigm, the secularization thesis puts forth that as the 
world becomes increasingly modernized, it will also become less religious 
and more secular.  Though I think the secularization thesis in general 
misses an important point, and needs some serious revision, in term of 
government, social institution-building, education, it does indicate a 
direction of development.

American sociologist Robert Bellah of UC Berkeley has written 
extensively about the concept, and tried to put it to empirical test in 
this country; he came up with some interesting findings.  The phrase 
"civil religion" is Rousseau's, the great French social theorist and 
writer.  In his Chapter 8, Book 4 of the _Social Contract_, he outlines 
the simple dogmas of the civil religion as he envisions.  This is, "the 
existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue, the punishment 
of vice, and the exclusion of religious intolerance."  What is central 
here is the concept of God by Rousseau.  As you know, Rousseau is quite 
anti-Christian/Catholic, so the God here, rather than the Christian God, 
it is a God of deism, equivalent to the supreme arbitrator/or supreme law 
presiding over nature and human beings.  To Bellah, civil religion in the 
context of America, is that the core elements and symbols derived and 
distilled from religions, are inculcated into the society and into the 
culture of this country thus becoming God in the sense of Rousseau, a 
supreme arbitrator, be it a religious God, a deist God, an active, "just 
Heaven" in the Chinese sense, or even the enlarged shared fundamental 
mission of mankind itself.

To Bellah, a whole set of concepts _ God, justice, love _ is embodied in 
the new, and non-religious social rituals, symbols, language in the 
culture.  Hence the "God" referred to by the founding fathers and on up 
to the last Presidential candidate; the American constitution, the acts 
of the Supreme Court, the ceremonial placing the hand on the Bible in the 
swearing-in of the President, and other forms of oath taking, down to the 
rituals around sports in the high schools in small towns.  This set of 
concepts creates a transcending common ground for both the religious and 
non-religious to communicate with each other, to share the same language, 
symbols and message without compromising or bending one's individual 
beliefs; it serves as a cushion between the religious and non-religious.  
And, more constructively, it provides religion an access and channel to 
the culture and to the society that it otherwise would not have, and it 
elevates and directs the feeling toward the sacred, if not the religious, 
of non-religious people to a higher realm of existence.  For countries 
that have more than one major religion, or with a strong or limited 
religious tradition like India (which has several major religions at the 
same time), Tibet (which has one very strong religion) and China (with a 
very limited religion and with an atheistic past), the nurturing and 
existence of such a transcending common ground often is vital for the 
well-being of the country.  Too often, for countries lacking such a 
common ground, such as Iran, Lebanon, China and certain Latin American 
countries, a vitality in social construct is lacking as well.

Even though Tibet is a very religious nation, perhaps the most religious 
nation in world, there will be people who are not religious, who view 
Tibetan Buddhism as largely cultural and historical heritage.  For the 
interests of the whole of Tibetan people, for the interests of a neighbor 
with 1.3 billion people, and for peoples around the world who are 
fascinated by the message of Buddhism, but who would not call themselves 
Buddhist, or just plain humanists, a civil religion based on the Buddhist 
message is taking shape in many places.  Today, the "Sarvodaya movement" 
in Sri Lanka, that work on rural development incorporating a Buddhist 
vision, the more and more assertive Buddhist movement in Thailand, and in 
Burma in this century.

And I would single out China where the Han lives to see the relevance of 
that concept to China. As you know, in China today, we are having crises 
of beliefs.  Communism as it is practiced in China and Soviet Union is 
for sure already bankrupt; Confucian tradition has been discredited since 
the May 4th movement, and the younger generation are deprived of a chance 
even to know what Confucianism is like.  And from the Cultural Revolution 
onward, even the very basic moral codes have been broken.  Worse still,  
there is a wide-spread politic-cultural cynicism nowadays that runs very 
deep in society.  In China today, there is one ideology, that is, simply 
put, making money at whatever price, which I have to say, is _not_ a new 
phenomenon, but rather quite consistent with our cultural tradition.  So 
we are left with very little choice today when facing a reconstruction 
and renewal of Chinese society.  And in reconstructing China, we have to 
learn to combine all the resources, we have to learn how to be tolerant 
and be pluralistic.  If so, the moral forces of all the religions have to 
be joined with other forces, with all the secular forces.  After all, the 
future of the culture, lies, to me, not in only maintaining its 
distinction, but in the also synthesis of different cultures.

We often see in the crises in Chinese history, especially around the 
change of the dynasties, people, especially scholars who like to go to 
the religious roots to find some solution or blame.  Around the turn of 
the century, a lot of noted Chinese scholars turned to Buddhism, when 
facing the Western advance in China - scholars such as Liang Qichao, Kang 
Yonwei, and Hu Shi.  And unfortunately for Hu Shi, he found that all the 
trouble in China was that China was too much "Indianized."

Buddhism has a widespread influence and rooted tradition in China, even 
though for most of its tenure, it has attracted more followers from the 
lower strata of the society than on the top.  The core message, 
symbolism, and language of Buddhism in China, the vast, untapped 
socio-cultural resources can be transformed into socially acceptable 
form, namely, into the symbolism and language of civil religion.  For 
example, the concepts of kindness and mercy have a wide appeal 
originating in but embraced far beyond Buddhism.  The view of Karma can 
translate into compatible concepts for non-Buddhists; The respectful 
attitudes by Buddhists towards nature and all sentient beings can be made 
compatible with and even deepening the concepts and action of 
environmental movement (the story of Tibetan drivers who is not 
religious, but stops to let a frog pass the road is a vivid reminder for 
me - and he even told me that he is not Buddhist!)  Given the extent and 
history of religious exchange and influence between the Han people and 
the Tibetan people and given the similarity and closeness of the kinds of 
Buddhism both people have (I guess some of our Tibetan friends today may 
still miss the role they played in 13th century with the Mongol, or Yuan 
Dynasty ), Tibetan Buddhism could and should play its part in China.  In 
fact, in terms of Buddhism, if not Tibetan Buddhism under Dalai Lama, who 

In fact, His Holiness has been at the forefront in spreading the basic, 
widely applied Buddhist message to the whole world in a humanistic, 
culturally compatible fashion.  "All what I believe in Tibetan Buddhism 
can be boiled down to one word," His Holiness says, "and that is 
'compassion'."  In this fashion, what compassion carries with it can be 
appealing to both religious and non-religious people, and we really have 
a chance to see the real beauty and power of civil religion.  For 
Chinese, whose general populace, especially its intellectuals, are 
largely atheistic and yet very sensitive to the feeling of the sacred, a 
religious message transformed and adjusted this way really offers an 
opportunity for them to look seriously at these messages, and even to 
contribute what they can bring from their own culture to enriching it.  
It offers a chance for a real dialogue to develop between the religious 
and the non-religious, and thus may start a process that many social 
theorists fail to grasp, notably the secularization thesis.

Having gone through this process, we come to look again at the 
secularization thesis.  It will not adequately explain the persistent, 
even resurgent expression of conservative Protestantism in Europe and 
America; it will not adequately explain the merging of Buddhist ethics 
toward nature with the worldwide environmental movement; it will not 
adequately explain how the religious join hands with the non-religious in 
issues like social justice:  and above all, it will not explain civil 
religion itself at all, where the religious and the non-religious come 
together.  A fundamental flaw is, I believe, that the theorists did not 
draw a distinction between "sacred" and "religion".  Because if 
secularization means the decline of religion, it does not necessarily 
mean as well the disappearance of the sacred.  It is exactly this feeling 
of the sacred that helps draw closer the otherwise separate world of 
religion and that of non-religion in the common transcending ground of 
civil religion, thus giving us a platform for understanding each other 
better, and it helps to constantly provide a fountain of appreciation of 
religions like Tibetan Buddhism.

In my abstract, I asked, "is there a balancing point between the need of 
the religious and the non-religious, which, instead of what the 
secularization thesis claims, allows the two to communicate with each 
other and even contribute to the mutual growth ?" I think one interesting 
answer would be civil religion and the communication process that it sets 
into motion.

In conclusion, permit me to quote His Holiness Dalai Lama:  "It is my 
prayer that one day I shall be able to carry this message of concern for 
the environment and for others to the people of China.  Since Buddhism is 
by no means alien to the Chinese, I believe that I may be able to serve 
them in a practical way.... For as a Buddhist monk, my concern extends to 
all members of the human family and, to all suffering sentient beings."


A very interesting talk for the sociologists, and I'm particularly 
interested in that subject myself - the secularization thesis.  In fact, 
in Tibet I have a theory that Tibet is opposite - it's the 
_sacrilization_ thesis.  So, Tibet went in the opposite direction three 
hundred years ago, and that's why it's so puzzling to everybody.  But 
we'll talk about that later.