Aide to Tibet
In a move that marks a new era in American diplomatic relations with Tibet, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced in July that she would appoint a “special coordinator” to handle American policy toward the beleaguered Himalayan nation. In October, Albright named State Department Director of Policy Planning Greg Craig to the position.
The United States has never had diplomatic relations with Tibet and regards Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China. But the creation of the new position did not please the Chinese.
The state-endorsed China Daily commented, “No one has received an invitation to do such a ‘favor’ for China. . . .No one has even asked China’s opinion of such a move, in which the U.S. again takes a hand in another’s domestic affairs.”
The Holiday’s Over
After ten years of business, the Holiday Inn in Lhasa has chosen not to renew its partnership with the Chinese authorities to operate the only luxury hotel in Tibet. The Holiday Inn, which is managed by an English parent company, Bass PLC, gave no reason for its withdrawal.
The decision may have come in response to an international boycott of the hotel group, launched in 1993 by the Londonbased Free Tibet Campaign. Earlier this year, American groups such as Beastie Boy Adam (a.k.a. MCA) Yauch’s Milarepa Fund and the grassroots organization Students for a Free Tibet joined the boycott campaign, which the Milarepa Fund used as the focal point of its Tibet Freedom Concert held in New York in June.
Thai politicians rejected a proposal to designate Buddhism the state religion. An assembly responsible for drafting a new constitution to replace one written by the country’s last military government in 1991-92 resisted pressure from Thailand’s revered Buddhist clergy, which threatened to refuse religious rites to those who voted against them.
Most of Thailand’s sixty million people are Buddhist. Four percent of the population is Muslim. Muslim separatists have been blamed for several recent bomb attacks in southern Thailand. Assembly members feared that the elevation of Buddhism to the state religion would cause further violence and unrest. The draft of the new constitution was approved in Thailand’s Parliament at the end of September.
Just Say Nyet
Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed a new bill “on freedom of conscience and religious organizations” into legislation on September 26. He had vetoed a similar bill in July, responding to criticism from the domestic opposition and political and religious leaders abroad, including the Clinton Administration, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope John Paul II.
The law is widely seen as a discriminatory measure against faiths that might compete with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church is recognized by the new law as Russia’s preeminent religious organization and described as an “inalienable part “of Russian history. In its preamble, the rejected bill had designated the Orthodox faith, along among Christian denominations, to be one of Russia’s “traditional religions.” The new draft expands the category to include Christianity in general.
Russia’s other traditional religions, which are guaranteed “respect” under the new law, are identified as Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.
Status as a traditional religion endows a community with certain advantages. Under the law’s provisions, only religions officially recognized as such will be authorized to distribute literature, worship in public places, or form educational establishments. The new statute establishes a fifteen-year waiting period for nontraditional organizations that have applied for legal recognition. For this reason, critics have accused the new legislation of violating the 1993 Russian Constitution, which pledges equal treatment for all religions.
Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, the head of a church that claims 80 million followers—over half of Russia’s population—has championed Yeltsin in previous electoral contests, casting his opponents as the heirs of “godless communism.” The Patriarch now claims protection from “destructive pseudo-religious cults and foreign false-missionaries.”
Passage of the bill in Parliament was unanimous.
Nun’s the Wiser
Three nuns from the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, were called to Capitol Hill this September to testify at the hearings on campaign finance reform conducted by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. At issue was the sum of some $100,000 donated to the Democratic Party in connection with a luncheon held at the temple in honor of Vice President Albert Gore. Democratic fundraisers had introduced leaders of the Taiwan-based Fo Kuang Shan (“Buddha’s Light Mountain”) sect to Gore during a visit to Washington in March of last year, as the presidential campaign was getting underway. Their subsequent recommendation to the clerics to raise contributions for the campaign netted $45,000 in the days before the April 3 event.
On April 4, Venerable ManHo, the nun who performed administrative duties at the temple, was told to raise an additional $55,000. She instructed the temple treasurer to collect personal checks of $5,000 each from eleven monks and nuns. Some of the monastics did not actually have the amount in their accounts at the time, but the treasurer, Venerable Yi-Chu, immediately reimbursed all of them with temple funds.
Both nuns were called as witnesses by Republicans and testified on September 4, along with Venerable Man-Ya, who was one of the eleven donors.
It is illegal to raise money for political purposes through a taxexempt religious organization. Democrats have pointed out that money was neither mentioned in the Vice President’s speech nor solicited at any point during the event. Of the hundreds of people who attended the lunch, most did not contribute any money.
It is also illegal to make a campaign donation under somebody else’s name. The nuns testified that the money-laundering practices described by them in connection with Gore’s visit had been put to use in the service of other Democratic campaigns as far back as 1993. But Venerable Yi-Chu maintained that neither she nor the other nuns knew that the checks they made out to the “D.N.C.” were destined for the Democratic National Committee. Venerable Man -Ho and Venerable Yi-Chu also testified to having destroyed or altered pertinent documents in the hope of sparing the temple further embarrassment. But they maintained that they had acted independently of each other and anyone else.
In a statement made to Senate investigators earlier this summer in Taiwan, the order’s leader, Venerable Master Hsing Yun, affirmed that the purpose of the lunch for the Vice President had been to build mainstream acceptance of Buddhism in America.
On September 30, the streets of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo were filled with hundreds of monks protesting comments made by the Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, in criticism of the Sinhala Commission.
The Commission, a group representing 56 Sinhalese and Buddhist organizations, had issued a report concerning recent government attempts at constitutional reform. The proposed reforms would delegate certain powers to regional councils, including a Tamil administrative unit in the north of the island.
According to the Sinhala Commission, these reforms will not bring peace but instead will serve as “the foundation for the break-up of the country.” Their report calls for assurances from the government that there will be “no ethnic division of the country for political or other purposes.”Minister Samaraweera’s comments discredited the report and called it “the biggest conspiracy against the Sinhalese.”
Since independence from Great Britain in 1948, the Sri Lankan government has been dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist (74 percent of the country’s eighteen million people). Denied a legitimate political voice, Hindus and Muslims who advocate a separate Tamil homeland in the northern part of the island have turned to violence. Sri Lanka, an island comparable in size to the state of West Virginia, has been ravaged by war for the last fourteen years.
The conservative Sinhalese clergy have played an influential political role since the revival of Buddhism in the late nineteenth century. But Buddhist monks are divided on the Sinhala Commission report. Thousands of monks again took to the streets of Colombo on October 7. This time, the peaceful rally was in support of the proposed reforms.
Turtle-Steps Toward Peace
Cambodia is still reeling after a bloody coup toppled the government of Prince Norodom Ranariddh in July. The prince was ousted by his co-premier and coalition partner, Hun Sen. The two had shared power since 1993, when the United Nations came to oversee the elections. The coalition government was plagued by disagreements over the distribution of the two premiers’ powers and competition over the allegiance of defecting Khmer Rouge guerrilla units.
Intermittent fighting between Hun Sen’s government forces and opposition forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh continues, despite pleas for peace from Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk and the country ‘s Buddhist clergy. On September 22, more than 200 monks and nuns marched through the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, to promote peace and compromise between the opposing leaders. Monks had held a merit-making ceremony and chanted prayers earlier in September to help stop the fighting. During the merit-making ceremony, the king symbolically released nine turtles, saying he hoped the Cambodian people could also find freedom and peace.
This Buddh’s for You
Where to go: New York’s Buddha Bar, the onetime downtown nightspot on Varick Street (two blocks from the Tricycle office), closed some time ago. But the Buddha theme continues to captivate the owners of velvet-rope saloons. In Chicago: the Funky Buddha Lounge, 728 West Grand Street (at Halstead). In Paris: the Buddha Bar, 8-12 rue Boissy d’Anglas (near the Place de la Concord), one year old and still going strong.A votre santé!
Newscruise Time: The cover article for October 13, “Buddhism in America,” describes a “civil but ferociously felt argument [that] has raged for the past few months around a book called Buddhism Without Beliefs” by Tricycle Contributing Editor Stephen Batchelor. Newsweek: Contrary to popular (Free Tibet) opinion, in “Why Tibet Matters” (October 13, 1997), G. Wehrfritz and R. Watson argue that, although “Beijing has managed to extinguish much of Tibet’s old order in the cities and along key highway . . . out in the countryside, where perhaps 70 percent of the population lives . . .most of the Buddhist faithful can worship unfettered.” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter on the November 1997 cover article, “A Portrait of World Power,” which features photographs of 65 world leaders: “When we approached China’s president, Jiang Zemin, word came down from Beijing that the leader would pose only if we agreed not to run a portrait of the Dalai Lama ….We made our decision.” The portrait of the Dalai Lama appears on page 252. Esquire: In her October article about Steven Seagal, Nancy Griffin quotes a “former intimate’s” characterization of the action star turned tulku: “[Seagal is] the only person I know who can use the words m—–f—– and Dalai Lama in the same sentence.” Decorum incarnate! Observed: On a San Francisco street corner, a young woman in a miniskirt with the Heart Sutra tattooed down her left leg. Overheard: In a Greenwich Village center, a tall, handsome man saying to his Zen teacher, “Brad Pitt may not be able to save Tibet, but honey, he can sure save me.”
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