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Moving to deepen its engagement with Colombo and counter Beijing’s influence in the region, New Delhi is hosting a dialogue on vinaya (code of conduct) between high-ranking Theravada monks from Sri Lanka and counterparts of the Nalanda tradition — the first dialogue at this level between the two Buddhist traditions.
In another first, the Dalai Lama will be meeting the Sri Lankan monks Thursday and they plan to invite him to their country. A formal invitation is likely to be extended after President Maithripala Sirisena wraps up his first official visit to Beijing later this month.
Later Thursday, the two delegations will meet again over tea at the official residence of Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju. Samdhong Rinpoche, former prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, is also attending the dialogue as a member of the Nalanda delegation.
This engagement comes days after the change of government in Colombo and the visit last week to Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Sri Lankan and Nalanda monks met Tuesday for a dialogue on vinaya. It has been organised by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC), a two-year-old NGO recognised as a “cultural organisation with national presence” by the Indian government.
Jangchup Choeden, who heads the Gaden Shartse monastery, told The Indian Express that the last such interaction had been organised by Emperor Harshavardhana in the 7th century AD.
Banagala Upatissa Thero, president of the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka who hosted Modi during his visit to the Mahabodhi temple, said the Dalai Lama has never visited Sri Lanka and they hope to invite him when they meet Thursday.
“I tried to bring the Dalai Lama to Sri Lanka two years ago but it was stalled due to political reasons,” Thero said. He was probably alluding to the Chinese influence over the Rajapaksa government which stalled all attempts for a Dalai Lama visit. Thero is hopeful that the Sirisena government will allow the Dalai Lama to visit as a religious leader, and ignore his role as the leader of the Tibetans.
The Sri Lankan delegation consists of three of its four Maha Nayakas and other high-ranking monks and religious opinion makers. Only the Maha Nayaka of the Asgiriya chapter is missing from the Lankan delegation.
Modi had met the Maha Nayakas during his visit to Sri Lanka where he had also offered prayers at the sacred Mahabodhi tree.
Besides Sri Lanka, Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant religion in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos while the Nalanda tradition has a Himalayan perspective, stretching from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh, which includes Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim.
As part of its Buddhist diplomacy, China has created a World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) which meets every year and provides liberal grants to Buddhist groups across the world. By projecting its Buddhist links in the region, India hopes to counter the Chinese sphere of influence through soft-power initiatives.