Sometimes I think the government of China must have a Ministry of Dalai Lama Outrage. At least, a large part of China's bureaucracy seems to be dedicated to thinking up reasons to express outrage at His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
His Holiness is calling himself a "son of India" these days, and the People's Daily, the official voice of the Chinese Communist Party, has gone off-the-wall ballistic about it. More "proof of his reckless separatism," China sniffs.
At first blush it seems a silly thing to get whipped up about. His Holiness has lived in India most of his life, after all. But China sees "son of India" as a challenge to the historical narrative China has adopted to claim control of Tibet, and of Tibetan Buddhism.
His Holiness explains that Tibetan Buddhism came in large part from the Buddhist tradition of Nalanda. Nalanda, located within present-day Bihar, India, was a great center of Buddhist education from the 5th to 13th centuries CE. Tibetans today trace their spiritual roots to Indian masters such as Padmasambhava and Naropa. His Holiness said,
"I consider Indians as my gurus, because we follow the Nalanda tradition. All our concepts and way of thinking comes from the Nalanda Masters. Therefore, we are the chelas [disciples] and Indians are our Gurus. I also often say that we are reliable chelas, because after the 8th century, the Nalanda tradition was established in Tibet, after that in our gurujis' own home, lots of ups and downs happened. Over thousand years, we have kept intact the Nalanda tradition. That means that we are reliable chelas."
China is not having this. "The Dalai Lama must have forgotten that the Tibetan Buddhism was strongly influenced by the Chinese Zen Buddhism throughout its entire process of development," says an anonymous writer at ChinaTibetOnline, a Chinese government website. "The equal-sized statue of Sakyamuni housed in the Jokhang Temple was originally introduced by the famous Princess Wencheng in China's Tang Dynasty."
My understanding is that the Tibetans are the inheritors of Buddhist traditions from India and latter-day Gandhara that died -- sometimes violently -- by the 13th century. Nalanda itself was sacked and burned about 1200. Most of the early patriarchs of Tibetan Buddhism were Indian, not Chinese, and their teachings traveled directly to Tibet without going through China.
Most of the other schools ofÂ Mahayana originated and developed for centuries in China before spreading on to Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. But on the whole this was much less true of Buddhism in Tibet. This is not to say there was no Chinese influence at all; of course, through the centuries there was cross-pollination going on between Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. And Indian masters from Nalanda and elsewhere influenced Chinese Buddhism, so there was cross-pollination going on in many directions. But my understanding is that His Holiness is mostly correct when he says Tibetan Buddhism is more Indian than Chinese.
I'm pretty sure it's a gross overstatement to say that Chinese Zen (Chan) influenced Tibetan Buddhism through "its entire process of development." There's supposed to be some connection between Zen and the Nyingma Tibetan school, but I'm not sure what that connection is, or how deep it goes.
The government of China is determined to completely control Tibetan Buddhism, to the point of naming and enthroning reborn lamas. Beijing claims this authority through their particular version of history. His Holiness surely is aware that he is tweaking China's nose with his "son of India" talk.
For more about China's claims to Tibet, please read "Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship" by Kallie Szczepanski, About.com's Guide to Asian History.