The Dalai Lama was a notable absentee on Friday as religious leaders gathered in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi for the second World Buddhist Forum.
More than 2,000 delegates from about 60 nations are scheduled to attend the opening of the event on Saturday, under the theme "A harmonious world - a synergy of conditions", organisers said.
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of the most respected Buddhists worldwide, was not invited to the forum because China sees him as a political figure advocating independence for Tibet.
"He is a political fugitive and has done lots of things to secede his motherland and go against his identity of being a Buddhist," Ming Sheng, the vice president of the Buddhist Association of China, said at a press conference Friday in Wuxi.
Ming said China's state-approved 11th Panchen Lama, 19-year-old Gyaincain Norbu, would attend the forum. The reincarnate Panchen Lama is often considered second in importance to the Dalai Lama by Tibetan Buddhists.
In a recent speech to mark the 50th anniversary of China's socio-economic reforms in Tibet, the Panchen Lama promised to guide Tibetan Buddhists to "adapt to the country's socialist society".
He urged Tibetans to "cherish the prosperity" and "bright future" offered by the ruling Communist Party.
China's 11th Panchen Lama was chosen in 1995 by state-sponsored Tibetan Buddhist leaders. A rival 11th Panchen Lama, chosen and recognised by supporters of the Dalai Lama, has reportedly been held under virtual house arrest in China since he was six years old.
The sharing of the five-day World Buddhist Forum between Wuxi and Taiwan also carries political significance amid improving ties between the Communist Party and Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party).
"The forum is a vivid example that cross-Strait relations are moving toward the direction of peaceful development," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Ming as saying.
"It will be a landmark event in the history of exchanges between Buddhists on both sides," he said.
Yi Kung, a director of the Buddha's Light International Association in Taiwan, told reporters in Wuxi that delegates from about 500 temples in Taiwan would attend the forum.
"It will be a wonderful gathering that bridges different schools," the agency quoted Yi as saying.
Some 20,000 Buddhists will pray for world peace at the closing ceremony in Taipei Wednesday, she said.
About 1,200 delegates will take four charter flights Monday from the city of Nanjing, close to Wuxi, to attend the remainder of the forum in Taiwan, the agency said.
It did not say if Beijing's Panchen Lama planned to travel to Taiwan, where the Dalai Lama has a representative office and is highly popular among Buddhists.
The forum is jointly organised by two state-run Chinese religious organisations, the Buddha's Light International Association and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association.
The theme of this year's event "combines the concepts of harmony, conditions and synergy that embody oriental culture and Buddhist wisdom", said a message on the forum's official website, www.wbf.net.cn.
"Our world needs the spirit and wisdom of harmony which can settle contradictions, eliminate disputes, construct harmony and maintain global peace," it said.
More than 1,000 delegates from over 30 countries and regions attended the opening of the first World Buddhist Forum in April 2006 in the eastern Chinese cities of Hangzhou and Zhoushan.
The Panchen Lama was among them but organisers said the Dalai Lama was not invited because his presence would "cause disharmony".
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against occupation by Chinese communist troops, who took control of Tibet in 1951.