China in a flurry over next Dalai Lama

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

McLEOD GANJ, India, 2 April 2019

After the Dalai Lama said that his reincarnation might be found in India, China’s regime has suddenly discovered a great interest in spirituality. This seems a pretty unlikely interest, given that the Chinese government is not only atheist, but even pretty violently against religion, as evidenced by its harsh treatment of Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, Chinese Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, and more.

Beijing is saying that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation has to be approved by the Communist government. They argue that this is a legacy inherited from China’s emperors. To that, the Dalai Lama has warned that a successor chosen by China would not be respected.

The Dalai Lamas have been ruling Tibet since the fifth Dalai Lama, after receiving support from the Mongol king Gushir Khan in 1642. The Dalai Lamas are not chosen or elected, but rather certain traditions are followed for finding his soul in a new body after the death of the previous one. None of these traditions have ever involved the Chinese.

The current 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was found in Taktser in Amdo, northeastern Tibet, by a search party of high-ranking monks commissioned by the Tibetan government in Lhasa. They examined a number of signs and through them found a likely candidate. Then they went to his family home and gave him a series of tests to see if he could pick out items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. He picked all the items that belonged to the previous 13th, and at the age of two years was identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor. The use of signs and tests however is not mandatory, nor are they the only way to recognise a new reincarnation. There are many other ways a reincarnation can be found. In some cases, the dying lama leaves behind the names of his next parents and other details about where he would be born.

Born in 1935, Tenzin Gyatso became Tibet’s ruler in 1950 at the age of 15. Ten years later, he sought asylum in India following the Chinese occupation of his country, and has been living in India, along with many thousands of Tibetan exiles, ever since.

Beginning long ago, the Dalai Lama has said several times that after his eventual death he would be reborn only in a free country. The Chinese government has demurred on all these occasions. In an interview with Reuters a week ago, the Dalai Lama said, “China considers Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important. They have more concern about the next Dalai Lama [than I do].” He continued, “In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect [the one chosen by China]. So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese! It’s possible, it can happen.”

Responding to the Dalai Lama’s statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that his next incarnation must comply with Chinese law. Gang Shuang claimed that the 14th Dalai Lama was chosen by following centuries-old religious rituals and history, which were “respected and protected” in rules and ordinances of the Chinese government regulating religion. “Therefore reincarnations, including that of the Dalai Lama, should observe the country’s laws and regulations and follow the rituals and history of religion.”

It is amusing that a country not known for actually following the ‘rule of law’, and where even basic human rights are not respected and protected, says that traditions are “respected and protected.” Tibetans continue to suffer human rights abuse, religious intolerance, economic deprivation, social discrimination, and environmental destruction. Dissent in any form is cracked down on harshly with imprisonment and torture. More than 150 Tibetans have given up their lives by burning themselves in protest against the intolerable repression.

As a bulwark against losing control of the next Dalai Lama, China has even created new laws and regulations about who and how Tibetan lamas can reincarnate. In 2007, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a decree that all the reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhism must get government approval, otherwise they are “illegal or invalid”. The decree states, “It is an important move to institutionalise management on reincarnation of living Buddhas. The selection of reincarnates must preserve national unity and solidarity of all ethnic groups, and the selection process cannot be influenced by any group or individual from outside the country.” (The phrase “living Buddhas” is used only by the Chinese government, and has never been used in Tibetan Buddhism.)

Ostensibly to further communication with the Dalai Lama as the face of the Tibetan freedom struggle, China engaged in nine rounds of talks with his emissaries for a decade. However it proved to be merely a stalling tactic, with China’s representatives stonewalling any suggestions that might lead to a breakthrough. As the Dalai Lama is now in his 80s, China has resorted to playing a waiting game, thinking that with his passing the Tibetan issue will fade away.

However, since the Dalai Lama reincarnates, his role will not pass away, and China apparently has become worried. But in its attempts to control the reincarnation, their plot goes politically incorrect and historically wrong.

Seeing the methods by which the current Dalai Lama was found, China’s claim of having any influence in installing a Dalai Lama holds no water whatsoever. The Tibetan government in Lhasa commissioned search parties, and China had no role or influence in finding the 14th Dalai Lama. After a search party was convinced that they had found the new Dalai Lama, the young boy was brought to Lhasa, and enthroned in the Tibetan capital in 1940. In 1950, he was accorded full political powers when he was 15, at a time when Tibet faced the onslaught of the People’s Republic of China. His recognition was never disputed by China, and his enthronement was without any Chinese influence. The enthronement ceremony was attended by a Basil Gould, British India’s Political Officer in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet, and a Nepalese official. There was no Chinese representative.

Only the Dalai Lama can decide anything about the next Dalai Lama, including even whether to continue with the institution at all. He himself says that since the Tibetan people both within and outside Tibet repose their full faith in him, it is up to the Tibetan people to decide if there will be future Dalai Lamas — or not. If the Tibetan people do want another Dalai Lama, then logically the Dalai Lama will be born in a free country, as his purpose would be to complete the mission started by the previous life, which he would not be able to do from within China or China-controlled Tibet.

The search for the next Dalai Lama will be handled by none other than the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. Two meetings to be held later this year, one of the Tibetan religious leaders, and another of Tibetan leaders and activists representing Tibetans in exile, will likely discuss the matter of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

Meanwhile China would use their own “reincarnation” as their puppet, to control the Dalai Lama’s influence outside China, and as a ploy against the Tibetan resistance against China in Tibet.

Chinese authorities malign the Dalai Lama with various names and accusations. He is often called a ‘separatist’, a ‘traitor’ and a ‘wolf in monk’s robes.’ In March, Wu Yingjie, leader of a parliamentary delegation from Tibet, said that Tibetans didn’t love the Dalai Lama at all. “Since the Dalai Lama defected from Tibet, he has never done a single thing that was for the benefit of the Tibetan people,” Instead, he says, “they are grateful for what the Party brings to them.”

But now the Chinese government want to have their own Dalai Lama, who will be and do only what they want. So it is obvious that there will be two 15th Dalai Lamas — one by Tibetans, and another appointed by Beijing. China will most likely appoint a young boy, as they did with the Panchen Lama, and give him official Dalai Lama status and position. The choice will not have any legitimacy nor credibility, and no respect from the Tibetans — and therefore no actual influence. When Tibetans don’t respect him, there will be no respect from the rest of the world, as it’s the Tibetans who revere the Dalai Lama, not an atheist regime — where officials are even barred from practicing religion.

China already has a precedent for this — a glaring example of Tibetans rejecting China-appointed lamas. In 1995, the Dalai Lama recognised Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama — the second highest in spiritual authority after himself. Two days later Nyima was abducted by China and replaced with its own candidate Gyaltsen Norbu. The Dalai Lama’s choice — then only six years old — has not been seen or heard from since. China’s choice teaches Buddhism in China and Tibetans pay lip service to his position, but are known to have no respect for him. He rarely visits Tibet itself.

The Government of India says the Dalai Lama is a ‘guest’, but hasn’t taken any official stand so far about the post-Dalai-Lama scenario. Some Indian media got excited at the course of the discussion, and concluded that “The next Dalai Lama could be Indian”, misquoting the Reuters’ report. The Dalai Lama’s statement was meant to refer to the possible reincarnation as a Tibetan born in India, and was not meant to imply that the next will be an Indian. The Indian media’s response also showed considerable naïveté about the whole issue. There are tens of thousands of Tibetans living in India, pinning their hopes and beliefs on the Central Tibetan Administration that spearheads their movement for a free Tibet. Their lives cannot be discounted.

The US has expressed concern over China’s interference in the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders. It has consistently said that religious decisions should be made by religious organisations, not by political regimes — that this isn’t the role of the state.

On the current issue, the US has clearly stated that it will not recognise a Chinese imposition of their own Dalai Lama on the Tibetan people.

In the meantime, the 83-year-old Dalai Lama is said to be enjoying great health, and feels that he will live for many more years. But China still seems to be in a great worry and a great hurry over the next.


About the author

Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, India, and edits the Tibet Sun website.

More articles by Lobsang Wangyal on Tibet Sun.

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