There is delicious irony when an officially atheist state gets involved in affairs of religion: the case in point is China and its concern over the Dalai Lama’s succession, meaning it wants to ensure its nominee succeeds the Dalai Lama. The problem here is the latter is in exile in India, which makes things difficult for the mandarins in Beijing.
Recently, a Chinese official told a group of visiting Indian journalists that his country would not accept any interference from India in the succession. Wang Nengsheng, the Information Officer of the “Tibet Autonomous Region” of China, said China alone would approve the next Dalai Lama after the current 14th Dalai Lama, now 84, passes away. Indirectly, Wang was telling India to stay out of the succession process, not to accept any “India born” Dalai Lama and accept Beijing’s choice of the Dalai Lama.
Wang then proceeded to reiterate the standard Chinese formulation on Tibet: that the Dalai Lamas have always been appointed by the central government in Beijing and that selection has always been through draw of lots from a golden urn.
Wang’s statement suggests an unspoken fear, that China’s choice may lack legitimacy. In fact Tibetans, the Himalayan people, Mongolians and others who have a stake in Tibetan affairs such as India, the U.S. are unlikely to be impressed if China comes up with a Dalai Lama. Dalai Lamas have always been chosen by the people of Tibet, not by Chinese claims of “established historical formalities”.
But why did China choose to speak up now, warning India to stay off Tibetan affairs and to back their candidate. First let’s take a quick look at what the Dalai Lama has been saying: he has been very clear that China has no business in matters related to reincarnation and should keep out of it. He is also implying that Communist China and its leaders, who are non-believers in religion, have no right to decide. If they are serious about reincarnation, they should first find the reincarnations of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
As far back as 1969, the Dalai Lama has made it clear that it was for the Tibetan and Himalayan people, and the Mongol people to decide on the issue of reincarnation. He has also said that the institution of the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist institution and so Buddhists should decide, not China, which is an atheist regime that has been actively trying to destroy Tibetan Buddhism.
Reincarnation is a phenomenon which should take place through the voluntary choice of the person concerned. The person who reincarnates has the sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognised. It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, to meddle here. Such interference contradicts their own political ideology, it shows double standards.
If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognised, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest with the officials of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. They will have to consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these masters and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with tradition. The Dalai Lama has even said that he will leave clear written instructions about this.
Chinese attempts to appropriate the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism will always come to nothing. The 11th Panchen Lama appointed by China, Gyaltsen Norbu, has only been a puppet and a tool for China, lacking any recognition or respect from Tibetans, their supporters or the free world.
For China to seek India’s cooperation in its handling of the reincarnation issue must have come as a puzzle for India’s minders of Tibetan affairs in Delhi. India under Modi has been trying to please Chinese interests in the hope of better business and peaceful borders but nothing has translated into India’s expectations. Knowing India has nothing to gain from obliging such a request, India will likely leave the reincarnation matter aside for the Tibetans to decide. The U.S. has a similar line, underscoring that the Dalai Lama’s succession should be decided by the Tibetan people and that the U.S. will not recognise a China-appointed Dalai Lama.
Although the next Dalai Lama may not come soon, considering the current Dalai Lama’s strong and sound health, it is obvious that there will be two Dalai Lamas—one chosen by the Gaden Phodrang Trust, which will be the real one, and the other by China, who will be described as the “Fake Dalai Lama”.
India should take a firm stand. Anything short of support for the Tibetan Dalai Lama, who will most likely be born in India, would only make India the loser as Tibetans, no matter what, will choose their Dalai Lama. This Dalai Lama will have popular support and could play an important role in the Tibetan cause (even though the Dalai Lama has relinquished all political powers). India supporting the Tibetan Dalai Lama will give it the upper hand, as it has in all these years.
(The author is the editor of Tibetsun, an online portal on Tibet affairs. Views are personal.)