Choosing The Next Dalai Lama: Chinese Checkers Over Reincarnation

Lobsang Wangyal McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala 2 April 2019

Two recent developments have stirred the pot regarding the succession to the current Dalai Lama. On March 20, media reports quoted His Holiness as saying that the 15th Dalai Lama, his successor, could be reincarnated in India. He also warned his community that there could be a rival put up by the Chinese in Tibet. In fact, within days of the Dalai Lama’s comments, Beijing issued a white paper indicating there would be no further dialogue with the Dalai Lama. It also declared that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation has to be approved by the Communist government, since this is a legacy inherited from China’s emperors.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement is untrue as Dalai Lamas have been ruling Tibet since the fifth Dalai Lama, who was supported by Mongol king Gushir Khan in 1642. The Dalai Lama is not chosen or elected but a tradition of finding his soul in a new body after the death of the previous one is followed.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, was found in Taktser in Amdo, east of Tibet, by a search party of high-ranking monks commissioned by the Tibetan government in Lhasa. They examined a number of signs and after finding a likely candidate gave him a series of tests to see if he could recognise items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. Tenzin, who was just 2 then, successfully identified each of the items and was recognised as the reincarnation of his predecessor.

But it’s important to understand that the use of signs and tests is not mandatory, nor are these the only way to recognise a reincarnation. In some cases, the dying lama leaves behind the names of his next parents and other details about where he would be born.

Tenzin Gyatso, who became Tibet’s ruler in 1950 at the age of 15 and 10 years later was forced to flee his home to seek asylum in India, has said that he would only be reborn in a free country after his death. In a recent interview with Reuters, he said: “China considers the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important. They have more concern about the next Dalai Lama [than I do]. In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas, one from here, in a 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.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang insisted that the Dalai Lama’s next incarnation must comply with Chinese law. 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.”

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.)

The irony is China is officially an atheist state yet here is the Communist Party throwing its weight behind ideas like reincarnation! Add to that, the statement cited “rules and ordinances of the Chinese government” when Beijing’s mandarins are not known for actually following the ‘rule of law’, and where even basic human rights are not respected and protected. Tibetans continue to suffer human rights abuse, religious intolerance, economic deprivation, social discrimination, and environmental destruction. Dissent in any form is dealt with harshly. More than 150 Tibetans have immolated themselves in protest against the intolerable repression.

China did engage in nine rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama’s emissaries for a decade but deliberately stonewalled any suggestions that could have led to a breakthrough. The white paper confirms the impression that China is now playing a waiting game, hoping that since the Dalai Lama is in his 80s, with his death the Tibetan issue will fade away. Nevertheless, they are worried.

China is aware that it had no role or influence in either finding the current Dalai Lama or installing him. This was entirely the work of the Tibetan government. There was no Chinese presence during his enthronement. Those present were Basil Gould, British India’s Political Officer in Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet and a Nepalese official.

The Chinese are also aware that the Dalai Lama alone can decide anything about his successor, including even whether to continue with the institution itself. His Holiness has said that since the Tibetan people both within and outside Tibet repose their full faith in him, it’s up to them 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 in 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 the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. Later this year, a meeting of the Tibetan religious leaders, and another of Tibetan leaders and activists representing Tibetans in exile, will likely discuss the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

China can be expected to monitor the development closely and can be expected to pick a young boy and give him official Dalai Lama status and position. The choice will have neither legitimacy nor credibility and may only revive memories of what they did with regard to the 11th Panchen Lama 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 disappeared never to be heard of again. He was replaced by a Chinese government-approved candidate Gyaltsen Norbu. Tibetans do pay lip service to him but are known to have no respect for him. Incidentally, he rarely visits Tibet.

The Government of India hasn’t made known its views about the post-Dalai Lama scenario. Some Indian media mistakenly concluded that the next Dalai Lama could be Indian, when all that His Holiness said was his successor’s possible reincarnation as a Tibetan born in India.

The United States 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. The U.S. has also said that it will not recognise a Chinese imposition as the Dalai Lama. It’s interesting to note that after India, the second highest population of Tibetans is in New York, 15000 of them, and the influence they could bring to bear could be considerable.

(The author is the editor of Tibetsun, an online portal on Tibet affairs. Views are personal)

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