Chinese government assumes control over reincarnation

In 2007, the Chinese government “banned” reincarnation without state approval. But now it is ordering the Dalai Lama to reincarnate — in China.

I had to double check that this wasn’t an April fool’s joke.

Back in August 2007, China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs announced Order No. 5, a law covering “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” This law basically “prohibits” people like Buddhist monks from being reborn without government permission.

Now the Chinese regime has ordered that the 75-year old Dalai Lama, on his passing, must reincarnate within China.

How such laws can possibly be enforced is anyone’s guess. But why would China — a Communist state committed to materialism and atheism — want to assume control of reincarnation in the first place?

The politics of reincarnation

It’s all to do with politics.

Religion in the People’s Republic of China was once suppressed outright, but is now officially tolerated — possibly because at least half of the population are stubbornly Buddhist or Taoist. Independent movements, such as the Falun Gong movement, are not tolerated however. Falun Gong was declared “heretical” and officially banned in 1999.

Something else the regime does not tolerate is dissent — especially from reincarnating spiritual authorities over whom they have had no control.

Until now, that is.

Since only state-sanctioned monasteries in China can apply for permission to reincarnate, the 2007 law effectively prohibits anyone outside China from “influencing” reincarnation-based leadership roles within China.

Meanwhile, the new ruling that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate came about shortly after the Dalai Lama recently stated that his successor to the role could, perhaps, be chosen democratically.

Padma Choling
Padma Choling

Officially, the regime’s order is  about preserving an important and ancient tradition. China’s governor in Tibet, Padma Choling, has even stated that the Dalai Lama has no right to stop reincarnating.

But the Chinese authorities have also claimed the sole right to “approve” any siuch reincarnation — meaning, in effect, that the government gets to pick the next Dalai Lama.

And that’s what this is all about, really. It’s Beijing’s way of taking control of the Tibetan Buddhist leadership.

The return of the Lamas

Tibetans traditionally believe each Dalai Lama to be the reincarnation of his predecessors and a manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. When the present Dalai Lama passes on, he is expected to be reborn shortly thereafter. It is then simply a matter of finding the right baby!

As an aside: Although I believe in reincarnation, I actually believe it is highly unlikely that the each successive Lama is really the reincarnation of his predecessor. After a long life, it is “normal” for a soul to spend a few decades before reincarnating — not just a few weeks. And besides, there is little to be gained from reincarnating into the same life role again and again. It is more likely that a number of souls arrange to pass the baton by agreement.

Anyway, the identification of the reborn Dalai Lama is traditionally one of the responsibilities of the current Panchen Lama — the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Likewise, recognition of reborn Panchen Lamas has always been a matter involving the Dalai Lama.

This probably explains why China has taken over the Panchen Lama approval process. In 1995, a few years after the death of the 10th Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama named a certain young boy as the 11th Panchen Lama, but the Chinese authorities detained the boy (he hasn’t been heard of since) and replaced him with their own boy.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Young Dalai Lama
Young Dalai Lama

The current (14th) Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was identified at the age of two as the rebirth of the 13th Dalai Lama, who had died four years earlier in 1933.

In 1950, at the age of 15, he was formally enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama. He thus became the lifelong leader of the government of Tibet — just as the nascent People’s Republic of China (PRC) wished to reassert central control over it.

The young Dalai Lama cooperated at first, and negotiated an agreement affirming China’s sovereignty over Tibet but granting the area autonomy. But during the 1959 Tibetan uprising, he and his government — with a bit of help from the CIA — fled to India. There, he denounced the PRC and established a Tibetan government in exile. Some 80,000 Tibetan refugees followed him.

The 10th Panchen Lama remained in Tibet and at first called on Tibetans to support the Chinese government. However, in 1964, he was imprisoned. He died suddenly in 1989.

The current Dalai Lama is well known for his lifelong political support of the Tibetan people’s cause against Chinese rule. But he is also clearly a compassionate leader and a great thinker, often invited to discuss the Buddhist perspective in both scientific and religious conferences.  He has a moral authority which the Chinese government has often tried to undermine, and always failed. In fact, the more they have attacked him, the more popular he has become.

Dalai Lama

The current Dalai Lama is, or so I understand, an old soul — an Old Server soul to be exact. But while he has done great work with the job that was given to him, it seems that being an unelected head of state has become a bit of an embarrassment.

The end of the line?

In response to the 2008 Tibetan unrest, the Dalai Lama threatened to step down, which would have been a first for any Dalai Lama.

Most recently (March 2011), he has stated that he wants to remove the Dalai Lama’s role as head of state, replacing that role with an elected leader. If this proposal is accepted by the Tibetan parliament in exile, it will effectively be his retirement from political life, although he will retain his position as a religious dignitary.

But it will also mark an end to the tradition of choosing a toddler to be the next lifelong leader.

A few years after Tenzin Gyatso’s departure from Earth, a small child will presumably be recognised as the 15th Dalai Lama — but not as the next head of state of Tibet. China will have its power over the “autonomous region” of Tibet, but at least the Tibetans will have some measure of democracy.

See also:

For an argument from the Chinese perspective, see: Dalai Lama must follow historical, religious tradition of reincarnation

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