Beijing wants its own Dalai Lama

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Zhou Enlai, 10th Panchen Lama, Mao Zedong, 14th Dalai Lama and Liu Shaoqi during talks in Beijing in 1955. Dalai Lama, 81, is the only person still alive .

In a move that started the final round of the fight for the succession of Tibet’s current charismatic spiritual leader, Beijing made clear that it wants to set its own rules and call the shots for the now 81-year-old Dalai Lama. According to an AP report from Beijing, “China’s hand-picked Panchen Lama is presiding over a key Buddhist ritual being held in Tibet for the first time in 50 years, in a move criticized by overseas Tibetan groups as an attempt to legitimize him as a religious leader.

“The second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism was present for the Kalachakra instructions that began Thursday morning at his home monastery in southwestern Tibet, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The report said an estimated 50,000 Buddhists were attending the four-day event.”

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, confirms this report in a way that makes the whole ceremony sound like a list of colorful facts.

Well, it’s not. Things are much more complex, and they’ve been this way at least since 1995, when the present Dalai Lama nominated a six-year-old Tibetan boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the reincarnation of 11th Panchen Lama — the second most important figure in Tibetan religion, after the Dalai Lama himself. Beijing disagreed with the choice, and imposed its will by installing its own boy, Gyaincain Norbu, and at the same time making Gedhun Choekyi disappear. The fate of young Choekyi is surrounded by mystery, while the robust and healthy looking reincarnation of the Panchen Lama chosen by Beijing — who is also a member of various government bodies controlled by the Chinese Communist Party — is presiding over an important religious ceremony with the pomp of the government in Beijing.

The Panchen Lama is important in peaceful times, when — as a monk-regent — he bears responsibility for finding the incarnation of the Dalai Lama. But the present situation is a bit different — and not for the first time, as you can read in a short history that the Daily Beast compiled on the Dalai Lama’s choices for successor. After many attempts to find common ground — first on the independence of Tibet, then for some kind of autonomy and more religious freedom — the negotiations between Beijing and Dharamsala (the residence of the Tibetan government-in-exile) broke down to nothing. It is for this reason that the Dalai Lama started to play his game — threatening not to reincarnate at all, or that he might reincarnate into something else (even a girl)that would end the six hundred years of the Dalai Lama’s existence. The possibility that there would be no spiritual leadership or control over Tibet threw Beijing into a panic, as the Daily Beast observed:

Both sides, in fact, have elaborate ideological justifications for their positions. The Chinese duplicity in seeking to preserve the integrity of Tibetan Buddhism—while banning much of its expression and destroying monasteries across the country—is obvious.

Less well-known is the Dalai Lama’s own philosophical position. But it is clearly laid out in an official statement on his possible non-reincarnation, issued back in 2011. …

Contrary to Zhu’s statement that the Dalai Lama was being “frivolous,” the statement is in fact a 4,100 word treatise on past lives, Tulkus (lamas and other enlightened beings), and the ways Dalai Lamas have been identified over the years.

According to that statement, Tulkus are not like the rest of us.

“Ordinary beings,” writes the Dalai Lama, “circle incessantly through existence like the turning of a wheel.” Tulkus, however, are manifestations of transcendent Buddhas who “manifest in physical forms that are accessible to sentient beings in order to help them.”

To avoid getting into the complex Tibetan ontology of the dharmakaya, we can use a simple, disrespectful analogy: Tulkus are like Anakin Skywalker, created by the Force itself.

Since Tulkus aren’t like the rest of us, they can—yes, like Qui Gon Jinn—choose how they reincarnate. (This is what led to children being recognized as reincarnations of past Tulkus beginning in the 13th century) and can even ‘emanate’ even while still alive. In his words, “superior Bodhisattvas, who can manifest themselves in hundreds or thousands of bodies simultaneously, can manifest an emanation before death.”

In other words, a Tulku can ‘reincarnate’ even before he dies. And that is what the Dalai Lama has proposed to do. Back in 2011, he said that when he neared the age of ninety (he’s 79 now), he would consult with Tibetan leaders and “the Tibetan public” to “re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.”

The Tulku currently known as Tenzin Gyatso could incarnate in some other way, or ‘emanate’ while still alive. But there would be no further Dalai Lamas.…

And yet, even despite the manifest absurdity of an atheist communist regime insisting on a particular interpretation of reincarnation, political “meddling” has always been a part of the process. Between golden urns and emanating Tulkus, it’s hard to know which is more fantastic.

This basically explains why Beijing is putting its own Panchen Lama in a position — through the Kalachakra ritual that would enable him to have his say in the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. It would allow Beijing to exercise spiritual control over a region that, in the last couple of decades, China has conquered economically, but is still not controlling politically.

The Dalai Lama often talks about his physical death, but he is quite vigorous when it comes to poking fun at Beijing, as he did during last year’s interview with Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times: “‘The Chinese Communist Party is pretending that they know more about the reincarnation system than the Dalai Lama,’ said the Dalai Lama, laughing. ‘The Chinese Communists should accept the concept of rebirth. Then they should recognize the reincarnation of Chairman Mao Zedong, then Deng Xiaoping. Then they have the right to involve themselves in the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.’”

So here we are — in addition to Donald Trump, Brexit, South China Sea and now Turkey, the world will soon have to deal with the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, not to mention possible riots and more bloody repression in Tibet. The political machinations surrounding the reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama have been dragging on a long time, and are now coming to an end.

Also published on Medium.

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