Does an atheist government run by the Communist Party of China have the right to choose Tibetan Buddhists’ spiritual leader?
Beijing says it does. After the Dalai Lama suggested this week that he might be the last of his centuries-old line, the Chinese government rapped him sharply on the knuckles – by countering that he should respect the practice of reincarnation. That heralded a fight that may one day throw Tibet into chaos.
“The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Wednesday. When the 14th Dalai Lama dies, China will follow “set religious procedure and historic custom” to name his successor, she added.
In an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the exiled Dalai Lama said that his post could end with him. “If a weak Dalai Lama comes along, it will just disgrace the Dalai Lama,” he said. He has made other untraditional suggestions in the past, including that Tibetans might vote for his successor, or that he himself might name one. He has also made it clear that he would not choose to be reborn in Tibet if it was not free.
Branded a separatist and “a wolf in monk’s clothing” by the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama insists he is seeking only more autonomy under Chinese rule for his people. Many Tibetans chafe under what they say is Beijing's suppression of their distinct cultural and religious practices.
By signaling a possible end to his lineage, “the Dalai Lama is trying to avoid a situation where China controls his successor,” says Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibetan affairs at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.
“The Chinese want a Dalai Lama, but they want their own Dalai Lama,” Prof. Sperling adds. “They think they could use someone under their control … to manipulate the Tibetans.”
'Dreams, visions, and signs'
Traditionally, when a Dalai Lama dies, his senior disciples lead a search for his reincarnation that can take years. Dreams, visions, and other signs point them to boys born around the time that the previous Dalai Lama died. If one of them recognizes items that belonged to the deceased leader, that is said to confirm his authenticity.
“Tibetan Buddhism does not belong to the Dalai himself and he cannot abolish the reincarnation system that has been carried on for five centuries with just one word,” wrote Qin Yongzhang, an ethnologist with the China Academy of Social Sciences, in the official Global Times newspaper this week.
Since the early 18th century, he argued, “the rights to supervise, regulate, and make the final decision” about reincarnation “have been transferred to the central government,” which used to provide the golden urn from which a Dalai Lama’s name was picked.
Western scholars disagree. When the Chinese imperial family, of Manchu origin, were Buddhists, they were involved, but only marginally, says Martin Mills, a historian of Tibet at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
“The Tibetans did recognize the role of the Manchu emperors in ratifying” the lamas’ choice, Dr. Mills says, “but it was a limited role.”
Communist Party involvement
Over the past 20 years, China’s communist authorities have revived and built on the tenuous tradition of a golden urn, which had fallen into disuse, to expand Beijing’s influence over the choice of all Tibetan reincarnations. There are several hundred lama lineages maintained by reincarnation, beside the Dalai Lama’s.
The government even issued "Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism" in 2007, giving itself a central role at all stages of the reincarnation process.
When Beijing has insisted on playing that role, it has not gone well, says Robbie Barnett, who teaches Tibetan affairs at Columbia University in New York.
In 1995, he recalls, when the Dalai Lama chose a young boy to be the Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the child and his family were immediately disappeared by Chinese security forces. None of them have been seen since.
Beijing named another boy to be the Panchen Lama, but he has never won the trust or loyalty of Tibetans and spends most of his time in Beijing.
But the Chinese authorities have quietly approved scores of other lama lineage reincarnations in recent years, officials say, without any controversy. “When China lets the locals choose their own child, and then OKs that choice, it works,” says Dr. Barnett.
Some Chinese scholars suggest the government should follow that pattern when the current Dalai Lama dies. “If his closest followers obey him and don’t seek a successor, we should let that happen,” suggest Wu Chuke, a professor at the Ethnic Minorities University in Beijing.
“If some other lamas eventually feel they need a Dalai Lama, they will ask the government to help them find one,” he predicts. “But we would not be taking any initiative” that risked backfiring, such as the Panchen Lama fiasco.
If Beijing-backed lamas in Tibet named one boy as the Dalai Lama’s incarnation, and exiled lamas in India named another, “things could get very ugly, very fast,” warns Dr. Mills, recalling the anti-Chinese riots that broke out across Tibetan-inhabited areas in 2008. “And there would be no 14th Dalai Lama there, preaching nonviolence.”