A Chinese official said on Sunday that the central government has the right to confirm the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama and nothing he says or does will alter their power to do so. The remarks were made at a press conference ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where the official also added that had it not being for Beijing’s intervention, Tibetans would have remained in the “dark age” of medieval practices and slavery.
The Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs set out a series of regulations to ‘govern’ the reincarnation system in 2007. Reuters reports that Norbu Dondup from the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China said that due to this document, “no matter what the Dalai Lama says or does, he can’t deny to central government’s right to confirm the new incarnation.”
According to the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the announcement is based on China’s assessment that it cannot maintain control over Tibet without the legitimizing influence of Dalai Lama over the Tibetan people. By asserting that they will decide into whom the Dalai Lama will reincarnate, China is claiming this spiritual resource of Tibet and turning it into a highly potent political tool.
“The Party wants to wait for the passing away of the 14th Dalai Lama and then select a pliant successor to continue its rule in Tibet,” says a report from the CTA.
China has ruled Tibet since Communist troops invaded in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule. China has long viewed the Dalai Lama as a thorn in their side, calling him a “wolf in monk’s clothing”, so it is a curious twist in which they insist he must return in another incarnation.
Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s residence until 1959. Image source.
In September last year, the Dalai Lama announced that he may choose not to reincarnate inside Tibet if it is not free, and that no one has the right to choose his successor for political ends. However, the Chinese government, which has always accused the Dalai Lama of being a political separatist, said declining to reincarnate is not an option and insisted he must ‘respect’ the ancient tradition of reincarnation.
Qin Yongzhang, an ethnologist with the China Academy of Social Sciences, said that the Dalai Lama “cannot abolish the reincarnation system that has been carried on for five centuries with just one word.”
Professor Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibetan affairs at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, said that the Dalai Lama may be trying to avoid a situation where China controls his successor. “The Chinese want a Dalai Lama, but they want their own Dalai Lama,” said Professor Sperling. “They think they could use someone under their control… to manipulate the Tibetans.”
Indeed, Tibet’s religious traditions have increasingly come under the tight control of the Chinese government. In 1995, after the Dalai Lama named a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama, the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, China put that boy under house arrest and installed another in his place, who spends most of his time in Beijing. Then in 2007, the government issued “Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism”, giving itself a central role at all stages of the reincarnation process.
In a surprising announcement at the press conference over the weekend, Norbu Dondup made mention of the Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped by the Chinese government at the age of 6. International petitions urging the Chinese government to release the ‘true Panchen’ have been ignored for 20 years since his abduction.
“Currently, this so-called ‘soul boy’ designated by Dalai Lama is receiving education, living normally and growing healthily. He does not want to be disturbed by anyone,” he said.
An Ancient Tradition
According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, the current Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of a past lama who decided to be reborn again to continue his important work, instead of moving on from the wheel of life. A person who decides to be continually reborn is known as tulku. Buddhists believe that the first tulku in this reincarnation was Gedun Drub, who lived from 1391-1474 and the second was Gendun Gyatso. However, the title ‘Dalai Lama’, which means Ocean of Wisdom, was not conferred until the third reincarnation in the form of Sonam Gyatso in 1578.
Since the 17th century until 1962, the Dalai Lama also controlled the Tibetan government. The 14th and current Dalai Lama remained the head of state for the Central Tibetan Administration, made up of Tibetans in exile, until formally resigning from the role in March of 2011.
The process of identifying a reincarnated Dalai Lama is steeped in centuries of tradition and can take many years. After the death of a Dalai Lama it has traditionally been the responsibility of the High Lamas of the Gelugpa Tradition and the Tibetan government to find his reincarnation.
The 14th Dalai Lama was identified at the age of 3. Image source.
The High Lamas search for a boy who was born around the same time as the death of the Dalai Lama. The lamas may dream or have a vision about a location that will help to identify the boy. Once they believe they have located the correct home, they present the child with a number of items, which include several items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. If the boy chooses the items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a sign that he is the tulku.
Exiles and Tibetan rights groups accuse China of failing to respect these unique religious and cultural customs, instead seeking to control and supress the rights of the Tibetan people.