The Dalai Lama says he will decide later whether to be reincarnated. Photo: Dalai Lama / Facebook

On July 29, 1997, the 14th Dalai Lama publicly stated that “if the Dalai Lama passed away while he is still in exile and [Tibetan people] want to find his reincarnation. Then, I will confirm here that the next Dalai Lama will be born in a free country, not in China.”

But he knows that China will not accept his proposal and most probably will appoint another Dalai Lama as it did with the Panchen Lama. “Then there will be two Dalai Lamas: one, the Dalai Lama of the Tibetan heart, and one that is officially appointed,” said the Dalai Lama. As a response, Beijing declared State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No 5, which states that all the reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhism must get Chinese official approval. Otherwise, they are “illegal or invalid.”

In late October this year, Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, reported that he had told the 84-year-old Dalai Lama that the United States would seek to build global support for the principle that the choice of the next Dalai Lama “belongs to the Tibetan Buddhists and not the Chinese government.” Two weeks later, on November 11, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accused Washington of “using the UN to interfere in China’s internal affairs,” and repeated the old official narrative that “the reincarnation of living Buddhas including the Dalai Lama must comply with Chinese laws and regulations.”

However, on several occasions, the Dalai Lama even said that his reincarnation “will cease and there will be no 15th Dalai Lama” if the Tibetan people feel it is not relevant. For China, this kind of nonconforming comments must be frustrating. Pema Trinley, the governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, angrily responded: “Whether [the Dalai Lama] wants to cease reincarnation or not … this decision is not up to him.” The governor also accused the Dalai Lama of “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism” by spreading such statements.

Should the Communist Party of China have the authority to decide Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations? Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, said: “It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next Pope, and all the Catholics should follow.’” However, for CPC leaders, it might be logical to control religious matters if it serves a material and political purpose.

Besides, the reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama is a hugely significant political issue, because many Chinese leaders calculate that the Tibetan struggle is entirely dependent on the Dalai Lama. Beijing’s Buddhist diplomacy is controlling the Dalai Lama succession and making it its political tool to suppress the Tibetan freedom struggle and enhance Beijing’s soft power in the Buddhist world.

In January, China announced a five-year plan increasingly to sinicize the religions in China, including Buddhism, and make them more “Chinese” and more compatible with “Socialism.” In the beginning, people were confused; it seems no one has a clear clue what this means. But, as always, President Xi Jinping has the final answer; he commanded that religious leaders in China must “love their country, protect the unification of their motherland and serve the overall interests of the Chinese nation.”

In recent years, China has repeatedly claimed that “the reincarnation of Living Buddhas as a unique institution of succession in Tibetan Buddhism is governed by fixed rituals and historic conventions.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently emphasized that even “the institution of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has been in existence for several hundred years” because of these fixed rituals and historical conventions.

What kind of historical conventions is China talking about here? In the 1470s, the child Gedun Gyatso was confirmed as the reincarnation of the first Dalai Lama Gedun Drupa. In the following centuries, the reincarnations of Dalai Lamas, like many other Tibetan reincarnations, followed the systematic Buddhist tradition. Then, between 1791 to 1793, after 600 years of reincarnation tradition in Tibet, during the reign of the Manchu Emperor Qianlong, China claimed that Manchu generals who came to Tibet to support the Tibetan army to fight against Gurkha forces suggested using the “golden urn” method to select reincarnations of Dalai Lamas, Panchen Lamas and other Lamas with Hutuktu titles.

However, Tibetans had hardly ever used the “golden urn” to confirm Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Under some exceptional circumstances, the Tibet government announced a few reincarnations as if they were the result of golden-urn selection to humor the Manchus’ expectations, but the actual reincarnation selection was already confirmed as per Tibetan religious tradition. Otherwise, Tibetans never regarded the “golden urn” as the sole legitimate selection method, because as the Dalai Lama said, the golden urn “lacked any spiritual quality.”

China also claims that “golden-urn selection” is a part of the 29-Point Regulation for the Governance of Tibet suggested by the Manchu officials. But most scholars now agree that the 29-Point Regulation is a fabrication of communist China and that there is not enough evidence that Manchus made this kind of regulation. Regarding the golden-urn method, Liu Hancgeng, a frontline Chinese history scholar, stated that the selection method is actually Tibetan traditional Zen Tak, the manner of divination employing the dough-ball method to recognize reincarnations. The Manchus, indeed, supplied a “golden urn” to make the Tibetan Zen Tak tradition more visible.

The reincarnation policy seems inappropriate for a country like China, which explicitly rejects even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnated lamas. But in reality, China desperately wants an undisputed Tibetan Buddhist leader who is loyal to the Communist Party. Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York, said: “This is one of the chief indicators that China has failed in Tibet. It’s failed to find consistent leadership in Tibet by any Tibetan lama who is really respected by Tibetan people, and who at the same time endorses Communist Party rule.”

However, as American journalist Germany Kent has said, “no one else knows exactly what the future holds,” and reincarnation politics will undoubtedly continue into the future. So wait and watch.

Kunsang Thokmay

Kunsang Thokmay (aka Darig Thokmay) is a PhD scholar in Asian studies at the University of Oxford. He has worked at many research centers such as Oxford Socio-legal Studies and the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics. His work has appeared, apart from academic journals, at Asia Times, The Times of India, Asian Affairs and The Diplomat, among others.

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