China is trying to bring reincarnation back — but only for Tibet's Dalai Lama, following a recent reassertion from the aging spiritual leader that he would not be reborn in any governing or political capacity.
This week, Chinese Communist officials again commanded the current Dalai Lama to reincarnate amid fears that the line of Tibetan Buddhist leaders — and China's ability to influence religious succession in the autonomous region — will end with the death of the incumbent Lama, who recently riled up Chinese authorities by saying that his next reincarnation would not take responsibility for governing Tibet or the Tibetan government in exile.
Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th in a long lineage of Dalai Lamas born under a Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in which the souls of senior lamas are reborn as young children after they die. The 79-year-old Nobel Peace laureate has been in exile since the 1959 failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese control, which was brutally crushed by the ruling party. He also stepped down from his role as leader of the government in exile, which Tibetans reluctantly accepted.
Dr. Robert Thurman, a Buddhist academic and professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, detailed the Dalai Lama's statements to VICE News.
"The Dalai Lama is not breaking his vow as the bodhisattva of compassion, reincarnate as the politically responsible and empowered institution governing Tibet," he said. "He has previously announced he'll just be a monk in a monastery. He'll have no governing or political role."
"If he says no reincarnation, then no reincarnation? Impossible. Nobody in Tibetan Buddhism would agree to that."
On Wednesday, a day after the 56th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, senior Chinese officials decried the Dalai Lama's comments, saying he was committing a "double betrayal." First to the "motherland," or mainland China, for partaking in "religious rituals" that were not approved by the Chinese central government, and second to his own religion for claiming he has the ability to control his succession — power which rests solely with Beijing, one official said.
"Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China," Zhu Weiqun, head of the ethnic and religious affairs committee to China's top political advisory body to parliament, told reporters in Beijing, according to a translation by the New York Times.
"In religious terms, this is a betrayal of the succession of Dalai Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism," he said on the sidelines of parliament's annual session.
"If the central government had not approved it, how could he have become the 14th Dalai Lama? He couldn't. It has a serious procedure," Tibet Governor Padma Choling, who is an ethnic Tibetan, told reporters. "If he says no reincarnation, then no reincarnation? Impossible. Nobody in Tibetan Buddhism would agree to that."
Zhu also accused the Dalai Lama of "splitting the motherland" and inciting "suicide" and "sabotage" through encouraging the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in protest of Chinese rule. The spiritual leader has maintained he has only ever encouraged peaceful protest, and denied spurring the immolations.
On the surface, the Chinese Communist Party promotes atheism within its ranks and for its populations, although it reserves some tolerance for the practice of certain religions. In restive autonomous regions such as Tibet, where protests for self-determination have attracted worldwide attention, and northwestern Xinjiang, where a Muslim ethnic minority is currently fighting the ruling party for secession, religious practice is heavily suppressed or controlled.
The recent surge of interest to continue the lineage of the Dalai Lama comes even as Communist party officials this week pronounced the leader's waning influence both in Tibet and abroad.
During the parliamentary session in Beijing, Zhu said that foreign leaders were granting fewer audiences with the Tibetan spiritual incarnate because of their ties with China, the world's second largest economy. "At the same time, the international media is less and less interested in the Dalai Lama," he told reporters after the session.
Zhu said that Chinese development and commerce has "made the situation in Tibet better and better," which is a "basic reason for the fall in the Dalai Lama's international standing."
Despite these assertions, the Buddhist leader's comments on reincarnation have appeared to cause apprehension within the Communist Party, which has a history of venturing to seize control of the succession of reincarnated Lamas.
Thurman said that the reaction is an "assertion of authority," to make it apparent that the Communist party is "in control, even at the spiritual level." The Tibetans, he said, would undoubtedly reject a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama.
"It's like if the Italian government said: 'we don't like Pope Francis, we're going to replace him with a new one,'" he explained. "That wouldn't go down so well with Catholics."
In 1995, the Dalai Lama announced the 11th Panchen Lama had been reincarnated as Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, then a 6-year-old Tibetan boy. But shortly after the naming, the Chinese government took the child into protective custody, where he has been held ever since, and appointed their own Panchen Lama. Tibetans and activists have spurned the appointee as the "false Panchen Lama," and continue to campaign for the former Lama's release.
Any new Dalai Lama would also be subject to the ruling party's approval, Zhu claimed this week. Such control over Tibet's spiritual leadership would allow the government to impose greater political and social influence on the region and temper any bubbling unrest.
But the current Tibetan spiritual leader has previously expressed concern that the same fate of the Panchen Lama might befall any child named as his successor, which has fueled his suggestions on the need to end the centuries-old tradition.
"We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries," he previously told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. "The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.
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