Chinese government says Dalai Lama must reincarnate to respect tradition
The Dalai Lama has said 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, says declining to reincarnate is a step too far and insists he must ‘respect’ the ancient tradition of reincarnation.
According to a news release in Reuters, the 14 th Dalai Lama (born Tenzin Gyatso) explained in an interview to German newspaper Welt am Sonntag that the tradition of the Dalai Lama post could end with him, adding that Tibetan Buddhism was not dependent on a single person. The Chinese government was not amused.
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”. However, in a curious twist, they seem to want him back again in another reincarnation.
Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's residence until 1959. Image source.
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying told reporters that China had a “set religious procedure and historic custom” when it came to the reincarnation of living Buddhist lamas, including the position of Dalai Lama.
“China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism,” said Mr Hua, according to Reuters.
“The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Qin Yongzhang, an ethnologist with the China Academy of Social Sciences, added 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.
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 14 th 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 14 th 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.
Featured image: The 14 th Dalai Lama. Image source