Opinion

Tibetan Buddhists believe that Dalai Lama is able to choose the body of reincarnation

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He was just two years old when he chosen to be the leader of a vast nation that is twice the size of France and just a teenager when he saw that nation stolen from its people, forcing him to flee across the Himalayas. Today, 83-year old Tenzin Gyatso, the man commonly known as the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, lives as a refugee in India, where he has overseen one of the world’s longest-running campaigns of peaceful resistance and become the face of Tibet.

Meanwhile, China, which began its occupation of Tibet in 1950, has branded him a “separatist”, along with all of his followers. For many, their loyalty to him has resulted in imprisonment and torture. For others, it has meant death.

Six decades after being forced out of his country, Tibet’s spiritual leader has begun talking about his people’s struggle for a free Tibet after he has gone and of his ‘reincarnation’.

The Dalai Lama’s lineage has endured for more than 600 years and has been central to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet’s wider culture, whether it has been in art, poetry, or the nonviolent resistance that the population has committed to in their struggle for freedom. The role once encompassed both spiritual and political leadership but has gradually been devolved, with Tibetan politics now being controlled by an elected Sikyong – the President of the Central Tibetan Administration – also known as the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is able to choose the body into which he is reincarnated and that person, when found, will become the next Dalai Lama. But such a reincarnation has not taken place since China’s invasion and when the choice is eventually made, it is likely to set off a major power struggle between Tibet and China. The next Dalai Lama will have to choose whether they continue to the work of their predecessor and lead the campaign for independence or succumb to China’s rule.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has already begun efforts to undermine the selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor by passing laws banning reincarnations without prior approval from the government. Those laws are titled New Regulations on Religious Affairs and the Rules on the Management of the Reincarnation of Tibetan Living Buddhas and state that the highest level of living Buddhas – such as the Dalai Lama – must be approved by the central government. The reincarnation of less senior Buddhas can be approved by local government.

“China considers Dalai Lama’s reincarnation as something very important,” the Dalai Lama told Reuters. “In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here, in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect [the one chosen by China]. So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese. It’s possible, it can happen.”

Shortly after he made those comments, a US senator sided with him in a strongly worded statement to Congress.

“Let me be very clear, the United States Congress will never recognize a Dalai Lama that is selected by the Chinese,” Senator Cory Gardner said at hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia Subcommittee.

Adding: “His Holiness has laid out [his] succession. Only then will the US follow that succession.”

John Jones, the Campaign and Advocacy Manager at Free Tibet, told Global Comment: “It is likely that the long-term vision is of Tibetan Buddhists abandoning any desire for independence or genuine autonomy and instead showing loyalty to the People’s Republic of China and to have Tibetan Buddhist institutions that are governed from Beijing. There has been a lot of the rhetoric from Beijing about the need for religion to have “Chinese characteristics” and for “erroneous ideologies” to be combated. The belief that Tibetans’ loyalty to the Dalai Lama can somehow be “corrected” underpins these attempts to take control of the Dalai Lama lineage.”

Such a move by the CCP is not without precedent, having previously taken place with the appointment of the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet – a leadership position second to Dalai Lama. Six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was chosen for the role by the Dalai Lama after Beijing ordered Chadrel Rinpoche, the abbot of Tashilhunpo Monastery in Tibet, to lead the search for the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation. Chadrel followed tradition and sent a list of candidates to the Dalai Lama in India and Gedhun was recognised as the Panchen Lama on May 15, 1995.

Three days later he had disappeared, along with his whole family.

China rapidly launched a campaign to denounce the Dalai Lama’s choice and significantly increased the number of soldiers in towns and villages across Tibet, announcing a ban of public discussions of the Panchen Lama issue. Chadrel and his assistant Jampa Chung were also arrested and sentenced to six-year and four-year prison terms respectively for “selling state secrets” and “colluding with separatist forces abroad”.

By September of that year, a London-based news monitoring agency, Tibet Information Network, released a list of 48 Tibetans who had been jailed for expressing their faith in the Dalai Lama’s choice. Many more were unaccounted for. On December 8, 1995, China announced six-year-old Gyaincain Norbu was the new Panchen Lama and he is the face of modern Tibet.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has been missing since 1995 and is regarded as the world’s youngest political prisoner. In Dharamshala, India, home to the Tibetan government in exile, posters of the young boy are plastered on posts and buildings outside the Dalai Lama’s home, ensuring he is never forgotten. Meanwhile, Chinese officials claim he is “being educated, living a normal life, growing up healthily and does not wish to be disturbed”.

“A Tibetan selected Dalai Lama outside of Tibet would potentially cause the same problems for them that the current Dalai Lama has done.” Mr Jones continued: “While any process to find a Dalai Lama inside Tibet would necessitate mass arrests and very probably an abduction of the kind that happened to the Panchen Lama and his family. Both of these possibilities would look dreadful for Beijing, so it has had to resort to claiming that the current Dalai Lama no longer cares about Tibet, that he is a terrorist and that his understanding of Tibetan Buddhism is inferior to that of the CCP, and that normal service will be resumed when the time comes to identify his successor. All the CCP can do is restrict information about him in Tibet, ban his image, punish Tibetans who call for his return and insult or delegitimise him in the vague hope that the message might reach some Tibetans.”

An alternative to this power struggle is an end to the Dalai Lama lineage, which the current Dalai Lama has suggested as far back as 2004, in an interview with Time magazine. “The institution of the Dalai Lama, and whether it should continue or not, is up to the Tibetan people. If they feel it is not relevant, then it will cease and there will be no 15th Dalai Lama,” he said. Whatever happens, the issue of whether there will be a successor and who will choose them has the potential to change the fate of Tibet.

Bhuchung K. Tsering, vice-president of the International Campaign for Tibet, added in a statement: “China’s plans to control the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation will not be accepted by Tibetan Buddhists inside or outside Tibet. It will also be rejected by the international community.

“By attempting to select the next Dalai Lama, China aims to control Tibetan Buddhism and its many institutions in the Indo-Pacific region with clear geopolitical implications. If China is not challenged vigorously by free countries, its plan will affect not only the religious freedom of millions of Tibetan Buddhist followers worldwide, but also the national security interests of the United States and countries in the region.” – Steve Saw from globalcomment

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