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Reincarnation and the Dalai Lama

Why Beijing's attempt to control the Dalai Lama's reincarnation will not work
Reincarnation and the Dalai Lama

Tibetan Buddhist lamas praying behind some food offerings in a liturgy rite. Communist China is attempting to control the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. (Photo supplied)

Published: May 18, 2017 05:06 AM GMT
Updated: May 18, 2017 05:06 AM GMT

The media has repeatedly reported on the reincarnation issue of the 14th Dalai Lama which prompted Lian Xiangmin, director of the Contemporary Research Institute at the Chinese Tibetology Research Center, to weigh in. "The next Dalai Lama should be produced in the Dalai Lama's Qinghai province hometown on Chinese soil in accordance to historical customs and religious liturgy," Lian said.

However, the Dalai Lama said that the Chinese government had no right to comment on their internal religious processes. "The communist government should first openly recognize the reincarnation process and find the reincarnation of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before they intervene on my reincarnation," the Dalai Lama said on April 9. 

He also said he would organize a conference to discuss the issue of the next Dalai Lama before the end of the year.

Tibet's reincarnation process is based on their Buddhist beliefs in past and future lives. They believe sentient beings come to this present life from a previous existence and are reborn after death.

The Tibetan tradition of reincarnation began in the 13th century and has continued for over 800 years. In one of the five mainstreams of Tibet Buddhism, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa is identified through word of mouth. However, there are different reincarnation processes in other streams, such as the current 14th Dalai Lama and the 11th Panchen Lama. There was also a rare reincarnation in a female body as was the case of Samding Dorje Pakmo in 1942.

Reincarnation for Tibetan Buddhists means that someone has been reborn to continue their predecessor's unfinished mission to teach Buddhism and serve human beings.

There are many important ways to identify a lama's successor, for example, the will of the predecessor before they died, instructions and special indications. The successor should be able to give reliable anecdotes about his previous life, identify the possessions of his predecessor and recognize people who formerly served around him.

Additional methods include asking reliable spiritual masters for their divination, seeking predictions from oracles and observing the visions that manifest in the sacred lakes.

Some successors have had a tremendous influence on history. They also inherited political and economic powers that could not be ignored. Therefore, especially since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Chinese authorities have used the process to interfere in Tibetan affairs.

In 1969, the 14th Dalai Lama said that the continuation or not of the reincarnation process should be decided by the believers. This statement was highly sensitive to the Chinese government. In recent years, China has condemned the Dalai Lama's remarks to end the reincarnation process as this would disrupt their plans to control the 15th Dalai Lama.

As a result, the Chinese government implemented the "Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism" in 2007. But it was strongly opposed by the religious leaders of the five mainstreams of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs of the Tibetan government in exile.

They called it an absurd and shameful act aimed at destroying the unique cultural customs of Tibet. They added that imposing various sort of unreasonable practices on the reincarnation identification process would undermine relationships between Tibetans.

In 2011, the Dalai Lama issued a statement on his reincarnation process. "As I mentioned earlier, reincarnation is a phenomenon that should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. Therefore, the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized. No one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her," the statement said.

Indeed, if the Tibetans think the Dalai Lama lineage should continue, the reincarnation cannot happen in Tibet, a region without freedom, as the new Dalai Lama has to continue the work of the previous one in exile.

To make sure they retain control the present Dalai Lama may pronounce where his successor will be born before he dies. We could even try the Catholic conclave system and copy how they select a pope. Of course, the Dalai Lama's reincarnation process could also be terminated.

But the final decision rests on the Dalai Lama himself. His successor must inherit the mission of his life and has the power whether to reincarnate or not, and where that might happen.

Even if we do not argue that the atheist Communist Party has the right to intervene in purely religious issues, such as the reincarnation process, we must see how the Chinese government views the Dalai Lama.

They have called him as "separatist," "a tool that is faithful to the Western anti-China force" and even called him "wolf in sheep skin" and a "demon." In that case, isn't it contradictory that China wants him to reincarnate on Chinese soil, instead of ending his lineage? Do they want his successor to continue his unfinished mission?

Would not the Chinese government be happier to see the end of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama if he is so evil?

Song Jieja is a Tibetan writer, commentator and former Chinese spokesman of the exiled Tibetan government. He is currently studying in Spain.

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