China plays Dalai Lama succession card
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - China arranged for the 11th Panchen Lama to visit Labrang monastery, the home to the largest number of monks outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region, as it prepares its choice for leader in the fight against the Dalai Lama over the succession of Tibet's foremost religious leader.
Beijing will use the visit to Labrang in Gansu province earlier this month to boost the image of its handpicked Panchen Lama, the second-highest ranking Tibetan religious leader, and raise his influence among Tibetans as part of the succession struggle.
Since the Dalai Lama's retirement from politics, the issue of his reincarnation has moved to the center of the confrontation
between Beijing and the aging Tibetan spiritual leader in exile. Beijing always maintains that the tradition adopted no later than in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) must be followed - that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama must be endorsed by both the central government of China and the Panchen Lama, apart from relevant religious rituals. The Dalai Lama has lately insisted however that his reincarnation is a matter to be decided by himself alone, ruling out any possible role for Beijing and/or the Panchen Lama.
In fear that the Dalai Lama would pick up a succession to carry on his "separatist" course for Tibet, Beijing has stepped up verbal accusations in preparation for a battle over his reincarnation. Beijing could use the Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu, as a pawn in this struggle.
Against such a backdrop, Norbu paid a 13-day visit to Labrang monastery which ended on August 21, apparently with the nod of Beijing. Many Tibetans in exile here believe the trip was aimed at winning him respect and support of Tibetan monks. For Beijing, a more religiously influential Panchen Lama would have a better say on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
China's state-run media said during the trip the Panchen Lama was impressed by the great amount of religious freedom enjoyed by Tibetan Buddhists. "During his stay he gave cash to poor local families, toured government-built houses for nomads and told locals to uphold national unity and obey the law," Xinhua reported on August 23.
"I myself, in the meantime, will follow the examples of all of my predecessors, carry forward their patriotism and love of Buddhism and contribute to the prosperity of the country and Tibetan Buddhism," the Beijing-installed Panchen Lama was quoted as saying during the visit.
However, exiled Tibetan groups said that local Tibetans showed resentment to the Panchen Lama's presence in Labrang, where deadly ethnic riots which broke out when monks staged protests against Chinese rule in 2008.
Tibetan support groups said the Panchen Lama was received under fear and massive security in the area prior to his arrival, while Chinese tourism officials had barred foreigners from travelling to the county until the trip was over. Washington-based activist group International Campaign for Tibet said "that monks in the area feared the visit could trigger more repression and patriotic education".
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama ranks only after the Dalai Lama as a religious leader. But many Tibetans do not accept the 11th Panchen Lama because he was appointed by Beijing in 1995. Named Gyaincain Norbu at birth, he is often referred to by many Tibetans as the "Chinese Panchen Lama".
The 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama remains a matter of supreme controversy. On May 14, 1995, the current Dalai Lama named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, then six, as the authentic incarnation of the Panchen Lama. Beijing rejected his choice and the boy vanished from the public eye shortly after. His whereabouts has been a mystery ever since.
The Beijing-endorsed 11th Panchen Lama has mostly lived his life in Beijing. Born in February 1990 in Lhari County, located in northern Tibet's Nagqu Prefecture, he was approved by the central authorities as the reincarnation of the predecessor the 10th Panchen Lama in November 1995 after a lot-drawing ceremony (another method to choose the reincarnation in addition to the religious rituals) was conducted for three candidates at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet's capital. According to tradition, the method used by Chinese authorities is also considered legitimate and was used to select the 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lama.
China's picked monk now holds top positions in the communist regime; groomed perfectly to Beijing's commands as he sings Beijing's tone with his efforts to counter separatist sentiments in Tibet. At the age of 22, he has been appointed as deputy to the country's top advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and vice president of the Buddhist Association of China.
While the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama remains controversial, it now seems the 15th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama will become an even greater controversy when the current 76-year-old 14th Dalai Lama passes away. Recognizing that this will affect their future, Tibetans in exile now give their full support to the Dalai Lama and are prepared to fight Beijing over the issue.
Tibetans believe the high lamas are reincarnations of religious figures in an unbroken line that can be traced back to the Buddha himself, whose soul never disappears. Reincarnation is believed by some religions to occur when the soul comes back to life in a new physical form after death. Both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, of the same sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug, play a role in choosing each other's next reincarnation.
As the Dalai Lama recently devolved his political power, both Tibetan society and China are concerned about what will happen when he dies. Many believe the his eventual passing away will mark another turning point in the history of Tibet.
China for its part has made clear it will be deeply involved in the choice of successor, as under its stipulation the next reincarnated soul will be born inside Tibet and will require the endorsement of both Beijing and its version of the Panchen Lama. By asserting its authority over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, Beijing hopes to get rid of the influence of the present incarnation, whom it accuses of being a separatist - he fled Tibet in 1959 to live in exile in the Indian Himalayan town of Dharamsala.
"Besides religious rites and historical conventions, there is also a very important condition for the reincarnation of the Dalai and that is the approval of the central government," top Tibetan legislator Legchog has told Xinhua. With China's Panchen Lama playing a role in choosing the next Dalai Lama, Beijing may feel more certain its choice will prevail.
Determined not to play the game with Beijing to any adopted rules, the Dalai Lama has in recent years made various comments on his reincarnation: that it is up to Tibetans' whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should be continued or abolished; that the 15th reincarnation will not be found inside Tibet but among exiled Tibetans, or probably even in a woman or a foreigner. Lately he announced that his reincarnation is a matter to be decided by himself alone - while he is still alive. In short, he would consider any way that keeps Beijing out of the matter.
During a tour to France on August 13-15, the Dalai Lama said he has called on all Tibetan religious heads to meet in the exile capital to discuss the issue of his reincarnation. "It seems for the time being concerned people, most of them, want to keep the [Dalai] institution," he said.
His joint secretary, Tenzin Taklha, told Asia Times Online by phone, "A meeting is called upon in September where along with the issue of his succession, more religious issues will also be discussed".
He said that as the religious leader is in good health there is no rush, and the Dalia Lama has himself tabled various options for Tibetan people to decide on his reincarnation, that include:
As early as 1959, making it clear that it all depends upon the Tibetan people whether the Dalai Lama institution should continue or not, if they do - then the traditional way will come into act and a new reincarnation will be found.
A second way would be similar to the election of a Pope (a meeting of the College of Cardinals is convened to elect a Bishop of Rome, who becomes pontiff). In the case of the Dalai Lama, a group of high Tibetan lamas could select the new Dalai Lama by seniority.
If the Tibetan people wanted, he would choose his successor by his own as he is the ultimate authority to himself as a Dalai Lama. Taklha however said that many other options could be considered. Over the issue of Beijing's involvement he said, "Chinese say and do whatever they want, but as far as the final call is concerned it all depends on the Dalai Lama himself." He declined to comment on the role of the Panchen Lama in the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, simply saying that was a matter for the future.
"About my reincarnation, I have the only right to decide, and no one [else] has the authority to decide about that," the Dalai Lama said in France. "Today, communist China considers religion is a poison and they consider me as a demon. So, I would be a demon reincarnation. This is nonsense," he said. "So the Chinese communists should not accept rebirth."
The Dalai Lama went on: "If Chinese government believes in rebirth and religion, then they should start it from the reincarnation of Mao and Deng Xioping's reincarnation."
The Tibetan government in exile wants China to keep its hands off the matter of the Dalai Lama's reincarnation. Its spokesman Samphel Thupten said, "China's role is one of not being responsible. Any issue of any incarnated lama is deeply religious and touches the core belief of the Tibetan people. Communist China has been assaulting the manifestation of Tibetan religious beliefs and any interference by them will lead to no spiritual acceptance on part of the Tibetan people."
Nyima Dorjee, a middle-aged Tibetan in the exile capital said, "Personally I think it should be Ma Dha Trulku" - which means recognizing one's own reincarnation before death. "That way it would be of much advantage because the Chinese government won't be able to play politics as they did in the case of the Panchen Lama."
Tibet experts believe the issue of the Dalai Lama's succession will draw wide attention as it will be a test to both the exiles and Beijing. If again there are two "reincarnations" of the Dalai Lama - as happened with the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama - the situation certainly wouldn't be healthy, but certainly not a disaster.
Professor Dibyesh Anand of London's University of Westminster, a leading expert on Tibet and the author of Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination, told Asia Times Online in an e-mail:
If the Panchen Lama's reincarnation was turmoil, one can imagine the feverish politics once the present 14th Dalai Lama is no longer around. This politics is national as well as international. It poses a challenge to the Chinese government's claim to be the final arbiter of all affairs relating to Tibet, including religion. It poses a challenge to the Tibetan exiles who claim to be the representative of all Tibetans, even though they are only a small fraction of the total Tibetan population.
Having two Dalai Lamas - one inside China and one in exile - will in a way play into the hands of Beijing, for it would only serve to denigrate the institution itself. But it will also harm any prospect of future compromise between the Chinese government and the exiles. So, on the surface, it seems the Chinese have all the cards and Tibetans are in a position of weakness.
However, the politics around reincarnation also poses a serious question for what China claims as its goal in Tibet - stability. Does the leadership in Beijing really believe that having a puppet Dalai Lama inside China will be a source of stability?
Tibetans have a crisis of legitimacy too. Only the 14th Dalai Lama has the stature and authority to unify most Tibetans. Once he is no longer there, inter-sectarian and intra-sectarian jealousies and animosities and competition may come back. So the 15th Dalai Lama living in exile may get some international attention and a lot of support from many Tibetans in exile, but he may not command similar popularity within Tibet.
And having the entire drama of reincarnation played out in public under the constant glare of international media will be a first for Tibetan Buddhism.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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