- Thursday, 26 March 2015 12:16
- By: The Economist
WHEN the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, the body of Tibet’s spiritual leader was placed in state on a throne at the Norbulingka, his summer palace in the capital, Lhasa.
It faced south. Twice, however, overnight, its head had turned to the east. Also pointing east, a star-shaped fungus mysteriously sprouted on a pillar in the room. In the trances to which they were prone, state oracles tossed khatak, ceremonial scarves, to the east. Taking the hints, parties searching for the reincarnation of the dead lama headed in that direction, looking, in accordance with tradition, for an infant born at around the time of his death. They eventually identified the young Tenzin Gyatso as the 14th Dalai Lama.
That incarnation will turn 80 this year and, though in good health, he is given to musing about his own death and reincarnation. It would be “logical”, he has suggested, for the reincarnation to be like him, in exile from Tibet, which he has not been able to visit since fleeing from the Chinese suppression of an uprising in 1959. Perhaps the 15th Dalai Lama might be female. Or perhaps the institution of the Dalai Lama, being man-made, might end, if the Tibetan people feel they do not need it.
The theology of Tibetan Buddhism seems an improbable area of expertise for the Chinese Communist Party. But the Dalai Lama’s latest suggestion that he may be the last in the line has provoked fury from Chinese spokesmen and the official press. Padma Choling, the (ethnic-Tibetan) governor of the “Special Autonomous Region” of Tibet, accused the Dalai Lama of “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism”. A party paper, the splenetic Global Times, far from finding it presumptuous to criticise the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who is also its leading theologian, accused him of “spouting nonsense”.
In part this is an argument over history and China’s “inalienable sovereignty” over Tibet. Mr Padma Choling argued that the 14th Dalai Lama had only been able to assume his role because the “central government” (ie, China) approved. This is nonsense. The search that began with the signs pointing eastward was complicated. It involved visions appearing in a holy lake; the advice of the Panchen Lama, another revered monk, who had identified three interesting boys near Kumbum monastery, in what is now Qinghai province in China; the boys being asked to recognise some of the previous incarnation’s belongings; the auspicious intervention of the first cuckoo of spring; and a long negotiation to extricate the boy from Chinese control and bring him to Lhasa. While he was on his way, the Tibetan government and national assembly declared him to be the 14th Dalai Lama. China’s government at the time—of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist party—sent a representative to the enthronement. As China sees it, the recognition of the incarnation requires the drawing of lots from a golden urn, overseen, traditionally, by the envoy of the Chinese emperor. In this case, China claims implausibly, its man gave permission for that procedure to be waived.
So the party, unembarrassed about assuming the alleged role of the emperor, is intent on meddling in every reincarnation—and it is not just the most senior lamas who are reincarnated. Those who have achieved enlightenment can opt to be reborn, to help those less blessed. In 2007 the Chinese government tried to formalise its control over the process. In “Order Number Five” of the State Administration of Religious Affairs it listed “management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism”. To be a living Buddha in China these days, you need a “living Buddha permit” from the government.
After all, from China’s point of view, reincarnation has gone badly wrong in the past. After the death of the tenth Panchen Lama in 1989, two rival candidates were named as the reincarnation. One boy, recognised by the Dalai Lama, was taken from his home in 1995, aged six, and has not been seen since; he is probably under close watch by Chinese officials. Another candidate, recognised by China, lacks credibility among Tibetans—although this month he tried to garner support by speaking out on the need for more monks. Just as bad is the fate of the 17th Karmapa Lama, another figure of great religious significance. In 1992 Ogyen Trinley Dorje was recognised by both China and the Dalai Lama as the Karmapa. Feted and nurtured by China to help bolster its rule in Tibet, the young monk rejected it in the most dramatic way, fleeing to India in 1999 when he was 14.
Given this history, you might expect China to heave a sigh of relief should the 14th Dalai Lama decide to be the last. It is a sign of the bankruptcy of its Tibet policies that, on the contrary, it seems to have decided that only the Dalai Lama can give it the legitimacy it seeks among ordinary Tibetans. Mercifully, the number of Tibetans burning themselves to death to protest against Chinese rule and to call for the Dalai Lama’s return from exile has fallen sharply. But this month a 47-year-old woman became the 137th known case since 2009. Since riots and protests in 2008, repression has been heavy, and it is always heavier in March, around the anniversary of the crushed uprising in 1959.
Come in, number 14
The great mystery about China’s policy is why it seems to have decided that its best hope lies with the next Dalai Lama, not this one. Unlike many Tibetans, he has accepted Chinese sovereignty. He has used his enormous prestige to urge Tibetans to refrain from violent resistance. China faces a far more serious threat from the mainly Muslim ethnic Uighurs in the neighbouring region of Xinjiang. To safeguard its internal security, placate its disgruntled Tibetan citizens and improve its international reputation, common sense suggests China should start talking seriously to the 14th Dalai Lama. As its spokesmen pose preposterously as arbiters of the arcana of reincarnation, they just could be providing cover for such an about-face. That may be an optimistic interpretation, but others are almost too depressing to contemplate.
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