Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dalai Lama Will Reincarnate, No Matter What

Chinese efforts to regulate Tibetan reincarnation have reached a new low. Last month, the 14th Dalai Lama issued a statement that it was possible he might not reincarnate, and Chinese government officials were not amused. They issued their own statement to the effect that the Dalai Lama would reincarnate whether he liked it or not, and that his next incarnation would be chosen by them.

In an interview on Sunday, the 14th Dalai Lama (born Tenzin Gyatso) was quoted by the German paper Die Welt as saying that perhaps it's best for the Dalai Lama to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. “We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama." This quote was quickly picked up by papers around the world (though it's worth noting the Dalai Lama's camp says his quote was taken out of context).

For China, which invaded Tibet in 1951 and beat back a political uprising by Tibetans in 1958, the idea that there would be no more Dalai Lamas was a bridge too far. China has long viewed the current Dalai Lama as a dangerous political separatist, calling him at one point "a wolf in monk's clothing."

A political tussle over reincarnation may bring a smirk to the faces of some, but for Tibetans inside China and living in exile it's serious business. The title of Dalai Lama stretches back to 1391 and is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be an unbroken line of reincarnations of the saint of compassion AvalokiteĊ›vara. Since the 17th century until 1962, the Dalai Lama also controlled the Tibetan government, and 14th 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.

It sounds ridiculous, but China has done it before. When the last Panchen Lama died, the Chinese announced that they had identified his successor as Gyaincain Norbu, while the current Dalai Lama and other Tibetan authorities instead recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. Nyima went missing at the age of six, while Norbu went on to assume the office of the Panchen Lama in an official capacity in China, even though he is considered illegitimate by many Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama later clarified his statement by adding that he planned on leaving whether he would reincarnate or not up to the Tibetan people, but needless to say the Chinese were not satisfied with that either. It seems that no matter what happens or what the Tibetan people want, the Chinese will be naming their own Dalai Lama when the current one passes away, and the selection will most likely be quite controversial.

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