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Home > News > Columnists > Claude Arpi

The battle over the new Dalai Lama

December 14, 2007


The Dalai Lama
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Imagine a committee of the Left parties headed by veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu, with CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat, CPI-M Politburo member Sitaram Yechuri, CPI General Secretary A B Bardhan and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (West Bengal's chief minister) as members, along with a few other 'religious Marxist experts' secretly meeting in Kolkata to select the reincarnation of the CPI-M leader.

After a couple of days, white smoke may appear above the building where they are meeting and a Vatican-style announcement made, Habemus Pappam ('We have a new pope' or, in this case, a new general secretary).

You may politely tell me: 'Do not play an April fool joke on me.'

Unfortunately, it is not a joke. It has happened in China. The stage was set for the tragicomedy when, on July 13, the Communist government in Beijing [Images] decided to implement the 'Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.'

Soon after it was discovered on the State Administration of Religious Affairs' Web site, the new policy was denounced as 'ludicrous and unwarranted' by the Dalai Lama's [Images] government in exile. They found that 'replete with contradictory statements and wild claims, the document reflects the ulterior or true motives of the Chinese leadership.'

Obviously the Dalai Lama was targeted; China watchers knew that Beijing had been 'preparing' for his succession.

Article 2 of 'The Measures' explains their purpose: 'Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the State, protecting the unity of the minorities, protecting religious concord and social harmony, and protecting the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism. (They)... may not re-establish feudal privileges which have already been abolished.'

It makes an even more pointed reference at the Nobel Peace Prize laureate: 'Reincarnating living Buddhas shall not... be under the dominion of any foreign organisation or individual.'

If he could read some of the 14 articles listed in 'The Measures', poor Karl Marx would be uncomfortable in his grave. They describe in great detail how 'reincarnating living Buddhas should carry out application and approval procedures.' Thirteen hundred years after the introduction of the Awakened One's doctrine in the Land of Snows, China's Communist Party has taken over the most sacred religious tradition of Tibet, the search and recognition of the tulkuS or reincarnations of deceased realised teachers (lamas in Tibetan).

From September 1, the party and its 'religious department' will have the monopoly over the selection: 'No group or individual may without authorisation carry out any activities related to searching for or recognising reincarnating living Buddha soul children.'

It practically means that the Communist Party of China forbids the Dalai Lama and other senior lamas living in exile to perform their centuries-old religious duties. They are even threatened: 'Persons and units who are responsible for being in contravention of these measures and who, without authority, carry out living Buddha reincarnation affairs, shall be dealt administrative sanction by the people's government religious affairs departments... when a crime has been constituted, criminal responsibility shall be pursued.

Soon after the announcement, Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy declared: 'These stringent new measures strike at the heart of Tibetan religious identity. They will only create further resentment among the Tibetan people and cannot override the Party's lack of legitimacy in the sphere of religion.'

The Chinese government's announcement strikes primarily at the current negotiations that Lodi Gyari is holding with China since 2002 (six rounds have been held so far) and more particularly at the 'genuine autonomy' envisaged by the Dalai Lama. Can there be any autonomy if even the innermost traditions are controlled by the party and its leadership?

On November 27, at a gathering of religious leaders in Amritsar [Images], the Dalai Lama clarified his position: 'The Tibetan nation is 2,000 years old. The Dalai Lama institution is relatively recent -- only a few centuries old. If I die, it will be a setback for the Tibetan people for some time. But then, the struggle will continue.' He added: 'If the Tibetan people decide that the Dalai Lama institution is no longer relevant, then it will automatically cease to exist. If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, it will continue.'

He then spoke of a referendum: 'When my physical condition becomes weak, then serious preparations (for a referendum) should happen.' He further elaborated: 'The very purpose of reincarnation is to carry out the tasks of the previous life that are not yet achieved. If I die while we are still refugees, my reincarnation, logically, will come outside Tibet, who will carry out the work I started.'

A week earlier, in Japan [Images], he had spoken of the possibility of naming a new Dalai Lama while he was still alive. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao had immediately rejected the process which would 'blatantly violate religious rituals and historical conventions of Tibetan Buddhism.'

The Tibetan leader's recent declaration raises some important questions. First, in view of the intransigence of the Beijing government, it is clear that the 'negotiations' will lead nowhere if institutions like finding reincarnations are controlled by an atheist party in Beijing and not by knowledgeable Tibetans.

Second, the present approach of the Dalai Lama is a continuation of his past position; in 1963, he promulgated a charter to launch democracy in his exiled government. In February 1992, he himself issued The Guidelines For Future Tibet's Polity And Basic Features Of Its Constitution in which he made significant suggestions for introducing the democratic process in Tibet.

Categorically declaring that he will not hold any official position in the future government, he mentioned a referendum. The Tibetan population inside Tibet would be consulted and 'if the parliamentary system of government is adopted, there shall be a president and a vice-president elected by members of the two national-level houses and regional assemblies.' The present proposal for his succession is the logical continuation of these earlier statements.

Historically, the 'rule by incarnation' has not always been prevalent in Tibet; it was only established during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682). In the 14th and 15th centuries for example, the hierarchs of the Sakya monastery ruled over the Land of Snows (as Tibet is also known); their succession was set up by way of 'transmission' from uncle to nephew. Contrary to what the present regime in Beijing may think, there are no rules fixed for eternity for the succession of Tibetan teachers.

Some historians (one of them was Michael Aris, the late husband of Burmese leader Aug San Suu Kyi) believed that, at the beginning of the 17th century, two Dalai Lamas were alive at the same time (the sixth and the seventh).

There was no fixed place either as to where a Dalai Lama should be reborn -- the fourth one, Yonten Gyatso was born in Mongolia while the 6th one, Tsangyang Gyatso, took birth in India (in Tawang district of today's Arunachal Pradesh).

During an interview for India Abroad (the Indian-American weekly owned by rediff.com) in 2003, my then 13-year old daughter asked the Dalai Lama a question which was bothering her: "Why can't the Dalai Lama be a woman?" He answered: "Regency is a disruption. Many unfortunate things happened during regencies. After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, I had two regents. Of course, both of them were my teachers, my gurus. I respect them and I had full faith in them. However their conduct was not always up to the mark, sometimes even harmful (to Tibet's interests). My point is that if, in certain circumstances, a female form is more useful, then certainly a female form will come."

That is to say, the Tibetan system of governance can evolve with time; it is not for the Party to decide on a matter in which it is an ignoramus.

The Dalai Lama is also perfectly aware of the weakness of the Tibetan system of 'rule by incarnation'. During the interregnum between the death of a Dalai Lama and the attainment of majority by the newly reincarnated child, there is a political vacuum lasting between 15 and 20 years.

The 19th century saw a succession of five Dalai Lamas. The Chinese, through their ambans (or ambassadors) in Lhasa, made full use of this weakness. Many historians surmise that the premature deaths of the ninth, and up to the 12th Dalai Lamas, were not a mere coincidence. The Chinese ambans certainly took great advantage of their 'timely departure.'

Today, even if the Dalai Lama holds a referendum to know if the Tibetan people want the present system to continue, he will still have to decide upon the best way to 'transmit' his knowledge and experience to 'carry out the tasks of the previous life.'

One thing is sure, it is not for you or me or the Karats or Hu Jintaos to decide; it is too profound a tradition to be left in the hands of the profane.


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