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China's living Buddhas: Nirvana for sale?

Last updated on: December 22, 2015 11:30 IST

IMAGE: A 'living Buddha' of the Lamaozhou temple debates ethnic Tibetan monks inside the Lamaozhou temple in the Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province, northwest China. Photograph: Reuters

Communist China has recently developed a great expertise in 'soul reincarnation', says Claude Arpi

Communist China has recently developed a great expertise in 'soul reincarnation'.

The reason why the atheist Chinese Communist Party looked into the issue is that 'living Buddhas, as Beijing calls the reincarnated lamas or Tulkus, usually wield great influence.

They can have political power, but also economic sway. It is, in fact, one of the best businesses nowadays, whether in the West or in the Middle Kingdom. More rarely, they have spiritual authority.

The Communist Party is also conscious that things are getting out of hand. It has now decided to differentiate between the 'good' lamas, who will pay obedience to Karl Marx's doctrine and the fake ones, who run private businesses.

During a meeting of the United Front Work Department in June, President Xi Jinping said, 'Active efforts should be made to incorporate religions in socialist society.'

'Religions in China must be Chinese,' Xi added. 'The development of religions in China should be independent from foreign influence.'

That is probably why Beijing has decided to develop a database of 'living Buddhas' to help differentiate the fake from the real (that is, those who owe allegiance to the Communist party) Rinpoches (an honorific title).

Last month, The China Daily reported, 'Authorities are setting up a database of legitimate living Buddhas and will publish the information online. This will enable followers of Tibetan Buddhism to distinguish between real living Buddhas and fake ones.'

'Some fake living Buddhas have posed threats to national security,' it added, 'as they use money they collect to sponsor illegal or even separatist activities in Tibet.'

How can one get a certificate from Beijing that one is the right 'returned soul'?

Simply follow the rules of the Communist Party, which affirmed: 'Living Buddhas, also known as Rinpoches or Tulkus, are deeply revered monks in Tibetan Buddhism, where it is believed that the soul of a senior Buddha is reincarnated in a child on his death.'

According to Beijing, there are 358 living Buddhas in the Tibet Autonomous Region. That is quite a lot for a supposedly atheist region. Apparently all the living Buddhas went through the Party's procedures.

The China Daily gives us the way to proceed. Five steps are necessary.

In September 2007, the state administration for religious affairs in Beijing decided that all reincarnations of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism must receive government approval.

The regulations' main purpose is to control the future 'reincarnation' of the Dalai Lama. Whoever controls the Dalai Lama controls the masses on the plateau, thinks the party.

Interestingly, the procedures were not followed for choosing the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. After the search committee assembled a list of possible candidates, it was clandestinely sent to the Dalai Lama, who chose his candidate (Gedhun Choekyi Nyima), who was immediately arrested. Since then, he lives under house arrest somewhere in China.

The Chinese government then decided to run its parallel recognition process and enthrone another candidate, whose parents had better Communist credentials. Gyaltsen Norbu (also known as Gyaincain), the Chinese anointed candidate, is from time to time seen in Lhasa and the Tashilhunpo, the seat of the Panchen Lamas in Shigatse.

Norbu was recently elected chairman of the Tibet Development Fund, a non-governmental organisation under the Chinese government.

The fund is expected to play an even greater role in promoting social and economic development in the region under the leadership of the 11th Panchen Lama, said Xinhua.

IMAGE: Gyaltsen Norbu, 22, the 11th Panchen Lama officially appointed by the Chinese government, at a forum in Hong Kong. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

The issue of 'fake' lamas recently received some publicity from Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference's Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee.

In an interview, Zhu said '(some) fake living Buddhas are cheating people out of their savings or luring them into sexual activities using religious practice as an excuse.'

In October, one 'Holiness Pema Woeser (alias Baima Aose) Rinpoche,' himself a self-styled living Buddha 'ordained' Zhang Tielin, a well-known Chinese actor, as a Rinpoche. The footage of the enthronement went viral on the Chinese Internet.

'(Baima) deceived Han Chinese followers who don't understand Tibetan and twisted the facts,' the China Daily said, 'damaging the monastery's reputation.'

'The selection procedure is strict and lengthy,' the newspaper explained further, 'and nearly all living Buddhas are from the Tibetan ethnic group.'

Duoshi Rinpoche, a Beijing-recognised living Buddha told the China Daily, 'The ceremony Baima Aose (Pema Woeser) performed was just a joke and Zhang had made a fool of himself,' adding, 'Criminal activities involving fake living Buddhas still occur frequently. I have heard that some monasteries in remote places even put the title of living Buddha up for sale and trade it with wealthy businessmen.'

Even nirvana can be bought in China today.

In March, China.org.cn posted a feature, 'Fake Lamas flourish as China's middle class grows.'

'As China's growing middle class searches for spiritual comfort,' it said, 'both authentic and fake Rinpoche Lamas are becoming sought after advisors and status symbols.'

A 2014 report in the Financial Times affirmed that 50 per cent of China's richest class people admit that they adhere to some kind of religion and one-third of the 50 per cent claimed to be Buddhist.

'Rinpoches,' the China.org.cn article explained, 'are currently respected and followed by many in China because they offer some comfort for their followers' spiritual needs, regardless of whether their credentials are authentic or fake.'

Therefore, there is a need for 'living Buddhas'.

The reason why the Rinpoche business is flourishing, ifeng.com explained, is that it is a status symbol for middle class individuals.

There was a joke circulating online: There are 300,000 wild and fake Rinpoches in Beijing's Chaoyang district alone. It is the district where many of the capital's wealthy celebrities and business people live and work.

In the meantime, 'official' Communist Rinpoches have to work hard to get government approval. On June 24, China Tibet Online reported that 25 newly recognised reincarnated Rinpoches came together in Lhasa, and participated in the 'second training course for Tibet Newly Recognised Reincarnated Rinpoches.'

The government Web site said that participants enthusiastically discussed about the important meeting between President Xi Jinping and the Panchen Lama (Gyalsten Norbu): 'Under his leadership together they can promote the incorporation of Tibetan Buddhism into socialist society under the Buddhist principles of equality and compassion among all beings.'

They are obviously well trained -- politically.

IMAGE: The Dalai Lama greets wellwishers during the Glastonbury Festival in Britain. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

In an op-ed on China Tibet Online, Zhu Weiqun attacked the Dalai Lama for talking 'more proactively and frequently about his own reincarnation.'

'Historical facts show that determining the existence of the Dalai lineage and reincarnation of the Dalai Lama had never been a purely religious matter, neither the individual rights of the Dalai Lamas themselves,' Zhu argued.

'Rather, it is an important political affair of the Tibet local government and an important manifestation of the central government's exercise of sovereignty over Tibet,' Zhu added.

Therefore, only Beijing will decide who will be the next Dalai Lama

It is true that it is an 'important political affair' and today the danger of having a Chinese Dalai Lama looms large over the Himalayan horizon.

The time has perhaps come to renounce the system of 'reincarnations', which has historically brought much disunity among the Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama has often hinted that he might be the last one, but other serious lamas should also publicise that a true Lama should not be recognised anymore through any 'reincarnation process', including the urn-ritual or by the amount of gold on his cloth, but his virtues and actions only.

Meritocracy should replace the old system which has outlived its time.

Chinese (and Western) 'devotees' may be disappointed, but it is perhaps a matter of survival for the Tibetan nation.

Claude Arpi