Tibet and China clash over next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Ashwini Bhatia/AP</span>
Photograph: Ashwini Bhatia/AP

A couple of years ago, during a meeting of Tibetan leaders in Dharamshala in India, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was asked about his reincarnation. Addressing the room of monks, religious teachers and Tibetan politicians, the Dalai Lama asked them to look into his eyes. “Do you think it’s time now?” he asked.

It was a meeting that would end with the Tibetan leaders agreeing that the issue of reincarnation was one that would be decided only by the Dalai Lama himself. But China, which annexed Tibet in 1951 and has retained tight control over the region ever since, has other ideas. It insists that the choice of the next Dalai Lama lies only with China, and have even enshrined this right into Chinese law.

The Dalai Lama, who recently turned 86, has insisted that discussions of his death are premature (according to his own visions, he will live to 113). But a power struggle for who will choose his reincarnation after he dies has already begun.

“We are looking at the highly likely situation that when the 14th Dalai Lama dies, there will be two Dalai Lamas named in his place,” said Robert Barnett, a Tibetan expert. “One selected on the basis of instructions left behind by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and one chosen by the Chinese Communist party.”

Yet China is not the only country now keeping a watchful eye on the Dalai Lama’s succession. Since 1959, the Dalai Lama has lived in exile in Dharamshala, nestled in the Himalayas, and Tibet has remained a sensitive factor in India’s relationship with China, with whom it shares a 2,000-mile border. India has control over the Dalai Lama’s movements, both within India and abroad.

But as relations with China have deteriorated to historic lows over the past year due to deadly border aggression, there has been increased pressure on the Indian government to strengthen its Tibet policy in order to counter China, including declaring that only the Dalai Lama can choose his successor. Last month, in what was described as a “significant departure” from previous policy, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi wished the Dalai Lama happy birthday on Twitter and, according to the president of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile, a meeting is planned between the two this year.

The controversies over the Dalai Lama’s successor are likely to have a direct impact on India; one possible scenario put forward by the Dalai Lama himself is that he could be reincarnated in a “free country”, likely to be India rather than Tibet.

Last week, it emerged that several members of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle, as well as senior figures in the Tibetan Central Administration, which operates out of Dharamshala, were among those selected as potential targets for surveillance with Pegasus spyware made by NSO group. Analysis suggests it was the Indian government selecting the potential surveillance targets. The Indian government denies any surveillance.

India is not alone in seeing the Dalai Lama’s succession as a matter of geopolitical importance. Last year, in a direct shot at China, the US revised its Tibet policy to declare that only Tibetans had the right to select the next Dalai Lama.

According to teachings, each Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the Avalokiteśvara, who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. He is both the foremost spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and in many times past and present also a political leader of the Tibetans.

Traditionally, after he dies, a search begins in Tibet to find his reincarnation, based on signs such as where he was looking when died, which direction the smoke blows when he is cremated and visions interpreted from Lhamo La-tso, an oracle lake in Tibet. Based on these visions, search parties are sent out to find children born around the date of his death who match these visions and are then put through a series of tests, until the right one is divined. While most Dalai Lamas have been found in Tibet, one was born in Mongolia and another in an area that is now India.

But with Tibet under the control of China, this process which led to the discovery of two-year-old Lhamo Dhondup – now known as Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama – in a small farming village in north-eastern Tibet in February 1940, is unlikely to be repeated. It is now enshrined in law that the Chinese government must approve all reincarnations of senior Buddhist Lamas (teachers), including the Dalai Lama, a position that was strongly reiterated in a Tibet white paper released by China in May this year, on the 70th anniversary of its annexation of Tibet.

Tibetans at a ceremonial  86th birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama in Lalitpur, Nepal.
Tibetans at a ceremonial 86th birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama in Lalitpur, Nepal. Photograph: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

This has been rejected by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan parliament in exile, which sits in Dharamshala. Penpa Tsering is the president of the parliament-in-exile, and works closely with the Dalai Lama. He said: “A non-believer, atheist government like China interfering in Tibetan spiritual matters is a complete no-no, it cannot be accepted. The world has turned against China. We firmly believe no one will trust their choice.”

The Dalai Lama has also expressed concern that his reincarnation will be hijacked and politicised in “brazen meddling” by the Chinese, and has publicly contemplated being reincarnated as a woman or not at all.

The Dalai Lama has put forward three options for his reincarnation, all a departure from the past. The first is that he will be reincarnated in the traditional form, reborn as a child, but outside Tibet. The other options invoked even more niche Buddhist ideas of “emanation” and opened up the possibility of the Dalai Lama appointing a living successor before he dies. He has rejected the legitimacy of the Chinese government’s proposed method of finding his reincarnation, which involves a name being pulled from a “golden urn”.

While the Dalai Lama was once spiritual leader only to Tibetans, he now has a huge following and has become something of a global celebrity. Attempts by China to interfere in his reincarnation would be likely to spark a global backlash.

For the Tibetan leadership, the issue is not seen as pressing; aside from a brief cancer scare, the Dalai Lama is reported to be in good health and has himself said he will begin making a decision about his reincarnation options after he turns 90.

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said many times in jest that if the Chinese are really concerned about the issue of reincarnation, they should look for Mao Zedong’s reincarnation first, Deng Xiaoping’s second [both deceased Chinese communist leaders], and then maybe the Dalai Lama,” said Tsering.

Related: Dalai Lama’s inner circle listed in Pegasus project data

While officially there has been no communication between the Chinese and the Tibetans since 2010, Tsering confirmed that the back channels between the two sides remained active, and that the Tibetan leadership and the Dalai Lama were now pushing for the Dalai Lama to finally be allowed to visit Tibet and China for the first time since he escaped.

But Tsering emphasised that the issue of the next Dalai Lama was not up for negotiation with the Chinese government. “Reincarnation is a decision that has to be made by the person who’s going to be reincarnated. So we would advise the Chinese leadership to learn Buddhism first,” he said.

However, the Chinese government is already preparing the groundwork for selection of the next Dalai Lama. According to Barnett, the Chinese Communist party in January secretly assembled 25 senior government figures into a committee to begin preparing for the selection process. “We also know from personal accounts that the Chinese have spent the last 10 years winning over individual Lamas inside Tibet, offering them free trips to China and telling them that if they support Beijing they won’t be persecuted, so that when the time comes these Lamas will support the Chinese choice for the Dalai Lama,” said Barnett. “It’s proving very effective.”

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was recognised as 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was recognised as 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama. Photograph: CPA Media/Alamy

The preparations appear to be a Chinese attemp tto avoid repeating the chaotic events of 1995, when, without consulting the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama declared that a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was the next reincarnated Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Three days later, Nyima disappeared and has not been seen since. The Panchen Lama that the Chinese government then appointed in his place remains rejected by most Tibetans.

The Chinese government’s apparent determination to select and control the next Dalai Lama is also seen as a response to the enduring popularity of the current spiritual leader, which has undermined their control of Tibet. Despite extensive “re-education” and propaganda programmes and the banning of any image of the Dalai Lama inside Tibet, he is still secretly revered by many Tibetans.

The Chinese government has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of “separatist” activities and held him responsible for the self-immolations that Tibetans still carry out in protest, and Tibetan uprisings such as those in 2008.“The fact that the Chinese government wants a reincarnation of their choice shows they consider the institution important enough that it needs to be owned and manipulated in order to finally settle to Tibet issue,” said Amitabh Mathur, a former adviser to the Indian government on Tibetan affairs. “This is largely due to the exceptional personality of the 14th Dalai Lama and the hold he still has over Tibetans. Hence the desperation to have their own Dalai Lama.”

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