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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Reincarnation Rift

December 5, 2007

The Wall Street Journal
December 4, 2007


To rely on your leader being reincarnated would be a shaky basis for
succession planning in even the most stable organization. For the
Tibetan government in exile, which depends so heavily on the star power
of the present Dalai Lama, it could be a disaster. There is no greater
issue in Tibet's immediate future and both the Tibetans and Chinese know it.

It explains why over the past few months, the two sides have fought a
public row over the selection of the next Dalai Lama. In August, the
Chinese claimed exclusive rights to the selection of all future
reincarnations of Tibetan lamas and have ordained that the Dalai Lama
must be a citizen of China.

Last week, at an interfaith conference in Amritsar, India, the Dalai
Lama made clear that the Chinese could claim all the rights they wanted,
but that the issue of his successor would be decided by his 13 million
followers around the world. If necessary, there will be a referendum on
whether they even want him reincarnated. They might prefer their
leadership to be passed into the hands of a committee or legislative
body with elected leaders. Or perhaps the Dalai Lama could select his
reincarnation while he was still alive, a mind-bending metaphysical
notion, but one with precedent in one of the Dalai Lama's own teachers,
Lama Trogye Trichen, who was chosen while his previous incarnation was
still breathing.

That reincarnation could become a political issue is one of the many
curiosities of Tibetan politics. If you are going to believe in
reincarnation, a non-believer might ask, can you really start haggling
over specifics? In Tibetan Buddhism's case, yes. For all its pageantry
and mysticism, it has always contained the pragmatic streak found in any
durable religion.

Stories of how the reincarnations of great lamas are found are among the
most charming in Tibetan history. A lama dies, and a small band of his
monastic followers set off in search of a child who has inherited his
spirit. They trek for months over the Himalayas until, in some small
village, they find the boy. When presented with an assortment of beads
and toys, the boy goes straight for the ones belonging to the dead lama.
It was how the present Dalai Lama was found in a small village on the
very fringes of the Tibetan world.

But the history of the great Tibetan lamas reveals that their succession
has frequently created a political crisis. The periods between one lama
dying and his successor being found have been filled with bloodletting
and intrigue. Young lamas often died mysterious deaths while powerful
regents fought for power.

The most obvious comparison to the present situation occurred in the
18th century. In 1720, Tibetans begged the Qianlong Emperor of China to
relieve them of a Mongol army that had laid waste to Lhasa. The Chinese
arrived, tossed out the Mongols and installed the seventh Dalai Lama.
During the following years, they experimented with various methods of
administration to maintain control, from appointing "ambans," or high
commissioners, to vesting power with a council of aristocrats.

None of these satisfied the Chinese, so in 179 they introduced a new
system in which their ambans were given equal status to the senior
lamas, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. They also introduced a lottery
system to select the lamas. Names were wrapped in barley balls, placed
in a golden urn and picked at random. The tenth, eleventh and twelfth
Dalai Lamas were chosen by this method, while the ninth, thirteenth and
the present fourteenth Dalai Lama were chosen by the previous lama's

The present dispute between the Tibetans in exile and the Chinese,
however, is overshadowed by what went on in 1995 with the selection of
the Panchen Lama. Six years after the 10th Panchen Lama died, a group of
Tibetan monks chose a boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the next Panchen
Lama. The selection was announced by the Dalai Lama. The Chinese,
however, took the boy into custody, where he remains, and arrested the
Tibetan monks who had chosen him. They then announced the selection of
their own Panchen Lama, a six-year-old boy named Gyaltsen Norbu, who is
now 18. Critically, the Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama have historically
had a hand in approving each other's successors. By controlling the
current Panchen Lama, the Chinese believe they have a veto over the
selection of the next Dalai Lama.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, any bureaucratic maneuvers they try to
pull can always be trumped by the more fluid laws of karma.
Reincarnations do not appear for no reason. The supporters of a lama
must want him to reappear, and reincarnations tend to be born in places
familiar to the previous incarnation. This is the logic the Dalai Lama
was referring to last week when he said: "The very purpose of a
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."

Maddening as it may be for a government so used to having things its
way, trying to control reincarnations may be over-reaching.

Mr. Delves Broughton is a writer in New York.
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