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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Beijing and the (next) Dalai Lama

January 20, 2011

This is the first in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono
for the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington this week.
Pistono, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is the author of "In the
Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual
Discovery in Tibet," an account of a human rights monitor operating
covertly in China and Tibet.

By Matteo Pistono

Since the 14th Dalai Lama turned 70 in 2005, the international media has
increasingly focused on the question of his successor. The Dalai Lama
himself has offered varying possibilities regarding how the 15th Dalai
Lama could be identified but has not publicly stated definitively how
the reincarnation would occur. How a young Dalai Lama might be invested
with spiritual authority would be a matter of interest primarily for
Tibetan Buddhists devotees if the Dalai Lama were not a prominent and
influential leader on the world stage whose Tibetan voice represents an
oppositional position to the ruling Communist Party of China.

It will be incumbent upon the United States and other governments who
support the Dalai Lama to pay close attention to how and to whom he
gives the authority to identify the next Dalai Lama. The reason should
be obvious; the Chinese government already has a plan to control the
15th Dalai Lama.

China maintains that the Dalai Lama wants an independent Tibet, although
since 1988, the Tibetan leader has officially and publicly stated that
he is seeking genuine autonomy for Tibetans within the People's Republic
of China. Chinese officials vilify and portray the Dalai Lama as the
single greatest threat to the unity of the Chinese nation. The Dalai
Lama has been said to have "the face of a man and the heart of a beast"
and is "a wolf in monk's robes." These words are not from some backwater
cadre; rather a spokesperson of the Chinese central government in
Beijing and the senior official of the Tibet Autonomous Region spoke
them. Not only does the Chinese government consider the Dalai Lama to be
a dangerous "separatist," they also see religious devotion to him as
seditious. Displaying a photograph of the Dalai Lama, praying for his
long life, wearing an amulet with his image, or having his voice
chanting mantras on a mobile ring tone, is a subversive criminal act in
China.

Authority and power within Tibetan Buddhism has historically been
decentralized among many different reincarnate lamas and monastery
abbots. However, since China invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled into
exile to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama has been elevated by those
Tibetans who have been deprived of his presence as the preeminent
representative of their faith and their identity. Today, for the nearly
six million Tibetans living under Chinese rule in Tibet, the Dalai Lama
is their spiritual protector and political leader--and devotion to him
and his message is at an all-time high.

Beijing's future attempts to control the 15th Dalai Lama will be a
testament to their failure to dampen devotion to and influence of the
current 14th Dalai Lama, despite decades of dogged attempts to do so. In
March 2009, Jiao Zai'an, an official of the Chinese Communist Party's
United Front Work Department, said the Party must "decide what kind of
person is allowed to be reincarnated," because such approval is
essential to "ensure the political soundness of reincarnate lamas."
Tibetans reject these Party-appointed lamas, making Beijing's religious
politics a perilous path. Beijing argues that they are the sole
authority on choosing reincarnate lamas, ignoring the incongruity of an
atheist government involved in the mystical process of identifying a
reincarnate lama.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that he will never reincarnate
inside territory where he could not be a free spokesman for the Tibetan
people. Not long ago, in Benares, India, he told me, "If the Tibetan
people want another Dalai Lama, then I will be reborn outside of China's
control. The purpose of reincarnation is to continue our duty, our work
from before. The Chinese do not like my work today, so why would they
want it again in my next reincarnation?"

After the Dalai Lama passes, Beijing intends to promote a child they
select to be their next Dalai Lama, as they have done with the 11th
reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. This gross trespass against religious
freedom by the Chinese state has been a terrible tragedy for the young
Panchen Lama identified by the Dalai Lama (he was kidnapped and
disappeared) and the young boy chosen by China (who is regarded with
suspicion by the Tibetan people as a puppet of the Chinese government).
Similarly, we can expect that the Tibetan people will reject the search
and carefully managed ceremony overseen by the Chinese Communist Party's
leadership that purports to invest a young 15th Dalai Lama with
spiritual authority.

The Tibetan people will expect governments that have long supported the
Dalai Lama to reject a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama and to stand firmly
behind those in whom the 14th Dalai Lama has entrusted the continuation
of his work for a peaceful and just solution for Tibet, and to affirm
that the institution of the Dalai Lama does not belong to the Chinese
government but rather to the Tibetan people themselves.

Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author
of "In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and
Spiritual Discovery in Tibet." Pistono's images and writings about
Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political and spiritual landscapes have
appeared in BBC's In-Pictures, Men's Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL
South Asia. Pistono was born and raised in Wyoming where he completed
his undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Wyoming,
and in 1997 he obtained his master of arts degree in Indian philosophy
from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of
London. After working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington
D.C. on Tibetan cultural programs, Pistono lived and traveled throughout
the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West graphic accounts and
photos of China's human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of
Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around
the world, and he sits on the executive council of the International
Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for
Tibetan Art and Culture.

Pistono and his wife, Monica, divide their time between Colorado,
Washington D.C., and Asia.

In the Shadow of the Buddha is Pistono's account of a human rights
monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.
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