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The Right to Be Reborn Denied

January 28, 2008

By Thubten Samphel
24 January 2008

Dharamsala:There's a new law in force in China these days that says the
Chinese authorities in future would choose reincarnating Tibetan lamas.
Partly in anticipation of such a move and mostly to keep pace with the
changing times, the Dalai Lama said he has been toying with different
methods to choose his successor. This standoff between Tibetan Buddhism
and the Chinese Communist Party has brought international media
spotlight on this unique system of selecting Tibetan spiritual leaders
and on one culture?s spiritual beliefs and a state?s political ambitions.

Buddhists believe that highly realized beings have the capacity to
choose where and when they want to be reborn. It?s a matter of putting
the efforts of a lifetime (or, in most cases, lifetimes) to adjust one?s
internal mechanism to reach the level when one could project one?s
spiritual qualities over time and space. These qualities enable highly
realized beings to manifest themselves simultaneously in several places,
as the historical Buddha did when he was seen teaching at several places
at the same time. Or, over many lifetimes, rebirth after rebirth, and in
different life forms, as the Buddha did and which forms the basis and
the moral of the classic book, the Jataka Tales.

The Chinese authorities once considered all this voodoo, a leftover from
Tibet?s dark, feudal superstitious past. Back in 1954, Mao Zedong told
the young Dalai Lama, "Religion is the opiate of the people." Later, the
Tibetans were told that there could not be ?two suns in the same sky:
communism and Buddhism.?

This forthright Chinese attitude to their culture cost the Tibetan
people dear. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1969, Tibet had
lost about 6,000 monasteries. The inmates of these centres of learning
had either fled or been imprisoned or died. Tibet became a land of lost
content. This is the equivalent of saying that one fine day India finds
all its universities in ruins and nothing is seen or heard of all the
promising students and brilliant faculty members.

This was China?s attitude to Buddhism in the days of Mao. Why is China
now after the Tibetan sun?

The answer lies in history. The role played by the innovative system of
rule by reincarnation and the priest-patron relations which the lamas of
Tibet developed with the Mongol khans and later with the Manchu emperors
kept the peace in Central and High Asia for centuries. Of all the places
where Buddhism spread, Tibet was the only one where this belief in
reincarnation was put into practice. Starting from the 12th century,
when the first incarnate lamas began to appear on the Tibetan scene,
various lamas, because of the immense spiritual prestige they commanded,
filled the plateau?s fractured political vacuum and exercised political
authority. The first recorded reincarnate lama was Karmapa Pakshi who
was recognized as the authentic reincarnation of Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa
(1110-1193), an outstanding lama of the Kagyu school of Tibetan
Buddhism. This idea caught on and soon reincarnate lamas proliferated
among different schools of Tibetan Buddhism and across the plateau.

In 1207 when the Tibetans heard that Genghis Khan made the Tanguts, a
people related to the Tibetans by language and religion and who then
operated in present-day Gansu-Ningxia corridor, into a vassal state,
Tibetan lamas submitted to Mongol overlordship. Because of this piece of
Tibetan diplomacy, of all the countries that became a part of the
greatest land empire in human history, Tibet was the only one that was
spared devastation. The Mongols collected only taxes from Tibet and left
Tibet very much to its own devices.

In 1244, Godan Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, sent a letter to
Sakya Pandita, Tibet?s most accomplished scholar, demanding, ?We need a
lama advise my ignorant people on how to conduct themselves morally and
spiritually? As you are the only lama I have chosen, I will not accept
any excuses on account of your age or the rigours of the journey.? Sakya
Pandita along with his nephew Phagpa undertook the journey to Mongolia.
In the course of tutoring Godan Khan on Buddhism, Sakya Pandita
extracted a promise from the khan to stop the practice of drowning
thousands of Chinese peasants as a method of both population and
political control. In return for his spiritual service, Godan Khan
invested the Tibetan hierarch with temporal authority over central Tibet
and later over all Tibet.

In 1251, Sakya Pandita passed away in present-day Lanzhou, capital of
Gansu province. Several years later Godan Khan also died. Sakya Pandita
was succeeded by Phagpa and Godan Khan by Kublai Khan. The great khan
decided to adopt the nineteen ?year-old Tibetan as his spiritual
teacher. Before the Tibetan master accepted the honour, he demanded that
as his student he expected Kublai Khan to prostrate before his teacher.
Kublai Khan suggested that this kow-towing, this offering of body,
speech and mind to his teacher, should be done in private. Done in
public, Kublai Khan said he would lose his prestige and empire. This was
acceptable to the young Tibetan master and soon Kublai Khan made Phagpa
the imperial preceptor and re-confirmed his position as the ruler of the
whole of Tibet.

The priest-patron relations, a successful peace pact between the lamas
of Tibet and the reigning military power of the day, reached its height
during the reigns of Tibet?s successive Dalai Lamas. In the reigns of
Godan and Kublai Khan, Buddhism remained a court religion. This changed
during the time of the Third Dalai Lama who was invited by Altan Khan to
visit Mongolia. He accepted the invitation and arrived at the Mongol
capital in 1578 and converted the whole of Mongolia to Buddhism. His
successor, the Fourth Dalai Lama, was a Mongol.

The most productive period of the priest-patron relations was during the
reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The Fifth Dalai Lama was offered the
temporal rule of Tibet, from borders of Ladakh in the west to Dartsedo
(Ch: Kangding) in the east, by the bearded Qosot Mongol chieftain,
Gushri Khan, in 1642. In the following years the Manchus brought China
under their rule. The Manchus? one problem was how to deal with the
Mongol menace, real and next door. Successive Manchu emperors used
Mongolia?s devotion to the Dalai Lama to their advantage. They requested
the Dalai Lama to keep the Mongols at bay. Sometimes they requested the
use of Mongol forces to put down sporadic rebellions within their
borders. Mongols were kept at bay but the Dalai Lama cited the smallpox
epidemic then raging in China and the hot climate as reasons for the
Mongol cavalry being unsuitable as a fighting force in such a terrain.

On his part, the patron kept his bargain of protecting the spiritual
realm of his priest, but not always. Emperor Qianglong dispatched Manchu
troops to Tibet to help repulse the resurgent Gorkhas who had taken over
major Tibetan towns along the Tibet-Nepal border in the first Gorkha war
between 1788-1792. Since then a detachment of Manchu troops was station
in Lhasa. The office of the Manchu amban in the Tibetan capital was
upgraded and expanded. The power and influence of the ambans, whom the
Manchus considered their viceroys in Tibet and the Tibetans viewed as
ambassadors of the Manchu court, waxed and waned with the fortunes of
the Manchu dynasty and with the energy and cohesion of the Kashag, the
Tibetan council of ministers.

The decline of the Manchu power in China and exhausting challenges posed
to it by the expanding and sea-faring west prevented the Manchus from
coming to Tibet?s help in the Dogra war of 1841 to 1842, the second
Gorkha war from 1855 to 1856 or in the British invasion of Tibet from
1904 to 1905.

This international diplomatic structure came crashing down when the
patron turned on its priest. The People?s Liberation Army marched into
Tibet in 1949. Decades earlier, Mongolia had been caught in the Soviet
embrace. Two of the three triangular nodes that have propped up
structure of the priest-patron relationship were snatched away. The
third, the successor regime of the erstwhile patron of Buddhism, the
Republic of China, was driven away to Taiwan.

Today, there is no Mongol might to speak of. The egalitarian faith that
has sustained the early Chinese communists has been sapped and replaced
by a profit-at-all cost ethos. But the 14th Dalai Lama has gone on to
build an international constituency his predecessors could have hardly
dreamed of. More than the international spread of the institution of the
Dalai Lama, its potency in Tibet is what worries the authorities.
Perhaps here lies a part of the answer to the Chinese authorities?
attempt to regulate where and when Tibetan lamas should be reborn. They
want the power but not the faith that sustains it.
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