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The Reincarnation Business -- Beijing Is Becoming Nervous; Too Nervous!

January 25, 2010

By Claude Arpi
The Statesman
January 22, 2010

THE fact that China is today a recognized
superpower (2010 will see the Middle Kingdom
becoming the second largest economic power and
exporter of the planet), may lead you to conclude
that the leadership in Beijing lives in peace
with itself, enjoying its newly-acknowledged
position. But despite their status, the politburo
members in the walled-enclave of Zhongnanhai are trembling. Why?

In the famous comics, Asterix, an indomitable
tribe continues to refuse the rule of the most
powerful empire of its time. Though the tiny
Armorican village could not be captured by the
Roman Empire because the villagers managed to
acquire invincible strength by drinking a magic
potion brewed by the village druid, in our case,
the Empire has already invaded the country of the
stubborn people from the Land of Snows. But but
oh sacrilege, they still insist on keeping their
cultural identity and demand a "genuine
autonomy." It may seem not much for an outsider,
but the new Caesars in Beijing remain
intransigent. For them, there is one culture
alone: the party is omniscient and supreme.

The Tibetan institutions

THE Tibetan tribe would like to practise their
creed in peace, as they have done for the past
800 years. But the mighty Empire will not bend,
especially when it comes to the Lamas’ most sacred institutions.

They have good reasons for this: "Keeping a
living Buddha under control means keeping a
temple under control, and keeping a temple under
control means keeping a district under control."
This quotation, conveniently put in the mouth of
an unknown supporter of the ‘separatist Dalai’s
group’, appeared in the People’s Daily, the
mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China on
January 7. The entire article, entitled "Dalai
Lama’s reincarnation tale indicative of
separatism" is most offensive and shows a great nervousness on Beijing’s part.

What provoked the anger of the ‘analyst’? The
People’s Daily argument is that a few months back
the Dalai Lama declared that he could very well
be reincarnated in the form of a woman. Beijing
says that it is "an eye-popping thing to say." One could ask, why?

Several years ago, I had the occasion to ask the
Dalai Lama to elaborate on this point. He then
explained: "In Tibet, the tradition of having
reincarnated teachers is almost 700 years old.
Among them, we had one institution of a female
reincarnation. In case a female Dalai Lama is
more useful to Tibet in future, then why not have
a woman as ‘reincarnation’? If a Tibetan lady
Dalai Lama comes, every male will become her follower," he said, laughing.

The Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama to be the
reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva
of Compassion and Saint-Patron of Tibet. His
‘job’, as the present Dalai Lama puts it, is to
make sure that the Buddhist tradition flourishes in the Land of Snows.

Beijing has now reacted violently (and belatedly)
to the idea of a girl Dalai Lama: "A living
reincarnation, reincarnated as a girl or a
bronze-haired foreigner" all these absurd
arguments by the 14th Dalai Lama on his
reincarnation have made people in the Tibetan Buddhist circle feel furious.”

The Communist Party, which has apparently gained
great expertise in the Buddha Dharma, argues
"according to the basic teachings of Tibetan
Buddhism, ‘may be a girl’ is simply an outrageous
remark." It then adds: "In the eyes of many
Tibetan Buddhists, it was a blasphemy."

What a sexist remark! Did not Buddha ordain his
own mother? But one can’t expect the apparatchiks
in Beijing to have read the sutras.

The unnamed ‘analyst’ added: "Seeing Dalai Lama
keep sullying Tibetan Buddhism, many people
sharply pointed out the most sacred reincarnation
system of Tibetan Buddhism has become his tool of
separatism. It is foreseeable that he will
trample on the historical and religious rituals
more savagely, and finally bring disrepute to
Tibetan Buddhism. He should realize carrying out
separatist activities through the reincarnation
issue will only meet with public ridicule."

History will decide who is the most ridiculous,
but obviously, Beijing is nervous to think of
what will happen after the death of the present
Dalai Lama. This explained why a couple of years
ago the Chinese government announced their new
Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation
of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.

Beijing was already preparing for the Dalai
Lama’s departure (and return); the ‘measures’
clearly targeted the Tibetan leader. If Karl Marx
could read some of the 14 articles of the
‘measures’, he would be turning in his grave.
They describe in great detail how "reincarnating
living Buddhas should carry out application and
approval procedures." The party threatened: "No
group or individual may without authorisation
carry out any activities related to searching for
or recognising reincarnating living Buddha soul children."

The Communist Party, which always treated
religion as ‘poison’, has suddenly become an
authority on the century-old tradition of ‘reincarnation’.

The People’s Daily comes back to the ‘Measures’
to state that "the reincarnation of Living Buddha
shall not be interfered or dominated by any
organization or individual abroad." It is another
way to say that the Dalai Lama has no business in deciding reincarnation.

Lineage system

IN Tibet, the lineage system has never been
rigid. For example, during the 13-14th century,
the hierarchs of the Sakya monastery ruled over
the Land of Snows. Their succession was set up by
way of ‘transmission’ from father to son or uncle
to nephew. Further, historians believe that at
the beginning of the 17th century, two Dalai
Lamas were alive at the same time (the 6th and
the 7th). There was no fixed place about where a
Dalai Lama could be reborn. The Fourth, Yonten
Gyatso was born in Mongolia while the Sixth,
Tsangyang Gyatso, took birth in India (in Tawang
district of today’s Arunachal Pradesh).

Through Tibet’s history, the interregnum between
two Dalai Lamas has been a weakness of the
reincarnation system. The 19th century saw a
succession of five Dalai Lamas. The Chinese,
through their Ambans (or Ambassadors) in Lhasa,
made full use of this weakness. Many surmise that
the premature deaths of the Ninth up to the
Twelfth Dalai Lamas were not a mere coincidence
and the Chinese Ambans certainly took great
advantage of their ‘timely departure’. It is
clear that the problem is not only a spiritual
issue, but also a political one and this explains
the meddling of the Chinese Communists in what
seems at first sight to be a religious affair.

Like the Gaulish tribe, one can hope that the
Tibetans will be able to resist (without magic
potion as they have abjured violence), the
cultural invasion of the mighty Empire and
preserve their religious heritage, more
particularly the tulku (reincarnation) tradition
which should be acknowledged by Unesco as part of world heritage.

In any case one could ask, is it befitting for a
superpower to speak in such appalling manner? The
leaders in Beijing should learn from the Dalai
Lama how to remain cool in all circumstances.

The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations
and author of the The Negotiations that never were.
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