Forced Reincarnation and China’s Tibet Policy

Forced Reincarnation and China’s Tibet Policy

After the 14th Dalai Lama’s repeated suggestions that he could be the last incarnation of the highest spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism since the 17th century (a role that also included high political authority until 2011, when responsibility over the exiled Central Tibetan Authority was ceded to a democratically elected Sikyong), the Global Times criticized the spiritual leader for “abusing his religious influence for political purposes” and the governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region accused him of “profaning Tibetan Buddhism.” An article from The Economist outlines the Tibetan process for identifying reincarnated lamas, reviews recent controversial incidents of Beijing-sanctioned reincarnations, and finally characterizes China’s insistence on finding a new Dalai Lama as proof that its Tibet policy is problematic:

Given this history, you might expect China to heave a sigh of relief should the 14th Dalai Lama decide to be the last. It is a sign of the bankruptcy of its Tibet policies that, on the contrary, it seems to have decided that only the Dalai Lama can give it the legitimacy it seeks among ordinary Tibetans. Mercifully, the number of Tibetans burning themselves to death to protest against Chinese rule and to call for the Dalai Lama’s return from exile has fallen sharply. But this month a 47-year-old woman became the 137th known case since 2009. Since riots and protests in 2008, repression has been heavy, and it is always heavier in March, around the anniversary of the crushed uprising in 1959.

[…] The great mystery about China’s policy is why it seems to have decided that its best hope lies with the next Dalai Lama, not this one. Unlike many Tibetans, he has accepted Chinese sovereignty. He has used his enormous prestige to urge Tibetans to refrain from violent resistance. China faces a far more serious threat from the mainly Muslim ethnic Uighurs in the neighbouring region of Xinjiang. To safeguard its internal security, placate its disgruntled Tibetan citizens and improve its international reputation, common sense suggests China should start talking seriously to the 14th Dalai Lama. As its spokesmen pose preposterously as arbiters of the arcana of reincarnation, they just could be providing cover for such an about-face. That may be an optimistic interpretation, but others are almost too depressing to contemplate. [Source]

The Economist’s “Erasmus” religion and policy blog draws compares China’s oversight of religion to Soviet Russia’s, ending with an observation on the risks that come with the state attempts to control religious tradition:

[…] The trouble, from the state’s point of view, is that you can monitor and channel religions as much as you want, but you can never be sure which direction the current will flow. Religious traditions, if they are worth the name, can suddenly produce charismatic figures, mystical movements, prophets, seers, new incarnations and indeed all manner of things that no bureaucrat ever dreamed of. The state can respond to such phenomena but it cannot micro-manage them. Whatever happens after the end of the current Dalai Lama’s life (or, as some would say, the end of the Dalai Lama’s current life), that will surely be true of Tibetan Buddhism. [Source]

Also see a recent post from The Daily Beast outlining the history and selection process of the Dalai Lama.


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