The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation

The Dalai Lama is a big deal, not just among Tibetan Buddhists, but internationally and across faiths.  Prince Harry and Meghan Markel recently quoted the Dalai Lama for inspiration on their shared Instagram account (that might be the most “2019” thing I’ve ever typed), and the religious icon was apparently on Markel’s short list to officiate the royal couple’s wedding. The Dalai Lama has lent his voice to the current debates over the environment, including tweeting support for youth activism in the Global Climate Strike.  When not hanging out with friends such as yoga guru Baba Ramdev, the 83 year old has also occasionally put his foot a bit into his mouth by joking that his successor could be a woman (progress!) but that she should be attractive in order to be effective (umm…).

Bad jokes aside, the succession of the Dalai Lama is also a big deal. When a Lama (spiritual leader) or a current descendant of many Tibetan Buddhist lineages, dies, it’s believed that the individual is reincarnated, and there’s a long held process for identifying the new incarnation of this person (it involved, among other possible procedures, seeing if the candidate –  generally a young child – can identify objects related to their previous life).  China, which has sought to control every religious body within its territory that it hasn’t chosen to ban outright, has already set the precedent for co-opting the Lama process.  In 1995, Shortly after the new Panchen Lama (the second most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism) was identified by the Dalai Lama and others as a 6 year old boy, that boy was disappeared by Chinese authorities (his whereabouts remain unknown) and replaced by a different candidate approved by the Chinese government.  China has declared that the Panchen Lama (the Chinese-approved one, that is) will help chose, or identify, the next Dalai Lama.

Seeing the writing on the wall (to mix my religious metaphors), the Dalai Lama has made some interesting statements concerning how he’d like the reincarnation process to play out (besides the attractive woman thing), defying China’s preferences. In March, he suggested that the next Dalai Lama might be reincarnated in India (where the current Dalai Lama has lived in exile for decades) instead of China, and insinuated that, in such a scenario, the Chinese government would choose its own Lama but that the latter would not be accepted as authentic. He has suggested that the next Dalai Lama might be already be an adult, suggesting that his next incarnation may already be alive and thus adding an unprecedented element of spiritual time travel to the process.   And he’s been saying for years that he may not be reincarnated at all. (The Dalai Lama is supposed to meet with other top Buddhist figures to decide the details of how the Dalai Lama can direct his own reincarnation, a power that enlightened Buddhist leaders are generally recognized as having).

The Chinese government, as you can imagine, does not like this.  This has led to a rather remarkable official statement of the Chinese government (which, to remind you, is completely controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and officially atheist):

Reincarnation of living Buddhas, as a unique institution of inheritance in Tibetan Buddhism, comes with a set range of rituals and conventions. The Chinese government implements the policy of freedom of religious belief. The reincarnation system is respected and protected by such legal instruments as Regulations on Religious Affairs and Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas.

The institution of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama has been in existence for several hundred years. The 14th Dalai Lama himself was found and recognized following religious rituals and historical conventions and his enthronement was approved by the then central government. Therefore reincarnation of living Buddhas including the Dalai Lama must comply with Chinese laws and regulations and follow religious rituals and historical conventions.”

So, an atheist authoritarian ruling party that generally suppresses religion is defending and upholding the details of an ancient, supernatural religious tradition, while also requiring that supernatural process to conform to the government’s laws.

Now, the US government has also gotten into the Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation process. The State Department recently warned China against interfering in the process of selecting Lamas, and a bill introduced in Congress would sanction any Chinese official who so intervened.

While it’s thus very unclear how exactly the process of identifying the next Dalai Lama(s) will play out, both China and the US have, in the midst of this new and highly unusual circumstance, gone about legislating aspects of this religious ceremony.  And should a 15th Dalai Lama be chosen, the new Buddhist leader will have his (or now possibly her) work cut out for them.

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