China Moves to Control Tibetan Reincarnate Lamas


2006: A young reincarnate lama in Tibet. Photo: Palden Gyal/RFA

WASHINGTON—The selection of Tibetan reincarnate lamas, called living Buddhas in China, is now subject to approval by China’s officially atheist state, according to rules that go into effect Sept. 1.

The new regulations, issued in July as Order No. 5 by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), forbid the naming of any reincarnate lama solely by traditional Tibetan procedures.

In a move apparently aimed at quelling separatist sentiment in Tibet, SARA’s Order No. 5 also declares, “Living Buddha reincarnations should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the state.”

Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari—special envoy of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama—said in an Aug. 15 statement, “These stringent new measures strike at the heart of Tibetan religious identity. They will only create further resentment among the Tibetan people and cannot override the [Chinese Communist] Party’s lack of legitimacy in the sphere of religion.”

In an Aug. 31 statement, the congressionally mandated United States Commission on International Religious Freedom voiced “strong concern.”

“The regulations are clearly designed to undermine the influence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans’ preeminent spiritual leader, and constitute continuing state violation of internationally guaranteed religious freedoms in China,” the commission said.

Speaking in an interview, Kate Saunders, communications director for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, said “These new regulations really represent a much more aggressive attempt to control the recognition and education, acknowledgement, of reincarnate lamas.”

Overreaching agenda

“And there’s an overreaching agenda as well. They want to really weaken the institution of Tibetan Buddhism as a whole, and the influence of Tibetan Buddhist teachers.”

Saunders noted that under Article 11 of the new measures, “in a monastery, if you recognize a living Buddha, if you recognize a reincarnated lama without the sanction of the Party, you could be in contravention of these regulations.”

These stringent new measures strike at the heart of Tibetan religious identity. They will only create further resentment among the Tibetan people and cannot override the [Chinese Communist] Party’s lack of legitimacy in the sphere of religion.

“The language of Chinese regulations is often deliberately opaque, and often allows authorities to interpret that language in whatever way suits their purpose,” Saunders said.

During an earlier period of Chinese domination of Tibet, China’s Qing dynasty also interfered in the selection of reincarnates, said Elliot Sperling, a professor of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University, also in an interview.

At the end of the 18th century, Sperling said, Tibet and Nepal fought a war that the Qing were drawn into.

Frustrated at what they considered Tibetan “incompetence and mismanagement,” the Qing government issued 29 regulations reorganizing Tibetan affairs, Sperling said. One of these called for the selection of incarnate lamas by the drawing of lots from a golden urn.

“This procedure was followed with regard to a number of high-ranking incarnations, including the Dalai Lamas,” Sperling said. “In the case of the 13th Dalai Lama, while the golden urn wasn’t used, the amban—that is, the Qing resident in [Tibet’s capital] Lhasa—was petitioned so that the golden urn would not be used.”

Following the collapse of Qing rule in 1911, Tibet was de facto independent, and the procedures for selecting lamas reverted to traditional forms, Sperling said.

‘Patriotic lamas’

Sperling noted that China’s present communist government, which now governs Tibet, has recently tried to cultivate high-ranking religious teachers inside Tibet as “patriotic lamas”—politically reliable figures who will not call for Tibetan independence from Chinese rule.

One of these, the Gyalwa Karmapa, resisted Chinese control and escaped to India in 2000. Another is the Chinese government’s own candidate for Panchen Lama, enthroned in 1995 after the candidate selected by the exiled 14th Dalai Lama was detained, together with his family, by Chinese authorities and vanished into China.

The Chinese-approved Panchen is unpopular in Tibet and lives outside the region, Sperling said.

“[The Chinese] know that he’s not really accepted. And yet at the same time, there have not been any major disturbances because of this. What trouble there has been, they’ve been able to keep under control.”

Kate Saunders said that China has an “overriding concern about controlling the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama. And we saw that in the way they took the Panchen Lama, Gendun Chokyi Nyima, into custody in 1995.”

“But ultimately that’s a flawed strategy, because the Dalai Lama himself has said that if he is to be reincarnated—if there is to be a 15th Dalai Lama—then he will be born outside occupied Tibet.”

“What continues to bind Tibetans together both inside and outside Tibet is loyalty to the Dalai Lama,” Saunders said.

Original reporting by Richard Finney. Edited for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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