China’s Misguided Religious Battle
Image Credit: Flickr / Rubber Bullets

China’s Misguided Religious Battle


At a time when the world has been horrified by recurring news of Tibetan monks and nuns self-immolating in protest over Beijing’s repressive policies, the Chinese government is attempting to widen its control over religious activities. Indeed, the Communist government is even making pronouncements on theology.

This isn’t the first time the government has waded into theology. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named a Tibetan boy as the reincarnation of the previous Panchen Lama – the second holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. But the atheistic Communist Party stepped in, put the boy under house arrest, and named another as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.

To use a biblical analogy, this is akin to King Herod choosing not to order the death of the baby Jesus, but instead orchestrating his kidnapping and the substitution of another boy in his place.

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Through its actions, Beijing has created a huge religious problem for Tibetan Buddhists, who no longer know where the genuine Panchen Lama is and, of course, won’t be able to follow the ritual of identifying his reincarnation when he dies. Chinese political meddling has thus created theological issues for believers. Despite the Constitution’s guarantees, the government isn’t allowing Tibetans freedom of belief.

Back in 2007, China institutionalized such meddling in theological issues by issuing regulations on the reincarnation of all Tibetan “Living Buddhas.” According to these regulations, reincarnations must be submitted to the party’s Religious Affairs Bureau for approval.

The gall of this announcement is astonishing. Previously, the Party claimed the right to approve pregnancies. Unapproved pregnancies were terminated. But how, one wonders, does the party disapprove a reincarnation? Reincarnation is, after all, the belief that the soul of a person returns to reside in a new human body, either as a human being or even as an animal or a plant. One either believes or does not believe in reincarnation. It’s ridiculous for a nonbeliever to claim the right to decide who can or cannot be reincarnated.

And if, in the minds of the faithful, a holy man has indeed been reincarnated, who is the Party to decided that such a spiritual event hasn’t taken place? The party operates on a material level – it has no authority at the spiritual level.

Of course, the Party’s claims to such authority are rooted in politics. It cites precedents dating back to the time of Mongol and Manchu rule in China. But the Mongols and Manchus were believers who revered Tibetan lamas. Today’s Chinese leaders are atheists who can by no stretch of the imagination be considered patrons of the faith.

The party wishes to control the entire hierarchy of Tibetans lamas so that, in future, it can claim that all lamas were reincarnated through its approval. Instead of a separation of church and state the church will become the instrument of the party-state.

Ultimately, it boils down to controlling the next Dalai Lama. The incumbent is now 76 years-old, and Beijing sees the endgame as approaching. It hopes to groom a boy who will become an instrument of party policy rather than a spokesman for Tibetan cultural and religious autonomy.

However, the wily Dalai Lama is fully cognizant of this game plan and hopes to thwart it by throwing down a theological gauntlet. In a 4,000-word statement last September, the purpose of which was clearly political but whose weapons were theological, the Dalai Lama displayed his full armory of theological weapons.

“Reincarnation,” he said, “is a phenomenon which should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. Therefore, the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.”

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