The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation

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The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation

The Dalai Lama suggests he’ll be the last of his line, and in doing so challenges Chinese imperialism.

The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation
Credit: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

If one stands at the foot of the Potala Palace – once the residence of the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa – and looks south, the beauty of the surrounding mountains and old Tibetan architecture is somewhat marred by a concrete monolith erected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It’s somewhat hopefully titled the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. When I was there in April last year I took a photo of it and, in the time that it took to bring the view into focus, two armored Chinese military vehicles had driven into my shot and were captured in time.

This is what peace and liberation looks like today in the one-time Himalayan kingdom. Lhasa is an occupied city. Police, security forces, and military officers have flooded the city in recent years. They stand on every street corner, march through the city’s squares, “guard” the temples, and terrorize Tibetans.

This once far-away city is undergoing a face-lift of sorts (perhaps this isn’t the right analogy, since its becoming markedly uglier). The expanding dusty outskirts look like any other small, non-descript Chinese city: soulless concrete shops and apartments, built solely with functionality in mind, line the recently re-laid roads. They’re occupied mostly by recently migrated Han Chinese, many of whom have accepted government subsidies to relocate. This has been an effective policy, for the CCP and Han Chinese residents now outnumber Tibetans in the capital.

Lhasa bears the mark of present-day Chinese colonialism: in regions across the country where the CCP expects to face political opposition from the ethnic minority population they move in, take control of the economy, exert their cultural influence, and become dominant, overwhelming the indigenous population.

The façade of unity is threadbare: an edict from the CCP demands that monasteries, temples, and even homes fly the Chinese flag. It may seem trivial, but since the 2008 riots many Tibetans have been locked-up or killed for committing crimes no more serious than waving a Tibetan flag or possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama.

Within China, people almost universally accept the government’s line on Tibet: that it’s only thanks to the CCP that this corner of China is no longer a feudal backwater and, rather than protest it, Tibetans should be thankful for the CCP’s intervention.

Outside China, public opinion generally swings the other way, largely because of the affable Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama. But it would be wrong to mistake this for real sympathy; people like to be seen to care, but any long-term activism takes real commitment. We are fickle beings and the extent of most people’s dedication doesn’t go much beyond retweeting a #FreeTibet hashtag. The most valuable thing the Tibetan cause has going for it is their Nobel Prize-winning leader who can travel the world making his case – a pretty effective megaphone.

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that without the Dalai Lama, the Free Tibet movement would be bereft. After all, in the West, Tibetan self-immolators almost never make the news and the riots of 2008 are long forgotten.

This is hardly a problem unique to Tibet: Remember the child soldiers enlisted in Kony’s army? Or the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram? Or even the Yazidis? The West doesn’t have much of an attention span when it comes to things happening “over there.” What’s needed when trying to keep people engaged for long periods is “celebrity humanitarianism.” People like Nelson Mandala, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Dalai Lama: individuals who can tirelessly devote themselves to a cause and, more importantly, command a large audience.

The hitch is that – despite the Buddhist belief in reincarnation – the 14th Dalai Lama, once dead, will be just as dead as the rest of us. In recent years, when asked about what will happen to the institution of the Dalai Lama once he dies, he’s said that when he turns 90 he’ll consult the high Lamas, the Tibetan public, and others concerned with Tibetan Buddhism in order to make a decision whether it ought to continue.

But his more recent comments seem to indicate that he’s leaning towards not reincarnating. Speaking to the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, he said that “the institution of the Dalai Lama has served its purpose.” He continued, “We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

Determined not to let reality dictate terms, the CCP responded by feigning sympathy for Tibetan Buddhism and championing their own ludicrous historical record. According to the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, ‘The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

This response gives an insight into what the CCP’s plans to do once the current Dalai Lama dies. Invariably they’ll select their own puppet Dalai Lama, base him in Beijing and roll him out whenever they want to show they’re accepting of Tibetans and their culture. And to most Chinese citizens – who get their fill of “news” from the state-media – this will seem a magnanimous gesture.

The CCP has form when it comes to circumventing Tibetan Buddhist traditions and selecting their own reincarnated Lamas. In 1995 the CCP kidnapped the 11th Panchen Lama – the highest-ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama – and installed their selection in his place. He now resides in Beijing while his kidnapped counterpart remains unaccounted for. Needless to say, Beijing’s choice isn’t recognized by Tibetans.

So what, amidst all this posturing, is the best course of action for those hoping to see China’s hold on Tibet loosened or, ideally, ended? The reality – it should be acknowledged – is that the chance of achieving independence, or even more autonomy, in the conceivable future is miniscule, not least because the Dalai Lama and government-in-exile have almost no bargaining power with the CCP. Beijing has easily rebuffed any international pressure to address the Tibet question and seems content to simply wait until the Dalai Lama dies.

Tibetan activists were able to spark a resurgence in international interest in their cause in 2008 when the Olympics came to Beijing. For the CCP, this was a chance to show the rest of the world that China was a power to rival any other. No longer a poverty-stricken backwater, China had the world tuned into her capital and was keen to impress.

This was the leverage that Tibet had lacked for so long: activists disrupted the torch relay around the world and forced the issue into the international spotlight. Within China, as well as the Chinese diaspora, this raised the ire of patriotic citizens who didn’t want to see their country’s appalling human rights record made the main focus.

But the campaign derailed when an earthquake that killed 69,195 people and left a further 18,392 missing hit Sichuan. The outpouring of grief was overwhelming and the government announced a three-day mourning period, during which the torch relay was suspended. Internationally, people reacted sympathetically and were touched by the Chinese response. In China, a country that’s uncomfortably nationalist in good times, patriotic fervor went into overdrive and, with that, any traction Tibetan activists may have hoped to gain was dashed.

The Dalai Lama has long said he’d settle for autonomy within the Chinese state, but this has about as much chance of happening as China recognizing Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands. As China’s economy grows, Tibet’s state-supporters – already a rather meek lot – will continue to diminish. The most recent example is South Africa’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.

With this in mind, his recent response to the question of whether he thinks he’ll ever see Tibet again seems misguided: “Yes, I am sure of that. China can no longer isolate itself, it must follow the global trend towards a democratic society.” Now aged 79, he must be the only person in the world so sure of this. One can’t help but feel this kind of complacency rather takes the fight and vim out of the struggle for independence.

However, there have also been times when the Dalai Lama has proven to be a rather shrewd political operator. He’s amassed a great deal of support for his cause throughout the world. He has also not received enough credit for his decision to transform the Tibetan government-in-exile from a theocracy to a democracy in 2011 by abdicating and transferring power to an elected prime minister. It’s a rare thing for an absolute ruler to acknowledge that his rule is fundamentally unfair and unjust, and to voluntarily give it up is rarer still, yet that’s what the Dalai Lama did.

This decision hints at his thinking on whether or not to reincarnate: he seems to hope that once he’s dead and, with the institution of the Dalai Lama dissolved, the political fight will be left to the politicians. This is all very radical thinking from what’s always been a very conservative institution. Moreover, with seemingly no leverage, the Dalai Lama is pushing back against Chinese imperialism.

By refusing to reincarnate, the Dalai Lama will make it more difficult for the CCP to give the impression that any puppet-leader the party installs has any legitimacy in the eyes of Tibetans. He’s also undoubtedly mindful of the fact that the move towards a democratic secular government-in-exile contrasts with the Communist Party’s brand of one-party authoritarianism.

Watching Tibetans go about their daily lives in Lhasa couldn’t feel further removed from all this politicking. Although a shadow of its former self, Lhasa is still the most sacred place in the world for Tibetan Buddhists and it draws many fanatically devout worshippers from across the Tibetan plateau.

While soldiers with automatic weapons look on, people endlessly perambulate the Potala Palace spinning prayer wheels, others performing a kind of ritual reach-for-the-sky-kiss-the-ground routine with each step. This is – save the military – quintessential Tibet; yet, one feels that if it’s ever going to be a political force, this is the kind of superstition it needs to outgrow. Until then, the Dalai Lama’s efforts to annex it from the machinations of Sino-Tibetan politics are the best hope the government-in-exile has of one day returning to its homeland.

Tim Robertson (@timrobertson12) is a Beijing-based independent journalist and writer.