The Politics of Reincarnation: India, China, and the Dalai Lama

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The Politics of Reincarnation: India, China, and the Dalai Lama

Will the Dalai Lama reincarnate in Tawang?

The Politics of Reincarnation: India, China, and the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama waves as he leaves Jangchub Chorten in Tawang in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, India (April 9, 2017).

Credit: REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang district in Arunachal Pradesh from April 7 to 11 garnered plenty of media attention. One of the most prominently discussed questions centered around the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

The Chinese side was unequivocal in not only objecting to the visit but also commenting on the reincarnation issue. The Chinese position, as encapsulated in remarks by scholars from important Chinese think tanks, is that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation has to be approved by the Chinese government and selection has to be based on a combination of not just “historical rules” but also current “Chinese laws.” The reference to Chinese laws is with respect to the 2007 State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) regulation delineating procedures for the selection of reincarnated monks, including eligibility conditions, application procedures and the government and religious institutions to be approached for approval. The regulation basically excludes “any foreign organization or individual” from the reincarnation selection process, obviously in an attempt to legitimize China’s authority and exclude the Tibetan Diaspora (and others) in the selection of the next Dalai Lama.

The Chinese have consistently maintained that any reincarnation must be determined on the basis of the late 18th century procedure instituted by the Manchu Qing rulers of China. Under this “golden urn system” of selecting reincarnations, the names of prospective candidates would be placed in an urn, from which lots would be drawn to pick the real incarnation. Therefore, any other method being suggested by the Dalai Lama is seen as contrary to established rules and illegitimate, for it denies the Chinese government’s authority in the process.

Much of the recent interest in the issue was sparked by comments made by local officials in Tawang – Deputy Commissioner Sang Phuntsok and Tsering Tashi, a local legislator – who expressed their wish for the next Dalai Lama to be reincarnated in Tawang. Robert J. Barnett from Columbia University too saw the visit as significant in this context. According to Barnett, it may be an attempt by the Dalai Lama to replicate some of his predecessors’ practice of visiting “places where they would later be reincarnated as babies.” He also saw the visit as a way to nudge the Chinese and to tell them that they have no control over the reincarnation process. Jayadeva Ranade, formerly additional secretary in the Indian government’s Cabinet Secretariat, and currently, head of the Center for China Analysis and Strategy, too saw the visit to Tawang as “a way of subtly sending the message on reincarnation.” An article on the topic by Wall Street Journal opines, “Anticipating his own death, he [the Dalai Lama] may wish to signal that he could choose, as Tibetan tradition allows, to be reborn in Tawang.”

The Dalai Lama himself commented on the subject at the press meeting that was scheduled on April 8, the second day of his stay in Tawang. The meeting lasted about one and half hours and was held following lunch after his religious sermon to about 50,000 devotees.

Two sets of questions and comments were raised with respect to the issue of reincarnation. One set of questions pertained to the deep desire of the people of Tawang for the Dalai Lama to be reborn there and whether, as many have been conjecturing, the visit’s sole purpose was to decide on this issue. The Dalai Lama’s immediate response was, “It is difficult to say.” Reminiscent of his earlier position according Buddhist Mongolians a role in deciding his rebirth, similarly, on this occasion, he added more stakeholders to the list – Arunachalis, Ladakhis, and Chinese Buddhists as well as some Europeans. Without necessarily stating that they could have a say in his rebirth, he remarked that all of these followers have at various occasions expressed their desire for the Dalai Lama to be reborn in their respective home regions. He characteristically asked, “Just one soul, how can I divide?” So, based on the Dalai Lama’s own comments, the question of where he will be reborn remains open.

At the same time, he referred to his earlier statement that “at the time of my death, some indication might come” and clarified that at present there have been no indications. In an attempt to put the discussion to rest, he jokingly recalled an previous encounter with the media in Newark, in the United States, when he was asked similar questions. “I took out my glass and looked seriously and asked, ‘Do you think my reincarnation quite urgent or not?’ And they answered ‘no’ and so, I want to repeat it [here].” Belying the sense of urgency prevalent around him, the 81-year-old added that this question could come up in 15 to 20 years, but “at this moment” the reincarnation issue was not “relevant.”

With the exact purpose of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang unanswered, the next set of questions were directed at his earlier statements wherein he had suggested that he may not be reborn and that he may be the last Dalai Lama. In September 2014, a German daily published a summary of an interview of the Dalai Lama titled “The Dalai Lama will have no successor.” The lengthy German transcript of the interview, however, provided a more nuanced understanding of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on the issue. Contrary to the sensational title of the summary report, the Dalai Lama twice hinted at a desire to be “reborn.” In one instance, he quoted the lines of his favorite prayer from Shantideva, an eighth century Buddhist monk from Nalanda, which in the original reads: “For as long as space remains,/ For as long as sentient beings remain,/ Until then may I too remain, /To dispel the miseries of the world.”

During the press meeting in Tawang, the Dalai Lama’s response to the question seeking clarification on this point was not very different from what he stated in the 2014 German interview. The main difference was that he referred to the Shantideva prayer right at the beginning of the press meeting, even before a question on the issue was posed to him. In response to the question, he added that the continuance of the institution of the Dalai Lama is up to the Tibetan people: “If people feel this institution no longer relevant, then this institution can cease.” A similar statement from the Dalai Lama was the source of the initial clamor over the reincarnation issue in 2014. In Tawang, however, the Dalai Lama did not leave room for speculation, as he added, “But judging [the] present situation and many Mongolians really also [are] showing deep devotion to the Dalai Lama. Besides the Tibetan refugees, thousands of local people from Arunachal to Ladakh [are] very, very devoted.” That would seem to imply that people do feel the institution of the Dalai Lama is “relevant” and that a future reincarnation would take place.

Having said this, the Dalai Lama revealed plans to hold a meeting of heads of various Tibetan religious sects as was held in 2011, following which he had issued a detailed policy statement on the reincarnation issue. He added, “Therefore, now I think this year, I may start work for next same kind of meeting.” Note that the meeting of religious heads in 2011 also included the late Tsona Rinpoche, an ethnic Monpa from Gontse Rabgyeling Monastery, Bomdila. The Dalai Lama, during this visit, stopped by the monastery on April 5, where the abbot of the monastery made “a prayer that His Holiness visit again and again and that the unmistaken reincarnation of the late Tsona Rinpoche be found.” With his reincarnation yet to be found, it would be interesting to see if a Monpa would find a place in the meeting of religious heads the Dalai Lama apparently plans to hold.

Though the Dalai Lama did not commit to being reborn in Tawang, his political successor, the current head of the Central Tibetan Administration, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, is on record as stating in an article in 2008 that the next Dalai Lama could be a Monpa. Recommending emanation as a viable alternative to reincarnation given the uncertainty of a post-Dalai Lama situation, Sangay suggested that “it would be wise for HHDL to appoint a young man of fifteen or twenty years of age, perhaps with part Monpa heritage in view of the importance of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the dispute between India and China.” (Emanation in Tibetan Buddhism is different from reincarnation as the latter manifests itself only after the previous incarnation has passed away. Emanation, on the other hand, can occur before death and manifest in various ways. The Dalai Lama dwells on the subject in his 2011 statement as well, wherein he says that “it is possible for the Lama to appoint a successor who is either his disciple or someone young who is to be recognized as his emanation.”)

Sangay’s statement underlines the inter-linkage of the India-China border issue and the issue of Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, drawing more attention to Tawang’s place in the debate. Having the Dalai Lama on one’s side accords a sense of legitimacy to India and China’s respective positions on the border issue.

For China, the McMahon Line that was born out of the Simla Agreement of 1914 and signed between the Tibetans and British India is a colonial legacy that does not hold any legitimacy. Further, to recognize the McMahon Line would have serious implications for China’s claim to Tibet as an “inalienable part of China” and in effect, delegitimize its “liberation” of the region in 1950. Therefore, a lot is at stake form a Chinese perspective. To stake a claim over Tawang is to reinforce its claim over Tibet.

For India, it was positively fortuitous to have had the Dalai Lama recognize the validity of the Simla Agreement and state in 2008 that “Tawang is a part of India” as it somewhat tilted the scale with respect to the border dispute in favor of India. Hypothetically speaking, a 15th Dalai Lama that is selected by and in China is bound to renege on his predecessor’s position. In fact, an Indian expert argues that “if now, the Dalai Lama [referring to the current, 14th Dalai Lama] were to say, as the Chinese want him to, that Tibet had always been a part of China, then in the Sino-Indian border talks, India’s insistence on McMahon line would become extremely weak.”

From a Tibetan perspective, playing along with this sense of insecurity prevalent among a certain section of the Indian strategic community (and perhaps the government too) by providing New Delhi with an edge in the border dispute with China does not seem to be a bad political move. China has remained intransigent to the Sino-Tibetan talks on the one hand, and at the same time, is making strenuous efforts to marginalize the Tibet issue internationally. On the contrary, for the Dalai Lama to be able to go to Tawang and reiterate that the region is part of India reinforces the position that Tibet, in the first half of the 20th century, exercised de facto sovereignty and possessed treaty-making powers.

The question is whether India is willing to go so far. Pema Khandu, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, did take such a leap. He denied China as “our next-door neighbor” and instead argued that “McMahon Line, in reality, demarcates the boundary between India and Tibet.” However, this will certainly remain a one-off statement, as India will not wish to cross the red line set by China on the Tibet issue. Reportedly, Kiren Rijiju, the minister of state for home affairs who defended India’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh, accompanied the Dalai Lama only up to Dirang (West Kameng district) and did not make the journey further ahead to Tawang, indicating a sense of caution at the central level in India.

Tshering Chonzom Bhutia, Ph.D., is an Associate Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, India.