The 14th Dalai Lama, the highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism whom China sees as a “dangerous separatist,” appears to have outsmarted the communist-ruled country by quietly announcing the new head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, a position for which China wanted Mongolia to seek its consent.
The announcement happened on March 8 during an event in India, and the media picked up the news on March 23. However, as of March 28, there has been no response from China, which in 2017 had warned Mongolia against allowing the Dalai Lama to meddle in the identification of the heir to the highest position in Mongolia’s Buddhist hierarchy. There has been no official response from Mongolia either.
“We have the reincarnation of Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoché of Mongolia with us today,” the Dalai Lama said, indicating a small boy sitting next to him, while addressing a gathering of about 5,000 monks and nuns and 600 Mongolians on March 8.
The place was Dharamshala, a north Indian Himalayan town where the Dalai Lama has been based since 1960, a year after fleeing China and entering India in exile. The Tibetan Parliament in Exile and the Central Tibetan Administration operate out of Dharamshala.
Tibetan Buddhists make up the largest chunk of the population in Mongolia. However, identifying the 10th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu (also spelled as Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoché) importance beyond Mongolia, and even beyond China-Mongolia relations. The Jebtsundamba is also considered the third-highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism globally — only after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Because of this, he can play a crucial role in the Dharamshala-backed institutional search for the next Dalai Lama – itself a major bone of contention between the Dalai Lama and China.
The search for the 10th reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba began after the ninth reincarnation died in 2012. However, after the Dalai Lama, during a 2016 visit to Mongolia, revealed that the 10th reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba had been identified, China asked Mongolia not to allow him to visit the country again.
“Considering the significance of his reincarnation and bearing in mind that he (the late ninth incarnation) is a personal friend, I feel I have a responsibility to look after his reincarnation,” the Dalai Lama had said. He added, “I am convinced that his reincarnation has been born in Mongolia. However, the boy is very young right now, so there is no need for haste in making an announcement. When he is 3, 4, or 5 years old, we’ll see how things are.”
Now that the Dalai Lama has introduced the 10th Jebtsundamba before the public, and also “met briefly with a significant contingent of Mongolians” after the event, a rebuke from China could be in the offing. China does not want the Dalai Lama to have anything to do with identifying the reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhist Lamas, including the Dalai Lama. They claim there is a long-existing system for identifying such reincarnations and those must be adhered to.
In 1995, when the 14th Dalai Lama named a Tibetan boy as the 11th Panchen Lama, the child was allegedly abducted by the Chinese authorities soon after and has not been seen or heard from since. China also announced its own choice of the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama has not recognized the Chinese choice.
China had, in 2007, legalized the need for governmental approval before announcing any reincarnation of Buddhist Lamas. Even though Mongolia is not Chinese territory, China always wanted to have a say on matters involving Tibetan Buddhism. In a Global Times article from 2021, titled “Qing government’s administration over Tibet, authority over reincarnation of living Buddhas indisputable,” Zhang Yun, director of the Institute for Historical Studies at the China Tibetology Research Center, cited a 1793 ordinance of the Qing empire in support of the practice that China wants to uphold.
“Emperor Qianlong… issued a golden urn to the Jokhang Monastery, ordering that at the death of any Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, Jetsun Dampa Hutuktu and other Hutuktus and lamas in Tibet and Mongolia, the names and birthdays of the Khuvilgaan candidates would be announced, and put into the golden urn. With the lamas chanting and the Resident Ministers in Tibet supervising, a name shall be drawn from the urn and that would be the name of the Khuvilgaan,” he wrote.
This is how the 11th Panchen Lama was selected, China claims. This is how they want to pick the next Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Parliament in Exile have ruled this out.
In 2010, the Dalai Lama said in an interview, “If the present situation regarding Tibet remains the same, I will be born outside Tibet away from the control of the Chinese authorities. This is logical. The very purpose of a reincarnation is to continue the unfinished work of the previous incarnation. Thus if the Tibetan situation still remains unsolved it is logical I will be born in exile to continue my unfinished work.”
The Central Tibetan Administration has since then repeatedly maintained that the Dalai Lama alone is responsible for his reincarnation.
However, in case the 87-year-old dies without naming his successor, the role or opinion of the Jebtsundamba can emerge crucial, as a large number of Tibetan Buddhists do not acknowledge the China-recognized Panchen Lama.
Therefore, having the 10th Jebtsundamba chosen by the Dalai Lama gives the Tibetan government in exile an edge over Chinese authorities on affairs relating to Tibetan Buddhism.
“Since the death of his ninth reincarnation in 2012, Mongolia has walked a geopolitical tightrope with China on one side and Dharamsala on the other. When and how the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu reincarnates will give one side much more power over the future of Tibetan Buddhism, with significant geopolitical consequences,” wrote Munkhnaran Bayarlkhagva, an Ulaanbaatar-based geopolitical analyst who has served at the National Security Council of Mongolia, in a 2022 article.
Earlier this month, an article in The Diplomat pointed out that Mongolia’s pursuit of its next spiritual leader had become “a high-stakes game of power and influence behind the scenes, with China’s growing sway casting a shadow over the nation’s religious affairs.” China was “seemingly nudging Mongolia to seek its approval before acknowledging a new leader.”
Whether or how Mongolia recognizes the reincarnation remains to be seen, as they would have to do it at the cost of irking their superpower neighbor. In 2016, after the Dalai Lama’s visit, China blocked a crucial border entry point and imposed new fees on commodity exports from Mongolia, prompting the landlocked country to announce that they would not host the Dalai Lama again. China hoped Mongolia had learned a lesson.
Besides, the 10th Jebtsundamba will still have to be formally enthroned by the Mongolian clergy. In 2016, Mongolian foreign minister at the time, Munkh-Orgil Tsend, had said that he hoped the Mongolian clergy would deal with the reincarnation “without the influence or involvement of any outsiders.” Now that the Dalai Lama has already introduced him, when and how the Mongolian clergy responds will play a key role in determining the future course of Tibetan Buddhism that guides the spiritual lives of millions of people in Asia.