Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How Tibetans are pushing back against China’s involvement in Dalai Lama’s succession

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The Dalai Lama’s 90th birthday is more than a year away, but speculation is growing within the expatriate Tibetan community and Indian policymakers about the announcement he is expected to make on that occasion about his reincarnation.

A relic of Buddha with the Dalai Lama(Dalai Lama Instagram)

The process of deciding the reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leaders is a complex issue, based on rituals and tests dating back hundreds of years, and one that has taken on greater significance in view of China’s efforts to assert that authorities in Beijing alone will choose the next Dalai Lama.

In September 2011, the Dalai Lama made a detailed statement on his reincarnation, in which he said that before he turned 90, he would “consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not”.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), or Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamshala, already has plans to mount a grand celebration to mark the Dalai Lama’s 90th birthday on July 6, 2025, and there is growing interest in the course the spiritual leader will adopt for choosing his successor, given that any decision will have a major impact on the situation within Tibet, which was annexed by Beijing in 1951.

The Communist Party of China has been insisting that Chinese authorities will anoint the next Dalai Lama by pulling out a name from a “golden urn”. The Chinese side contends this has for long been the way for choosing the successors of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, but this method has been rejected outright by the Dalai Lama and his millions of followers.

Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama who fled to India in March 1959, has also been ambiguous about some aspects of the issue of his successor. In recent years, he has suggested he could be reincarnated outside Tibet (reincarnations have traditionally been chosen within Tibet), or that he could be reincarnated as a woman, or that he could live to the age of 113. He has also suggested that Tibetan Buddhists should decide whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue in the years to come.

Sections of the Tibetan leadership believe the Dalai Lama’s pronouncements are meant to keep the Chinese on edge, especially after the manner in which Chinese authorities abducted six-year-old Tenzin Gendun Yeshi Thinley Phuntsok following his recognition as the 11th Panchen Lama on May 14, 1995. Phuntsok, who hasn’t been seen in public since then, was replaced by Gyaltsen Norbu, a Tibetan appointed by Chinese authorities as the “Panchen Lama”.

Penpa Tsering, the Sikyong or political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, recounted his discussion with an American official on this issue at a recent meeting with a small group of journalists in Dharamshala.

“When I met with a senior US official from the White House, he told me, ‘Oh, you don’t seem to have a process in place (for choosing the Dalai Lama’s successor).’ And I said that’s your observation or perspective. Our perspective and that of some of our Indian friends who understand China is that the decision (the Dalai Lama) has made right now is very wise because the one thing that China cannot handle is unpredictability,” Tsering said.

“The only statement that we have on His Holiness’ reincarnation is the September 2011 document, which talks about him making certain decisions when he’s 90… So, we are going to celebrate His Holiness’ 90th birthday internationally with the message of peace (which is) very necessary now, with so many conflicts happening around the world,” he said.

But much will hinge on the decision ultimately made by the Dalai Lama, especially against the backdrop of China’s efforts to reinterpret the history and legal system of Tibet to contest the spiritual leader’s authority over Vajrayana Buddhism, the dominant form of Mahayana Buddhism in the area from the Himalayas to Tibet and Mongolia.

The Indian side has been keeping a cautious eye on these efforts by China, especially in countries in South and Southeast Asia with a sizeable Buddhist population, to project itself as a proponent of the Buddhist faith. It is in this context that India recently sent several sacred relics of Lord Buddha and his disciples to Thailand. The relics were personally received by Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and the events where they were displayed attracted hundreds of thousands.

Tibetan leaders have also dismissed China’s assertions that India or the Tibetan expatriate community will have no say in choosing the Dalai Lama’s successor. They have insisted that long-standing Tibetan Buddhist traditions, rituals and tests alone will lead to the selection of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

Norzin Dolma, the Kalon or minister for information and international relations in the Tibetan government-in-exile, said Tibetan authorities are countering the misinformation disseminated by the Chinese side on this issue.

“His Holiness has very clearly said he will consult the Tibetan public, the heads of different Buddhist religious traditions within the Tibetan community, the Himalayan Buddhist community and all the Buddhist stakeholders on whether we really need to continue with the institution of the Dalai Lama or not… and if all these stakeholders decide that the institution needs to be continued, then he will leave very clear instructions as to how his reincarnation will be decided,” Dolma said.

“Only the Dalai Lama has this legitimate authority to decide on such a very deeply religious Buddhist practice. And he has very clearly said that no individual, no other government or any entity has the right to interfere in this process.”

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