China, Tibet and the politics behind choosing a Buddhist spiritual leader

After him, the world may have two Dalai Lamas: one chosen by Beijing, the other by Tibetans in exile

Ashli Varghese New Delhi
Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama

China has been stumped by a bolt-from-the-blue move by Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has recognised an eight-year-old US-born Mongolian boy as the reincarnation of the third most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism. 
The 14th Dalai Lama anointed the Mongolian boy as the tenth Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche on March 8 in a ceremony reportedly attended by 5,000 monks and nuns, and some 600 Mongolians, in Dharamshala. This ordination is expected to further aggravate the tussle between China and Tibet, as the Chinese government is determined to choose the next leader through communist party regulations. 

Who is the chosen one?
According to unconfirmed reports, the boy is one of the twins (Aguidau and Achiltai Attanmar) and belongs to one of the richest business and political empires in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. His ancestors had a close alliance with the rare Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara, who also established a monastery in Mongolia, Pioneer reported. 

The search began, with the Dalai Lama announcing the birth of a new incarnation of the Jetsun Dhampa and visiting Ulaanbaatar in 2016. The tenth Khalka was anointed in a ceremony at Mongolia’s biggest Gandantegchinlen Monastery, attended by the abbot of the monastery, and the high Mongolian lamas towards the end of February, but was declared a reincarnation on March 8, thus bestowing legitimacy to the anointment, according to Tibetan Buddhism experts. The real identity of the new Mongolian Tibetan leader has not been revealed by the Dalai Lama institution, fearing the Xi Jinping regime and China’s troubling overdrive over Tibet. 
The omen for selection

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According to Buddhist scholars, the high lamas of the Gelugpa tradition and the Tibetan government are responsible for seeking out the ensuing Dalai Lama, following the death of the current.
The search was earlier restricted to Tibet.

According to the popular belief by Tibetan Buddhists, several special reincarnation lineages have been identified in Tibet, and the birth of the Dalai Lama is the most respected. The incumbent Dalai Lama is the 14th in a lineage of monks believed to be incarnations of the patron saint of Tibet, the revered Avalokiteśvara or Chenrezig, who was the foremost spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. 
Traditionally, after the leader dies, a search begins in Tibet to find his reincarnation, based on signs such as where he was looking when he died; which direction the smoke blows when he is cremated; and visions interpreted from Lhamo La-tso, an oracle lake in Tibet. Based on these visions, search parties are sent out to find infants born around the date of his death to confirm these visions. Then, they have to go through a series of tests until the culmination of finding the divine one. 

The search is generally limited to Tibet, as mostly the Dalai Lamas have been found in Tibet – other than the one born in Mongolia and another in an area that now falls in India.
Earlier, the current Dalai Lama indicated that there is a chance that he will not be reborn, and that if he is, it would not be in a country under Chinese rule. He also drew flak for his controversial comment that any future female Dalai Lama could be “attractive”, for which he later apologised. 

Why is the incumbent dismissing a Chinese Dalai Lama?
While the Chinese government prepared the layout for choosing the next Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Spiritual Leader refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of its proposed method of choosing his reincarnation, which involved pulling out a name from a ‘golden urn’. 

In 2004, the Dalai Lama predicted that the next incarnation would not be in a Chinese-controlled Tibet but in a free country. “My life is outside Tibet, therefore my reincarnation will logically be found outside,” he told Time magazine. 
In 2019, the Chinese foreign minister's spokesperson, Geng Shuang, implied that the next Dalai Lama would be handpicked by the Communist Party of China, and that he will comply with the Chinese regulations and laws, “following religious rituals and historical conventions”.

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile have profusely rejected this position reiterated in the Tibet White Paper, released in 2021. Penpa Tsering, president of the Parliament-in-Exile, emphasised that any interference by an atheist government such as China is unacceptable.
While the Dalai Lama continues to be the religious leader since 2011, the political leadership has been devolved to the elected president of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. 

In 1995, the Dalai Lama had declared a six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the next reincarnated Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Three days later, the boy disappeared and has not been seen since. The Tibetans rejected the Chinese government’s replacement of the Panchen Lama. 
The Dalai Lama has been living in exile in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh since 1959, after Lhasa was vanquished by Chinese communist forces, and the relations have been exacerbated as border tensions arise. This has added increased pressure on the Indian government to consolidate the Tibetan policy. 

Why is China determined to gain control?
The death of the Dalai Lama can weave a series of struggles between China and Tibetans over the gain of control over Tibetan Buddhism. 

With the high popularity and massive following of the current spiritual leader, the Chinese government is determined to select and control the next Dalai Lama to avoid undermining its control over Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been termed a “Splittist” by the Communist Party of China, which has also denied the power of official reincarnations of the spiritual lamas. It is expected that the reincarnation of a non-Chinese descent Dalai Lama could lead to agitations for Tibetan autonomy.
It has been predicted that once he dies, the world could have two Dalai Lamas — one according to Beijing’s approval and another by Tibetans in exile.

This can further jeopardise the relations between India and China. With politics complicating the search, the US law identified the right of the Tibetans to decide the next Dalai Lama. A six-point plan has been prepared for the day when the leader passes away, prioritising the democratic transition. The utmost reverence of the Dalai Lama leads to possibilities of China’s Tibetan stratagem.

First Published: Mar 29 2023 | 5:41 PM IST

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