The Lama is ageing...and China is waiting. Tibet's cycle of rebirth gets a new spin.
By Chander Suta Dogra
The battle over choosing the next Dalai Lama has begun. One that threatens to strip Tibetan Buddhism of perhaps its most thrilling and mysterious of practices—reincarnation. At the heart of the conflict is the 14th Dalai Lama, now 72 years old, who is preparing himself and his people for life after him.
It was China that made the first attack—a few weeks ago—by issuing new regulations that seek to "institutionalise the management of reincarnation of living buddhas". They stipulate that from September 1, 2007, new reincarnates need the approval and recognition of China's religious department. A more sinister rule bars any Buddhist monk outside Tibet from seeking reincarnation for himself or any 'living buddha'. Clearly, it aims at ending the influence over the Tibetans of the Dalai Lama and hundreds of other living buddhas or 'tulkus', living and preaching among the exile community as well as in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile based at Dharamshala have been anticipating something like this for some time now. Which is why the Dalai Lama has said that if the Tibet issue is not resolved within his lifetime, he won't be born again in China. Thupsten Tsamphel, information secretary of the Tibetan government-in-exile, puts it thus, "The logic of reincarnation is that the new incarnate should carry forward the work of the previous lama. It makes no sense if a new Dalai Lama is appointed by the Chinese government and is used as a puppet to overturn the work of the present head." The Dalai Lama has now established a system whereby the government-in-exile is now democratically elected by Tibetans in exile in India and elsewhere, to manage their affairs, with a Kalon Tripa (prime minister) at its head. Apart from roughly 5.5 million ethnic Tibetans living in their homeland, India is at present home to 1,10,000-odd Tibetans while the global diaspora numbers about 30,000.
The 14th Dalai Lama, the liberal and widely travelled Tenzin Gyatso, who has been living in Dharamshala after the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet, is also toying with the idea of allowing the Tibetans themselves to decide whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or be replaced for all purposes by the government-in-exile. There is also the provision of a council of regents to assume the powers of the Dalai Lama under specific circumstances such as the interim period between the death of the present spiritual head and the recognition of the next one.
But at stake here is not just the Dalai Lama but also the hundreds of other 'living buddhas' who influence life and culture in Tibet, and among the Tibetan community in exile, in his name. Ever since the Dalai Lama came into exile, hundreds of lamas with no previous reincarnations have reincarnated. At least 200 of them are in Tibet alone, many of them recognised after secret consultations with the Dalai Lama. Exposure to modern times and the fact that so many Tibetans and their religious leaders are now living in exile has taken its toll on this ancient system. Gone are the year-long consultations with senior monks and oracles. Or the wait for visions on holy lakes which gave clues to the rebirth of new incarnates. Ghen Gyatso-la, a senior Buddhist teacher, points out that nowadays the Dalai Lama has delegated the task of recognising lesser new incarnates to the heads of the four major Buddhist sects who do the needful on his behalf. This has resulted in a situation where there are sometimes 15 to 20 'living buddhas' in one monastery, with the larger ones having as many as 30 of them. The Chinese have tried to restrict this proliferation too, with their provision that henceforth there will only be one reincarnate in each monastery.
The government-in-exile estimates that there are about 3,000 reincarnated Buddhist lamas today.
The proliferation of 'living buddhas' has resulted in some not-so-genuine ones being discovered in the West, much to the embarrassment of the clergy who recognised them in the first place. Among them is Hollywood actor Steven Segal who was recognised a few years ago as the reincarnation of a key figure of the Nyingmpa sect. But Segal's featuring in many films depicting violence has now embarassed Tibetans who say his ordainment is a "joke".
In 1995, the Chinese had tried to impose their own Panchen Lama, the second most important religious leader of the Tibetans, when the one recognised by the Dalai Lama in Tibet was removed and a Chinese appointee took his place.
Explains Ghen Gyatso-la: "All the heads of major Buddhist sects are now in exile, as also the senior monks. They recognise new reincarnates and still command influence in religious affairs inside Tibet. The new Chinese regulations are aimed at curtailing the influence of our spiritual leaders." China's latest salvo has raised the question whether a totalitarian regime committed to atheism can dictate how a religion should conduct its internal affairs.
The Dalai Lama, even after five decades of living in exile, remains the most important influence in Tibetan life. Years of repressive measures by China—including turning down repeated pleas by the Dalai Lama to visit the country on a pilgrimage—have failed to draw away the Tibetans either from their religion or their spiritual leader.
As the battle for the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people rages on, waiting in the wings is the young Ugyen Thinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, who is the third highest Buddhist spiritual leader. Incidentally, the tradition of reincarnations in Tibetan Buddhism began with the Karmapa, who apparently first took rebirth in 1204 AD. Ever since Dorje escaped from Tibet in 2001 and came to live in Dharamshala, he has grown in power, wealth and stature, which many say places him in a unique position to take over the leadership of the Tibetans after the Dalai Lama's death. Says Ngawang Woeber, president of the Dharamshala-based Ex Political Prisoners Association: "Although the Karmapa has repeatedly said he doesn't see a political role for himself, we do hope he will rise to the occasion when the time comes. He could contest elections for the post of 'kalon tripa' and that would sustain our historical tradition of being led by monks." Freedom activist Tenzin Tsundue, like others, too feels that "the Karmapa is winning the confidence of the Tibetan youth and is most well placed to take charge." Either way, Tibetan Buddhism as we know it today will never be the same again, nor will the institution of the Dalai Lama. Far-reaching changes are in the offing.