Beijing Wanting to Choose Tibet's Spiritual Leaders is a Political Tool
From the onset of China's occupation of Tibet, the Chinese Communist Party's outlook towards Tibetan Buddhism has been of extreme suspicion and fear. Tibetan people's way of life and their outlook towards the world is inextricably linked with fundamental precepts of Buddhism. This common philosophical thread and a shared culture bind Tibetans into a unified entity giving them a sense of national identity. For Tibetan people this basic identity is inseparable from their belief in Buddhist principles, which "encompasses the entirety of their culture and civilization and constitutes the very essence of their lives. Of all the bonds which defined Tibetans as a people and as a nation, religion was undoubtedly the strongest."1
On the other hand, such unifying power and spirit become definitive threats to Beijing's authority and survival. As a result the Chinese rulers have been at pains to hammer down and eradicate Tibetan faith and identity from within their hearts.
In recent years China has increasingly involved itself in controlling and manipulating Tibetan Buddhism. In July 2007, the State Religious Affair Bureau issued a so-called Order No. Five ─ which is a set of "management measures for the reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism." This is an ultimate interference in the centuries-old Tibetan spiritual practice and a gross violation of the freedom of religion as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and also mentioned in the constitution of the People's Republic of China.
History of Reincarnation
Tibetans believe in rebirth, which brings about universal love for living beings. Highly realized spiritual masters use the vehicle of rebirth to come back in another human form with "the innate wish to help others." 2 The root of the reincarnation goes back to the theory of 'three buddha bodies' in Buddhism ─ the body of reality, the body of perfect rapture, and the emanational body."3 The emanational or reincarnated body has many different terms in Tibetan such as lama, tulku, yangsi, kyetul, latul etc. The Chinese term ‘Living Buddha’ does not exists in Tibetan Buddhist parlance.
Tibetans have adapted reincarnation into a unique system of successive rebirths of spiritual masters. Thus when a lama passes away, his reincarnation is recognized through centuries-old traditional methods. This uninterrupted lineage is essential for the spiritual practice to transmit the accumulated wisdom of the lama to the new reincarnation, who in turn will teach them to the faithful.
The first reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism dates back to the 12th century. Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193) was a great scholar and an accomplished meditation master. Before he passed away at the age of eighty-three, he presented Drogon Rechen, with a prediction letter, detailing Düsum Khyenpa's future incarnation. Karma Pakshi (1204-1283), who was born in Eastern Tibet, "was recognized as the reincarnation of Dusum Khyenpa by Pomdragpa Sonam Dorje. Karma Pakshi received the entire cycle of the Kagyü teachings and became a famous siddha with extraordinary powers and accomplishments."4
Since the reincarnation of the first Karmapa, more than seven hundred years have passed and the current Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorjee is the 17th reincarnation. The selection, recognition and enthronement of the successive Karmapa reincarnations have been a spiritual affairs performed by experienced practitioners of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Panchen Lama lineage started when Sonam Choklang was recognized as the reincarnation of Khedup Gelek Palzang (1385-1483), the foremost student of Je Tsongkhapa, who founded the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. "Sonam Choklang was the second Panchen Lama and the first reincarnation in the Gelukpa school."5 The institution of the Panchen Lama, based in Shigatse, was created by the 5th Dalai Lama in recognition of his esteemed teacher, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, who became the first in line to assume the Panchen Lama title.
The Dalai Lama institution began when Gendeun Drup's reincarnation was found after an intense search and a series of rigorous tests. Gendun Gyatso was the second Dalai Lama, who established the Gaden Phodrang. Altan Khan of the Tumat Mongols offered the title Dalai Lama to Sonam Gyatso, who was the third in line. The relationship with China under Qing and the Dalai Lamas as Tibetan spiritual and temporal leaders began with the 5th Dalai Lama's Beijing visit of 1653.
"The 5th Dalai Lama established a standard manual of titles and ranks for reincarnate lamas and tulkus. The Dalai Lama based this guideline on the traditional ranks and positions of each lama and tulku in their respective monasteries and set a standard benchmark. This effectively managed recognition of tulkus and avoided selecting them out of preferential treatment."6 No Chinese emperor had authority in Tibetan religious matters.
The special bond between the Panchen and Dalai Lamas has been that of teacher and student with each performing the critical role in the recognition of the reincarnation of the other. The elder of the two plays a crucial role in the education of the other, passing on special initiations, transmissions and other spiritual heritage. There were no Chinese interventions in the selection process; and whenever there was interference Tibetans had thwarted it.
One of the major Chinese propagandas is that the selection of reincarnation of lama and tulku is done by using golden urn lottery system. In 1792 "after the Gurkha war, the Chi'en-lung Emperor tried to institute a new system by which the reincarnations of high lamas, such as Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, would be determined by lottery."7 However, about a decade later in 1805 "although there were two candidates for the ninth incarnation of the Dalai Lama, the golden urn system was ignored and the selection made by the Tibetan officials themselves."8 Moreover, the Manchu army General Fu K'ang-an told the 8th Dalai Lama that this was a mere "suggestion" and that Tibetans should "decide for themselves as to what is in their favour and what is not."9
After the 9th Dalai Lama passed at the tender age of ten, Chinese Ambans demanded that golden urn be used to select the reincarnation. Once again, "the regent, members of the Kashag, and representatives of the three big monasteries confirmed him [a child from Lithang] to be the tenth Dalai Lama."10 The 10th Dalai Lama too passed away at young age of 27 and when his reincarnation was found the 7th Panchen Lama recognized and gave the name Khedrup Gyatso. Khedrup was the 11th Dalai Lama.
It is historically clear that Tibetans carried out their spiritual practice independently without being ordered or forced by outside powers. A point made clear by the 9th Panchen Choekyi Nyima: if an "advice ran counter in any respect to their [Tibetan] national prejudice, the Chinese Emperor himself would be powerless to influence them."11
In 1995, through a carefully manufactured performance using the golden urn lottery system Beijing chose six-year-old, Gyaltsen Norbu, as 'their' reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. As soon as the selection was done the boy was "ushered into the room in golden robes and a yellow silk hat. Norbu was hailed by the monks and by a man dressed incongruously in a Western-style suit: Luo Gan, a senior Chinese official dispatched to oversee the ceremony. Luo later bent forward, shook the boy's hand and said, "Love the country and study hard."12
The "17-Point Agreement" signed by the Tibetan under duress in 1951 explicitly stated that "the policy of freedom of religious belief laid down in the Common Programme of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference will be protected. The Central Authorities will not effect any change in the income of the monasteries."13 Three years later during his final meeting with His Holiness Dalai Lama in 1954, Mao Zedong edged closer to His Holiness and whispered: "... but of course religion is poison. It has two great defects: it undermines the race, and secondly it retards the progress of the country. Tibet and Mongolia have been both poisoned by it."14 This was an undeniable precursor to subsequent violation of the provision of the 'agreement' and eventual destruction of religion and religious institutions in Tibet.
Early on Chinese leaders realized that religion was the biggest hurdle to their control over Tibet. Hence Beijing had launched a series of systematic policies, directives and campaigns to undermine religion and its inherent influence on the Tibetan people.
In 1950s and 60s under so-called 'democratic reforms' land and other assets were seized from the monasteries. "Attacks on religion became more violent. Lamas were assaulted and humiliated; some were put to death. The ordinary people who refused Chinese orders to give up the practice of religion were beaten and had their good confiscated."15 By 1959 the Chinese occupying forces have killed a large number of monks and civilians and numerous religious structures were demolished, prompting International Commission of Jurist to comment that "they [Chinese] have systematically set out to eradicate this religious belief in Tibet," and that "in pursuit of this design they [Chinese] have killed religious figures because their religious belief and practice was an encouragement and example to others."16
In 1959 "there were more than a total of 6,259 monasteries with about 592, 558 resident monks and nuns. These religious centres also housed tens and thousands of statues, [and] religious artifacts."17 When Mao's convoluted Cultural Revolution was over in 1976, "Chinese government was responsible for the destruction of more than 6000 monasteries in Tibet. The contents of these monasteries – religious images and statues – were destroyed or looted, and millions of ancient and priceless manuscripts burnt."18 The entire Tibetan way of life was fractured.
The destruction of religion, however, did not stop with end of the Cultural Revolution. It got more subtle and insidious. The various policies on religion are overseen and authorized by China's highest body the Central Committee and Politburo and the State Council. The Party sits at the top of a tightly controlled system that implements policies and directives in Tibet.
Through this chain of unbroken command the Democratic Management Committee (DMC) that China set up in each of the monasteries throughout Tibet implements the policies. It is the lowest operating unit. "The Committee receives guidance and support from relevant government departments in charge of religious affairs, and keeps them informed of any problems in implementing state policies..."19 Through it the government "provide maximum economic and political control over monasteries"20 and one of its important roles is "to inform the PSB of the identities of counter-revolutionaries."21
The local DMC also functions in collusion with 'work team' whose prime responsibility is to conduct political education and investigation. The 'work teams' routinely move into monasteries and nunneries sometimes for months "to carry out investigations, hold meetings, conduct surveillance and identify candidates for arrest."22 Thus traditional role of abbot is undermined and the entire religious establishment is turned into a political battlefield to bend monks' and nuns' loyalty towards the Party.
Article-36 of the Constitution of PRC, which was adopted in 1982, claims that "citizens of the PRC enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion."23 Yet the same year Document 1924 was released. This was the "most authoritative and comprehensive statement ever issued by the central government on the permissible scope of the religious freedom."25 It "declared religious tolerance to be a necessary step in the path towards eradication of religion."
Beijing had launched a wave of campaigns such as 'Strike Hard' and 'Patriotic Re-education' through which the government heavily interferes in the religious institutions and introduces "Marxist outlook to Buddhism or reshaping of Buddhism to suit the needs of socialist China."26
China's systematic polices to stamp out Tibetan religion have led to executions, destruction of religious institutions, political indoctrination, expulsion of monks and nuns, imprisonment, banning religious ceremonies, restricting on number of monks in monasteries and enforcing loyalty to the Party. But no matter how hard the Chinese suppression is or how severe the reprisals are when caught "Tibetans stubbornly refuse to abandon their religion and culture. On a daily basis they find ways to rebel, hiding banned images of the Dalai Lama close to their hearts, lighting banned incense, whispering banned prayers."27
Persecutions only drive the Tibetans further from the Chinese. The rift has grown larger, thus denying Beijing the approval, the respect and the allegiance of Tibetan people that it needs to legitimately meddle in religious affairs.
"Religious tenets and practices which do not comply with socialist society should be changed"28 Beijing declared in A Golden Bridge Leading to a New Era, a high-level official guideline on religious policies in Tibet established during the Third National Forum on Work in Tibet 1994. This has always been the central focus of China's policy on Tibetan religion ─ forcing the monks and nuns 'to love the Communist Party of China; to love the motherland; to love socialism; and to love people.'
The most recent, and probably the most ludicrous policy on religion, is the so-called Order No. Five issued by State Religious Affairs Bureau. This guideline requires recognition of all reincarnate tulkus or lamas be authorized by Beijing, which is a clear, direct and undisguised interference the fundamental right of Tibetan people.
China is a socialist state that firmly believes and adheres to Marxist-Leninist Mao Zedong Thoughts. For this trio of socialism's placard religion is a social toxin. "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,"29 wrote Marx. "Religion is a spiritual oppression ... [a kind] of spiritual booze,"30 Lenin added. Mao was vehemently direct. "Religion is a poison," he said. If indeed religion is such a loathsome poisonous affair, then why is Beijing so keen to involve itself in Tibetan Buddhism?
The answer is simple ─ Political Tool.
During a brief policy relaxation in the early 1980s, Tibetans voluntarily rebuilt a number of monasteries in occupied Tibet leading to resurgence in Tibetan national identity, which in turn led to a series of demonstration calling for Tibet's freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama. "The revival of Tibetan culture, religion, and nationalism was a surprise to the Chinese, who had imagined that thirty years of repression and propaganda would have eliminated Tibetan separatism."31 Upon realizing that total suppression alone does not bring the desired result, Beijing chose to employ religion as a tool not only "to transform Tibetan national identity and loyalty to the Dalai Lama into Chinese national identity and loyalty to China" but also as a kind of legal measure which constitute means to put their people in positions that control Tibetan people's spiritual realm.
"Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority,"32 wrote Lenin. But of course these words of wisdom from the socialist founding father do not ring any bell in the minds of Chinese comrades.
For them safeguarding their power and suppressing any challenge to the Party's authority trump over rights of people. This is clear when in 1993 the Chinese President Jiang Zemin said that religion should be “guided to adapt to socialism.” To fulfil such objective China has set up heavy regulations on religion at all levels.
The result is that "everything to do with religion in Tibet, including building restoration, entering orders, monk quotas in monasteries, festival celebrations, and pilgrimages, has to be authorized by the Commission of Nationalities and Religious Affairs."33
Beijing sees danger in Buddhism as an increasing number of Chinese come to receive teachings from Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama. Over a thousand Chinese joined Larung Gar as students of the charismatic Tibetan religious leader, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, in Eastern Tibet. In 2001 the Chinese Authorities demolished the entire religious community and expelled thousands of monks, nuns and other disciples. Such fears are embedded in Chinese rulers, who in earlier decades declared that 'two suns will not exist in the sky' referring to Buddhism and Communism. 'There can be only one sun and that is the Communist Party,' they claimed.
The so-called Order No. Five is an unashamed and ungloved political hand stretching into Tibetan people's spiritual domain. This 'order' was categorically repudiated by "the heads of all the religious schools of Tibetan Buddhism; the monks, nuns, mantra holders and the other lay followers of the respective schools and the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration"34 based in Dharamsala, India. The statement notes that "these measures for managing tulkus, is nothing but a deceitful lie" and that such lie will not be "able to fool the Tibetans and the people of the world."
A resolution was passed by the heads of all Tibetan Buddhist schools and Bon tradition on May 3 2008 in Dharamsala. Following the age-old tradition, the resolution stated that "well-known lamas and tulkus who have been continuously reincarnating in the respective monastic institutions" need no consents from the head of each school. However, "recognizing reincarnations of new lamas and tulkus shall not be done without seeking consent from the heads of the four Tibetan Buddhist schools and Bon tradition." It should be noted that the heads of all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism were exiled by China and live in India. The most recent one to escape is the 17th Karmapa, the head of Kagyu school, who stated that one of the reasons for coming into exile was that there were no competent religious teachers in occupied Tibet. This also testifies against Beijing's claim that Buddhism is flourishing in Tibet.
The polarity between Beijing's 'order' and the centuries-old Tibetan traditional methods of recognizing tulkus is not only a question of denial of religious freedom but more importantly it is a question of legitimacy.
Since its occupation, China has suppressed, imprisoned, killed and exiled hundreds of thousands of Tibetans because of their faith. China has also demolished, destroyed and damaged thousands of monasteries, and burnt, melted and sold millions of religious objects. Based on these and the fact that its founding father considered 'religion as poison', China has neither the moral authority nor the legitimacy to interfere in the affairs that concern Tibetan spiritual practice.
After the 10th Panchen Lama passed away in 1989, Chadrel Rinpoche headed a team to undertake the search for his reincarnation. Following the centuries-old methods and through prophecies and visions they found a suitable boy. As per the tradition, the Dalai Lama performed the final process of the identification. And on May 14 1995, the Dalai Lama confirmed 6-year-old Gendun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama.
This left Beijing red-faced and three days later Choekyi Nyima and his family disappeared. Despite international pressure, China refuses to acknowledge his whereabouts. In December 1995 the Chinese authorities installed Gyaltsen Norbu as 'their' Panchen.
Since then Beijing has missed "few opportunities to promote their choice, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the legitimate Panchen Lama. In April 2006 he was the keynote speaker at the World Buddhist Forum in Hangzhou – the first religious conference held in China since 1949."35
However, in the eyes of the Tibetan people Beijing is still an aggressor. This lack of legitimacy is clear from the way Tibetans look at Chinese selected Panchen ─ calling him 'Panchen Zunma' or 'Fake Panchen.' Beijing is forced to send soldiers to monasteries and towns either to force or to bribe people to welcome 'their Panchen' during his visits. “When the Panchen Zunma makes a visit Tibetans are commanded to go for his blessings. In the schools, the Chinese officials distribute scarves and badges, and tell everyone to formally receive the Panchen Zunma. If anyone disregards this, they are punished.”36
Though His Holiness' name is not explicitly mentioned in the 'Order No. Five', the reference to the Tibetan leader is clear in the directive which mentioned that "those [reincarnations] with particularly great impact shall be reported to the State Council for approval." This shows that at the core of this absurd 'order' is Beijing's real intention to meddle in the selection of, and to install 'their' Dalai Lama when the present one passes away. However, the "purpose of reincarnation is to continue and complete the unfinished work of the predecessor and to help all living beings."36 To this effect His Holiness emphatically stated that "if I die in exile...the reincarnation will be born in a free country. He will not be born under China." Thus any attempt by Beijing will not only end up in 'false idol' but also create more resentment in the hearts of Tibetan people.
Beijing's concern is not for Tibetan people's spiritual affair, but to manipulate religious practices to meet China's political ends. What Tibetan lamas and tulkus have is "moral authority and a role as unofficial community leaders or initiators. Local people turned to them for help and advice on both religious and secular matters."37 This is a legitimate danger to the Party's authority, which Beijing does not want at any cost. This is why the Party is recklessly determined to control the selection of reincarnations of lamas and tulkus.
Contemporary Tibetan scholar Geshe Lhakdor-la succinctly sums it up: "An atheist party wanting to recognize reincarnation is a joke. This is a religious affair, which has to be handled by someone who is well-versed in spiritual matters. What the Communist Party is doing now is to use it as a political tool to force its will. That is absolutely wrong."38
1. TIBET: proving truth from facts. DIIR. 1993. p. 64
2. My Land My People by Dalai Lama. Potala Corporation, 1992. p.51
3. bhod kyi sprul sku'i rnam bshad by Ladrang Kelsang. 1997. pp. 2-3
4. The Garland of Moon Water Crystal (Tib. dawa chu shel gyi trengwa) by Situ Choekyi Jungnay and Belo Tsewang Kunkhyab
5. bhod kyi sprul sku'i rnam bshad by Ladrang Kelsang. 1997. p. 13
6. ibid. pp. 119-120
7. Political History of Tibet by W. D. Shakhabpa. Potala Publications. 1984. p. 172
8. ibid p.172
9. Talai Lamai Namthar by Ya Angchang. pp. 159-161
10. Political History of Tibet. p.174
11. Diary of Capt. O'Connor. September 4 1903
12. Tempest In A Golden Urn by Anthony Spaeth & Meenakshi Ganguly. TIME Magazine. Monday, Dec. 11, 1995
13. Facts About 17-Point 'Agreement' Between Tibet and China. DIIR, Dharamsala. May 22 2001
14. My Land and My People. p. 118
15. A Short History of Tibet by Hugh Richardson. 1962. p. 201
16. Tibet and the Chinese People’s Republic. Legal Inquiry Committee of the International Commission of Jurists. 1960
17. TIBET: proving truth from facts. DIIR, 1993. p. 64
18. No Faith in the State. Tibet Watch. 2007. p. 10
19. 100 Questions about Tibet by Jing Wei. Beijing Review Press, 1989
20. Forbidden Freedom: Beijing's Control of Religion in Tibet. ICT, Sept. 1990 p. 26
21. ibid. p. 28
22. ibid. p. 51
23. Constitution of the People's Republic of China; adopted at the Fifth Session of the Fifth National People's Congress for the promulgation by the Proclamation of the National People's Congress on December 4 1982
24. The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country's Socialist Period (popularly known as Document 19)
25. Forbidden Freedom: Beijing's Control of Religion in Tibet p.16
26. "Strike Hard" Campaign: China's crackdown on political dissidence. TCHRD, 2004. p. 27
27. No Faith in the State. Tibet Watch. 2007 p.12
28. A Golden Bridge Leading to a New Era. guidelines on religious policy announced at the Third Forum and later published by the TAR Party. p.81
29. Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right by Karl Marx
30. Lenin Collected Works. Progress Publishers, 1965. Moscow. Volume 10 p. 83
31. CHINA'S TIBET? Autonomy or Assimilation by Warren Smith. p. xvii
32. Lenin Collected Works. Progress Publishers. 1965. Moscow. Volume 10. p. 84
33. Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China's 100 Questions. University of California Press. 2008. p.187
34. Joint Statement to Repudiate the so-called Order No. 5 of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs on Management Measures for the Reincarnation of 'Living Buddhas' in Tibetan Buddhism
35. No Faith in the State. p.45
36. Public Speech on Reincarnation. Dalai Lama. Office of Dalai Lama. 2008. p.33
37. No Faith in the State. p.51
38. Interview with Geshe Lhakdor-la, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Dharamsla, India.
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