(July 2) -- Tibet's government-in-exile reacted angrily today to China's move to determine who will succeed the Dalai Lama when he dies.
Word that the next Dalai Lama must have approval from Beijing was not greeted well by Tibetans. Here the Dalai Lama greets monks at Radio City Music Hall on May 20. (Photo: Mario Tama, Getty Images)
"Neither the Tibetans in Tibet nor those in the free world would recognize a Dalai Lama appointed by China," Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, the Dalai Lama's representative in Geneva, told AOL News today. "The Dalai Lama is there to lead the Tibetan people both spiritually and politically. But any Lama appointed by the Chinese would have a hidden agenda: the control of the Tibetan people."
Tibet has been led by different men believed to be the Dalai Lama -- reincarnated leaders inhabited by the soul of a bodhisattva, or enlightened being -- for much of the past 400 years. But the current and 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was forced into exile in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Since then, he has peacefully campaigned for limited autonomy for his homeland. China, however, accuses him of being a violent terrorist intent on returning Tibet to feudalism and dividing the People's Republic.
On Thursday, a senior Communist Party official explained to foreign journalists how it would stop future Dalai Lamas from causing as much trouble as Gyatso. From now on, the selection of reincarnations -- known to the Chinese as living Buddhas -- would follow a set process and end with approval from Beijing.
"If you understand the history of Tibet, you will find that there are strict historical conventions and religious rituals for the reincarnations of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism," Hao Peng, a deputy party secretary and vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told The New York Times. "This was determined as early as the Qing dynasty."
According to Hao, the process of picking a new religious leader works like this: Names of "soul children" -- kids thought to be reborn senior monks -- are attached to rods and then placed in an old ceremonial vessel known as the Golden Urn. Monks then pick out a stick and ask the central government to approve the choice. (In 2007
, authorities quietly introduced a law that declared, "The so-called reincarnated living Buddha without government approval is illegal and invalid"). If the government says "yes," that boy or girl child is recognized as the Dalai Lama reincarnate.
But many Tibetans Buddhists don't believe the Golden Urn is a truly Tibetan method of selection. That's because the system was introduced only in the late 18th century on the orders of Chinese emperor Qianlong, who wanted to boost his influence in the country. As Chinese influence waned in Tibet, the locals went back to using their own soulful tools. A Dalai Lama has not been picked using the urn since 1858.
Tibetans today still have good reason to be distrustful of any selection process involving that shiny relic. When the Dalai Lama announced in May 1995 that a search inside Tibet had revealed the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama
-- the second most powerful monk in Tibetan Buddhism, behind the Dalai Lama -- communist officials used the Golden Urn to find their own soul child. Unsurprisingly, the stick pulled out of the urn belonged to Beijing's favored candidate, Gyaincain Norbu, the 6-year-old son of two Communist Party members. (Some observers noticed his stick was longer than the others.)
The 6-year-old boy chosen by the Dalai Lama to replace the Panchen disappeared later that year, along with his entire family. "He would now be 21," Chhoekyapa said. "We're exceptionally worried about him, as we haven't heard anything since he and his family were arrested."
Hao claimed that the Dalai Lama's candidate, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima
, was safe and well. "We know that he is studying now and living in quite good conditions," he told the Times. "His family members and him do not want to be disrupted in their normal life."
Many Tibetans regard the Beijing-approved Panchen -- who was educated in China and is brought out on ceremonial occasions -- as a Communist Party puppet. "He is not regarded very well within Tibet, I'm afraid, except for the few Tibetans who closely serve him," Chhoekyapa said. "It's not to do with who he is, but the fact that the Chinese appointed him."
To prevent a repeat of the Panchen problem, the 14th Dalai Lama -- who turns 75 next week -- and fellow exiles are now reviewing how the faith's 15th leader should be selected. The methods being considered to stop Beijing from hijacking the succession process include allowing the Dalai Lama to pick his successor before he dies, or giving that power to a college of select senior monks.
It's also possible, said Chhoekyapa, that the Dalai Lama may decide that his successor will be found outside Tibet. It's happened before: the fourth Dalai Lama materialized in Mongolia, and the sixth in India.
"His Holiness escaped Tibet in 1959 because the Chinese did not allow him to lead his people spiritually and politically," Chhoekyapa said. "He said that he would stay in exile until he can carry out that role. So why would his reincarnation be born in Tibet, if that wish has still not been fulfilled?"