The Politics of Reincarnation (RELS 348)

In summer of 2015, the Dalai Lama will turn 80. In light of this, the BBC recently published an article on his reincarnation – a subject of interest to thousands around the world, and of vital importance to Tibetans and their relationship with the Chinese government.

The article follows a comment by the Dalai Lama in December in which he “conceded that he may not have a successor.” Tibetan Buddhists believe that each Dalai Lama is a different incarnation of the same spirit, of which there have been fourteen so far. Traditionally, the role of the Dalai Lama has involved both political and religious responsibilities. However with Tibet under Chinese control, and the Dalai Lama in exile, many traditions have had to change.

For this article, four “expert witnesses” were consulted to comment on the Dalai Lama’s eventual reincarnation, or lack thereof. This group consisted of an official representative of the Dalai Lama, Chonpen Tsering; a Chinese International Studies researcher, Jia Xiudong; an American Tibetan Studies professor, Robert Barnett; and a Tibetan activist, Jamaya Norbu. All except Jia Xiudong expressed concerns about Chinese interference in the selection of the next Dalai Lama, as happened in 1995 when the Panchen Lama was identified, and subsequently replaced by the Chinese government. Norbu fears that if the Dalai Lama does not reincarnate, he will be allowing China free rein to rule Tibet by proxy through a false Dalai Lama.

Xiudong claims the Dalai Lama has “made the issue of reincarnation…a political issue.” Personally, I find that statement disingenuous. Politics and religion are often connected spheres: in many African cultures, rulers have closer ties to their gods or ancestors than do average people, and even in Europe, where politics are quite secular, major religious leaders have some political clout. The dual role of the Dalai Lama as both spiritual leader and governing authority shows that Tibetans likewise see religious authorities as politically significant. China knows this on some level, or it wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to control the Panchen Lama, or tried to legislate reincarnation. However their approach reflects a misunderstanding of religion, and why it matters.

In my observation, people who are not themselves religious sometimes fall into the trap of believing that people who follow a religion do so because they are stupid and easily led. China’s mistake with Tibet seems to me an example of that error on a grand scale: assuming because Tibetans were religious, that they could be controlled through their religion. But although religion isn’t science, it is nonetheless rooted in a rational and systematic understanding of the world – an understanding in which universal processes, not armies, determine who is the rightful ruler of Tibet. As a result, China’s blatant attempts to manipulate the sacred traditions of a deeply religious people were taken as evidence of China’s disrespect for Tibetan Buddhism, and an attack on Tibet’s national identity. Just my opinion, but I suspect China’s attempted assimilation of Tibet would have gone better if they’d stayed out of the reincarnation business.

– A. Morgana

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