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Why China Wants To Choose The Next Dalai Lama; By Thubten Samphel

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Image Courtesy: Radio Free Asia

Article Courtesy: East Asia Gazette

Article 38/2021

On Tuesday, 6th July, 2021, the Dalai Lama turned 86.Tibetans in Tibet and those in exile will celebrate the occasion and wish him continued good health and long life. Tibetans and people along the Buddhist Himalayan belt will be joined by millions across the globe whose lives have been touched and in many cases changed by the Tibetan leader’s message of strengthening our positive inner qualities.

They in turn will be joined by the people of Mongolia and those of Buryatia, Tuva, and Kalmukia, the three republics within the Russian Federation, all of which constituted and still constitute the traditional parish of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. While celebrating the life and teachings of the present Dalai Lama, millions across the globe will look to the future with fear and foreboding. This in part arises from the fact that there have been disruptions in the Dalai Lama succession in the past. But the main fear arises from Beijing’s assertion that government authorities would pick and appoint the 15th Dalai Lama.

As reflected in President Xi Jinping’s remarks to his colleagues that China would appoint the next Dalai Lama, the Chinese Communist Party is determined to assert its claimed sovereignty over Tibet’s spiritual space. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policy of brushing aside the 14th Dalai Lama and its determination to appoint his successor flies in the face of logic, Buddhist spiritual practice and Tibet’s history. Yet the CCP could not care less about these petty and bothersome norms and traditions. Beijing is after the glue that will hold its empire together and expand its influence.

Beijing is after the sway and sweep of Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual influence. If Beijing’s appointment of the next Dalai Lama succeeds, it would rope in the whole of the Buddhist Himalayan belt under its influence without firing a shot. The present Dalai Lama on a trip to Sikkim in north-east India said the Buddhist Himalayan belt was India’s first line of defense. China has always likened Tibet to the hand. For the Manchus, Tibet, the highest and largest plateau in the world, ringed by the highest and longest mountain range, was the hand that protected the face. Mao Zedong considered Tibet a launching pad for some unspecified future expansion. He said Tibet was the palm and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh the five fingers, a clear hint of future aggression.

The same expansion through spiritual and cultural stealth could happen to Mongolia. The Mongols’ devotion and faith in the Dalai Lamas of Tibet is absolute. One of the Manchu emperors told his court to build a replica of Lhasa’s Potala Palace in Manchuria. Since then the Mongols came to worship and not raid and pillage China. Successive Manchu emperors needed the Dalai Lamas of Tibet to rein in the Mongols. China’s plans to use the institution of the Dalai Lama as a tool in its foreign policy kit could affect Russia’s spiritual and cultural space. Like the Mongols, the people of Buryatia, Tuva, and Kalmkyia, though small in number, have placed their unswerving spiritual allegiance in successive Dalai Lamas of Tibet. Telo Rinpoche, the highest spiritual head and a reincarnate lama of Kalmykia, studied at Drepung Monastery in South India.

A successful imposition of Beijing’s Dalai Lama on the world would cut into a unique slice of Russia’s spiritual life. The question here is how would the Tibetan people react to a Beijing-appointed Dalai Lama. If the history of the Party’s interference in the spiritual life of the Tibetan people is any guide their reaction would not bode well. In May 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized a six-year old boy in Tibet as the authentic reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama who passed away in 1989. The boy and his parents were bundled off by the authorities and never heard of again or his whereabouts known. In the following months, the Party appointed its own Panchen Lama. Such was the hostility of the monks of the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the Panchen Lama’s main seat, the boy could not live and study in his own monastery.

The Party flew him to Beijing where he lives today. On rare occasions, the Party-appointed Panchen Lama visits Tibet under tight management. He has never traveled abroad to spread the Buddha’s message of compassion. He is isolated from his own people and the larger world. One telling indication of the Tibetan people’s reverence for the Dalai Lama and their attitude to the Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama was revealed in 2006. That year a rumour spread throughout the Tibetan Plateau that the Dalai Lama would be visiting Kumbum Monastery in north-eastern Tibet, next to Xining, the provincial capital. Tibetans throughout the plateau flocked to Kumbum in anticipation of seeing the Dalai Lama and they camped there for days and nights. The Xining authorities grew nervous. Their clarification that the Dalai Lama would not be visiting Kumbum couldn’t budge the crowd. So the authorities cooked up another rumour. They told the crowd Gyaltsen Norbu, the Party-appointed Panchen Lama, was visiting Kumbum. That did the trick. The Tibetan crowd vanished into the thin air of the plateau. Tibet scholars say that both the first and second rumors were an attempt by the Party to gauge the Tibetan people’s sentiments on the Dalai Lama and the Party’s own Panchen Lama. By their boycott of the Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama, Tibetans made their feelings clear. As for the Dalai Lama in a statement issued in September 2011, he said he alone had the spiritual authority to decide on his successor. The Tibetan people and the whole of the Buddhist church will respect his decision.

(Thubten Samphel is a former director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a research centre of the Central Tibetan Administration. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)

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