Beijing has staked a claim to the leader’s succession by distorting history
Since the occupation of Tibet in 1950, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently distorted historical facts to interfere in Tibetan religious matters.This includes the process to select the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who is now 88 years old and whose international popularity has kept his people’s plight alive on the global stage.
Buddhists believe that an enlightened being and highly accomplished master may consciously propose to be reborn for the benefit of others. In Tibet, this is known as tulku and the system is deeply embedded in its religious culture. Among the many reincarnated masters respected and revered by Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is the highest spiritual leader, or lama.
To gain total control over this foundational pillar of Tibetan culture and interfere in the reincarnation process, China issued Order No. 5 in 2007 and, last year, Order No. 19. These laws are a gross violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, which protect religious freedom.
The CCP is avowedly atheist and possesses no belief in the concept of life after death. “Religion is poison,” Mao Zedong said during one of his early meetings with the 14th Dalai Lama, in the 1950s. Soon after, China started destroying a total of over 6,000 monasteries and nunneries throughout Tibet. The destruction of statues of the Buddha, closure of the Larung Gar and Yachen Gar monastic centers in 2016 and 2019 respectively, and demolition of Drago Monastery’s school in 2021 are but a few instances of continued religious persecution.
The world is also aware of the disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama, one of the top Tibetan religious figures, and how China installed its own puppet replacement in 1995 — and how it is forcing Tibetans to venerate this false leader.
It is preposterous for China to claim authority over the selection of monks. Through official decrees and proclamations, and a series of articles in the Global Times, a CCP mouthpiece, China has affirmed authority over the reincarnation system, staking this claim in ancient practices. “Titles are understood in traditional Chinese law as ‘imperial commendations,’ that is, ‘honorary titles’ granted by the Central Government of China to the leaders of religious sects,” according to the Global Times. However, such assertions are based on a distorted reading of history.
Firstly, most of these titles were given during the time of Yuan (1271-1368) and Qing (1644-1912) rule. As both dynasties were not Chinese, the connotation of a Chinese central government is wrong and out of context: China was then a territory occupied by the Mongol Yuan and, subsequently, Manchu Qing.
The Dalai Lama’s reincarnation system dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries, when the 2nd Dalai Lama, Gedun Gyatso — the reincarnation of the 1st Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa — was born in 1475. This system has continued all the way to the current Tibetan Buddhist leader and China’s claim that it has controlled the process since ancient times is a lie.
The title of dalai lama was not conferred, for the first time, on Sonam Gyatso, the 3rd Dalai Lama, by an emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that ruled China at the time. It was Altan Khan, the Mongol king, who — after receiving teachings from Sonam Gyatso — gave him the title dalai, meaning “ocean of wisdom,” in 1578. The spiritual leader, in turn, offered the title dharma raja, or “religious king,” to Altan Khan. This goes to show that the offering of honorary titles was not a unilateral imposition, but a bilateral process, meant as a gesture of goodwill and diplomatic courtesy, in this case between the Tibetan master and Mongol ruler.
It was in 1792, when Tibet sought the help of the Qing rulers to drive out the invading Gurkha force of Nepal, that the Manchu emperor wrote a set of regulations in 29 points for the effective administration of Tibet. It was suggested that the selection of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama’s reincarnations should be done by drawing names from a “golden urn.” But this came more in the form of advice than a decree and, except for the selection of the 11th Dalai Lama in the mid-19th century, this method was never used.
China has recently asserted that reincarnated living Buddhas should be found within the country, selected using the golden urn and receive approval from the central government — implying that all those outside Tibet are disqualified. But tulku can be reborn anywhere; it is up to the individual to decide. There have been many reincarnated lamas in India, Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan and other countries. For example, the 4th Dalai Lama was born in Mongolia and the sixth in India.
Before departing this world, high lamas leave hints with close associates or a designated committee as to where their reincarnations should be found. The committee then looks for a child born in the region indicated and, after studying and conducting tests on the prospective lama, the reincarnation is confirmed. This process involves traditional religious rituals, including consultations with deities.
In a statement from September 2011, the 14th Dalai Lama made clear that his reincarnation is his choice and that nobody has the right to interfere in it. The purpose of reincarnation is to continue spiritual work for the benefit of the masses, he affirmed, so if his successor were to be born in a region where freedoms are restricted, the very purpose of reincarnation would be lost. The Dalai Lama’s reincarnation will, therefore, be found in a free country.
In 2019, representatives from the international Tibetan community and heads of Tibetan religious schools met in Dharamsala, India — home to the Tibetan government in exile — and unanimously asked China to stay out of the reincarnation issue. Similar statements have come from Tibetan groups in Japan, India, Vietnam and Europe.
The United States government made clear in its 2020 Tibet Policy and Support Act that any interference from China will be confronted at the international level.
Instead of intimidation and threats, a warmer approach from Beijing would do better to win over people’s hearts. As for the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama, only respect for and understanding of Tibetans’ beliefs will lead to real harmony. In contrast, continued meddling in their spiritual domain will further distance them from Beijing.
Tsewang Gyalpo Arya is the representative of the Liaison Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama for Japan and East Asia, and is the former director of the Tibet Policy Institute of the Central Tibetan Administration. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Tibet Policy Institute CTA.