China’s Assertion of Sovereignty On Tibet’s Spiritual Space

March 18, 2019 By Thubten Samphel*

While the world ponders the horrifying meaning of the two mosque massacres in New Zealand, a silent and consequential struggle is being waged in the mountains of Tibet. The struggle between Beijing and the Tibetan people for the soul of Tibet and how the Tibetans will react to the outcome will re-shape relations between church and state. It will establish norms on how far the state could intrude into people’s private beliefs and their faith. This struggle is centred on Beijing which does not want the 14th Dalai Lama but is determined to appoint the 15th.

Beijing’s claims of having the right to appoint the next Dalai Lama is based on its perceived sovereignty on Tibet on the specious argument that the Mongols and the Manchus exercised sovereign rights in Tibet. This is the same argument China is advancing to justify its current claims of sovereignty on the South China Sea and on cyberspace.

There is a robust US pushback on China building islands in the South China Sea and weaponizing them. In the Western democracies there is alarm over China’s claims of sovereignty over cyberspace and making good on the claim.

The same alarm should goad the international community of religions to push back on the Chinese Communist Party treading in areas where angels dare not. If the Party’s plans for the post-14th Dalai Lama succession struggle succeeds, this will reshape relations between man and God. This will allow the Party to exercise sovereignty over heaven and earth.

The spiritual and political importance of the institution of the Dalai Lama is highlighted by the role it played in the warm trilateral relations between Tibet, Mongolia and Manchu China. During the reign of Kublai Khan, Tibetan Buddhism remained a court religion. The Third Dalai Lama converted the whole of Mongolia to his school of Buddhism. Mongolia’s absolute devotion to the Dalai Lamas of Tibet largely kept the peace between the Mongols and Manchu China.

Similarly, Beijing’s determination to appoint the next Dalai Lama is triggered by its hope that a pliable Dalai Lama will help it rule Tibet, legitimize that rule and make it so much less expensive.

If Beijing succeeds, and it is a big if, in weaponizing the institution of the Dalai Lama, this would uproot the Buddhist lineage tree on which rests the spiritual sanctity of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet and other Tibetan Buddhist masters. The Buddhist lineage tree helps today’s Tibetan Buddhist masters and students, through their previous ascending teachers, to trace the teachings of the Buddha right to the feet of the Buddha himself.

More than the Buddhist lineage tree, the devotion and trust the Tibetan people place in the Dalai Lama and other lamas derives from the tireless spiritual efforts and accomplishments of the lamas. Through lifetime of study, meditation, retreat and practice, lamas illuminate human existence to their followers and in the process have attracted millions of students across the globe, including in mainland China where there are an estimated 300 million Buddhists.

By claiming that it alone has the right to appoint the next Dalai Lama, China hopes to make a grab at the cultural and spiritual attractions of Tibet’s Buddhist civilization. It hopes to reap the enormous international goodwill and devotion to the institution sown by successive Dalai Lamas down the centuries and across continents. In attempting to do this, China is following the same strategy it has applied to the accomplishments of the Mongols and Manchus. China is crediting to itself the imperial accomplishments of the Mongols and Manchus who have done much for the present shape and size of the People’s Republic of China.

As for the Dalai Lama himself on the issue of his successor, he has this to say in a statement issued in September 2011. “If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is the need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognized, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s GadenPhodrang Trust. They should consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these concerned beings and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this. Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China.”

In light of this, Beijing should consider the suggestions offered by liberal Chinese thinkers and academicians. Wang Lixiong, an independent writer based in Beijing, said that the Dalai Lama “ïs the key to the Tibetan Question.” In 2008, in the backdrop of the peaceful protests that swept Tibet, more than 300 Chinese scholars and thinkers, including Liu Xiaobo, the late Nobel laureate, signed an open letter to the Chinese government saying they supported the peace overtures of the Dalai Lama. This letter was supported online by thousands of Chinese students and scholars. Several years ago, Jin Wei, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, told Asia Weekly, a Chinese-language publication in Hong Kong, that treating the Dalai Lama as an “enemy” is alienating all six million Tibetans who believe him to be “the Living Buddha.” She said China should avoid the “embarassing” situation of two Dalai Lamas. She recommended that China should re-start its stalled dialogue with him. All this is food for the Party’s Buddhist spiritual thought!

*Thubten Samphel is a writer and an independent researcher on Tibet and a former director of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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