For leaders of an officially atheist nation, Chinese officials have grown increasingly preoccupied with a question far beyond their temporal realm, twisting themselves into knots over the question of reincarnation and the Dalai Lama.
Mao Zedong (毛澤東) must be spinning in his glass coffin — not to mention the dust flying from Karl Marx’s tomb in London’s Highgate Cemetery — to hear straight-faced apparatchiks accusing the 14th Dalai Lama of blasphemy and trampling on the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
Comments at the National People’s Congress in Beijing this month would almost be funny — if the central question were not so serious for millions of people in Tibet, China and elsewhere.
The words coming from stalwart members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — the party that over the past 50-plus years has destroyed scores of Tibetan temples and truckloads of Buddhist icons and religious artwork, killed countless monks and nuns and imprisoned untold more — have taken Beijing’s Orwellian-Kafkaesque lexicon to new lows.
And that bar was already pretty low. Tibetans remember all too well that the CCP promised in the 17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet signed in 1951 not to alter the status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama; to respect Tibetans’ religious beliefs and customs; and protect the monasteries.
The current venom has been sparked after the Dalai Lama said he might choose not to reincarnate. Such remarks are nothing new from either side.
Four years ago, when the Dalai Lama suggested that he might be reincarnated as a woman, or that while he was still alive Tibetans should be polled on whether he should reincarnate at all, the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs responded with its lengthy “Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of the Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism” that bans Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without Beijing’s permission and Buddhist monks living outside China from reincarnating at all.
The trouble is not just with the CCP’s vocabulary; it is the CCP leadership’s enduring racial and religious bigotry. The Dalai Lama fled his homeland to India in 1959, yet the CCP’s repression has not erased Tibetans’ loyalty to him. The CCP is so afraid of him that it continues to ban his photographs.
The CCP’s efforts to control the 10th Panchen Lama (something the Republic of China also tried — and failed — to do in 1949) were not always successful and after his death in 1989, Beijing’s machinations over who was to inherit the role led to two reincarnations — Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized by the Dalai Lama in May 1995 at the age of six before he was “disappeared” by the Chinese authorities along with his family, and Gyaltsen Norbu, whom Beijing anointed with a Qing Dynasty ritual it resurrected, but many Tibetans consider a fraud.
Then there is the 17th Karmapa, whom Beijing thought was under its thumb until his escape to Nepal and then to India at the end of 1999, echoing the Dalai Lama’s own flight four decades earlier.
We should not forget the tens of thousands of Tibetans, including children, who have braved extreme hardships and the risk of death from the elements or Chinese border guards to flee to Nepal and India to pursue religious training and a Tibetan education.
The battle over Tibetan Buddhism is similar to Beijing’s conflict with the Vatican over the ordination of bishops and the primacy of the Holy See, except that it is tied to a much bigger issue: The survival of Tibetans, their language and their culture in the face of Han-centric repression and subjugation.
This battle should find Taiwanese and others, no matter their faith, firmly in the anti-Beijing camp.
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