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The Politics of Reincarnation: The Dalai Lama’s Struggle in this Life and the Next

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has become one of the most universally recognized symbols of the Tibetan struggle for autonomy. But in reality, he is not a personal symbol; rather, he is the culmination of a long line of tulkus, or beings who have been reincarnated through multiple lifetimes. In addition to the figure of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the very act of reincarnation has become a serious symbol of Tibetan nationalism. But as the People’s Republic of China becomes more and more interested in the issues of reincarnation, reincarnation has become a more contentious symbol.

Traditionally, a number of methods are used to identify the next Dalai Lama, a process which often takes several years. The first steps include consultation with the other High Lamas of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as consultation with the Nechung Oracle, the state oracle of Tibet. Those tasked with searching for the reincarnation also traditionally look for signs from a Lhamo La-tso, a sacred lake. A group of high officials and monks will convey any chosen boys to Lhasa, where the boy is then taken to a monastery where the Panchen Lama (the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism) traditionally takes responsibility for his religious education.

In his official statement on the matter, the Dalai Lama has stated that “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.” He specifically mentions the PRC at several other times in the official statement, and is obviously very concerned that the PRC will attempt to influence the process of reincarnation. The mechanism for exerting this influence is called the “Golden Urn.” During several years during the 18th century, if there were several likely candidates, their names would be placed into the urn, and lots would be drawn to determine which of the boys the true reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was.

The PRC believes that it can exert influence over this process by providing input on the boys to be tested by the Golden Urn. The Dalai Lama himself, however, has very clearly rejected the usage of the Golden Urn for choosing his reincarnation. As tulkus like the Dalai Lama are believed to control their own reincarnations, his rejection of the process carries heavy weight. In other words, insistence on using the Golden Urn can stem only from political, not religious reasons. The fact that the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist also supports the thesis that its motives are not purely religious. The PRC hopes it can control the reincarnation of one of its most vocal opponents via selecting his next incarnation.

These concerns are more than pure conjecture. The PRC showed its willingness to interfere in the process of reincarnation in 1995, with the eleventh Panchen Lama. The process for selecting the next Panchen Lama is similar to the process for the Dalai Lama, only the selection of the former requires the formal endorsement of the latter. The Tibetan monks and officials tasked with selecting the next Panchen Lama had narrowed the possibilities to twenty five names, which were then submitted to the Dalai Lama for recognition. Under consultation with the other High Lamas, the Dalai Lama selected Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the next Panchen Lama. The PRC refused this selection, insisted on the use of the Golden Urn, and appointed Gyaincain Norbu as the Panchen Lama. After the Dalai Lama announced his selection, the PRC took Gedhun Choekyi Nyima into custody; he has not been seen publically since 1995. The disagreement remains, with most Tibetans supporting the endorsement of the Dalai Lama, but with the PRC enforcing the choice of Gyaincain Norbu.

The controversy over the Panchen Lama shows that the PRC is willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure that its selected candidates are selected as reincarnates. In light of this example, the concerns of the Dalai Lama seem entirely justified. Moreover, the Panchen Lama plays a leading role in the selection of the Dalai Lama, meaning that the PRC has gained leverage (even if it is not widely accepted) in the selection of the next Dalai Lama.

This outside interference may be one of the reasons that the Dalai Lama has hinted that his next reincarnation may be located outside of Tibet. In such an eventuality, it is not unlikely that the Tibetan exile community will select a candidate who will then have to compete with a PRC appointed candidate. Even more drastically, the Dalai Lama has suggested that he may choose not to reincarnate. Tibetans themselves seem not to be supportive of this decision. There are fears of a power vacuum, although the Dalai Lama himself abdicated his role as Tibetan head of state in favor of a democratically elected leader, which suggests that any power vacuum will be more spiritual than political.

Tibet may be a single sparsely populated region of Asia, but the politics of reincarnation have an impact far beyond the borders of Tibet. For one thing, the Tibetan community in exile is both sizable and widespread. The last census of the Tibetan exile population, administered by the Central Tibet Administration in 2009, reports roughly 128,000 Tibetans living outside Tibet, concentrated both in India and in several Western states. This is a sizable population. Moreover, the award of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama shows an international recognition of his struggle.

The Dalai Lama has become a widely known symbol of Tibetan resistance, and is considered one of the most vocal supporters of Tibetan autonomy. The PRC government has been known to criticize any states who interact with the Dalai Lama, complaining that the Tibet question is an internal Chinese problem. The effect is so drastic that in 2013, two economists showed that there is actually a measurable negative economic effect on a states trade ties with the PRC when it hosts the Dalai Lama.

The process of reincarnation has become a political issue in Tibet. Though the choice has always had political implications, given the Dalai Lama’s position of authority in Tibetan politics, it has previous been mostly aloof from interference. Currently, reincarnation has become one of the many fronts in the Tibetan struggle for autonomy from the PRC. However, considering the Dalai Lama’s position of prominence on the world stage, the issue is one which involves the global community. The Dalai Lama has said that he will consult with the High Lamas on the matter as he approaches his 90th birthday; until then, all signs point to continued jostling for position from both the Tibetan religious community and the PRC.