The Politics of Reincarnation in China

When Chinese authorities implement a new law this month on the "reincarnation of Living Buddhas," it will open a new and controversial phase in the looming battle to find a successor for the 72-year-old Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government described the new law as an "important move to institutionalize the management of reincarnation of Living Buddhas," or lamas, as the monks in senior positions are known in Tibetan Buddhism.

The concept of reincarnation is viewed by non-believers around the world with a considerable degree of scepticism and amusement, but within the context of Tibetan culture it remains a centerpiece in spiritual life.

These Living Buddhas form the core of leadership in Tibetan Buddhism. They constitute a clergy of influential figures who are believed to be continuously reincarnated to pursue their religious work. At the apex of this spiritual elite is the Dalai Lama, which has an unbroken lineage of reincarnations extending 600 years. The current Dalai Lama is considered as the 14th Dalai Lama.

But the new measure has little to do with the esoteric realm of the afterlife and reincarnation. What Beijing is more concerned with has to do with the realm of politics and its political control over the future of Tibet.

The new regulations stipulate the Chinese government's approval as a requirement in the search and recognition of reincarnated lamas. Though the Dalai Lama is not mentioned directly, the reference to the Tibetan spiritual leader is clear in a provision stating that "the reincarnation of a Living Buddha with a particularly great impact" has to be approved by the top Chinese leaders in Beijing. Otherwise, the government will consider the reincarnation as "illegal or invalid."

The Dalai Lama's special envoy in Washington, D.C., Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, summed up the reaction of the Tibetan spiritual leader's supporters: "These stringent new measures strike at the heart of Tibetan religious identity. They will only create further resentment among the Tibetan people and cannot override the (Chinese Communist) Party's lack of legitimacy in the sphere of religion."

According to the Dalai Lama's supporters, the new law is aimed at excluding their exiled spiritual leader from selecting reincarnated lamas and legitimizing Beijing's tight grip over the selection process. In their view, it constitutes a direct challenge to the Dalai Lama's authority over Tibet's religious affairs and effectively paves the way for Chinese leaders to choose the next Dalai Lama.

After the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and lived in exile in India, Chinese authorities took complete control of Tibetan life. Since 1991 they have approved about 1,000 Living Buddhas, including the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-holiest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

The case of the Panchen Lama is an ominous preview of what could happen in the foreseeable future. When Beijing learned about the Dalai Lama's choice of the reincarnated Panchen Lama in 1995, Chinese authorities rejected the 6-year-old boy chosen by the Dalai Lama and proceeded to pick its own Panchen Lama. Chinese authorities detained the Dalai Lama's choice and he has not been seen in public since.

In his public speeches, the Dalai Lama no longer demands independence for Tibet but instead seeks more autonomy for the region. His representatives have held several rounds of informal talks with Chinese officials in Beijing but so far there has been no progress reported on this issue.

Chinese government spokesmen have questioned the sincerity of the Dalai Lama's position. Last July, a senior official in Tibet dismissed the Dalai Lama's call for greater autonomy as just "a tactical adjustment" that did not reflect "any substantial change" in his goal of "splitting" Tibet from China.

The gap between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government remains wide and the prospect of reaching any settlement remains elusive.

The Dalai Lama has said he will be reincarnated outside Tibet if his Himalayan homeland remains under Chinese control, raising the distinct possibility of two Dalai Lamas in the future -- one appointed by Beijing in Tibet and another in exile.

How the situation will evolve remains fluid and uncertain. The only thing certain is that mixing Chinese politics with Tibetan reincarnation results in a volatile combination.