HONG KONG — China announced last month new regulations governing Tibetan Buddhism, including a stipulation that senior monks, known as “living Buddhas,” cannot be reincarnated without government permission.
“The reincarnation of living Buddhas must undergo application and approval procedures,” the new regulations stipulate. “Living Buddha” reincarnations with a “particularly great impact,” such as presumably of the next Dalai Lama, “shall be reported to the State Council for approval.”
The new regulations, which come into effect Sept. 1, were issued by the State Religious Affairs Bureau under the State Council, which implements religious policy set by the Communist Party. Its director, Ye Xiaowen, far from being a religious leader, is an alternate member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and hence, by definition, an atheist.
It is odd that the atheistic Communist Party should give itself religious authority, including the right to decide when a reincarnation is valid or invalid, legal or illegal.
Clearly, the new regulations are meant to ensure the Chinese government’s control of future Tibetan religious leaders, in particular future Dalai Lamas. The current Dalai Lama is 72 years old and lives in exile in India, beyond Beijing’s control. This is a situation that Beijing wants to change.
Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of being a separatist who advocates Tibetan independence. Not surprisingly, therefore, an article in the new regulations declares: “Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the state.”
It also stipulates that the process of choosing reincarnations of living Buddhas cannot be influenced by persons or organizations outside China. This means that the Dalai Lama, the highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is barred from the process.
However, Tibetan Buddhism teaches that certain individuals can consciously decide to be reborn in order to return to the world to help others. The new regulations mean that the Chinese government will not recognize reincarnations outside the country.
The Dalai Lama has said that if the present situation regarding Tibet remains unchanged — that is, a Tibet that does not enjoy true autonomy — he will choose to be reincarnated outside Tibet.
But even though the Dalai Lama has numerous supporters both in Tibet and overseas, his passing will be a great blow to the Tibetan cause. Even though his followers may designate a Tibetan boy born in exile as the new Dalai Lama, it will be many years before that person is in a position to exercise leadership and be influential internationally.
In the meantime, Beijing will use its own methods to choose the next Dalai Lama. And that boy will be brought up and tutored under the eye of the Chinese government. Meanwhile, many Tibetans in China will have little choice but to accept the officially designated successor.
The new regulations make official something that has been China’s position for years. In 1995, for example, the Dalai Lama endorsed the designation of a boy in Tibet as the reincarnation of the last Panchen Lama, who had died in 1989. But the Chinese government picked a different boy and declared him the Panchen Lama’s real reincarnation.
Beijing has defended its involvement in Tibetan religious affairs by citing precedents going back to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) of the Mongols and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) of the Manchu. The title living Buddha was first conferred on a Tibetan religious leader in the 13th century by Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader who founded the Yuan dynasty.
But there is a difference. The Mongols, who governed China during the Yuan dynasty, made Lamaist Buddhism the official religion and hence had the greatest respect for Tibetan religious leaders. Similarly, during the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, the emperor was a patron of the Dalai Lama.
While no doubt the religious activities of Mongol and Manchu rulers were to some extent a cloak for justifying their imperial ambitions, they did purport to uphold and revere the traditions and belie’s of their various subjects.
The situation today, however, is one in which the Communist Party, whose state religion is atheism, cannot be seen as either a believer in Buddhism or a patron of the faith. It is simply the state extending its authority into religious affairs.
This is similar to the current standoff between China and the Vatican, where Beijing insists on its right to appoint bishops. Ultimately, it all boils down to a matter of control. The Chinese government is unwilling to share power, even over religious matters.
On this point, a biblical injunction seems appropriate: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.