The Dalai Lama turns 86: Reincarnation debate gathers pace

July 05, 2021 12:45 PM

His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) celebrates his 86th birthday on 06 July. His advanced age and the intransigence of China in negotiating with him have brought the issue of Tibet and his reincarnation into focus.

dalai lama"Reincarnation of living Buddhas, including the Dalai Lama, must comply with Chinese laws and regulations and follow religious rituals and historical conventions."

By Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (Retd), 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) celebrates his 86th birthday on 06 July. His advanced age and the intransigence of China in negotiating with him have brought the issue of Tibet and his reincarnation into focus. HHDL escaped from the Chinese annexation of Tibet in March 1959 and came into India. That he was given asylum and a Tibetan Government in Exile was formed in Dharamshala is history. He was and is the face of Tibetans in the entire world. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1989. He propagated the middle way approach for a rapprochement with the Chinese government. The middle way approach implies that the Tibetan people do not accept the present status of Tibet under the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, they do not seek independence for Tibet. Treading a middle path in between these two, lies the policy and means to achieve a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China. Chinese government rejected that stance. From 2002 to 2010, HHDL’s representatives held talks with the Chinese government to no avail. Thereafter, the talks died down.

When HHDL came to India he had both the temporal and religious powers. In 2011 he gave up the temporal powers and retained only the religious role. Even that did not help in changing the stance of the Chinese government. In 2017, Central Tibetan Administration announced the Five-Fifty Vision that aimed at resolving the issue of Tibet within the next five years, while at the same time sustaining and strengthening the resilience of the Tibetan administration and populace as well as the Tibetan freedom movement and the Tibetan people’s unique identity and culture for the next fifty years as needed. That move also fell on deaf ears. Overall, the Tibetan Movement to gain independence initially and autonomy within China later has not progressed. The Chinese government seems to have dug in its heels on the issue of Tibet. China has also been changing its position on dealing with the HHDL. Initially it said that the HHDL should accept that Tibet is a part of China. That position has changed now to that of HHDL accepting that Tibet has been a part of China since antiquity.

The international community has been vocal on the Tibet issue. However, those voices seem to be reducing but for the USA. The USA enacted the Tibetan Policy and Support Act in 2019 that makes it the official United States policy that the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, including the succession of the Dalai Lama, be left solely to Tibetan Buddhists to decide, without interference from the Chinese government. In addition, in July 2020, it imposed visa bans on Chinese officials who restrict foreigners’ access to Tibet. While USA’s position on the reincarnation of the HHDL has been made clear by the act mentioned above, China has also been hardening its stand on the reincarnation issue. A new regulation, titled “Measures for the Administration of Religious Personnel,” brought out in Feb 2021 and came into force on 01 May 21, stipulate that the succession of a living Buddha should be carried out under China’s relevant regulations. Even earlier, in April 2019, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said “Reincarnation of living Buddhas, including the Dalai Lama, must comply with Chinese laws and regulations and follow religious rituals and historical conventions.” China seems to be making it clear that the reincarnation of HHDL will be as per its government’s decision.

HHDL himself has made a number of statements regarding the reincarnation. In 2004, he said that if Tibetan people feel that there is no need for the next Dalai Lama then this institution may not continue. He made a similar statement again in 2019 while speaking to some students that “the custom of recognizing reincarnate lamas may have had its day”. In 2011 he said that he will leave clear written instructions behind on his reincarnation. In April 2013, he said in an interview that “If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come”. In March 2019, he further said that In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here (India), in a free country, one is chosen by Chinese, and then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China). So that’s an additional problem for the Chinese. It’s possible, it can happen”.

One thing seems to be clear about the reincarnation though. Things are still fluid and any of the options above may come true. There have also been statements that the Golden Urn method of selecting the next Dalai Lama may be followed. There has been no official reaction or statement from India on the reincarnation issue. It does not mean that it has not considered the various possibilities and reactions thereof.

(The author is Member, National Security Advisory Board. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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