Menu Close
Ashwini Bhatia/AP

Succession on the Tibetan plateau: what’s at stake in the battle over the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation?

In China, a group of atheists (the Chinese Communist Party) has long dictated how the country’s religious groups should practise their faiths.

Chinese Christians are told to reject salvation by faith and the Resurrection; their core beliefs should be patriotism and love of the party. The party has also published several pamphlets detailing appropriate beliefs and practices for Buddhists and ordered them to adjust their thoughts accordingly.

Communist officials are particularly concerned with one politically sensitive element of Buddhism: the succession of the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, whose reincarnation lineage began in the 16th century. He will be 88 years old in July and has reportedly experienced health problems, though he claims he is in good health.

In official news outlets like the Global Times, the party maintains the Chinese government is the sole legitimate arbiter for all reincarnations of Buddhist lamas, regardless of where they are born or their traditional regions of influence.

The Chinese state is deeply suspicious of religious believers and the potentially persuasive power of rival ideologies, which is why it insists on appointing and educating all prominent religious figures. They learn the propaganda of Chinese patriotism and become adept at parroting the party line, but they generally have little knowledge of their purported religion. True believers recognise this.

The Dalai Lama highlighted the absurdity of the party’s stance earlier this year when he recognised an eight-year-old Mongolian boy as the tenth Jetsun Dampa, the most influential reincarnation lineage in Mongolia.

Read more: Dalai Lama identifies the reincarnation of Mongolia's spiritual leader – a preview of tensions around finding his own replacement

The move angered Chinese officials because it demonstrated the Dalai Lama’s continuing authority among Buddhists in the region. It also showed that despite decades of persistent claims the Communist Party exercises sole authority in these matters, it is merely an official fabrication.

In 1995, the Dalai Lama issued a proclamation that a Tibetan boy named Gendün Chökyi Nyima was the Panchen Lama, the second-most prominent reincarnate lama in his order, the Geluk. The party responded by arresting the boy, then six years old, along with his family. They have not been seen since.

Tibetan Buddhists hold portraits of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gendün Chökyi Nyima, during a protest in India last month demanding his release. Altaf Qadri/AP

The Golden Urn

Tibetan Buddhists believe that after death a person’s consciousness transmigrates to a new body. For most people, this happens involuntarily, but advanced masters can choose their life situations. These are referred to as “tulkus” (“emanation bodies”). Traditionally, tulkus have exercised ultimate authority over their own successions. Many lamas issue predictions regarding the circumstances of their rebirths, including place and timing.

The Dalai Lama, hoping to counter Communist Party plans to name his successor, has declared he will not take rebirth in any region under Chinese control. He argues the main task of a new tulku is to carry on the unfinished work of their predecessor, and this would be impossible in occupied Tibet.

The party cites precedents, mostly invented or exaggerated, that it claims give it a historically determined right to adjudicate all matters of tulku succession.

Many of these hinge on the “Golden Urn”, which was sent to Tibet in 1792 by the Qianlong Emperor, along with instructions on its use. The names of prospective tulkus were to be inscribed on lots and placed in the urn. The officiating lama would then choose one at random as the successor tulku.

Despite claims by party officials that the urn has been used in all tulku selections since it was delivered to Tibet, historical sources indicate it was only used sporadically.

Moreover, I have not seen any Tibetan document that presents the urn as the sole factor for determining tulku succession. In every case I’ve examined, traditional tests were administered first.

For instance, a prospective child was presented with two sets of items – one belonged to the predecessor, the other did not but appeared similar. The real successor should be able to correctly identify the ones owned by his predecessor.

Lots were then drawn from the Golden Urn as one of a series of measures to ensure the correct candidate was selected – or to placate Chinese officials.

The Dalai Lama has indicated he is open to a process that includes lots drawn from the urn, but also insists on the standard succession methods developed under Tibetan Buddhism.

Clashes over philosophy

Most public discussions of succession focus on historically based claims and counterclaims, but the underlying logic of both sides is seldom mentioned.

Tibetan Buddhism holds that as death approaches, the coarser levels of consciousness drop away. At the moment of death, the most subtle one, the “mind of clear light,” manifests. After this, one enters the “intermediate state” (bardo) and is reborn in another body.

The main basis for rebirth is consciousness, which is compared to a river. It flows from moment to moment, with each moment conditioned by those that preceded it. It is not like a soul or self because it is impermanent and changing.

Most Buddhists believe that rebirth is determined by their past karma, but tulkus can consciously choose their next life situations.

One of the core absurdities of the Communist Party’s claims to authority over this process is its members adhere to a Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism, which rejects the idea of rebirth or consciousness being transferred between bodies.

So, when the party designates someone as “Dalai Lama,” it is similar to naming a postmaster: it is a position overseen by the government, and it can be conferred on anyone.

Tibetan Buddhists, however, believe that the recognition of a Dalai Lama is much more than this. It is the end result of a series of rigorous tests designed to determine one unique person, whose consciousness is the continuation of his predecessor’s.

Exiled Tibetan monks attend a procession celebrating the Dalai Lama’s 87th birthday in Nepal in July 2022. Narendra Shrestha/EPA

What’s at stake for Tibetan Buddhism?

After the disappearance of Gendün Chökyi Nyima in 1995, the government held a ceremony to anoint another boy as Panchen Lama. Panchen Lamas have often played key roles in the recognition of Dalai Lamas, and the party has declared it plans to use its Panchen Lama to choose a Dalai Lama who will be under its control.

The Dalai Lama has declared on a number of occasions the Tibetan people will reject China’s choice. And Tibetan exiles plan to employ traditional methods to identify Tenzin Gyatso’s successor.

Inevitably, other countries will be drawn into this arcane conflict, based on centuries-old religious precedents, which few will understand.

Read more: There's a religious revival going on in China -- under the constant watch of the Communist Party

So, after both sides have announced their respective Dalai Lamas, what effect will this have on Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet and their religious practices?

Probably very little. The party’s Panchen Lama is viewed by Tibetans as a high-ranking government official and is treated with the appropriate respect. But he has no authority as a religious teacher.

And despite government attempts to promote him as one, he lacks the training, knowledge and charisma that would be required for him to function as a tulku. He rarely visits Tibet, and has shown no aptitude for the religious aspects of his role.

The future Dalai Lama born in exile will receive traditional training from the most esteemed figures in Tibetan Buddhism, while his or her Communist Party rival will be trained in a government-run school and become a mouthpiece of the party.

The former will probably follow in the footsteps of Tenzin Gyatso and become an internationally prominent Buddhist spokesperson. The latter will emulate the party’s Panchen Lama and repeat whatever messages his overlords command him to deliver to Tibetan Buddhists.

The question of Tibetan Buddhism’s future survival is by no means assured. Tibetans overwhelmingly identify as Buddhists, and most deeply revere the Dalai Lama despite decades of propaganda demonising him.

The government is increasingly imposing restrictions on religious practice. There are also economic disincentives for those who want to retain their traditional religious commitments. This struggle between tradition and Communist Party control is likely to play out over the course of the next few decades, and the future looks increasingly grim for those who want to resist.