New measures on reincarnation reveal Party’s objectives of political control

A Cham (ritual monastic) dancer

“A Cham (ritual monastic) dancer at a monastery in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) during a celebration of Tibetan Buddhist protector deities at the monastery in winter 2005. The deity depicted by this dancer, Mahakala, represents the cosmic nature of time.

The Chinese government has announced new measures, translated below into English by ICT, stating that all reincarnated lamas (tulkus) must have government approval. The measures, which are deliberately targeted at one of the core belief systems of Tibetan Buddhism, reveal the Party’s agenda to undermine and supplant the Tibetan religious hierarchy and weaken the authority of legitimate Tibetan religious leaders including the Dalai Lama.

Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama, said: “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 Party’s lack of legitimacy in the sphere of religion.”

The new “management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism”, which are described by the official press as “an important move to institutionalize the management of reincarnation” were passed by the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) for implementation from September 1. The Chinese authorities use the term ‘Living Buddhas’ to describe reincarnate lamas or tulkus (Tibetan: sprul sku), individuals who have consciously decided to be reborn, often many times, for the benefit of all others.1

The articulation of the measures in such detail indicates a more aggressive and consistent approach towards controlling the selection, installation and education of reincarnate lamas, as a means of strengthening the government’s position as the ‘official’ arbiter of Tibetan Buddhist culture. The official language also emerges from an acute awareness of the Dalai Lama’s continued influence in Tibetan areas, as well as a recognition of the importance of the role of reincarnate lamas in Tibetan society. Buddhist institutions and education were, and still are, the bedrock of the Tibetan cultural world.

Throughout China and Tibet, measures to control religion vary in their level of intrusiveness, and these new national regulations are aimed at ensuring that layers of control are the same both in the Tibet Autonomous Region and all other Tibetan areas now incorporated into the People’s Republic of China.

In the measures, the State Administration for Religious Affairs states that reincarnations of ‘living Buddhas’ who do not have government approval are “illegal or invalid”, which is intended to convey that the Tibetan system of recognizing and educating reincarnate lamas is no longer relevant, because it is the government that decides whether a reincarnation is a legitimate religious figure or not. The government intends this to apply even to tulkus who have been recognized some years ago by Tibetan religious authorities, as part of their systematic attempts to undermine the traditional religious hierarchy in Tibet.

These measures on reincarnation, and the fact that China continues to hold in custody the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, are also part of the government’s efforts to ensure they are in a position of control over the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama. But the Dalai Lama has clearly placed on record on numerous occasions that if the present situation regarding Tibet remains the same, he will be reincarnated outside Tibet away from the control of the Chinese authorities. Tibetans believe that individuals such as the Dalai Lama who have gained a high enough degree of meditative stabilization can choose their next rebirth.2 The same also applies to the lamas who are heads of the four main Buddhist schools – the Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya – all of whom now live outside Tibet in exile.

The new measures on tulkus follow regulations implemented in the Tibet Autonomous Region from January this year. It is not a coincidence that the TAR measures were first: TAR Party chief Zhang Qingli announced early on in his tenure that there would be an intensification of political control over the practice of Buddhism in the TAR, and he has referred to a “life or death struggle” against the Dalai Lama and his “clique”.3

Article Four of the SARA measures refers to cases in which reincarnation is not allowed, giving two conditions under which “Applicants to be reincarnating living Buddhas … may not be reincarnated”. One of the conditions is when “City-level people’s governments and above with delineated districts…[have] ordered no reincarnations to be permitted.” It is not clear whether this is a reference to local ordinances that already exist banning reincarnations in certain urban districts, or whether the authorities aim to impose new restrictions in future. It is not clear why the only areas specified are ‘cities with delineated districts” – which can refer only to Lhasa in the TAR and Xining in Qinghai Province: there are several important monasteries within Lhasa and Xining’s administrative districts which have in the past been centers of dissent and opposition to Chinese rule, and therefore likely to be the focus of additional layers of official control, such as that represented by these new measures. But there are other equally and even more important monasteries just beyond Lhasa and Xining’s urban districts and elsewhere, which would not apparently be covered by any order banning reincarnations in cities “with delineated districts”.

Typically, Chinese legislation is extremely vague in certain key areas, a feature which allows police and courts to broadly interpret laws to their own advantage. However, this particular article seems to be an anomaly in that it refers to highly specific measures – ordinances banning the recognition of reincarnations in Lhasa and Xining – and yet those ordinances or anything like them are not yet known to exist. Whether they will in future be enacted of course remains to be seen, but any such ordinances are sure to be deeply unpopular in Tibet.

The measures also state: “Living Buddha reincarnations should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the state, protecting the unity of the minorities, protecting religious concord and social harmony, and protecting the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism”. The Chinese Communist Party requires its citizens to respect the authority of the Party above all other loyalties – which is effectively an inversion of the priorities of a reincarnate lama, whose focus would naturally be to their spiritual path or religion first.

The focus on controlling tulkus in the new measures also takes into account the political difficulties faced by the authorities following their failure to secure the allegiance of some senior reincarnate lamas in Tibet in recent years. For instance, the 17th Karmapa, who was being groomed by the Chinese as a ‘patriotic’ figurehead, escaped from Tibet in 1999, and is now living in exile in India close to the Dalai Lama. Arjia Rinpoche, then the abbot of Kumbum monastery in Qinghai, who also held several official positions, defected to the US in 1998 after Beijing sought his endorsement of the Chinese Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. Both made statements afterwards about the lack of genuine religious freedom in Tibet.4

Tibetologist Gray Tuttle says that the SARA measures and other regulations on religion emerge from an understanding by Beijing of the ‘desperate importance’ of the religious authority of Tibetan lamas to the Party: “Why is the atheistic government of China5 involving itself in the controversial issues of authorizing Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations 50 years after forcibly annexing Tibet? The Communists may have felt that raising a generation of Tibetans without religion during the Cultural Revolution would put an end to the need to work with and through the religious elite, but the revival of Buddhism in the period of reforms made it clear they were wrong…The Public Security Bureau and the People’s Liberation Army can control Tibet, but the religious authority of numerous lamas, such as the current Panchen Lama, is of desperate importance to the Communist Party. Contemporary Chinese government policies towards Tibet include not just the overt political processes, such as governmental recognition of certain lamas, but also the more subtle aspects of cultural interaction: the roles of Tibetan Buddhists in official Buddhist organizations of China, of Chinese monastic adherents of Tibetan Buddhism as leaders of Chinese Buddhist academies, and of Chinese and Tibetan scholars in promoting the state’s efforts to integrate Tibetan religious culture within a more broadly defined Chinese culture.” (‘Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China’ by Gray Tuttle, Columbia University Press, 2005).

Other measures taken by the authorities to control the system of reincarnation include the co-opting of Tibetan lamas into the process and a barely-disguised system of ‘reward and punishment’. Some lamas have been empowered by the Communist authorities to recognize new tulkus, challenging the legitimate religious system, and with the result of risking division in the religious community. Those who express loyalty to the Dalai Lama are penalized, while those who denounce the Dalai Lama accrue certain privileges, such as increased numbers of monks being allowed to attend the monastery, funding for essential renovations, or political appointments.

In a recent online posting, the Chinese writer Wang Lixiong warned that government policies that attempted to interfere with traditional religious practices were leading to the destruction of religious philosophies and systems. Wang relates a story told to him by a monk from a religious institution in eastern Tibet, where a young man had told the monk that his dream was to join an army to fight for an independent Tibet. The young man thought that if he died in the struggle for an independent Tibet, he would inevitably be reborn in paradise. Wang points out in his writing that such ideas are not the result of studying Buddhism – they are the result of not studying Buddhism. “If the authorities continue with the current policies of meddling with religion, making religion lose its philosophies and systems,” writes Wang, “people’s superstitions could become easily perverted and easily fomented, leading to extremism and social instability.”

Implementation of state religious policy has been particularly harsh in Tibet because of the close link between religion and Tibetan identity. Tibetan Buddhism continues to be an integral element of Tibetan identity and Tibetan nationalism, and is therefore often perceived by the Party as a potential threat to the authority of the state and ‘unity’ of the PRC.

The SARA management measures on reincarnation were formulated in accordance with the 2005 Regulations on Religious Affairs, which are the main regulatory tool for administering all religions throughout the PRC, issued in March 2005 by China’s State Council.

The new measures, published in Chinese at http://news.sohu.com/20070802/n251386214.shtml, are translated in English below.

State Religious Affairs Bureau Order

Order No. Five

These “Management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism” were passed at the administrative affairs conference of the State Administration of Religious Affairs on July 13, 2007, and will be implemented on September 1, 2007.

Bureau Director, Ye Xiaowen

July 18, 2007

Article 1: These measures have been formulated in accordance with the “Regulations on Religious Affairs” in order to guarantee citizens’ freedom of religious belief, to respect Tibetan Buddhism’s practice of inheriting living Buddha positions, and to regulate the management of living Buddha reincarnation affairs.

Article 2: Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the state, protecting the unity of the minorities, protecting religious concord and social harmony, and protecting the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.

Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect the religious rituals and historically established systems of Tibetan Buddhism, but may not re-establish feudal privileges which have already been abolished.

Reincarnating living Buddhas shall not be interfered with or be under the dominion of any foreign organization or individual.

Article 3: Reincarnating living Buddhas should have the following conditions:
(1) A majority of local religious believers and the monastery management organization must request the reincarnation;
(2) The inheritance lineage should be real and have continued to the present day;
(3) The monastery applying for the living Buddha reincarnation must be the monastery at which the living Buddha monk is registered, it must be registered as a Tibetan Buddhist place of religious activity, and it must have the ability to train and raise living Buddhas.

Article 4: Applicants to be reincarnating living Buddhas who have any of the following conditions may not be reincarnated:
(1) Reincarnations which are not regulated by the religious doctrine of Tibetan Buddhism;
(2) Those in city-level people’s governments and above with delineated districts, which ordered no reincarnations to be permitted.

Article 5: Reincarnating living Buddhas should carry out application and approval procedures. The application and approval procedure is: the management organization at the monastery applying for the living Buddha reincarnation where the monk is registered, or the local Buddhist Association, should submit applications for reincarnations to the local religious affairs departments at the level of people’s government above county-level; once the people’s government above county-level has made suggestions, the people’s government religious affairs department reports upwards, and examination and approval shall be made by the provincial or autonomous regional people’s government religious affairs department. Living Buddha reincarnations who have a relatively large impact shall be reported to the provincial or autonomous regional people’s government for approval; those with a great impact shall be reported to the State Administration for Religious Affairs for approval; those with a particularly great impact shall be reported to the State Council for approval.

Verification and authorization of the living Buddha application should solicit the opinions of the corresponding Buddhist Association.

Article 6: When there is debate over the size of a living Buddha’s impact, the China Buddhist Association shall officiate, and report to the State Administration of Religious Affairs to be put on the record.

Article 7: Once an application for a living Buddha’s reincarnation has received approval, depending on the size of the living Buddha’s impact, the corresponding Buddhist Association shall establish a reincarnation guidance team; the management organization at the monastery where the living Buddha is registered, or the corresponding Buddhist Association, shall establish a search team to look for the reincarnate soul child, and search affairs shall be carried out under the leadership of the guidance team.

The reincarnate soul child shall be recognized by the provincial or autonomous regional Buddhist Association or the China Buddhist Association in accordance with religious rituals and historically established systems.

No group or individual may without authorization carry out any activities related to searching for or recognizing reincarnating living Buddha soul children.

Article 8: Living Buddhas which have historically been recognized by drawing lots from the golden urn shall have their reincarnating soul children recognized by drawing lots from the golden urn.
Requests not to use drawing lots from the golden urn shall be reported by the provincial or autonomous regional people’s government religious affairs departments to the State Administration of Religious Affairs for approval; cases with a particularly large impact shall be reported to the State Council for approval.

Article 9: Once a reincarnating living Buddha soul child has been recognized, it shall be reported the provincial or autonomous regional people’s government religious affairs department for approval; those with a great impact shall be reported to the State Administration for Religious Affairs for approval; those with a particularly great impact shall be reported to the State Council for approval.

Reincarnating living Buddhas who have been approved by the provincial or autonomous regional people’s government religious affairs departments or by the autonomous regional people’s government shall be reported to the State Administration of Religious Affairs to be put on record.

Article 10: When the reincarnating living Buddha is installed, a representative of the approving authority shall read out the documents of approval, and the corresponding Buddhist Association shall issue a living Buddha permit.

Living Buddha permits shall uniformly be issued by the China Buddhist Association and reported to the State Administration of Religious Affairs to be put on record.

Article 11: Persons and units who are responsible for being in contravention of these measures and who without authority carry out living Buddha reincarnation affairs, shall be dealt administrative sanction by the people’s government religious affairs departments in accordance with stipulations in the “Regulations on Religious Affairs”; when a crime has been constituted, criminal responsibility shall be pursued.

Article 12: When the reincarnating living Buddha has been installed the management organization at the monastery where he is registered shall formulate a training plan, recommend a scripture teacher, and submit the plan to the local Buddhist Association, which shall report upward to the provincial or autonomous regional people’s government religious affairs department for approval.

Article 13: Provinces and autonomous regions which are involved in affairs of reincarnating living Buddhas may formulate and implement detailed measures in accordance these measures, and report them to the State Administration of Religious Affairs to be put on record.

Article 14: These measures shall be implemented from September 1, 2007.

– An ICT report on China’s strategies of religious control in Tibet, ‘The Communist Party as Living Buddha’, can be downloaded here »

Footnotes

1 Modern Chinese sources also typically refer to a young incarnation of a (male) tulku as a ‘soul boy’ Traditional Chinese: ?? ; Pinyin: língtóng).In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, tulku is used to refer to the corporeal existence of enlightened Buddhist masters in general. Because the reincarnation of a lama is seen as a continuation of the mind/consciousness of his or her predecessor in a new body, the new incarnation came to be referred to as a tulku. The institution of the tulku as reincarnate lama developed during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, as various Tibetan schools of Buddhism began to accept the possibility that exemplary figures might remain within the human world as institutional teachers, reincarnating from one lifetime to the next out of compassion for their students. The first recognized tulku of this kind was the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu school of Buddhism; the first to be recognized as a reincarnation was the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi(1024-1283). The Karmapa is now in his 17th incarnation.

2 According to Buddhist philosophy, an individual’s rebirth is determined by their actions, or karma, in their current or previous lives and their state of mind at the time of death.

3 Meeting of Party officials on May 16, 2006, reported by Xinhua in Chinese on 21 June 2006

4 The Chinese government chose not to issue strong statements condemning the departures of both Arjia Rinpoche and the Karmapa even after they both expressed their concerns in exile about the lack of religious freedom in Tibet. Former President and Party Secretary Jiang Zemin even wrote a verse praising Arjia Rinpoche following his departure, and encouraging him to come back. The Chinese authorities continued to make discreet efforts to communicate with the Karmapa in exile following his arrival in India, in order to encourage him to return.

5 Strictly speaking, Buddhism is also an atheist tradition in that the Buddha did not claim to be in any way divine, nor does Buddhism involve the idea of a personal god.

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