China Says It Will Decide Who the Dalai Lama Shall Be Reincarnated As

Mar 13, 2015

The Dalai Lama has been described by Chinese government officials as a “wolf in monk’s robes,” and a “dangerous splittist” intent on cleaving the Chinese nation. On March 13, the Chinese Communist Party–linked Global Times kept up the decades-long attack on the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, denouncing him as a “double betrayer” who “keeps spouting nonsense” while devising “a sly trap.”

That supposed trap extends into the hereafter. Tibetan Buddhists believe the current Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of a holy monk who lived in the 14th century. Now 79, and surely aware that his hopes for an autonomous Tibet are improbable, the Dalai Lama has raised several possibilities of what might happen after he dies. Perhaps he will choose his successor during his lifetime, contrary to the usual tradition of identifying the new Dalai Lama only after the death of the old one. Maybe his soul will transfer to a person outside of Tibet. Or perhaps, he has said most recently, the line of Dalai Lamas will end with him, if that is the wish of the Tibetan people.

No way, says the officially atheist Chinese Communist Party. Earlier this week, on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary session, Zhu Weiqun, head of an influential ethnic-and-religious-affairs committee, insisted that it was the Chinese government responsibility to designate the Dalai Lama’s successor. "The 14th Dalai Lama hasn't shown a serious or respectful attitude on this issue," Zhu said. "He sometimes says he will reincarnate as a foreigner in a place where he visits, sometimes to a woman. When someone gives him a bottle of honey, he would happily say he is going to become a bee in the next life."

See the Dalai Lama's Life in Pictures

The 14th Dalai Lama at his enthronement in Lhasa, Tibet, Feb. 22, 1940.
The 14th Dalai Lama at his enthronement in Lhasa, Tibet, Feb. 22, 1940.AP
The 14th Dalai Lama at his enthronement in Lhasa, Tibet, Feb. 22, 1940.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, second in rank as spiritual leader, in Tibet, in 1954.
Dalai Lama seen with members of a Chinese government delegation on their official visit to Tibet in 1956.
Averaging 12 miles a day through the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama is shown journeying through the Karpo Pass, one of the highest on the flight route of the 23-year-old ruler from Lhasa. His flight began March 17, 1959. Here the escape party is seen on March 28, three days before reaching sanctuary in the free zone of India.
The Dalai Lama in India circa 1965.
The Dalai Lama and his loyal follower, Richard Gere, in New York in Sept. 1990.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, appears at the University of California Los Angeles to give a public teaching in Los Angeles, May 2001.
President George W. Bush winks while he sits with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet during a ceremony presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in the Rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Oct. 2007.
The Dalai Lama speaks during a ceremony presenting him with the Congressional Gold Medal in the Rotunda of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Oct. 2007.
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales receives His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Clarence House in London, June 2012.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks onstage at the One World Concert at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, Oct. 2012.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama during a press conference at The Lowry Hotel in Manchester, United Kingdom, June 2012.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama visits Madame Tussauds and poses with a wax figure of himself in Sydney, June 2013.
Tibetan Buddhist monks holding ceremonial scarfs stand in a line to welcome their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, as he arrives at the Jhonang Takten Phuntsok Choeling monastery in Shimla, India, March 2014.
The Dalai Lama stands at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Feb. 2015.
The 14th Dalai Lama at his enthronement in Lhasa, Tibet, Feb. 22, 1940.
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The Communist Party’s spiritual prerogative has stoked controversy before. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named a 6-year-old boy living in Tibet as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, widely considered the second-holiest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government then picked its own child. For 19 years, the Dalai Lama’s choice has not been seen in public, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Despite having fled over the Himalayas to exile in 1959, the Dalai Lama remains popular in his homeland. The Chinese government boasts about Tibet’s economic development, with growth reaching nearly 11% last year. But over the past four years, as government restrictions on Tibetan faith and culture have intensified, more than 130 Tibetans have immolated themselves to protest Chinese rule over the high plateau. In many cases, they have used their final words to express devotion to the Dalai Lama.

Members of the Tibetan exile community have also disparaged the ruling Communist Party’s insistence on dictating the Dalai Lama’s afterlife, which Chinese officials say reflect rules from the Qing Dynasty. “It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next Pope and all the Catholics should follow,’” Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, told Reuters earlier this week. “That is ridiculous.”

March is a sensitive month on the Tibetan plateau. The anniversary of a quelled uprising 56 years ago that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile falls on March 10. In mid-March 2008, Tibetan protesters fatally clashed with members of China’s Han ethnic majority and the Hui ethnic minority. Chinese authorities cracked down, leading to more deaths. In 2012, police fired on Tibetan protesters, killing two, according to exile organizations. This March 10, Tibetan exile groups claim an unarmed youth was shot after he ignored a police order to stop his motorbike while on his way to commemorate the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule. Four days earlier, a Tibetan woman from a nomadic family immolated herself on the eastern fringes of the Tibetan highlands.

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