New Legal Measures Assert Unprecedented Control Over Tibetan Buddhist Reincarnation
The Chinese government State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) issued legal measures on July 18, 2007, that if fully implemented could transform Tibetan Buddhism as it exists in China into a less substantial, more completely state-managed institution, and further isolate Tibetan Buddhist communities from their counterparts outside China. The "Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism" (MMR) (Web site of the SARA (in Chinese), 18 July 07) take effect on September 1.
The Chinese government State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) issued legal measures on July 18, 2007, that if fully implemented could transform Tibetan Buddhism as it exists in China into a less substantial, more completely state-managed institution, and further isolate Tibetan Buddhist communities from their counterparts outside China. The "Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism" (MMR) (Web site of the SARA (in Chinese), 18 July 07) take effect on September 1. The MMR (ICT translation) would empower the Chinese Communist Party and government to gradually reshape Tibetan Buddhism by controlling one of the religion’s most unique and important features―lineages of teachers that Tibetan Buddhists believe are reincarnations and that can span centuries. As elderly reincarnations pass away, the measures authorize government officials to decide whether or not a reincarnation is eligible to reincarnate, and if one is permitted, the government will supervise the search for the subsequent reincarnation, as well as religious education and training.
An August 3 SARA statement (Xinhua, reprinted in People’s Daily) describes the government objective as "an important move to institutionalize management on reincarnation of living Buddhas." A SARA official summarized political requirements of a reincarnation under Article 2 of the MMR: "The selection of reincarnates must preserve national unity and solidarity of all ethnic groups and the selection process cannot be influenced by any group or individual from outside the country." The remark refers to the Dalai Lama and other high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist teachers living in exile in India and elsewhere. This provision underscores how the MMR will further subordinate traditional Tibetan Buddhism to Party policy, and heighten the barrier between Tibetan Buddhists in China and their teachers and co-religionists living abroad.
The MMR establishes or expands government procedural control of the principal stages of identifying and educating reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist teachers, including:
- Determining whether or not a reincarnated teacher who passes away may be reincarnated again, and whether a monastery is entitled to have a reincarnated teacher in residence (Arts. 3-4).
- Conducting a search for a reincarnation (Arts. 5-7).
- Recognizing a reincarnation and obtaining government approval of the recognition (Arts. 4, 7-9).
- Seating (installing) a reincarnation in a monastery (Art. 10).
- Providing education and religious training for a reincarnation (Art. 12).
The measures provide for administrative or criminal punishment to individuals or offices that are responsible for a failure to comply with the measures, or that conduct activities pertaining to reincarnation without government authorization (Art. 11). The MMR substantially expands the geographical reach of government oversight of reincarnation because the measures will be effective throughout China, not just in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where less than half of China's Tibetan Buddhists live (according to official census data, 2.43 million of the 5.42 million Tibetans in China were located in the TAR). Once the measures take effect, they will apply to every reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist teacher who is recognized and seated in a monastery. Until now, the Chinese government has intervened only in the selection and installation of exceptionally important Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Most famously, China's State Council in 1995 installed a boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the 11th Panchen Lama after declaring the Dalai Lama’s recognition of Gedun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama to be "illegal and invalid." The government has approved only 30 Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations in the TAR in the period following 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India and the Party instituted "democratic reforms," according to a May 2004 State Council White Paper on "Regional Ethnic Autonomy in Tibet," (Xinhua, 23 May 04). Since it is unlikely that any of the approvals occurred until the early 1980s, when the government began to allow Tibetans (and other Chinese citizens) to resume religious activity, the number of government-approved reincarnations in the TAR appears to have averaged less than two per year.
The number of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnated teachers who would be subject to the MMR is far higher. Incomplete information from official Chinese sources provides a reasonable basis to estimate that the total number of such teachers in the Tibetan areas of China probably exceeds 1,000, and could reach or surpass 2,000. The total number of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries probably exceeds 3,300, and each monastery hopes to have a reincarnated teacher in residence, although some monasteries have none and other monasteries have more than one. As current reincarnations pass away, government enforcement of the MMR may prevent Tibetans from searching for and recognizing some reincarnated teachers, and will subject permitted reincarnations to government regulation.
- There are approximately 1,700 monasteries and nunneries and 46,000 monks and nuns in the TAR, according to the White Paper.
- There are 655 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries and 21,000 monks and nuns in Qinghai province, according to statements by an official to a CECC staff delegation in 2003. Another official said that in Huangnan (Malho) TAP in Qinghai, there are 83 monasteries and nunneries and 116 reincarnations. (The Huangnan information suggests a ratio of about 1.4 monasteries and nunneries, or 32 monks and nuns, to each reincarnated teacher.)
- There are 276 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, about 10,000 monks and nuns, and 144 reincarnations in Gansu province, according to statements by an official to a CECC staff delegation in 2004. (The data suggests a ratio of about 1.9 monasteries and nunneries, or 69 monks and nuns, to each reincarnated teacher.)
- There are 515 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries and about 38,000 monks and nuns in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Sichuan province, according to an August 2005 report (in Chinese) available on the Web site of the Sichuan Province Party Committee Policy Research Office.
- The figures above total 3,146 monasteries and nunneries and about 115,000 monks and nuns and do not include those in Aba (Ngaba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and Muli (Mili) Tibetan Autonomous County in Sichuan province, and Diqing (Dechen) TAP in Yunnan province.
The MMR includes a provision that could empower authorities to eliminate, over time, all reincarnated teachers located in certain city areas, perhaps even Lhasa, which has the highest urban concentration of Tibetan Buddhist monks and reincarnated teachers anywhere in China. Article 4 disallows the recognition and seating of reincarnations within urban districts established by governments at the municipal level or higher if that government issues a local decree banning further reincarnations. (See the Web site of China Internet Information Center for a discussion of Chinese administrative divisions.) The Chengguan district under Lhasa municipality is the only urban district within the Tibetan autonomous areas of China. Two of the largest and most influential Tibetan monasteries, Drepung and Sera, are within Chengguan, as well as the two oldest Tibetan Buddhist temples, Jokhang and Ramoche, both of which maintain a resident monastic community. The CECC is not aware of a local government decree banning reincarnations in Chengguan, but the appearance of such language in the MMR may encourage such a ban in Lhasa, or in urban districts that are established in the future.
A partial precedent for the MMR exists in Articles 36-40 of the TAR Implementing Measures for the "Regulation on Religious Affairs" (TAR 2006 Measures), issued on September 19, 2006, by the TAR People’s Congress Standing Committee (CECC translation). But these measures, which took effect on January 1, 2007, provide fewer opportunities for the government to interfere in the reincarnation process than the new national measures do. For example, the MMR―unlike the TAR 2006 Measures―requires that "[a] majority of local religious believers and the monastery management organization [Democratic Management Committee (DMC)] must request the reincarnation." DMCs, charged by the Party and government to implement policies on religion, are unlikely to request a reincarnation that local officials oppose. Local authorities are also well-positioned to discourage "religious believers" from expressing their desire to maintain a reincarnation in a local monastery if that wish does not comport with Party and government preferences.
The government and Party claim historical legitimacy for seeking to assert control over the identification of very high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist incarnations (such as the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama) on the basis of an 18th century Qing Dynasty edict demanding that Tibetans draw a name from an urn in the presence of a Chinese imperial official (State Council White Paper on Freedom of Religious Belief in China, Web site of the Embassy of China in the United States, 16 October 97). An article on the Web site of the government-run China Tibet Information Center explains that the Qing sought control over the "Grand Living Buddhas," but does not suggest that at any time the imperial court attempted to control the entire institution of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation.
The Regulation on Religious Affairs (RRA), issued by the State Council in November 2004, draws on the Qing edict and mentions reincarnation in Article 27: "The succession of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism shall be conducted under the guidance of Buddhism bodies and in accordance with the religious rites and rituals and historical conventions" (translation available on the Web site of China Elections and Governance). The December 1991 TAR Temporary Measures on the Management of Religious Affairs (CECC translation) contain only one article referring to reincarnations (banning the involvement of "foreign forces"), a contrast with the MMR and TAR 2006 Measures that illustrate how recent measures make more elaborate use of the law to repress the freedom of religion.