Dalai Lama Rejects Communist Party "Brazen Meddling" in Tibetan Buddhist Reincarnation

November 14, 2011

In a September 24, 2011, signed statement, the Dalai Lama rejected Communist Party attempts to use historical misrepresentation and government regulation to impose unprecedented control over one of Tibetan Buddhism's most important features—lineages of teachers (trulkus), whom Tibetan Buddhists believe are reincarnations, that can span centuries. The Dalai Lama addressed issues pertaining to reincarnation generally and to his potential reincarnation specifically, likely rendering the statement of exceptional significance to Tibetan Buddhists. He denounced the Chinese government's "Order No. 5," a reference to the PRC Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism, as "outrageous and disgraceful," and provided a historical basis for rejecting government and Party claims that Tibetan Buddhists selected the 9th through 14th (current) Dalai Lamas in compliance with instructions in a Qing imperial edict. The Dalai Lama's statement explained briefly the Tibetan Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and "emanation"—the latter suggests that the Dalai Lama could establish a successor while he is still living. He concluded by declaring that when he is about 90 years old—he is 76 now—he will take measures to resolve whether or not there will be a 15th Dalai Lama; by condemning Party interference in Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation; and by stating that in the future it will be "impossible" for Tibetan Buddhists to "acknowledge or accept" such "brazen meddling."

Tibetan Buddhists who live in the Tibetan areas of China—where officials characterize the Dalai Lama as a "splittist"—likely will regard the Dalai Lama's September 24 statement (Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (OHHDL), 24 September 11), as of heightened importance due to the statement's formality and public release, the significance of the issues to the future of Tibetan Buddhism, and the strong wording of his remarks. The statement followed March 10 and March 14, 2011, addresses (OHHDL, 10 March 11; OHHDL, 14 March 11) in which he explained his decision to take steps to end the historical role of Dalai Lamas in Tibetan governance—a change that he said on March 19 "could allow him to concentrate more effectively on [a] spiritual role" (Phayul, 19 March 11).

The statement. The Dalai Lama published the formal statement, written in the first-person and signed, on the OHHDL Tibetan-language Web site. Translations of the statement into English and Chinese are available on the respective OHHDL Web sites. Tibetans in China could circulate the document widely, but with risk. Since Chinese officials characterize the Dalai Lama as a "splittist" (see, e.g., CECC 2011 Annual Report, 208), authorities sometimes detain or imprison Tibetans on charges of "inciting splittism" (Criminal Law, Article 103(2)) for creating, possessing, or sharing print, audio, or video material pertaining to the Dalai Lama. The Commission's Political Prisoner Database documents such cases. (In the Dalai Lama's March 10, 2011, address, he reiterated that he is not seeking Tibetan independence, but "genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people within the PRC," and expressed disappointment in the "lack of any positive response to our reasonable proposals.")

Reincarnation and emanation. The Dalai Lama provided an overview of the complex Tibetan Buddhist concepts of "reincarnation" and "emanation." In the case of reincarnation, he said, "superior Bodhisattvas" (beings possessed of the highest level of Buddhist understanding and compassionate motivation) "are able to choose their place and time of birth as well as their future parents." Tibetan Buddhists regard the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (OHHDL, "A Brief Biography"). As such, Tibetan Buddhists believe that upon the current Dalai Lama's death, Avalokitesvara could reincarnate as a 15th Dalai Lama, and that such a reincarnation would not require the oversight or approval of the Chinese government—the interference that the Dalai Lama referred to in his statement as "Order No. 5" (i.e., Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism). In the case of "emanation," according to the Dalai Lama's remarks, "superior Bodhisattvas," can manifest themselves in one or more other "bodies" (e.g., persons) simultaneously while they are still alive. Based on the explanation, the Dalai Lama could manifest one or more emanations prior to his death, and reincarnation could follow his death. He quoted a 19th century Tibetan Buddhist master to underscore the point:

  • Reincarnation is what happens when someone takes rebirth after the predecessor's passing away; emanation is when manifestations take place without the source's passing away.

The golden urn. The Dalai Lama explained his rejection of Chinese government and Party assertions that a legitimate historical basis exists for selecting Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations by drawing a lot from a golden urn. According to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), a 1792 Qing "Imperial Ordinance" set out "explicit terms for the reincarnation of the Living Buddhas in Tibet" (MFA, 15 November 00 (1)), including that Tibetans must use "a golden urn and ivory slips" provided by the Qing emperor for the prescribed ritual (MFA, 15 November 00 (2)). The Dalai Lama acknowledged that after the Tibetan government requested Manchu (Qing) military support in a conflict with Gurkhas, "Manchu officials made a 29-point proposal on the pretext of making the Tibetan Government's administration more efficient," including recognizing high-ranking reincarnations by "picking lots from a Golden Urn." According to the Dalai Lama's summary, only the 11th Dalai Lama and the 8th and 9th Panchen Lamas were selected solely by using the golden urn. Tibetan Buddhists reject using the urn, the Dalai Lama said, because "[t]his system was imposed by the Manchus" and because "Tibetans had no faith in it because it lacked any spiritual quality." An October 31, 2011, People's Daily editorial (in Chinese on People's Daily; translated in OSC, 9 November 11) dismissed the Dalai Lama's statement and claimed that China's "central government" had approved lot-drawing selections of the 10th through 12th Dalai Lamas and officially exempted the selections of the 9th, 13th, and 14th Dalai Lamas by using the golden urn.

  • The 11th Panchen Lama. Chinese authorities declared the Dalai Lama's May 14, 1995, recognition of six-year-old Gedun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama to be "illegal and invalid" and have held him and his parents incommunicado in one or more unknown locations since May 17, 1995. On November 29, 1995, Luo Gan, State Councilor and Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee's Political and Legal Affairs Commission (Xinhua, 15 November 02), was the most senior government and Party official presiding over a ceremony that selected another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, by using the Qing golden urn (Xinhua, 29 November 95 (translated in OSC)). In April 1997, a Chinese court imprisoned Chadrel Jampa Trinle, a Rinpoche and trulku who led the search for the reincarnation, to six years' imprisonment on charges of "plotting to split the country" and "leaking state secrets" (the names of boys under consideration) to "separatist forces abroad" (the Dalai Lama) (Xinhua, 7 May 97, reprinted in World Tibet Network; Tibet Radio, 4 November 95 (translated in OSC)). No details on Chadrel Rinpoche's location or well-being have been available since his reported release in early 2002 (New York Times, 21 February 02). (See CECC 2008 Annual Report, 189.)

The Declaration. The Dalai Lama described the final portion of his statement as a "declaration." He summed up his basis for rejecting Party interference in identifying trulkus and outlined measures he intends to take to protect the legitimacy of a possible 15th Dalai Lama. Excerpts from the declaration follow.

  • Trulkus guide their own reincarnations. "[The] person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth . . . . It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, . . ., to meddle in the system of reincarnation . . . ."
  • Tibetan Buddhists will not accept continued Party interference. "Such brazen meddling contradicts [Communist] political ideology and reveals their double standards. Should this situation continue in the future, it will be impossible for Tibetans and those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to acknowledge or accept it."
  • Around 2025, time to decide the future of Dalai Lamas. "When I am about ninety I will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other [Tibetan Buddhists], and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not." (The Dalai Lama was born in 1935 (OHHDL, "A Brief Biography")).
  • Organization named to lead the search. "If it is decided that . . . there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognized, responsibility . . . will primarily rest on . . . the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust." (The Commission has not observed information about the Trust or references to it that predate the statement.)
  • Written instructions will guide the search. "[Officers of the Trust] should seek advice and direction from [certain Tibetan Buddhist leaders and other entities] and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this."

For additional information, see Commission analysis of the Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism, and of prefectural-level regulatory measures on Tibetan Buddhist affairs. See also sections on religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists in the Commission's 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005 Annual Reports, and in Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009.