Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reincarnation Business

Beijing is becoming nervous. Too nervous!
The fact that China is today a recognized superpower (2010 will see the Middle Kingdom becoming the 2nd largest economic power and exporter of the planet ), may lead you to conclude that the leadership in Beijing lives in peace with itself, enjoying its newly-acknowledged position.
But you are wrong, despite their status, the politburo members in the walled-enclave of Zhongnanhai are trembling. Why?
In the famous comics Asterix, an indomitable tribe continues to refuse the rule of the most powerful empire of its time. Though the tiny Armorican village could not be captured by the Roman Empire because the villagers managed to acquire invincible strength by drinking a magic potion brewed by the village druid; in our case, the Empire has already invaded country of the stubborn people from the Land of Snows, but oh sacrilege, they still insist on keeping their cultural identity and demand a ‘genuine autonomy’. It may seem not much for an outsider, but the new Caesars in Beijing remain intransigent. For them, there is one culture alone: the Party is omniscient and supreme.
The Tibetan tribe would like to practice their creed in peace, as they have done for the past 800 years. But the mighty Empire will not bend, especially when it comes to the Lamas’ most sacred institutions.
They have good reasons for this: “Keeping a living Buddha under control means keeping a temple under control, and keeping a temple under control means keeping a district under control." This quotation, conveniently put in the mouth of an unknown supporter of the ‘separatist Dalai’s group’, appeared in The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China on January 7.
The entire article, entitled ‘Dalai Lama's reincarnation tale indicative of separatism’ is most offensive and shows a great nervousness on Beijing’s part.
The ‘official’ commentator charges the Dalai Lama of manipulating the system of Tibetan reincarnation for his own purpose: “It is not difficult to understand the reason why the Dalai Lama is so keen on making up arguments on reincarnation.”
What provoked the anger of the ‘analyst’? The People’s Daily’s argument is that a few months back the Dalai Lama declared that he could very well be reincarnated in the form of a woman. Beijing says that it is “an eye-popping thing to say”. One could ask, why?
Several years ago I had the occasion to ask the Dalai Lama to elaborate on this point, he had then explained: "In Tibet, the tradition of having reincarnated teachers is almost 700 years old. Among them, we had one institution of a female reincarnation. In case a female Dalai Lama is more useful to Tibet in future, then why not have a woman as ‘reincarnation'? If a Tibetan lady Dalai Lama comes, every male will become her follower," he said, laughing.
"I feel that education alone cannot solve all our contemporary problems. More emphasis should be given on ‘compassion'. Women are basically more sensitive and compassionate. But men are not. They are more aggressive. Therefore, a ‘female rule' will be more suitable for today's setup," he added. Already in the course of another interview several years ago, my young daughter, who had accompanied me, found it was not ‘normal' that ‘the Dalai Lama always returns as a man.' She quizzed him: "You have always been reincarnated as a boy. What is the reason for that?"
The Tibetan leader had become thoughtful and took time to ponder: "The reason is that in a male dominated society, it was more effective for serving the Buddhadharma."
The Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and Saint-Patron of Tibet. His ‘job', as the present Dalai Lama puts it, is to make sure that the Buddhist tradition flourishes in the Land of Snows.
Beijing has now reacted violently (and belatedly) to the idea of a girl Dalai Lama: “A living reincarnation, reincarnated as a girl or a bronze-haired foreigner… all these absurd arguments by the 14th Dalai Lama on his reincarnation have made people in the Tibetan Buddhist circle feel furious.”
The Communist Party, which has apparently gained great expertise in the Buddha Dharma, argues “according to the basic teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, ‘may be a girl’ is simply an outrageous remark.” It then adds: “In the eyes of many Tibetan Buddhists, it was a blasphemy.”
What a sexist remark! Did not Buddha ordain his own mother? But one can’t expect the apparatchiks in Beijing to have read the sutras.
The unnamed ‘analyst’ refers to the Memorandum presented by the Dalai Lama’s Envoys during their 8th round of talks with Chinese officials in Beijing in November 2008. The Memorandum proposed that in the future, the Chinese Government should not intervene with the recognition and authentication of reincarnations. Today, for the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, it shows that “[the Dalai Lama’s] ulterior separatist intention is somewhat evident.”
The commentator added: “Seeing Dalai Lama keep sullying Tibetan Buddhism, many people sharply pointed out the most sacred reincarnation system of Tibetan Buddhism has become his tool of separatism. It is foreseeable that he will trample on the historical and religious rituals more savagely, and finally bring disrepute to Tibetan Buddhism. He should realize carrying out separatist activities through the reincarnation issue will only meet with public ridicule.”
History will decide who is the most ridiculous, but obviously, Beijing is nervous to think of what will happen after the death of the present Dalai Lama. This explained why a couple of years ago the Chinese government announced their new Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.
Beijing was already preparing for the Dalai Lama’s departure (and return); the ‘measures’ clearly targeted the Tibetan leader. If Karl Marx could read some of the 14 articles of the ‘measures', he would be turning in his grave. They describe in great detail how “reincarnating living Buddhas should carry out application and approval procedures.” The Party threatened: “No group or individual may without authorisation carry out any activities related to searching for or recognising reincarnating living Buddha soul children.”
The Communist Party, who always treated religion as ‘poison’, has suddenly become an authority on the century-old tradition of ‘reincarnation’.
The People’s Daily comes back to the ‘Measures’ to state that “the reincarnation of Living Buddha shall not be interfered or dominated by any organization or individual abroad.” It is another way to say that the Dalai Lama has no business in deciding reincarnation.
At the end, the article becomes nastier: “Obviously, in order to fulfill his ‘cause’ of ‘Tibetan independence’, Dalai Lama does not hesitate to violate the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, tamper with religious rituals or go against the wish of the Tibetan people. Self-proclaimed as ‘an eminent monk of Tibetan Buddhism’, he intends to change the sacred reincarnation into an absurdity for his separatist cause. His deeds have not only seriously disturbed the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism, but also hurt a large number of Buddhists.”
In Tibet, the lineage system has never been rigid. For example, during the 13-14th century, the hierarchs of Sakya monastery ruled over the Land of Snows. Their succession was set up by way of ‘transmission' from father to son or uncle to nephew. Further, historians believe that at the beginning of the 17th century, two Dalai Lamas were alive at the same time (the 6th and the 7th). There was no fixed place  about where a Dalai Lama could be reborn. The Fourth, Yonten Gyatso was born in Mongolia while the Sixth, Tsangyang Gyatso, took birth in India (in Tawang district of today's Arunachal Pradesh).
The crux of the matter was given by the People’s Daily: “Keeping a living Buddha under control means keeping a temple under control” and one could add, ultimately a nation.
Through Tibet's history, the interregnum between two Dalai Lamas has been a weakness of the reincarnation system. The 19th century saw a succession of five Dalai Lamas. The Chinese, through their Ambans (or Ambassadors) in Lhasa, made full use of this weakness. Many surmise that the premature deaths of the Ninth up to the Twelfth Dalai Lamas were not a mere coincidence and the Chinese Ambans certainly took great advantage of their ‘timely departure’. It is clear that the problem is not only a spiritual issue, but also a political one and this explains the meddling of the Chinese Communists in what seems at first sight to be a religious affair.
The point remains that it is a timely debate and whether the Dalai Lama returns as a man or woman will not change the political situation.
Like the Gaulish tribe, one can hope that the Tibetans, under the able leadership of the Dalai Lama, will be able to resist (without magic potion as they have abjured violence), the cultural invasion of the mighty Empire and preserve their religious heritage, more particularly the tulku (reincarnation) tradition which should be acknowledged by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage.
In any case one could ask, is it befitting for a superpower to speak in such appalling manner? The leaders in Beijing should learn from the Dalai Lama how to remain cool in all circumstances.

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