Saturday, March 9, 2013

The rule by incarnation outdated?

The Economist recently published an interview of the Dalai Lama.
The newspaper asserted: "The Dalai Lama scoffs at attempts by the Chinese government in recent years to claim a role in the approval of reincarnations (an obvious attempt, say exiles, to lay the groundwork for rejecting the legitimacy of any Dalai Lama chosen outside China and for installing one whom the Chinese authorities believe they can control)."
The Dalai Lama told the London magazine: “I jokingly said, firstly Chinese communists must accept theory of reincarnation, then second the Communist Party should recognise Chairman Mao Zedong’s reincarnation, then Deng Xiaoping’s reincarnation, then logically show an interest in Dalai Lama’s reincarnation” and he added “As far as social-economic theory is concerned, I am still a Marxist, not capitalist. That’s not secret.”
This raises an interesting issue which seems to underlie the current debate about the future of Tibet. With or without the Dalai Lama as a temporal leader: the ‘rule by incarnations’ arrangement, specific to Tibet, is not a sustainable system of governance.
Historically, it is said that the first identified ‘reincarnation’ was the 2nd Karmapa Lama, Karma Pakshi (1203–1283), who succeeded Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193), the first Karmapa.
As a child Karma Pakshi, is said to have been a prodigy who at the age of ten, could already grasp the Buddhist Dharma and meditation. His teacher, Pomdrakpa, realized, through certain visions, that the child was the reincarnation of Dusum Khyenpa. Thus, Karma Pakshi became the first formally recognized ‘tulku’ in Tibetan history, starting the Tibetan institution of the tulku or ‘incarnated lama’ (in fact, ‘emanation’ of a lama). After Karma Pakshi, other schools of Tibetan Buddhism accepted the possibility that Lamas, Saints or great Yogis could return to the human world through an emanation, born after the death of his predecessor, in order to ‘continue’ his work. This is a corollary of the Bodhisattva vows.
The Dalai Lama likes to quote this beautiful prayer from Shantideva:
As long as space endures,
as long as sentient beings remain,
until then, may I too remain
and dispel the miseries of the world.
At one point in the history of Tibet, the notion of nirmanakaya, or emanation body which manifests in time and space became linked to a concept of regular manifestation (Tibetan: Yangsi).
Another Tibetan innovation was introduced later: the tulku could inherit the estate (Tibetan: labrang) and the mundane position (and the disciples) of his previous incarnation. This system allowed for the rise of hugely wealthy estates (labrang) belonging to the lineages of most reincarnated religious leaders.
The next step was that the tulku system became linked to the system of governance in Tibet. It was mainly institutionalised by the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682). The Sakya sect who ruled over Tibet earlier did not use the system of ‘tulku’ for temporal transmission.
Unfortunately the system of rule by incarnation has often not satisfactorily worked in Tibet and this for several reasons.
The first is that one is never sure that the choice of a new reincarnated Lama is the right one. During some troubled periods of Tibetan history, the Mongols or the Manchu dynasty could influence the choice, through the Golden Urn system or in many other ways. How to ensure that the correct boy was selected?
This is valid for the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas at the top of the hierarchy, but also for ‘local’ hierarchs who ruled over a county, a province, a school of Buddhism or even over a particular lineage.
Another reason made this system unworkable: the gap of 20 odd years, between the death of a Lama and the time when his reincarnation was able to ‘rule’. Of course, there are exceptions like the present Dalai Lama who was able to deal with the Chinese Communist leadership at the age of 19 (during his trip to Beijing in 1954), but these are rare and often the Lamas have to depend on estate managers (changzoes) or regents who have more knowledge in mundane matters than in good governance.
This resulted in very difficult transitions, to say the least.
The truth of the matter is that the rule by reincarnation is not suited to a modern nation, mainly because it can too easily be manipulated.
Take the example of the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, there are two contending candidates, one chosen by the Dalai Lama (Gedun Choeki Nyima, presently under house arrest in China) and one selected by Beijing (Gyaltsen Norbu, member of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference). Ditto for the Karmapa lineage, there are today three Karmapa candidates.
On March 10, 2011, the Dalai Lama took a revolutionary decision, which was “to benefit Tibetans in the long run”, he retired as Tibet’s temporal leader, delinking his political and spiritual roles. He stated:
As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put this into effect. During the forthcoming eleventh session of the fourteenth Tibetan Parliament in Exile, which begins on 14th March, I will formally propose that the necessary amendments be made to the Charter for Tibetans in Exile, reflecting my decision to devolve my formal authority to the elected leader.
Since I made my intention clear I have received repeated and earnest requests both from within Tibet and outside, to continue to provide political leadership. My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run.
Ironically, it is the atheist regime in Beijing which seems today more attached to this flawed system of governance. As mentioned in the paper, the Chinese State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) issued a State Order No.5 for the “Management Measures For the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism” in 2007.
They started promoting ‘Living Buddhas’, the name the Communist Party gives to ‘tulkus’.
For example, Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese government’s handpicked 11th Panchen Lama is paraded once in a year in Lhasa and Tashilhunpo monastery, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama. He is, of course, brought under tight security as he has never been accepted by the Tibetan masses. He has also been nominated a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
The 16-year old, 7th Reting Rinpoche, Sonam Phuntsok recognized by the Communist Party has become the youngest member of Tibet’s Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Though the 5th Reting was Regent in the 1930s and early 40s, he was very controversial and nearly provoked a civil war in Lhasa.
Beijing has recently been trying its best to increase its control over reincarnations of Tibetan lamas (and ultimately the Dalai Lama's), thus legitimizing the Communist rule over the Himalayan region.
China has revived the title of Huthuktu, an ancient Mongol title given by the Manchus or the Mongols to Lama-rulers (in some case to reincarnations of Regents). Reting is also termed Huthuktu by Beijing.
An old Lama from Chamdo in Eastern Tibet, Phagpala Geleg Namgyal is presented by Beijing as the 11th Pagbalha Hutuktu. Phagpala is Vice-chairman of 11th CPPCC National Committee, honorary president of Buddhist Association of China, and chairman of CPPCC Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee. The CPPCC’s vice-chairmanship gives him a Central Minister rank.
It appears that the Party has decided to play the ‘religion’ card to solve the Tibet issue. Beijing has appointed the largest ever number of clerics in Tibet’s CCPCC, the region's political advisory body. This year, some 115 seats have been reserved for monks, 18.7 percent of the total 615 seats, a raise of 121% from the previous Conference.
It is all the more ironic after the Dalai Lama has announced his wish to delink his political and spiritual duties and hand over his responsibilities to an elected leader (Sikyong Lobsang Sangye).
Interestingly, in the 2009 documentary film entitled ‘Tulku’, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, the director of the amazing film The Cup, argued against the institutionalized system of Tulku.
He said: “That culture is dying; it’s not going to work anymore. And even if it… And if it doesn’t work, I think it’s almost for the better because this tulku, … If the Tibetans are not careful, this Tulku system is going to ruin Buddhism. At the end of the day Buddhism is more important [than] Tulku system, who cares about Tulku... [and] what happens to them.”
It is perhaps what the Dalai Lama realized in March 2011 (or probably long before), it was time for Tibet to have a secular head of the government.
With the old rule by reincarnation, too many manipulations were (and are) possible.
It does not mean that ‘democracy’ is a perfect system of governance.

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