The reason why the atheist Party looked into the issue is that ‘Living Buddhas’, as Beijing calls the reincarnated lamas or Tulkus, usually wield a great influence.
They can have political power, but also economic sway: in fact, it is one of the best businesses nowadays, whether in the West or in the Middle Kingdom (in India too, though ‘Indian’ lamas often dream to migrate to greener pastures in the United States). More rarely, they have spiritual authority.
But the Communist Party is also conscious that things are getting out of hand; it has now decided to differentiate between the ‘good’ lamas, who will pay obedience to Marx Doctrine, and the fake ones, who are running their own private business.
During a meeting of the United Front Work Department in June, Xi Jinping, said: “Active efforts should be made to incorporate religions in socialist society,” the Chinese President added: “religions in China must be Chinese. The development of religions in China should be independent from foreign influence.”
That is probably why Beijing has decided to develop a database of ‘Living Buddhas’ to help differentiate fake from real (Communist) rinpoches.
Earlier this week, The China Daily reported: “Authorities are setting up a database of legitimate Living Buddhas and will publish the information online. This will enable followers of Tibetan Buddhism to distinguish between real Living Buddhas and fake ones.”
It added that “some fake Living Buddhas have posed threats to national security, as they use money they collect to sponsor illegal or even separatist activities in Tibet.”
How to get a certificate from Beijing that one is the right ‘returned-soul’?
Simply follow the rules of the Communist Party, which affirmed: “Living Buddhas, also known as Rinpoches or Tulkus, are deeply revered monks in Tibetan Buddhism, where it is believed that the soul of a senior Buddha is reincarnated in a child on his death.”
According to Beijing there are 358 Living Buddhas in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) alone. That is quite a lot for a supposedly atheist region; apparently all went through the Party’s procedures.
The China Daily gives us the way to proceed:
- After the death of a Living Buddha, a ceremony is held to honor the body and pray for rebirth.
- A search team headed by a Living Buddha is sent first to Lhamo Latso － the Oracle Lake － in Tibet to seek prophetic visions of the reincarnation.
- Living Buddhas are then sent in disguise to scour Tibet for special signs of a reincarnation. These include new mothers who have had unusual dreams and children who have special knowledge without being taught. Dozens of candidates are designated.
- Final confirmation of the reincarnation is decided by the drawing of lots from a golden urn in the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa.
- The reincarnation process is completed with an enthronement ceremony. In September 2007, the State Administration for Religious Affairs in Beijing had decided that all reincarnations of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism must receive government approval.
Whoever controls the Dalai Lama, controls the masses on the plateau, thinks the Party.
Interestingly, the procedures were not followed for choosing the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. After the search committee managed to assemble a list of a few possible candidates, it was clandestinely sent to the Dalai Lama, who chose his candidate, who was immediately arrested; since then he lives under house arrest ...somewhere in China.
The Chinese government then decided to run its parallel recognition process and enthrone another candidate, whose parents had better Communist credentials; Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese anointed candidate, is from time to time seen in Lhasa and the Tashilhunpo, the seat of the Panchen Lamas in Shigatse.
Norbu was recently elected chairman of Tibet Development Fund, a non-governmental organization …under the Chinese government.
Xinhua reported: “[The] Panchen Lama said he will work hard to help develop Tibet and lift its people out of poverty”. The fund is expected to play an even greater role in promoting social and economic development in the region under the leadership of the 11th Panchen Lama, said the news agency.
The 'fake' lamas
The issue of ‘fake’ lamas recently received some publicity from Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference's Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee.
In a CCTV interview, Zhu said that ‘[some] fake Living Buddhas are cheating people out of their savings or luring them into sexual activities using religious practice as an excuse.”
In October, one ‘Holiness Pema Woeser (alias Baima Aose) Rinpoche’, himself a self-styled Living Buddha had ‘ordained’ Zhang Tielin, a well-know Chinese actor, as a Rinpoche. The footage of the enthronement went viral on the Chinese Internet.
The China Daily said: “[Baima] deceived Han Chinese followers who don't understand Tibetan and twisted the facts, damaging the monastery's reputation.” The newspaper explained further: “The selection procedure is strict and lengthy, and nearly all Living Buddhas are from the Tibetan ethnic group.”
Duoshi Rinpoche, a Beijing-recognized Living Buddha told the Daily “the ceremony Baima Aose [Pema Woeser] performed was just a joke and Zhang had made a fool of himself,” adding that “Criminal activities involving fake Living Buddhas still occur frequently. …I've heard that some monasteries in remote places even put the title of Living Buddha up for sale and trade it with wealthy businessmen.”
Even Nirvana can be bought in China today.
Xiaba Rinpoche, another ‘Chinese’ Living Buddha from Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province argued that “the prevalence of fake Living Buddhas can be attributed to people not having access to genuine ones, enabling opportunists to take advantage.”
Why do all these Lamas have Chinese names? Are they are even Tibetans?
Nobody really knows.
In March 2015, China.org.cn ran a feature showing that ‘Fake Lamas flourish as China's middle class grows’. It says: “As China's growing middle class searches for spiritual comfort, both authentic and fake Rinpoche Lamas are becoming sought-after advisors and status symbols.”
The article mentioned the husband of Taiwanese television singer and actress Aya Liu, who is said to be a Living Buddha.
Liu revealed that her husband Tony was the seventh reincarnation of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche; he is based in the US and has many followers including Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Due to her celebrity status, Aya Liu was first not keen to admit her husband's identity: “I didn't want public opinions to disrupt our peaceful lives. He is the best partner in my life," said Liu.
The website added that “Many showbiz celebrities in the Chinese-speaking world are followers of Buddhism or Christianity, including Andy Lau, Faye Wong, Jet Li, Zhang Guoli and Zhang Ziyi. Many of them also turn to highly-respected Buddhist monks as mentors.”
A 2014 report in The Financial Times affirmed that 50 % of China's richest class people admit that they adhere to some kind of religion and one-third of the 50% claimed to be Buddhist.
The China.org.cn article explained that: “Rinpoches are currently respected and followed by many in China because they offer some comfort for their followers' spiritual needs, regardless of whether their credentials are authentic or fake. …Many allege that because wealthy businesspeople and celebrities have made their fortunes through luck and chance, they are always insecure and anxious after their success. “
Therefore, there is a need for ‘Living Buddhas’.
Another website ifeng.com explained that the reason why the rinpoche business is flourishing is that “they can either be hired both to comfort middle class individuals' hearts and minds and act as a social status symbol for middle class individuals.”
According to China's State Administration for Religious Affairs, the small number of masters is not enough to meet the spiritual needs of the rapidly growing number of wealthy men and women in China.
There was a joke circulating online: there are 300,000 wild and fake rinpoches in Beijing's Chaoyang District alone. It is the district where many of the capital's wealthy celebrities and business people live and work.
In the meantime, ‘official’ Communist rinpoches have to work hard to get Government approval. On June 24, China Tibet Online reported that 25 newly recognized reincarnated rinpoches came together in Lhasa, and participated “in the second training course for Tibet Newly Recognized Reincarnated Rinpoches.”
The government website said that participants enthusiastically discussed about the important meeting between President Xi Jinping and the Panchen Lama (Gyalsten Norbu): “They believed that this was a special and auspicious event for Tibetan Buddhism and that the Panchen Lama is currently growing into a Tibetan Buddhist leader. Under his leadership, together they can promote the incorporation of Tibetan Buddhism into socialist society under the Buddhist principles of equality and compassion among all beings.”
They are obviously well trained …politically.
In an OpEd in China Tibet Online earlier this month, the same Zhu Weiqun attacked the Dalai Lama for talking “more proactively and frequently about his own reincarnation. Although the Dalai Lama adopts a ‘playful’ attitude toward such a serious issue, he still insists that only the Dalai Lama himself can decide on the Dalai Lama reincarnation and it has nothing to do with the Central Government”, said Zhu, who added: “His reason is that the "atheist Communist Party of China cannot make decisions on matters related to religion.”
The Chinese official argued: “historical facts show that determining the existence of the Dalai lineage and reincarnation of the Dalai Lama had never been a purely religious matter, neither the individual rights of the Dalai Lamas themselves. Rather, it is an important political affair of the Tibet local government and an important manifestation of the Central Government's exercise of sovereignty over Tibet.”
Therefore only Beijing can decide who will be the next Dalai Lama; according to Zhu: “In 1959, the Old Tibet’s theocratic feudalist system was completely abolished, but the Dalai clique’s constant dream of restoring the old system is still here. …Therefore, instead of weakening its resolve toward reincarnation of rinpoches, the Central Government [Beijing] must strengthen it and ensure victory over its fight against separatists.”
Zhu may be right when he says that it is ‘an important political affair’ as the danger of having a Chinese Dalai Lama looms large over the Himalayan horizon.
The time has perhaps come to renounce the system of ‘reincarnations’, which has often brought so much disunity amongst the Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama has often hinted that he might be the last Dalai Lama, but other serious lamas should also publicize that a true Lama should not be recognized anymore through any ‘reincarnation process’ such an urn-ritual or by the amount of gold on his cloth, but his virtues and actions only.
Meritocracy should replace the old system which has outlived its time.
The Chinese (or Western) ‘devotees’ may be disappointed but it is a question of survival for the Tibetan Nation
PS: While participating in the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the enthronement of Gyaltsen Norbu, Chen Quanguo, Tibet's Party Secretary, remarked that he hoped Beijing's Panchen Lama would "unswervingly walk with the party". This was reported in The Tibet Daily.
Does it mean that Norbu does not always walk with the Party?
Chen also asked the Beijing-selected Panchen Lama to "resolutely draw a clear line between the 14th Dalai Lama and firmly reject all subversive separatist activities."
Has Gyaltsen Norbu not drawn the line as yet?
Anyway, Chen bravely pointed out that "Tibetan Buddhism is at its best period of development in history and religious circles and believers enjoy full religious freedom."
'Full religious freedom' ...for those who walk on the Party's path, of course.