China and Tibet

As the spring thaw continued, it was an interesting week in the world of politics. Among other things, China’s President Xi Jinping was received by Trump at his private Mar-a-Largo resort in Florida last Thursday, and not at the White House, which was considered, in some circles, as an insult.  But the day before that, another visit of major interest to China had just begun, which went largely unnoticed in the world. The 14th Dalai Lama began an eight-day visit to the hilltown of Tawang in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region which China claims as part of “South Tibet”. Beijing went as far as to issue a statement which said that by ignoring China’s concerns and persisting in arranging the trip, India had “severely damaged China’s interests and China-India relations.”

How could a simple visit by a monk to a Buddhist monastery in the remote Himalayan border province spark a potential political crisis? And why is the Dalai Lama of so much interest to China?

In 1950, the newly established communist regime in China decided to make their natural resources rich neighbour, Tibet, with its sparsely, very religious, population a permanent part of the People’s Republic of China. Initially, China arrived as the good neighbour, come to help with the harvest and community development.  Their true intentions were soon made clear and Tibet, then led by the teenage Tenzi Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was forced to accept the invasion in exchange for promises of retention of Tibet’s political system and Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan resistance mounted with time, as China failed to keep its promises. Over 6,000 monasteries, along with sacred texts were destroyed, and the lives of the monks, nuns, yak herders and farmers of the isolated country high in the Himalayas were disrupted forever. On the 10th March, 1959 fearing that the Dalai Lama, who wields immense temporal power, was about to be kidnapped or assassinated, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans surrounded the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

The potential uprising was brutally squashed, and the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, was forced to flee into exile in neighbouring India. Welcomed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 80,000 Tibetans endured great hardship, crossing the Himalayas on foot, to follow their beloved spiritual leader, taking with them their wisdom, traditions and treasured Buddhist beliefs.

The Dalai Lama is a monk of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The succession of the Dalai Lama is based upon the Himalayan tradition of reincarnation, where the mindstream is transferred to the intended body. Traditionally, upon the death of the Dalai Lama, it is the duty of the High Lamas of the Gelugpa and the Tibetan government to find the successor. The process can take anywhere from two to three years, and in the case of the current Dalai Lama, four years, and involves the identification of a child in whom the soul of a departed Dalai Lama resides.

Once the boy is identified an elaborate process of confirmation involving the Living Buddhas of the three great monasteries, secular clergy and monk officials is then followed, and the selected one and his family are taken to the Drepung Monastery to prepare to assume the role of spiritual leader of Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama, identified at the age of two, had announced that his reincarnation would come from outside Tibet, the traditional source of the leader, not from anywhere under China’s rule.

Tens of thousands of followers from other parts of India, Nepal and Bhutan converged on the 17th century monastery to listen the revered spiritualist leader. In an interview with reporters on Saturday, The Dalai Lama said, “The Chinese people have right to know the reality, but totalitarianism has done a great damage.”

China, who views the 1989 Nobel Peace prize winner as “a dangerous separatist,” has ruled Tibet with an iron fist, claiming to have brought development to the once, backward and poverty-stricken country, whilst refuting any suggestions of repression. Several years ago, Beijing confined the Dalai Lama’s nominated Panchem Lama, (the monk immediately below the Dalai Lama), and projected its own. Now, China wants to name the next Dalai Lama.

Yesterday, China’s officially atheist communist rulers through the Chinese foreign ministry issued the following emphatic statement in response to questions from the Hindustan Times: “The reincarnation of the Dalai Lama must be conducted according to religious rituals and historical conventions including drawing of lots from the Golden Urn in front of the Shakyamuni (Buddha) statue at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, which embodies the Buddhist spirit [and] not by what the Dalai Lama has said.

“Finally the result must be reported to the central government for approval. This rule was established early in 1793,” the ministry said, referring to the 29-Article Ordinance for More Effective Governance of Tibet, passed by the Qing dynasty, which had ruled that future Dalai Lamas would be chosen through a draw of a lot of names inside the urn at the temple.

On Saturday, the Dalai Lama had announced, “As early as 1969, I had said that the Tibetan people will decide if this institution of Dalai Lama will continue or not. If this institution is no longer relevant it should stop. Nobody knows who or where the next Dalai Lama will be born or come from. Some indication [about his reincarnation] might come at the time of my death, but now there is no such indication.” He did not rule out the possibility that his successor could be a woman.

Yesterday, the 81 year-old Dalai Lama left Tawang, one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism, leaving in his wake a simmering political row, and thousands of followers wondering about the future of the Dalai Lama.

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