10 April 2015

Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?

Over the last couple of years Tenzin Gyatso, aka the 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan people has been dropping hints about the tradition of his reincarnation. When China joined in the conversation it was briefly mainstream news, covered by, amongst others, the BBC and the Economist. Some of the news coverage is sort of neutral in a bemused way. The world is still intrigued by a religious leader who has charisma. Some of it (like the Economist editorial) is openly hostile to the Chinese and passionately in favour of the Tibetans and the religious traditions of Tibet.

In answer to the question "Will the Dalai Lama Reincarnate?" we must, of course, say, "sorry, but no such thing is possible" (See There is No Life After Death, Sorry). The facts of death are not entirely relevant to the question, however, because the continuity of wealth and power is more important than the metaphysics. The wealth and power associated with the office of Dalai Lama is such that without a reincarnation a serious crisis would ensue as contenders sought to fill the power vacuum and control the wealth and property associated with the office - including that in Tibet and elsewhere.

The Tibetan word tulku (sprul sku) means something like "incarnation body". It refers to a select group of Tibetan individuals who are said to have the ability to reincarnate.  That is, they are not simply forced by the logic of the Buddhist doctrine of karma to undergo rebirth in which the connection between the dead and the reborn beings is one of conditionality. Instead, the same being is reborn with their personality. Beings able to do this are thought to be bodhisattvas of the highest order, who come back time and again "to help beings". The fact of Tibet's previous policy of isolation never really comes up in definitions of these compassionate beings who for centuries only reincarnated in Tibet. This is because the myths and superstitions surrounding the institution hide a far more mundane purpose. 

My view has long been that there is nothing particularly "spiritual" about this phenomenon. Apart from the fact that it violates the Buddhist metaphysical rules of life after death (by maintaining a continuity where none can exist), it is more obviously related to political and economic problems faced by a celibate clergy who amass wealth and power. The Catholic church forbade marriage and progeny to its priests in order to prevent the watering down of Church wealth and power by seeing it leak away to progeny. In Japan the opposite happened, with once celibate monks marrying and passing on control of monasteries to their oldest male child (primogeniture is another way to prevent the dilution of wealth through generations). Just so, it is the continuity of power that drives the tulku system. Not only is there personal continuity, but tulkus retain ownership of property.

It might be worth re-emphasising that Buddhist monks and monasteries have historically accumulated enormous wealth and wielded considerable political power. Buddhists benefit from a culture of donations to monasteries and clergy and from tax exemption. Occasionally this has bankrupted the state in which Buddhists function. Historical research also shows that far from being passive recipients of cash, monks were almost always involved in commerce and usury. The quaint myth of monks not handling money is a good story, but in fact any long established monastery is probably very wealthy and the current crop of monks are in charge of using that wealth and the power it represents for good or ill. Once wealth accumulates, there are inevitably disputes over who controls it and how that control is passed on from generation to generation. It is in this light that we must see the tulku system in Tibet.

Until the Chinese invasion of Tibetan the monasteries controlled a huge majority of the land and capital in Tibet. Tibet was a religio-feudal state. According to one newspaper report:
"Until 1959... around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world's largest landowners with 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country's wealth – torturing disobedient serfs by gouging out their eyes or severing their hamstrings." The Guardian. 11 Feb 2009
The idea that Tibet was some kind of paradise when the Chinese invaded is a Romantic fantasy. Which is not to say that the Chinese approach was desirable either. According to the same article, life expectancy has almost doubled since 1950 to just 60 years. Indeed the inequity of life in Tibet was one of the excuses given by the Chinese for invading and sacking the monasteries of Tibet. In this we see reflections of the great Tang purges of the mid 9th century or the similar program in 16th Century Britain. While there is no excuse for the cruelty and violence of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, it will help to see it in the context of historical conflicts between religious institutions and governments. 

The wealth of the Tibetan nation was tied up in monasteries run by an elite of men (the ecclesiastical hierarchy was strictly patriarchal). Wealth on such a scale poses serious succession problems when the owners die. Since the stakes in terms of influence and power are extremely high, the machinations that would go with succession were particularly complex. The Tibetans solved this in a unique way. In its mature form what happens is this: after a leader dies, their estate (land, personal property, and notional charisma) is held in trust for them, usually a designated alternate from amongst the elite takes control, or in some cases a regent is appointed to administer the estate (or in the Dalai Lama's case the state) in the mean time. After 3 or 4 years have passed a search begins, guided by divination and other superstitious methods, for a precocious infant boy born at the right time. The infant must pass some tests, though anyone familiar with children of this age and the role of double blind testing will be able to surmise how the chosen child makes the "right" choices. 

The selected child is then cloistered and rigorously (and to some extent ruthlessly) trained for about 20 years to literally become their predecessor. Because of the psychological conditioning involved in the training, and since the curriculum is always the same, it tends to produce the same kind of individual: one well suited to being in charge of the wealth of Tibet. Just as the Francis Xavier is thought to have said "Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man", so the Tibetans rely on the power of conditioning to shape early promise into just the right kind of ruler. 

One moving account of the harsh training endured by tulkus can be found in the biography of Dhardo Rinpoche (see Suvajra. The Wheel and the Diamond : The Life of Dhardo Tulku. Windhorse Publications, 1991). Of course not all boys make it through the training and become the right kind of man. But those who don't are generally treated with kindness and allowed to retire quietly. In the past the tulkus operated like kings and barons; now they operate like Vatican officials. 

As it happens this is kind of religious totalitarianism was a very efficient form of government and created relatively stable political conditions in Tibetan, and certainly allowed the monks to wield an almost absolute control over the populace that Communist China could only dream of. However, no system is perfect and we know from the present Dalai Lama's own biography that power-struggles occur. The dissension of Kelsang Gyatso against the rest of the Gelugpa Order is an example that has been much studied and commented on in the West. And indeed the succession problems within his movement, the New Kadampa Tradition, or even in the organisation founded in American by Chögyam Trungpa, make for interesting reading. 

The present Dalai Lama is the product of this political system. Negotiations having broken down, the Communist Chinese invaded and annexed China in 1949-50. Gyatso was handed the dictatorship of Tibet aged just 15 because a leaderless Tibet was too vulnerable. However, after nine years of tense collaboration, there was an uprising and subsequent purge of the Tibetan government. Gyatso fled Tibet and became the leader of the Tibetan diaspora. He is still revered as a god in Tibet, however, and this continuing worship of him has been a bone of contention between the Tibetan people and the Chinese authorities. It is true that in recent times Gyatso has tried to hand political power to the Tibetan refugee community, instituting elections for the government in exile, but he continues to be the only Tibetan politician known to the outside world, both a figurehead and spokesman for the Tibetan Liberation campaign. He is also the head of the Gelug order and thus controls its extensive property and wealth. 

As time has gone on and it has been increasingly obvious that China is not planning to hand Tibet back to the Tibetans, and that world governments have no interest in getting involved except to complain about China's human-rights record from time to time. China routinely ignores such passive interventions as they know that the world has no leverage with which to make them change. In a sop to the exiles, the UN offered to recognise the same ecclesiastical titles for Tibetan leaders that representatives of the Roman Catholic Church use. Thus devotees now routinely refer to the Dalai Lama by the Pope's traditional title of His Holiness while other important clergy are referred to as Cardinals, i.e. His Eminence.  His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso has tried various strategies to shift Chinese intransigence on Tibet: attempts at cajoling, shaming, and finally negotiation and compromise all failed. China has nothing to gain by negotiating.

Tenzin Gyatso has aged well and lived to a ripe old age, but he is now old and will soon die. And with increasing age has come the realisation that his death will either trigger the traditional search for his replacement. The Tibetan community in exile has experimented with non-Tibetan tulkus with decidedly mixed results. The Spanish toddler Osel Hita Torres was "recognised" as important Tibetan leader, Lama Yeshe, by the Dalai Lama and along with the training had many special powers attributed to him as befits a saint. But he balked at the rigorous training and ended up dropping out. Many of his inherited disciples apparently still believe he is Lama Yeshe, though its not entirely clear how they rationalise his apparent indifference to what they believe. 

Over the last five years or so Gyatso has made a number of passing statements about this reincarnation and produced a document outlining the variations on the tradition that might apply (for example this statement from 2011). He has toyed with reincarnating in the West (less often since "Lama Yeshe" crashed and burned), with reincarnating as a woman, and other variations. However, in the last year his message has come into focus on the question of whether he will reincarnate at all. He has hinted that he might not. The hints appear to be testing the water to see how his idea plays out in various spheres. Why would the man/god who has come back to spread compassion amongst all beings for 14 lifetimes, suddenly decide to stop? Is the world now so full of compassion that it does not need any more? Or is it that the Tibetan people no longer need his leadership. Sadly the reasons appear to be far less "spiritual".

It's been obvious for years now that with the Chinese ensconced in Tibet they can and do control who is chosen as a tulku and what training they receive. This was the case with the Panchen Lama, of whom there were two incarnations, one acknowledged by the Tibetan community in exile and one by the Tibetans in Tibet and Chinese government. The former candidate disappeared. A similar thing happened with the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu Order, who also goes by the Vatican title His Holiness. It is apparent that when Gyatso dies that there will be at least two candidates for the post of Dalai Lama. One will be found in Tibet proper, endorsed by the Chinese, and installed in the Potala Palace; and another will be found, probably in India amongst the diaspora and denounced by the Chinese as an imposter. The people of Tibet, being rather superstitious, will be in a difficult position to say the least. They worship the Dalai Lama as the living embodiment of their religion, as a god in effect if not in reality. If the boy who takes over is raised by the Chinese to be open to continued Chinese rule then Tibet loses hope of independence for generations to come. Only the complete collapse of China could undo such a development. Remember that no other world power is even willing to acknowledge Tibet's right to independence, let alone willing to come to their assistance in resisting the Chinese occupation.

We get some sense of how unlikely the suggestion that the Dalai Lama will not reincarnate is likely to be taken. Dhardo Rinpoche also said that he would not reincarnate and his wealth is strictly small beer. But this did not stop the Tibetan establishment from seeking out and installing a boy as his successor. It seems unlikely in the extreme that the Tibetan establish or the Tibetan people would accept the end of the institution of the Dalai Lama. 

This is the situation facing the ageing Tenzin Gyatso. With him will die all hope of independence for his people precisely because he is an embodiment of a bizarre system of religious governance that invests him and his successors with an almost absolute power, not to mention considerable wealth. We can easily imagine that he now curses, albeit it in a kindly and jovial way, the centuries of tradition that has left him in this position. Few of the 14 Dalai Lamas are interesting enough to be remembered as individuals, but he will be remembered as the last before the total control of Tibet by the Chinese. Many people find the Dalai Lama an inspiring figure. He certainly has grace under pressure and embodies many of the values that Buddhists hold dear. But the tradition will mean that the world will treat his reincarnation with all the respect he has earned. And that successor will almost certainly be a Chinese puppet. 

An interesting side-issue is that Tibetan Buddhism is once again becoming popular in Mainland China as restrictions on religious observances are relaxed along with economic strictures of Maoism. Thus, not only will the government control the Tibetan people by proxy, but it will also mean that they retain control over Buddhists who give allegiance to the Dalai Lama. It is this question of loyalty to the state that has undone many of the minor cults that have sprung up over the years, with Falun Gong being a stand-out. For any state, the problem with religious people, of any sort, is where their allegiance lies (the same concern is regularly articulated here in Britain and in the coming election immigration is a major issue). China expects and demands allegiance to the state. Not only is this a Communist doctrine, but it fits with centuries old Confucianist doctrine of filial piety as well. If they are smart, the Communists will be paying attention to history, and in particular how the emperors of the Sui and Tang periods used Buddhism to legitimise their absolute power. Control of the Dalai Lama means his unwavering endorsement of and support for their government. 

Almost everyone will have noted the irony of the government of China insisting that the Dalai Lama reincarnate per the religious traditions of Tibet. I doubt anyone has failed to grasp why they have weighed in on this matter. For all that the political system of pre-invasion Tibet was oppressive by modern standards and rife with inequalities of all kinds, no one would have wished the devastation wrought on Tibet by the Red Army still full of revolutionary zeal, nor the China-wide catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution. The carnage was on a par with the worst ravages of 19th century European imperialism in the Americas, Africa, India and Polynesia. And that is saying something. The continued economic imperialism from China and attempts to suppress Tibetan culture continue to be a source of misery and discontent for some Tibetans. History shows that people's who are colonised and become dispossessed fair very badly. So in criticising traditional Tibet, I am in no way endorsing Chinese rule.

That said, one cannot deny that in this latest move the Chinese are playing the politics of Tibet in a masterful fashion. Compared to the clusterfuck that is modern Western imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Chinese have been very astute in biding their time and preparing the ground for a take-over of the office of Dalai Lama, which will cement the relationship between the two countries. The Chinese have played the long game and are about to win a generational victory. They will almost certainly never have this kind of control over the Uighurs for instance, because there is no single point of leverage like the Dalai Lama. The unique form of government used for centuries in Tibet to maintain almost absolute power over the Tibetan people has been their undoing. It is precisely ability to mould a promising infant into a leader that the Chinese government will exploit to control Tibet in the stead of a dictatorship of Buddhist monks.

When Buddhist countries (and I think we can include China in this) conceive of such anti-liberal, anti-democratic forms of government, it must give us pause to think about whether the goal of a Buddhist world is really worthwhile pursuing. As I've pointed out previously, Buddhists countries all too often have authoritarian, dictatorial, not so say, militaristic governments. At the very least Buddhist countries are no less likely to be dictatorships that those infused with other religions. In practice Buddhism seems to have very little to offer in terms of governance, at least going by historical manifestations. Having studied the history of Buddhism, I find myself strongly in favour of secular democracy (with proportional voting) as the least worst form of government. 


Related Posts with Thumbnails