Blog: The atheist's guide to reincarnation

Gyaltsen Norbu in Beijing
Gyaltsen Norbu in Beijing

13th December 2015
Post by John

This week news emerged that China has called on Gyaltsen Norbu, the man that it installed as Panchen Lama twenty years ago, and currently the most senior religious figure in occupied Tibet, to “draw a clear line” between himself and the Dalai Lama. As if any further evidence was needed, here was Beijing proving, yet again, its opposition to Tibetans being able to make their own decisions.

The Panchen Lama is historically the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, a “reincarnate” lama who is identified by the Dalai Lama himself. But this week the Party Secretary of Tibet, Chen Quanguo, told him that he should show loyalty to China and help protect its national unity. This is something that he cannot do if there is any possibility that he has loyalty to the Dalai Lama, who continues to be condemned as a violent splittist.

The man that many Tibetans simply call the “fake” Panchen Lama.

In fact, the current Panchen Lama, who this week reached his twentieth year of holding his title, was installed by China and continues himself to be widely rejected by Tibetans. Tibetans still wait in hope for information about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the boy whom the Dalai Lama identified in 1995 and who was promptly kidnapped by Chinese authorities. Meanwhile, the man that many Tibetans simply call the “fake” Panchen Lama, has been given an increasingly high profile role in religious and political affairs in Tibet.

Gyaltsen Norbu and Xi Jinping
Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima
A nunnery demolished in Driru this September

The majority of Tibetans may live inside what China calls the “Tibetan Autonomous Region”, but Beijing will not stand for autonomous Tibetans picking the wrong leaders, just as it will not stand for recent claims by the Dalai Lama, now 80 years old, that after his death there might be no successor to him. Beijing is clear on this: the Dalai Lama, already exiled from his homeland, doesn’t even have the right to abandon reincarnation.

The irony of an officially atheist government dictating who is and isn’t a reincarnated senior lama is hard to miss.

As far as Beijing is concerned, determining the Dalai Lama’s successor is strictly a job for the Chinese government. Back in 2007 it was decided that all reincarnations were the business of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, and stipulated that all “reincarnate lamas” would have to be registered and approved by the state. When the time does come for Beijing to search among Tibet’s children for the next Dalai Lama, their dream choice will be a child that grows up to be obedient. Any other qualities marking the child out as a reincarnated senior lama will be a nice bonus.

The irony of an officially atheist government, and one that claims to allow freedom of religion at that, dictating to Tibetans about who is and isn’t a reincarnated senior lama, is hard to miss. Such policies do, however, make complete sense when one looks at China’s attempts since the 1950s to put an end to Tibet’s resistance to Chinese occupation, or the stranglehold that it has tried to place on Tibet’s brave and vocal monks and nuns, frequently at the forefront of this resistance.

Monasteries that have received such care and warmth no doubt wish that the authorities had not bothered.

Back in April this year, Chinese officials stated that Tibet’s Buddhist monks and nuns should dedicate themselves to the Communist Party as much as their religion, and that their monasteries should be centres of patriotism and fly Chinese flags. Chen Quanguo, as ever with patriotism and national unity on his mind, added that such proposals would not only guarantee “model harmonious monasteries”, but also allow Tibet’s monks to “have a personal feeling of the party and government’s care and warmth.”

Monasteries that have received such care and warmth no doubt wish that the authorities had not bothered. In September, 106 nuns were made homeless from their nunnery after authorities told them to leave and then demolished their living quarters. The claims that these demolitions were part of a refurbishing job do not convince, and would do little to console several of the nuns who had no family homes to go back to and were instead left to deal with the cold and Tibet’s rigid restrictions on movement in their efforts to find shelter.

We've also seen a swathe of arrests and punitive sentencing for monks and nuns in recent months. Last month two monks were sentenced to three and a half and four years respectively for peaceful solo protests in which they walked through the street with a portrait of the Dalai Lama, calling for his return and for a free Tibet.  Lomig, a 27-year-old monk influential amongst young Tibetans, was detained in April for unknown reasons believed to be related to his political writings. And compare the peaceful way that Sangay, the monk in this footage from Kardze, Tibet, conducts his protest with the desperate urgency of the five policemen that rush onto the scene from different directions, shove him to the ground and arrest him.

China’s cynical attempts to force its choices on the Tibetan people don’t deserve to succeed.

For many Tibetans, religion is central to their lives and a focus of their resistance. For China’s government, its regional authorities in Tibet, and its self-proclaimed experts on reincarnation, religion is merely a mechanism of control. Beijing has shown that it has the power to keep Tibet’s leaders in exile or make them vanish from public view, and its attempts to rig Tibet’s future with its handpicked leaders will be backed up by the force of world’s largest army. But the force of the world’s largest army has failed to bully the Tibetans’ into renouncing their struggle to regain their independence. China’s cynical attempts to force its choices on the Tibetan people don’t deserve to succeed, and won’t succeed.

About the author: John is the Campaign Officer at Free Tibet. He has spent the past ten years working on human rights, and when he isn’t doing that, likes to spend his time learning languages and travelling.