China's register of reincarnations

Tibetan monks (credit: Falsalama)
Tibetan monks (credit: Falsalama)

19th January 2016

Users now able to search through 870 living Buddhas ‘authorised’ by China’s government

The Chinese government launched a list yesterday of state-approved "living Buddhas". The computerised database, which went live at a ceremony by the Buddhist Association of China in Beijing, so far consists of 870 authorised living Buddhas.

What China calls "living Buddhas" are people recognised in Tibetan Buddhism as reincarnations of former teachers and senior religious figures, known to Tibetans as Rinpoches or tulkus. China's government sees figures of respect in the Tibetan community and Tibetan Buddhism as potential threats to its authority and has long attempted to exercise control over them. 

Free Tibet's research partner Tibet Watch has learned that "living Buddhas" in the Tibetan areas of Ngaba and Kardze are currently being checked by authorities. Monks, nuns and monasteries in these areas have frequently been involved in protests againt Chinese rule and both are already subject to heavy Chinese surveillance.

Authorities claim that the list was devised in response to people being tricked by what it calls “fake living Buddhas”, and that the system will protect Buddhism and ordinary people. In December last year, Zhu Weiqun, a political advisor on ethnic and religious affairs, told state media that fake living Buddhas were a threat to national security.

Each of the "living Buddhas" on the list is registered by name, date of birth, monastery and with a picture and unique certificate number. Users can access and search the database via a web browser on Chinese computers and mobile phones.

A war of succession

Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation dates back to the 13th century and consists of thousands of lineages and varying interpretations among Tibetans about how these lineages are recognised. Beijing claimed control of decisions over all reincarnations in 2007, giving this responsibility to the State Administration for Religious Affairs and determining that all “reincarnate lamas” would have to be registered and approved by the state. In 2010 it began issuing certificates for "living Buddhas".

However, the move also follows a longstanding dispute between the Chinese government and Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, over who should determine his successor. China’s government, although officially atheist, has insisted that it alone will decide who the next Dalai Lama will be. In the past the Dalai Lama has even speculated that he will not be reincarnated, and that he will therefore be the last Dalai Lama, prompting Beijing to assert they will have the “final say” on this matter.

Increasing pressure and surveillance

The move also follows a year of increased pressure on Tibet’s monasteries and its monks and nuns. This includes the demolition of part of a nunnery in Driru County in September, which left 106 nuns homeless, a spate of arrests and severe sentences for monks carrying out solo protests and statements by Chinese officials that Tibet’s monks and nuns should dedicate themselves to the Communist Party and convert their monasteries into centres of Chinese patriotism.

Tibet Watch has also discovered that authorities have set up patrol stations on pilgrimage sites so that security forces can carry out searches and inspections of Tibetan pilgrims.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has revealed that Chinese authorities have indefinitely extended a massive surveillance programme in villages throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). The programme, known as “Benefit the Masses”, saw 21,000 Communist Party cadres, including Party officials, police and security forces,  deployed across villages and towns in the TAR in 2011 where they closely monitor the lives of Tibetans, both religious and non-religious. It was due to end in 2014, but according to Human Rights Watch it has now become permanent.

Take action

Monks and nuns are often at the forefront of resistance to Chinese occupation of Tibet. They face repression from Chinese authorities for resisting, and expressing their faith. Join in with our Robed Resisters campaign to send messages in support of Tibet's religious prisoners.