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This is the first in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono for the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington this week. Pistono, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is the author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” an account of a human rights monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.
By Matteo Pistono
Since the 14th Dalai Lama turned 70 in 2005, the international media has increasingly focused on the question of his successor. The Dalai Lama himself has offered varying possibilities regarding how the 15th Dalai Lama could be identified but has not publicly stated definitively how the reincarnation would occur. How a young Dalai Lama might be invested with spiritual authority would be a matter of interest primarily for Tibetan Buddhists devotees if the Dalai Lama were not a prominent and influential leader on the world stage whose Tibetan voice represents an oppositional position to the ruling Communist Party of China.
It will be incumbent upon the United States and other governments who support the Dalai Lama to pay close attention to how and to whom he gives the authority to identify the next Dalai Lama. The reason should be obvious; the Chinese government already has a plan to control the 15th Dalai Lama.
China maintains that the Dalai Lama wants an independent Tibet, although since 1988, the Tibetan leader has officially and publicly stated that he is seeking genuine autonomy for Tibetans within the People’s Republic of China. Chinese officials vilify and portray the Dalai Lama as the single greatest threat to the unity of the Chinese nation. The Dalai Lama has been said to have “the face of a man and the heart of a beast” and is “a wolf in monk’s robes.” These words are not from some backwater cadre; rather a spokesperson of the Chinese central government in Beijing and the senior official of the Tibet Autonomous Region spoke them. Not only does the Chinese government consider the Dalai Lama to be a dangerous “separatist,” they also see religious devotion to him as seditious. Displaying a photograph of the Dalai Lama, praying for his long life, wearing an amulet with his image, or having his voice chanting mantras on a mobile ring tone, is a subversive criminal act in China.
Authority and power within Tibetan Buddhism has historically been decentralized among many different reincarnate lamas and monastery abbots. However, since China invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled into exile to India in 1959, the Dalai Lama has been elevated by those Tibetans who have been deprived of his presence as the preeminent representative of their faith and their identity. Today, for the nearly six million Tibetans living under Chinese rule in Tibet, the Dalai Lama is their spiritual protector and political leader–and devotion to him and his message is at an all-time high.
Beijing’s future attempts to control the 15th Dalai Lama will be a testament to their failure to dampen devotion to and influence of the current 14th Dalai Lama, despite decades of dogged attempts to do so. In March 2009, Jiao Zai’an, an official of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, said the Party must “decide what kind of person is allowed to be reincarnated,” because such approval is essential to “ensure the political soundness of reincarnate lamas.” Tibetans reject these Party-appointed lamas, making Beijing’s religious politics a perilous path. Beijing argues that they are the sole authority on choosing reincarnate lamas, ignoring the incongruity of an atheist government involved in the mystical process of identifying a reincarnate lama.
The Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that he will never reincarnate inside territory where he could not be a free spokesman for the Tibetan people. Not long ago, in Benares, India, he told me, “If the Tibetan people want another Dalai Lama, then I will be reborn outside of China’s control. The purpose of reincarnation is to continue our duty, our work from before. The Chinese do not like my work today, so why would they want it again in my next reincarnation?”
After the Dalai Lama passes, Beijing intends to promote a child they select to be their next Dalai Lama, as they have done with the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. This gross trespass against religious freedom by the Chinese state has been a terrible tragedy for the young Panchen Lama identified by the Dalai Lama (he was kidnapped and disappeared) and the young boy chosen by China (who is regarded with suspicion by the Tibetan people as a puppet of the Chinese government). Similarly, we can expect that the Tibetan people will reject the search and carefully managed ceremony overseen by the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership that purports to invest a young 15th Dalai Lama with spiritual authority.
The Tibetan people will expect governments that have long supported the Dalai Lama to reject a Chinese-appointed Dalai Lama and to stand firmly behind those in whom the 14th Dalai Lama has entrusted the continuation of his work for a peaceful and just solution for Tibet, and to affirm that the institution of the Dalai Lama does not belong to the Chinese government but rather to the Tibetan people themselves.
Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet.” Pistono’s images and writings about Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political and spiritual landscapes have appeared in BBC’s In-Pictures, Men’s Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL South Asia. Pistono was born and raised in Wyoming where he completed his undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Wyoming, and in 1997 he obtained his master of arts degree in Indian philosophy from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. After working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. on Tibetan cultural programs, Pistono lived and traveled throughout the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West graphic accounts and photos of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world, and he sits on the executive council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture.
Pistono and his wife, Monica, divide their time between Colorado, Washington D.C., and Asia.
In the Shadow of the Buddha is Pistono’s account of a human rights monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.