China has been debating the nature and extent of space it intends to give to various religions in the hope of extending its soft power based on some form of religious tolerance. In a country with significant number of practitioners of Buddhism, Taoism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam besides a range of folk beliefs, there is a realization that religious tolerance and acceptance to a certain degree is imperative.
On paper, the Chinese Constitution guarantees citizens “freedom of religious belief” and the protection of “normal religious activities.” However, religious activities are closely monitored and the Constitution prohibits “making use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system of the State”. Significantly, the constitution clarifies that “religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination”. Religious groups in the country are required to register with government authorities and government approval is mandatory for opening of religious facilities.
As far as Buddhism is concerned, China realizes the significance of religion in terms of its spread in large number of countries including Taiwan, Mongolia and South East Asian countries and how Buddhism could be used in sync with its BRI narrative in reaching out to the hearts and soul of the people in these countries. There is also realization in certain circles in the CCP that while China has come under serious criticism for persecuting the Muslims of Xinjiang, an act that has been tagged as `religious persecution’ by the West, any form of support to Buddhism and its growth would only neutralize the anti-religious branding of the Chinese government.
With a country as large in scope and size as China there is also a feeling in certain circles in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that with the Chinese economy going through a turbulent phase, often causing hardship to the people, religion could play a crucial role in assuaging peoples’ concerns. There is also the underlying realization among some CCP pundits that consistent suppression of religion could lead to reaction from the public causing social unrest and instability, and hence a controlled practice of religion would benefit the state.
China and Tibetan Buddhism
One of the most significant aspects of China’s pursuit of Buddhism is the issue of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. China has been desperately trying to get a grip of Tibetan Buddhism, trying to negate the role of the Dalai Lama and setting its own narrative of Tibetan Buddhism. The fear of separatism emanating from Tibet and the possibility of the Dalai Lama continuing to influence a large chunk of Tibetans living in exile with a deeply entrenched loathing for China, remains a matter of concern for China.
The extensive international support that the Dalai Lama has and the string of middle and senior level Lamas that have emerged over the years under the guidance and supervision of the Dalai Lama teaching the finer nuances of Tibetan Buddhism to the international community has enabled a strong support base for the Tibetans in exile in most European countries and the US. The fear of the Tibet card being played astutely by the West at a time in future when China might face internal dissension is also a concern for the CCP.
China has thus been making serious efforts to adopt an aggressive stance vis-à-vis the Dalai Lama, refusing to give him any space and calling him a `Wolf in the garb of a monk’ and a `splittist’. Any incidence of violence in Tibet would be linked to the Dalai Lama and in 2011, while referring to the Dalai Lama as a “wolf in monk’s robes” the then Party Chief of Tibet Zhang Qingli mentioned that he had actually quoted the words of late Premier Zhou Enlai to describe the Dalai Lama that way. He said Zhou referred to the Dalai Lama as "wolf in monk's robes" after the central government foiled an armed rebellion staged by the Dalai Lama and his supporters in 1959.
China has been able to roll back to a certain extent the tremendous international support that the Dalai Lama has, using every means at its disposal, including threatening nations with serious consequences in case they encouraged the Dalai Lama. China’s Buddhism policy thus remains clearly influenced by its desire to ensure a total control over Tibet and its large foreign based population.
In this context, China realizes that given the high stature and international recognition that the Dalai Lama holds, it will indeed be difficult for China to undertake any moves to challenge the authority of the 14th Dalai Lama and his association with Tibet. However, the Chinese would not let go of the opportunity of controlling the external nodes of the Tibetan population in the post Dalai Lama scenario. Considering the Dalai Lama is the supreme religious leader of the Tibetans, the Chinese would want his replacement or his reincarnate to be from Tibet and under the control of the Chinese.
Towards this end, the Chinese have introduced relevant changes in their law as per which the Chinese government must approve all reincarnations of senior Buddhist Lamas (teachers), including the Dalai Lama--a position that was strongly reiterated in a Tibet white paper released by China in May 2021, on the 70th anniversary of its annexation of Tibet. This has, however, been rejected by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan parliament in exile. As Penpa Tsering, the president of the parliament-in-exile, who works closely with the Dalai Lama stated that “A non-believer, atheist government like China interfering in Tibetan spiritual matters is a complete no-no, it cannot be accepted. The world has turned against China. We firmly believe no one will trust their choice.”
China and Buddhism in Mongolia
China is also keen to exercise control over the Buddhist community in Mongolia which pursues the Tibetan form of Buddhism and has historical linkages with Tibet. In fact, it was during the reign of the Mongol King Altan Khan in the 16th century that the title of Dalai Lama was conferred for the first time on the 3rd Dalai Lama. The 3rd Dalai Lama in turn supported the leadership of Altan Khan recognizing him as the reincarnate of the famous Mongol king Kublai Khan. This enabled Altan Khan to strengthen his rule.
Mongolia’s importance in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy is also evident from the fact that the third powerful post after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama is that of the Jetsundumba, the spiritual head of the Gelupka sect in Mongolia. The first and second Jetsundamba were the direct descendants of Mongolian aristocracy with the second Jetsundamba belonging to the lineage of Genghis Khan. Chinese emperors in the past have always felt insecure when it came to the process of reincarnation taking place outside of China or Tibet.
Wary of the tradition of appointment of Jetsundamba becoming part of Mongolian heritage, the then Chinese emperor had issued a decree in 1758 declaring that reincarnates of the Jetsundamba would only be from Tibet. However, this rule remained in place temporarily and soon after the independence of northern Mongolia in 1911, the 8th Jetsundamba was made the theocratic leader with the title of Bogd Khan. Subsequently, the Dalai Lama has been identifying the Jetsundamba reincarnates, and the 14th Dalai Lama identified the 9th Jetsundamba, who died in 2012.
China has been watching the situation closely and Chinese messaging on the issue is loud and clear that the 10th Jetsundamba would be from Tibet, whereas the accepted tradition is that the Dalai Lama should appoint the 10th reincarnate. The Chinese have been trying to generate sentiments among Mongolian Lamas favouring their position on the matter. The Chinese are bound to resort to pressure tactics on Mongolia including by stopping supplies of consumer goods for which Mongolia depends on China. Political muscle flexing remains a tool for the Chinese to exert pressure on Mongolia on the issue.
Dalai Lama and the future course
China has thus been trying to sideline the Dalai Lama from having to play any role in the reincarnation processes – of the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Jetsundamba. In a well- crafted narrative built over the last few years the Chinese have groomed the so called 11th Panchen Lama – Gyaincain Norbu, as against the Dalai Lama appointed candidate Gedhun Nyima who was detained by the Chinese soon after his recognition by Dalai Lama. Since the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama play an important role in recognizing their respective reincarnates, the Chinese feel they have an upper hand in this dynamic ensuring a hold on the Panchen Lama.
In order not to run out of options for selection of reincarnates, the Chinese have also been emphasizing on the system of use of the golden urn for selection of reincarnates in the past. The mechanism was set up by the Ching dynasty after the death of the 6th Panchen Lama, and a conflict broke out among his successors for the position. The then Chinese emperor had introduced the system of golden urn to choose the next reincarnate – a system that has been used on a number of occasions, for the selection of prominent reincarnates. The 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lama’s were selected through this process whereas the 8th and 9th Panchen Lama were selected through use of the golden urn. The Chinese appointed 11th Panchen Lama was also selected through this process.
In this backdrop, there is need for the Dalai Lama to coordinate with senior leaders and come to a certain firm decision on his reincarnate. The Dalai Lama has often said in the past that the need for continuity of the concept of reincarnation need not be necessary. At the same time, he has also mentioned that he would decide on his reincarnate when he reaches 90 years of age. The Dalai Lama has also mentioned that his reincarnate could be a lady.
With the freedom of functioning which the Dalai Lama wields alongwith the international backing and support he has, there is every reason for him to come forward confidently and set the path towards a clear recognition of the process of his reincarnation. Likewise, his role in recognizing the 10th Jetsundamba will also be crucial given that the Mongolian Buddhist order has significant respect and regard for the Dalai Lama and expect him to deliver on the issue.
As far as international support is concerned, the extent and degree of backing that he has globally remains a strong basis for the Dalai Lama to move ahead confidently and avoid getting distracted on the issue. The fact remains that a country which principally is of atheist orientation and does not believe in life after death cannot decide on the concept of reincarnation.
The Dalai Lama should consult the larger international Buddhist community and those from his own lineage and following to come to a conclusion on how to deal with the future course.