Tibetan Buddhism’s reincarnation system stained with money and power

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2014-8-31 18:43:01

To become a Living Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism, a conventional reincarnation ritual is no longer the only way. Apart from the officially recognized procedure of reincarnation plus government approval, the identification of a Living Buddha can be exchanged for money and power, researches found. Concerned specialists fear the religion has entered a critical moment of "reform or die."

Believers pray at Lamasery of Kumbum in Xi'ning, Qinghai Province. Photo: CFP

"Not by a shower of gold coins does contentment arise," the Buddha once remarked - but for 200,000 yuan ($32,560), you can, at least, settle for the title "Living Buddha." And the good news is, they accept credit cards.

New research has found that many self-proclaimed tulkus, or Living Buddhas, in China are, in fact, counterfeit or not recognized by Chinese authorities.

Tulku is an honorary title, given to a lama chosen as the reincarnate of his late predecessor. However, "Many Living Buddhas are not authentic," Zhang Weiming, a researcher from Sichuan Tibetan Buddhism Culture Research Institute, lamented. "Money can now buy the title."

Due to its specific political and economic status, investing in a certificate that declares one a Living Buddha has become a profitable pursuit.

The title of an ordinary "Living Buddha" sells for around 200,000 yuan, but the cost for an intermediate or even higher level can double that. In some cases, even the "reincarnation" was manipulated, according to Zhang's investigation.

Some fake tulkus neither abide by Buddhist disciplines, nor participate in study or practice. Their life is more about beers and skittles, earning money and even playing with girls.

Living Buddhas have appeared in adverts; some are even "spokesmen" for online stores. The stores sell full baskets of accessories seen in the videos the Buddha enshrines.

"The phony tulkus are pervasive, which threatens the authority of the reincarnation system," Zhang told the Global Times.

According to official statistics, China has around 1,700 Living Buddhas, including 358 in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which has 1,787 temples. However, Zhang estimated that if one includes those who are fake or affirmed arbitrarily by temples, the total number of "Living Buddhas" surpasses 10,000.

Profitable investment

Buddhism, long been worshipped by Tibetans, is seeing its popularity among young people in costal areas grow. Having one's bracelets "enriched," or their crown rubbed on you by a Living Buddha is considered a great honor.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of such Living Buddhas have an eye firmly on their followers' pockets, rather than offering enlightenment or blessings. Wang Lixiong, a specialist in Tibetan Buddhism, shared a story that happened to his friends, according to the Phoenix Weekly.

During a visit to Tibet, a tour group of more than 30 travelers were led into a solemn temple. Anticipating a meeting with the temple's Living Buddha, the tourists were told that the expected holy one could not speak Putonghua, and so they would be met by another "eminent" lama instead. Soon, they were asked in one by one. The lama's advice proved universal: after the initial blessings, a dire warning of impending misfortune.

The only surefire way to avoid such disaster? A devotion, in cash form, from 3,000 to 30,000 yuan; the more, the better. For those who said that they didn't have enough cash, the lama had good news: "We take cards."

Wang's story was one of several worrying examples he mentioned. Some temples in Tibet require visitors to buy hada (a type of scarf) from their stall as a "greeting gift" to the temple's Living Buddha, whose attitude towards the visitors would mainly depend on how much money they devoted. If the visitor paid much, the Living Buddha would give him or her hada in return; if little, the feedback would be a thread of wool.

According to an earlier investigation by Zhang Weiming in 2006, the honorific of Living Buddha has been monopolized as a hereditary title by powerfully rich families.

"The phenomenon of selling and inheriting the title of Living Buddhas truly exists," Wang Chunhuan of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Academy of Social Sciences told the Global Times.

"The reasons behind this chaos are complex, including overseas forces' intervention, the corrosive influence of commercialization and climate of corruption, as well as historic factors," she noted, adding that, in some places, clans are powerful enough to imbue incarnation on any candidate they favor.

"Inheritance doesn't accord with ritual and any incarnations are illegal without authorities' approval," she stressed.

Regulating reincarnation

Traditionally when a Living Buddha passed away, his underlings scouted for his next "incarnation" according to items such as living wills, predictions or other clues such as dreams, divination, omens and celestial observations.

Sometimes, the amount of candidates fit for such conditions could number several or even scores, which traditionally led to struggles and cheating practices between different families.

To counter these malpractices, when choosing the top-tier Living Buddhas, namely Dalai and Panchen, the Qianlong Emperor in 1792 stipulated a regulation, ordering to choose the "soul body" by lot-drawing from a gold urn; the central government had the final decision on the validity of the title of Living Buddha and on whether he or she could be reincarnated (the vast majority of tulkus and lamas are men).

The People's Republic of China, established in 1949, validated its own regulations based on traditional practices. The Regulation on Religious Affairs, approved in 2004, and the Reincarnations of Living Buddha of Tibetan Buddhism, validated in 2007, stipulate that all reincarnations of living Buddha of Tibetan Buddhism must be approved by religious affairs authorities.

For those Living Buddhas who have been inherited by golden urn lot-drawing, the methods will be continued. Any requests asking not to use lot-drawing must be approved by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) or even the State Council, according to the regulation.

Since 2007, more than 40 reincarnations have been recognized in Tibet, and the efforts this year to locate and identify the "soul children" of nine Living Buddhas are being advanced in an "orderly" fashion, a senior official in Tibet revealed last week to the Xinhua News Agency.

"The regulation, in the view of the majority of believers, is effective to protect the inheritance of Tibetan Buddhism, which also does good to curb the production of fake Living Buddhas," Ye Xiaowen, the then-SARA's director, told a press conference after the regulation's issue.

However, in the eyes of some specialists, the regulations failed to solve the problem.

As Zhang's research found, local officials in Tibetan areas had even joined the fight for their children to be chosen as incarnates of a Living Buddha. Some bribed officials, who then use their administrative power to appoint any candidate they want.

The regulation bans any interference in reincarnation by individual or groups and offenders will be punished. But it's believed that the investigating or punishing of fake Living Buddhas or malpractice toward reincarnation are merely scarce stories. The SARA denied our interview request.

"There are inconveniences for authorities to regulate this chaos and enforce the laws. It's troublesome to revoke 'fake tulku,' as they have hundreds or even thousands of believers," Wang argued.

Namlha Tashi, the vice president of the Buddhist Academy of Tibet, told the Global Times that fake tulkus must be cracked down upon. "The authorities are clear which are illegal but the believers are not. These fake Living Buddhas must be exposed and their titles canceled, so as to maintain religious order and the creed's authority," he said.

On September 10 last year, police in Changchun, Jilin Province, broke into a hotel meeting-room in the city and suspended an illegal religious activity joined by more than 100 believers. Police found out the visiting preacher, one "Rinpoche" from San Francisco was identified by H.H Dorje Chang Buddha III, who is, in fact, Yi Yungao, an alleged "fake" Living Buddha who fled to the US in 2001 after his fraud involving millions of yuan was investigated by the police, according to Phoenix Weekly.

In a telephone interview with the Global Times, Ye Xiaowen, the former director of SARA, denied any inadequacy of regulation or its enforcement. "The problem is the whole doctrine has been magnified and Tibetanized, and the Living Buddhas' status has been exalted. Behind the propaganda, there are some special interests and purposes," Ye said.

Historically, Living Buddhas were always linked to political power, and some continue to engage in politics. But the existence of Living Buddhas is just a "preliminary stage"; the reincarnation system will eventually disappear and enter a stage of the cult of the divine much like other religions, Ye explained.

Shortage of a religious law

Zhang Weiming partly blamed the government's quotient of Living Buddhas for the chaotic state of reincarnation. Generally, the policy allows one temple to have one Living Buddha, two or three for a large-sized temple, or at most five, Zhang said. A county in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture has around 200 Living Buddhas, but the authorities have approved less than 30 of them, according to Zhang's findings.

"The policy has led to many reincarnations going underground; some have even turned to the Dalai Lama for identification," Zhang said.

Officials in charge of temples focus on finance and infrastructure over study of doctrine or practices which benefit people.

Interview requests to six identified Living Buddhas and two lama on Sina Weibo through private letters remained unanswered. The search results of identified Living Buddha on Weibo total 185.

However, Chen Yuting, a Tibetan Buddhism believer from Taiwan, was optimistic. "Most temples are still traditional, not commercialized," Chen told Phoenix Weekly. He added that believers would abandon Living Buddhas if they found out they were unqualified.

Liu Peng, director of the Pushi Institute for Social Sciences in Beijing, an independent nonprofit think tank that focuses on religious legislation in China, said that establishing  religious law is the fundamental solution for the current disarray.

"Falsification and swindling doesn't happen solely in Tibetan Buddhism, but other religions, too. In front of any religion-related offences and disputes, we now only have administrative rules and management," Liu told the Global Times. "Rule of law is the best way to destroy these problems."

Newspaper headline: Trade of Living Buddhas

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