China strives to solidify authority over reincarnation of Tibetan Living Buddhas

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-13 19:37:23

Recently, rumors were spread that a senior religious official was detained for selling "Living Buddha" title. A religious commentator argued that the separatists were behind the rumor and they are against the government's system for managing Living Buddhas. Several academics told the Global Times that the government faces a fight against separatists who also want to control the reincarnation of Living Buddhas, a major tool for their splittist politics.

A young lama looks at the camera in a monastery in Sertar county, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. Photo: IC

"Living Buddhas can be a peaceful power, but also a 'weapon of mass destruction' if used by evil or splittist forces," an ethnic and religious commentator told the Global Times.

Especially high- and intermediate-level Living Buddhas are very prestigious and influential among pilgrims, he said, who likes to use his pseudonym Zhou Quan.

The Chinese government has made a step toward establishing its authority over Tibetan Buddhism's Living Buddhas through its online database of verified Living Buddhas, experts say. 

Living Buddha, or tulku, is an honorary title given to a child chosen as the reincarnation of another Living Buddha. 

Some Living Buddhas who were affirmed by the 14th Dalai Lama, the highest lama of Tibetan Buddhism, have been behind riots or self-immolations that aim to further the cause of Tibetan independence, explained Zhou, a columnist at, a Beijing-based political commentary website which is dedicated to "helping young Chinese build healthy, constructive and progressive minds."

In late March, it was rumored that Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference's Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee and one of the key architects of the Living Buddha database, was detained for selling the "Living Buddha" title. Zhu told the Global Times that the online accusations are false and that the approval of Living Buddhas must follow strict historical and religion regulations.

Zhou said that these rumors were spread by separatists and targeted the central government's reincarnation system.

Zhu, former vice-minister of United Front Work Department, has been tough toward the Dalai Lama. 

"Separatists hate the initiators of the system, including Zhu," Zhou wrote.


In previous years the government's supervision of Living Buddhas was far looser.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), some Tibetan Buddhist temples were torn down and Living Buddhas were criticized and denounced, according to Wang Xiaobin, a scholar with the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center.

As the chaos ended and reform and opening-up began in the late 1970s, the central government tried to correct its errors. "But the policy went to another extreme. The government was hands-off on the reincarnation of tulkus," Wang told the Global Times.

According to Zhou, in the 1980s, temples were rebuilt and thousands of new Living Buddhas sprung up in Tibetan areas. Some of them had their authenticity affirmed by domestic Living Buddhas, some of them were recommended by herdsmen, some were identified by senior Living Buddhas overseas and others were sent to China from India, he said. 

"Many of the Living Buddhas verified by the Dalai Lama and Dharamsala-based 'Tibetan government-in-exile' have become the backbone of ethnic separatists," he added. 

Wang agreed, saying that these lax policies made it easy for the Dalai Lama to interfere in domestic ethnic and religious issues.

In 1987, '88 and '89, riots hit Lhasa in which mobs shouted pro-independence slogans, attacked governmental buildings, police, businesses, according to State media.

On March 14, 2008, separatists initiated another riot in the city, in which 18 civilians and one police officer was killed, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

"The Dalai Lama clique see that manipulating a Living Buddha means controlling a temple, means controlling a large amount of believers," Zhu, told the Global Times.

In recent years, more than 100 Tibetans set themselves on fire to "protest Chinese rule," according to the US-based National Public Radio.

The authorities claim that most of the people who set themselves alight were lamas or former lamas at the Kirti Gompa, or Gerdeng Monastery in the Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Southwest China's Sichuan Province or its sub-monasteries. The official investigation showed that these suicides were directly linked to a Living Buddha, who used to head the monastery and now lives in exile in Dharamsala, according to Xinhua.

"Living Buddhas can be very influential and deceptive. If they preach national conflicts and describe central government policies as 'threats,' their disciples and pilgrims would believe it with few doubts," Zhou said.

Recapture the authority

The central government started to assert its authority over Living Buddhas in the late 1980s. Following the death of the Tenth Panchen Lama on January 28, 1989 in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the government and high-ranking lamas in Tibet began to start searching for his reincarnation.

They agreed that the search should respect established religious rituals and Qing Danasty-era historical conventions, adhere to patriotism and submit to the leadership of the central government, according to

The government had the group of lamas select a group of young boys as possible candidates among whom the Panchen Lama would then be selected by drawing lots. Pre-empting this process, the Dalai Lama announced that one of the boys, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was his chosen Panchen. Nyima was then taken into government protection and a different boy, Gyaincain Norbu a 6-year-old boy born in Lhari county in northern Tibet was picked through the urn process and approved by the central government.

The method of drawing lots from a golden urn and the central government having the final say is an historical custom, according to Li Decheng, a researcher with the China Tibetology Research Center.

Tibet became an administrative district directly under the central authority of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in the 13th century. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the central government started to confer the title of Living Buddhas to religious leaders in Tibetan-inhabited areas, Li said in an article published in the overseas edition of the People's Daily.

To solidify its role in selecting the reincarnations of major Living Buddhas, the Qing court established the method of drawing lots from a golden urn and ruled that it had the power to decide whether or not to use the method and to approve the final choice. 

Wang said religion is a major tool for the separatists. "When they are not able to use economic or military methods for their splittist purposes, they resort to ideology. By using religion, they can easily provoke the masses to be against the government," he noted.

In 2007, China's State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) endorsed a set of regulations to institutionalize the management of reincarnation of Living Buddhas, which stipulates that all the reincarnations must get government approval.

"The selection of reincarnations must preserve national unity and solidarity of all ethnic groups and the selection process cannot be influenced by any group or individual from outside the country," SARA said, Xinhua reported.

Further consolidation

To further regulate Tibetan Buddhism and crack down on the growing number of phony Buddhas, the country has launched an online database which helps people check the authenticity of Living Buddhas.

"These efforts further consolidate central governmental control over the reincarnations of Living Buddhas, and cripple the separatists' capability to intervene," Zhou noted.

Dorshi Rinpoche, professor at the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, Northwest China's Gansu Province, believes that administration over the reincarnation of Living Buddhas is vital.

"Due to the impact of the commercialization, corruption also breeds and spreads in religious circles. To eradicate the possibility of people gaining Living Buddha titles through bribery and connections, controlling their number and approval is essential and needs to be strengthened," the Rinpoche told the Global Times.

But there are still barriers on the road to implementing this reincarnation system.

Zhu said the barriers are mainly put there by external forces. "Ignoring the historical facts, the Dalai clique has been making every attempt to deny the religious rituals and historical conventions," he noted. "Their purpose is to use religion to serve their politics."

He also pointed out internal problems, citing some people who missed the old system of integration of religion with politics.

But Zhou also says some domestic religious officials and experts also complain about the government's administration over Tibetan affairs. "Some experts still take a dogmatic approach toward Marxist national theory and policies," he noted.

In early days of the Communist Party of China, the Party advocated a non-monopoly federal system and said that the ethnic groups could implement a high degree of autonomy and even decide their relationship with the central government, according to an article by Lin Zhiyou, a scholar from the college of Marxism at Henan University. The article was published in January on the Journal of Qinghai Nationalities Institute (Social Sciences).

Tian Ye, an ethnic studies researcher at Henan University, said that as the Party came into power, this changed.

"The range of autonomy should be limited so as to prevent splits," he said.

"It's also a lesson from the collapse of Soviet Union," he noted, adding that growing ethnic nationalism in both Communist Party and governmental officials contributed to the country's dissolution.

Wang said controlling the reincarnation if Living Buddhas and locking out separatists is part of the war over Tibetan public opinion.

"It's likely a tough battle, but we should stick it out, as it affects the reform and social stability," Wang said. 
Newspaper headline: Divine intervention

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