March 10 marks the anniversary when Tibetans rose up in the streets of Lhasa against China's nascent occupation of Tibet. It is also when a 24-year-old Dalai Lama fled a pursuing Chinese army and eventually crossed Tibet's border into India as a refugee. That was 52 years ago.
With the Dalai Lama turning 76 this year, the international media is increasingly focusing on the question of his successor. The Dalai Lama himself has offered varying possibilities regarding how the next (15th) Dalai Lama could be identified but has not publicly stated definitively how the reincarnation would occur. How a young 15th Dalai Lama might be invested with spiritual authority would be a matter of interest primarily for Tibetan Buddhists devotees if the current 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 is 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 6 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." China 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. In response, last week the officially atheist Chinese government's State Administration for Religious Affairs enacted a new law forbidding the Dalai Lama to be reborn anywhere but on Chinese-controlled soil. 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.