Why is China urging the Dalai Lama to respect reincarnation?

Will there be a fifteenth?
Will there be a fifteenth?
Image: Reuters/Mukesh Gupta
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

China’s central government has been fretting over reports that the Dalai Lama may be the last of his line. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, told a German newspaper Welt am Sonntag this week: “We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

The report was a bombshell, prompting speculation that the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader was announcing the end of his lineage, and resulted in the bizarre prospect of Beijing’s nominally atheist government chiding the Dalai Lama for not respecting his religion’s practice of reincarnation.

“China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “The (present) 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Beijing reviles the Dalai Lama as a separatist threat to its rule in Tibet and has long tried to bend Tibetan Buddhism to its own ends. In 1995, when the Dalai Lama named a Tibetan boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the religion’s second-highest figure, China arrested the boy and installed its own Panchen Lama in his place. The fear among Tibetan Buddhists is that China will attempt a similar maneuver when the 14th Dalai Lama dies in an attempt to split the religion.

It is more likely, however, that western media and Beijing alike have misconstrued the Dalai Lama’s pronouncement entirely. For one thing, he prefaced his statement by saying, “sometimes I make a joke…”

And Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Tibetan Studies program, told the Buddhist magazine Tricyle that airing such self-depricating  is an important Tibetan Buddhist tradition. “All lamas are expected to demonstrate diffidence about the question of their return as a kind of humility,” he said. “The convention is that they are only able to return if their followers pray intently for them to do so.”

Tricycle also had this to say about what the Dalai Lama himself was probably thinking about all of the hubbub: