Chinese Atheism and the Political Theology of Reincarnation

While it may have flown under many people’s radar, a small but fascinating brouhaha took place earlier this month between the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, and Padma Choling, the Chinese imposed governor of occupied Tibet. The debate involves whether or not the Dalai Lama would reincarnate in Tibet, or instead bring a final end to the institution with his death. At stake are issues of spiritual and political authority, particularly related to Tibetan Buddhism. What makes this such a fascinating debate is the attempt by an officially atheist country like China to intervene in the internal spiritual workings of Buddhism in the name of protecting Chinese cultural history and the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism as the Communist Party understands it.

The spat actually started last fall, when the Dalai Lama made the following remarks in an interview: “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.” For those not familiar with the politics of Tibet, here the Dalai Lama is referring to the possibility of China imposing a puppet Dalai Lama of their choosing who would serve the political agenda of Beijing, and not the interests of the exiled and occupied Tibetans, hence his worry about a “stupid” Dalai Lama.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso Source: Wolfgang H. Wögerer (Attribution via

In response to these remarks, China’s Foreign Minister Hua Chunying publicly refuted this claim, and argued that this was not possible for the Dalai Lama to do: “The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.” I’ll return to two of these important points in a moment–the role of the Chinese central government and the function of history in maintaining a normal order.

Padma Choling’s remarks, which came on the eve of the Tibetan celebration of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, were meant to quell any further talk related to this notion that the Dalai Lama could end the institution. “I think that, in fact, he is profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism…We must respect history, respect and not profane Tibetan Buddhism.” Here again we see history and culture invoked by a Chinese leader as a justification to intervene in Tibetan spiritual affairs. As these Chinese officials love to talk about history, let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane.

The debates last fall, and more recently with Padma Choling, have to be understood in the context of historical relations between Tibet and China. The immediate context that sparked these recent comments were Tibetan commemorations of the March 10, 1959 armed uprising by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Khampa and Amdo guerrillas against the Chinese red army, which was occupying the Tibetan capital of Lhasa at that time. The uprising ultimately failed, and the Dalai Lama, fearing that his capture and likely death was imminent, fled with a group through the Himalayas and into India. Since that time, China has viewed the Dalai Lama as a political problem wrapped in a saffron spiritual cloth, as these remarks continue to make clear.

What is extremely fascinating in these two exchanges, at least for a student of religious politics like me, is the fact that an atheist country like China has invoked its history and culture as the basis for a clearly political intervention into the internal dynamics of Tibetan Buddhism, even going so far as to suggest that Beijing Communist should have control over reincarnation. But as anyone who has followed Tibetan politics knows, the Dalai Lama formally devolved his power as the political and spiritual leader of Tibet in 2011 with an amendment to the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile and the appointment of Lobsang Sangay as the Kalön Tripa, or Chief Minister, of the Tibetan government. This was part of a larger movement to democratize the Tibetan nation, which the Dalai Lama played a crucial role in supporting and making possible as the Dalai Lama.

These actions by the Dalai Lama must be understood as a strategic response and adaptation to the concrete political realities on the ground in occupied Tibet, as well an attempt to respond to a changing framework of Chinese law, which ultimately dictates the lived reality for those in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China. Three issues help explain the Dalai Lama’s actions, and why he devolved power and is contemplating ending the function of the Dalai Lama, which he outlined in his 2011 statement on reincarnation.

The 11th Panchen Lama Gedun Choekyi Nyima
11th Panchen Lama Gedun Choekyi Nyima Source: Wikipedia (Attribution via

The first factor was the 1995 abduction and disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was replaced by the illegitimate figurehead Gyaincain Norbu, whose loyalty is to the CPC in Beijing, and is rejected by most Tibetans. Nyima was identified by the Dalai Lama at age six, but then immediately vanished. To this day his existence, and whether he is even still alive, remains a mystery.

The second factor was the establishment in 2005 of the Regulation on Religious Affairs by China’s State Council, which oversees the official religious politics across China, including in the TAR, and has been used at various times to suppress Tibetan political movements.

The final and most relevant issue to this discussion was the 2007 Article No. Five, or the “Management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism,” which was passed by the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) to further consolidate and control the internal religious politics of Tibetan Buddhism, with the effect that all questions of future Tibetan authority would only be legitimate if state-sanctioned. For example, Article 2 states:

Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the state, protecting the unity of the minorities, protecting religious concord and social harmony, and protecting the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.

Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect the religious rituals and historically established systems of Tibetan Buddhism, but may not re-establish feudal privileges which have already been abolished.

Reincarnating living Buddhas shall not be interfered with or be under the dominion of any foreign organization or individual.

These various efforts by the PRC strongly suggest these laws and political strategies have nothing to do with actual Tibetan Buddhist practices per se, but rather only the ability to control those relevant aspects of spiritual and political authority within Tibetan Buddhism.

And that is precisely why this latest spite is so telling. By devolving the role of the Dalai Lama to the Tibetan government in exile, and by threatening to dissolve the religious function of the Dalai Lama, he is undermining the claims to historical state control over lama reincarnation and lineage selection, as discussed in the 2007 law, and challenging the definition of “normal order” which the official state claims are premised upon. If the Dalai Lama, and by extension the Panchen Lama, had no future role in influencing the Tibetan community, then attempts to shape the cultural politics, such as the “CPR as Living Buddha,” might be called into question. And that, more than anything, clarifies why China seems to care about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

Image Source: Christopher Michel @ChrisMichel (Attribution via

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