There’s a new law in force in China these days that says the Chinese authorities in future would choose reincarnating Tibetan lamas. Partly in anticipation of such a move and mostly to keep pace with the changing times, the Dalai Lama said he has been toying with different methods to choose his successor. This standoff between Tibetan Buddhism and the Chinese Communist Party has brought international media spotlight on this unique system of selecting Tibetan spiritual leaders and on one culture’s spiritual beliefs and a state’s political ambitions.
Buddhists believe that highly-realized beings have the capacity to choose where and when they want to be reborn. It’s a matter of putting the efforts of a lifetime (or, in most cases, lifetimes) to adjust one’s internal mechanism to reach the level when one could project one’s spiritual qualities over time and space. These qualities enable highly-realized beings to manifest themselves simultaneously in several places, as the historical Buddha did when he was seen teaching at several places at the same time. Or, over many lifetimes, rebirth after rebirth, and in different life forms, as the Buddha did and which forms the basis and the moral of the classic book, the Jataka Tales.
The Chinese authorities once considered all this voodoo, a leftover from Tibet’s dark, feudal superstitious past. Back in 1954, Mao Zedong told the young Dalai Lama, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” Later, the Tibetans were told that there could not be “two suns in the same sky: communism and Buddhism.”
This forthright Chinese attitude to their culture cost the Tibetan people dear. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1969, Tibet had lost about 6,000 monasteries. The inmates of these centres of learning had either fled or been imprisoned or died. Tibet became a land of lost content. This is the equivalent of saying that one fine day India finds all its universities in ruins and nothing is seen or heard of all the promising students and brilliant faculty members.
This was China’s attitude to Buddhism in the days of Mao. Why is China now after the Tibetan sun?
The answer lies in history. The role played by the innovative system of rule by reincarnation and the priest-patron relations which the lamas of Tibet developed with the Mongol khans and later with the Manchu emperors kept the peace in Central and High Asia for centuries. Of all the places where Buddhism spread, Tibet was the only one where this belief in reincarnation was put into practice. Starting from the 12th century, when the first incarnate lamas began to appear on the Tibetan scene, various lamas, because of the immense spiritual prestige they commanded, filled the plateau’s fractured political vacuum and exercised political authority. The first recorded reincarnate lama was Karmapa Pakshi who was recognized as the authentic reincarnation of Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), an outstanding lama of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. This idea caught on and soon reincarnate lamas proliferated among different schools of Tibetan Buddhism and across the plateau.
In 1207 when the Tibetans heard that Genghis Khan made the Tanguts, a people related to the Tibetans by language and religion and who then operated in present-day Gansu-Ningxia corridor, into a vassal state, Tibetan lamas submitted to Mongol overlordship. Because of this piece of Tibetan diplomacy, of all the countries that became a part of the greatest land empire in human history, Tibet was the only one that was spared devastation. The Mongols collected only taxes from Tibet and left Tibet very much to its own devices.
In 1244, Godan Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, sent a letter to Sakya Pandita, Tibet’s most accomplished scholar, demanding, “We need a lama advise my ignorant people on how to conduct themselves morally and spiritually… As you are the only lama I have chosen, I will not accept any excuses on account of your age or the rigours of the journey.” Sakya Pandita along with his nephew Phagpa undertook the journey to Mongolia. In the course of tutoring Godan Khan on Buddhism, Sakya Pandita extracted a promise from the khan to stop the practice of drowning thousands of Chinese peasants as a method of both population and political control. In return for his spiritual service, Godan Khan invested the Tibetan hierarch with temporal authority over central Tibet and later over all Tibet.
In 1251, Sakya Pandita passed away in present-day Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province. Several years later Godan Khan also died. Sakya Pandita was succeeded by Phagpa and Godan Khan by Kublai Khan. The great khan decided to adopt the nineteen-year-old Tibetan as his spiritual teacher. Before the Tibetan master accepted the honour, he demanded that as his student he expected Kublai Khan to prostrate before his teacher. Kublai Khan suggested that this kow-towing, this offering of body, speech and mind to his teacher, should be done in private. Done in public, Kublai Khan said he would lose his prestige and empire. This was acceptable to the young Tibetan master and soon Kublai Khan made Phagpa the imperial preceptor and re-confirmed his position as the ruler of the whole of Tibet.
The priest-patron relations, a successful peace pact between the lamas of Tibet and the reigning military power of the day, reached its height during the reigns of Tibet’s successive Dalai Lamas. In the reigns of Godan and Kublai Khan, Buddhism remained a court religion. This changed during the time of the Third Dalai Lama, who was invited by Altan Khan to visit Mongolia. He accepted the invitation and arrived at the Mongol capital in 1578 and converted the whole of Mongolia to Buddhism. His successor, the Fourth Dalai Lama, was a Mongol.
The most productive period of the priest-patron relations was during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The Fifth Dalai Lama was offered the temporal rule of Tibet, from borders of Ladakh in the west to Dartsedo (Ch: Kangding) in the east, by the bearded Qosot Mongol chieftain, Gushri Khan, in 1642. In the following years the Manchus brought China under their rule. The Manchus’ one problem was how to deal with the Mongol menace, real and next door. Successive Manchu emperors used Mongolia’s devotion to the Dalai Lama to their advantage. They requested the Dalai Lama to keep the Mongols at bay. Sometimes they requested the use of Mongol forces to put down sporadic rebellions within their borders. Mongols were kept at bay, but the Dalai Lama cited the smallpox epidemic then raging in China and the hot climate as reasons for the Mongol cavalry being unsuitable as a fighting force in such a terrain.
On his part, the patron kept his bargain of protecting the spiritual realm of his priest, but not always. Emperor Qianglong dispatched Manchu troops to Tibet to help repulse the resurgent Gorkhas who had taken over major Tibetan towns along the Tibet-Nepal border in the first Gorkha war between 1788-1792. Since then a detachment of Manchu troops was stationed in Lhasa. The office of the Manchu amban in the Tibetan capital was upgraded and expanded. The power and influence of the ambans, whom the Manchus considered their viceroys in Tibet and the Tibetans viewed as ambassadors of the Manchu court, waxed and waned with the fortunes of the Manchu dynasty and with the energy and cohesion of the Kashag, the Tibetan council of ministers.
The decline of the Manchu power in China and exhausting challenges posed to it by the expanding and sea-faring west prevented the Manchus from coming to Tibet’s help in the Dogra war of 1841 to 1842, the second Gorkha war from 1855 to 1856, or in the British invasion of Tibet from 1904 to 1905.
This international diplomatic structure came crashing down when the patron turned on its priest. The People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1949. Decades earlier, Mongolia had been caught in the Soviet embrace. Two of the three triangular nodes that had propped up structure of the priest-patron relationship were snatched away. The third, the successor regime of the erstwhile patron of Buddhism, the Republic of China, was driven away to Taiwan.
Today, there is no Mongol might to speak of. The egalitarian faith that has sustained the early Chinese communists has been sapped and replaced by a profit-at-all cost ethos. But the 14th Dalai Lama has gone on to build an international constituency his predecessors could have hardly dreamed of. More than the international spread of the institution of the Dalai Lama, its potency in Tibet is what worries the authorities. Perhaps here lies a part of the answer to the Chinese authorities’ attempt to regulate where and when Tibetan lamas should be reborn. They want the power but not the faith that sustains it.