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China may be an atheist state, but it’s regulating Buddhist reincarnation

Los Angeles Times


Jonathan Kaiman

In China, it’s not easy tobecome a “living Buddha.” First come the years of meditation and discipline.Then comes the bureaucracy.

“The highest level of livingBuddhas must be approved by the central government,” Phurbu Tsering, the abbotof Sera Monastery near Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, said at a meeting of China’srubber-stamp legislature on Monday. “Other Living Buddhas must be approved bylocal governments.”

China is laying down the lawon reincarnation, as Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama — Tibet’s enormouslyinfluential spiritual leader — enters his twilight years with no successor insight. Although the ruling Communist Party is an officially atheist organization– officials are barred from practicing religion – it is perenniallyuncomfortable with forces outside of its control, and has for years demandedthe power to regulate the supernatural affairs of Tibetan Buddhist figures,determining who can and cannot be reincarnated.

The Dalai Lama, 80, fled theHimalayan region in 1959 after a failed uprising; Chinese authorities revilehim as a “separatist,” although he claims to only want increased autonomy forthe region.

Authorities have framed theirbureaucratization of the afterlife as a bulwark against fraudulent,profiteering monks. Yet experts say it’s also part of a wide-ranging effort totighten control over the turbulent region.

“From the point of view ofBeijing, the whole apparatus seems to be about giving Beijing control over theappointment of the next Dalai Lama,” said Robbie Barnett, director of theModern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University. The Chinese term huofo, orliving Buddha, refers to high-ranking religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism,but it has no true equivalent in the Tibetan language.

“They want to make sure theycontrol the next Dalai Lama, as they’ve tried to control the current PanchenLama,” Barnett continued, referring to the second-ranking leader of the Gelugschool of Tibetan Buddhism. “We think we know about Communist policies [inTibet], but they’re not what they appear. Communist policy on religion is: Yourun Tibet by … having a lama who is credible enough to be influential when hesays you should follow the Communist Party. They don’t have enough power tocontrol Tibet without a lama to handle it.”

At the meeting — held at theGreat Hall of the People in Beijing, the country’s most prestigious venue —Phurbu Tsering, wearing red monk’s robes, spoke softly in Tibetan, whileanother delegate to the legislature translated into Mandarin.

He recited several pointsfrom the State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, a law that authoritiespassed in 2007 to govern reincarnation. One must have “recognition from thereligious world and the temple” to reincarnate, he said.

The law itself framesreincarnation in terms of national security: “The selection of reincarnatesmust preserve national unity and solidarity of all ethnic groups, and theselection process cannot be influenced by any group or individual from outsidethe country,” it says.

“Fake living Buddhas” havebeen in the headlines since November, when a video went viral of Zhang Tielin,a Chinese-born British actor, being “ordained” as a living Buddha at a lavishceremony in Hong Kong. The ceremony’s host, Baima Aose, a Chinese man fromsoutheast China’s Fujian province, claimed that he had been certified as aliving Buddha by a famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The monastery laterdenied ordaining him, and Aose issued a public apology.

On Jan. 18, authoritiespublished online an official registry of 870 licensed living Buddhas,searchable by name, temple and identity card number or “living-Buddha cardnumber,” to cut down on fraud.

Yet experts say that thesystem of registering living Buddhas has itself become fertile ground forcorruption.

“The thing [authorities] areemphasizing is the database — that’s the new hyped up thing,” said Barnett.“The way it works is permits. You get a permit from the local religious affairsoffice, saying you’re recognized as a so-called living Buddha. Once you havethat system, it means you can pay for it.

“Apparently what that means —and I have several personal sources on this — is that each area has a quota ofthese to hand out, and the officials in each area just sell their quota,” hecontinued.

The Dalai Lama, in a 2011statement, called the country’s reincarnation laws “outrageous” and“disgraceful.”

“The enforcement of variousinappropriate methods for recognizing reincarnations to eradicate our uniqueTibetan cultural traditions is doing damage that will be difficult to repair,”he said.

More than 140 people in Tibetand neighboring provinces have burned themselves to death since 2009 as a grimprotest against Chinese rule; many have called for the Dalai Lama’s return asthey went up in flames. On Feb. 29, an 18-year-old Tibetan died after lightinghimself on fire, marking the first self-immolation since August, according tothe London-based advocacy group Free Tibet.

Chinese authorities haverepeatedly blamed the “Dalai clique” and other “hostile foreign forces” for therash of self-immolations.

Authorities closed Tibet toforeign visitors beginning Feb. 25, and will probably keep it off-limits untilthe end of March — an annual occurrence since riots rippled across the regionin March 2008. They have not extended the same restrictions to domestic Chinesetourists.

At Monday’s meeting, BaimaChilin, deputy Communist Party chief of the region, said that the Dalai Lamawas “no longer a religious leader” after he left Tibet in 1959.

“If the Dalai Lama wants toreturn to China, he must give up ‘Tibet independence,’ and must publiclyacknowledge Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China and that thePeople’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government,” he said.

Chuan Xu and Yingzhi Yang inThe Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.


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