Courtesy Thierry Ehrmann /
Asia-Pacific / Tibet

Dalai Lama Drama

Tawang is a town of approximately eleven thousand people, situated nearly ten thousand feet above sea level in the Indian Himalayas. It is also home to the Tawang Monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery outside of Lhasa, Tibet. Last week, that monastery hosted the fourteenth Dalai Lama—a seemingly innocuous visit that left the Chinese government fuming. Just before the visit, the Chinese foreign ministry warned—or perhaps threatened—that any visit to Tawang would “gravely damage the peace and stability of the border regions between China and India and China-India relations.” Furthermore, the ministry accused India of giving the Dalai Lama and his followers “a stage to carry out anti-China and separatist activities” and jeopardizing “the healthy and steady growth of China-India relations.”

In fact, the Dalai Lama’s trip to Tawang was anything but innocuous. It was a calculated political statement against the Chinese government and an expression of Tibetan nationalism. Within the context of China’s rocky historical and political relationship with the region, China’s anger at this act of subversion is unsurprising.

The relationship between China and Tibet spans multiple centuries, and it has been complicated and tense from the beginning. Although much of China’s and Tibet’s shared geopolitical history remains shrouded in ambiguity and plagued by heated debate, most Western historians accept that Tibet—though still largely autonomous and culturally distinct—was under Chinese rule for nearly two centuries before China lost control of the region in 1911. (The Chinese government claims that Tibet was under Chinese rule beginning in the fourteenth century, while the Dalai Lama and his government contend that Tibet was never truly “Chinese.”) From 1913 on, the Dalai Lama, then in his thirteenth reincarnation, served as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. But following the Chinese Civil War, the communist People’s Republic of China gained control of Tibet in 1950. The fourteenth Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, and Tibetans have chafed under Chinese rule ever since. In India, the Dalai Lama founded a government-in-exile, and has become an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and advocate of Tibetan refugees.

Recently, though, the passing of time has forcibly turned the Dalai Lama’s attention to his own mortality and the very future of Tibetan Buddhism. The first Dalai Lama was born in 1391; since then, the Dalai Lama has died and been reborn thirteen times. When the Dalai Lama dies, the Panchen Lama is responsible for locating and identifying his next reincarnation. Similarly, when the Panchen Lama dies, the Dalai Lama must find the reborn Panchen Lama. When the Chinese invaded Tibet, the tenth Panchen Lama supported China’s claim to sovereignty and remained in Tibet after the Dalai Lama was exiled. In 1962, his political views shifted. As a result, the Chinese government imprisoned him from 1964 to 1982. In 1989, the Panchen Lama returned to Tibet, gave a speech in which he reaffirmed his anti-Chinese political convictions. Five days later, he died of a massive heart attack.

In May 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the eleventh Panchen Lama. Three days after the announcement, Nyima and his family were kidnapped by the Chinese government. To this day, the boy’s whereabouts remain unknown. Chinese officials instead installed Gyaincain Norbu, the son of two Communist Party members, as the eleventh Panchen Lama. Norbu, who was educated in Beijing, is reviled by most Tibetans as a fraud and a puppet of the Chinese government.

As the fourteenth Dalai Lama, now 81, continues to age, the consequences of the loss of the “true” Panchen Lama quickly approach. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly denounced the installation of Norbu as illegitimate, accusing the Chinese government of perverting Tibetan spiritual institutions for political gain. If the current Panchen Lama possesses neither the ability nor the qualifications to identify the next Dalai Lama, then who does? How will the fifteenth reincarnation, or any future reincarnation, of the Dalai Lama be recognized without a true Panchen Lama? The future of Tibetan Buddhism and the politics of the region both heavily depend on the answer to this question.

The Dalai Lama has left instructions on his website for how to recognize his reincarnation. He has also suggested that he himself may be able to recognize the fifteenth Dalai Lama before his own death. Of course, there is also the distinct possibility that the fourteenth Dalai Lama will be the last, and that the institution of the Dalai Lama will simply end with his death. Any final decisions on the issue of the fifteenth Dalai Lama have been postponed until the ninetieth birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama, at which point he plans to confer with other high Lamas and Tibetan Buddhists to resolve the ambiguity that clouds the future.

In a March interview, the Dalai Lama told HBO’s John Oliver, “As far as my own rebirth is concerned, the final authority is my say, no one else’s. And obviously not Chinese communists.” Over the years, the Dalai Lama has made it abundantly clear that he resents Chinese rule over Tibet and their meddling in Tibetan spiritual and political institutions. The Dalai Lama writes on his website, “It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives…to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas.”

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang is yet another expression of anti-Chinese sentiment. Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, is one of only two places outside of Tibet where Dalai Lamas have been (re)born and recognized. If the fifteenth Dalai Lama is born within Tibet, the Chinese government could easily replace the true Dalai Lama with a “fake” one that would be sympathetic to China, as they did with the Panchen Lama in 1995. Thus, the fourteenth Dalai Lama and Tibetan political activists alike are both highly interested in a reincarnation that takes the Dalai Lama beyond China’s reach. The Dalai Lama visited Mongolia, the birthplace of the fourth Dalai Lama, in November, but since then, Mongolia has expressed its support of Chinese presence in Tibet under political pressure following the visit. Tawang, on the other hand, being located in India, is beyond China’s reach and influence. By traveling to Tawang, the Dalai Lama suggests that this may be where his fifteenth reincarnation will emerge. He actively seeks to remove the tradition of reincarnation from its Tibetan roots, with the explicit intention of subverting China’s political hold in Tibet.

This alone would most likely be sufficient to ruffle China’s feathers. The particular location of Tawang, however, extends the tensions (that the Dalai Lama so expertly enhances) between Tibet and China to include India as well. Tawang is situated within Arunachal Pradesh—eighty-four thousand square kilometers of Indian territory that China has previously claimed as well. By inviting the Dalai Lama to visit disputed lands, India has deeply insulted the Chinese government, threatening the stability of the Sino-Indian border. Negotiations to resolve the dispute over Arunachal have been twenty years in the making, and the Dalai Lama’s visit to the region may jeopardize the peaceful resolution of the debate.