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

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Source: Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

The Dalai Lama, 80, fled the Himalayan region in 1959 after a failed uprising; Chinese authorities revile him as a “separatist,” although he claims to only want increased autonomy for the region.

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

“From the point of view of Beijing, the whole apparatus seems to be about giving Beijing control over the appointment of the next Dalai Lama,” said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University. The Chinese term huofo, or living 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 they control the next Dalai Lama, as they’ve tried to control the current Panchen Lama,” Barnett continued, referring to the second-ranking leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. “We think we know about Communist policies [in Tibet], but they’re not what they appear. Communist policy on religion is: You run Tibet by … having a lama who is credible enough to be influential when he says you should follow the Communist Party. They don’t have enough power to control Tibet without a lama to handle it.”

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

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

The law itself frames reincarnation in terms of national security: “The selection of reincarnates must preserve national unity and solidarity of all ethnic groups, and the selection process cannot be influenced by any group or individual from outside the country,” it says.

“Fake living Buddhas” have been 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 lavish ceremony in Hong Kong. The ceremony’s host, Baima Aose, a Chinese man from southeast China’s Fujian province, claimed that he had been certified as a living Buddha by a famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The monastery later denied ordaining him, and Aose issued a public apology.

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