By Gordon Fairclough and Niharika Mandhana
Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2017 - Tens of thousands of Buddhist faithful poured into the remote Himalayan monastery town of Tawang in northeast India this week—many traveling days over rough roads from distant mountain valleys—for a chance to see and hear a man they consider an embodiment of the divine: the Dalai Lama.
Defying repeated protests from China—which claims Tawang as part of its territory and decries the Tibetan spiritual leader as “a wolf in monk’s clothing” bent on fueling separatist unrest—the Dalai Lama was due to begin three days of public religious teachings there on Saturday.
Beyond the lessons on meditation and Buddhist belief, some see a larger aim in the visit of the increasingly frail, 81-year-old Dalai Lama. Anticipating his own death, he may wish to signal that he could choose, as Tibetan tradition allows, to be reborn in Tawang—still part of the Tibetan cultural sphere but safely outside China.
“It’s a way of subtly sending the message on reincarnation,” says Jayadeva Ranade, a former Indian government official and an expert on China and Tibet. “That’s why the Chinese are so anxious.”
Reincarnation is the traditional means of determining the succession for Tibet’s most important sacred and secular leaders. The Dalai Lama’s rebirth represents a high-stakes collision of the metaphysical and the geopolitical.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk, who lives in exile in India, is a global celebrity and a forceful advocate for Tibetans in China, campaigning for autonomy, religious freedom and human rights.
China, which sees Tibet as strategically critical, is determined to control the reincarnation process. Beijing fears agitation against its control of Tibet, and China’s officially atheist leadership says that the choice of the next Dalai Lama is theirs to make.
But in a March interview with John Oliver on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” the Dalai Lama said, “As far as my own rebirth is concerned, the final authority is my say, no one else’s. And obviously not Chinese communists.”
The Dalai Lama—the 14th in his lineage—has indicated that he won’t be reborn in any place under Chinese control. He has also hinted that he might opt not to be reincarnated at all. Asked by Mr. Oliver if he might be the last Dalai Lama, the monk replied that it was “very possible.”
Tenzin Taklha, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama, said that the religious leader was in Tawang at the invitation of devotees eager for him to teach. “There is no other message to anyone,” Mr. Taklha said. He also declined to discuss the issue of reincarnation, pointing to a statement from the Dalai Lama that refers to Chinese efforts to direct the selection of reincarnate lamas as “brazen meddling.”
In recent months, the Dalai Lama has traveled to the two spots on China’s periphery where the only previous non-Tibetan incarnations of the Dalai Lama originated. In November, he visited Mongolia, where the fourth Dalai Lama—the grandson of a Mongol ruler—was born in 1589. The trip drew a sharp response from the Chinese. Under pressure, Mongolian officials apologized and pledged not to invite the Tibetan leader back.
This week, the Dalai Lama made the arduous journey to Tawang, less than 25 miles from India’s disputed frontier with China, where the sixth Dalai Lama—a child of a local nobleman—was discovered in the late 1600s. He is planning to visit a small monastery at his predecessor’s birthplace.
When the current Dalai Lama fled China in 1959, he passed through Tawang. He has visited several times over the years, most recently in 2009. The town now has a population of around 50,000, most of them Monpa, who speak a language closely related to Tibetan.
Tawang has had close ties to Tibet for centuries. The town’s monastery, part of the Dalai Lama’s Gelug school of Buddhism, houses more than 500 monks.
Some locals say that they are impressed by Beijing’s infrastructure-building spree in Tibet. In Tawang, the roads are abysmal, power outages are a daily occurrence, and phone connectivity is spotty. But they also talk about Tibet’s lack of democratic and religious rights and the fact that scores of Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese government’s domination.
“The Dalai Lama is the face of Tibetan struggle,” said Chombay Kee, the president of Yuva Arunachal, a local NGO assisting youth. “If the Dalai Lama is reborn in Tibet or China, they can install a fake one,” he said. “But if he is reborn outside China, outside Tibet, how is it possible for them to control him?”
China asserts that Tawang and other parts of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh rightfully belong to it—claims dating back decades that India rejects. Beijing reacted angrily to the Dalai Lama’s visit.
“Do you seriously believe that Dalai is only a religious leader?” Chinese foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing this week. “We demand that India stop this move of undermining Chinese interests.” Kiren Rijiju, India’s minister of state for home affairs, said that India “is a democratic country” in which people are free to travel and worship as they please.
Foreign-policy experts see the quarrel over the Dalai Lama’s visit as a sign of increasingly strained ties between the two Asian giants. India objects to a Chinese project in Pakistan, its longtime rival, that would (among other things) build infrastructure on lands claimed by India. India also blames China for obstructing its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which
controls trade in nuclear technology. Meanwhile, China is unhappy with India’s deepening defense ties with the U.S. and Japan.
“The message is—if China doesn’t show sensitivity toward issues that matter to India, India is going to return the favor,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
In 2007, China’s State Religious Affairs Bureau issued new regulations, which it termed “management measures for reincarnation,” that laid out a system of government approval and permits for rebirths. Reincarnations of key religious figures must be approved by China’s cabinet. In a swipe at Tibet’s exiled establishment, China’s rules forbid any “disruption or control” of reincarnation by “any foreign organizations or individuals.”
In 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized a young Tibetan boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, No. 2 in the hierarchy of his school of Buddhism. Soon after, Chinese security forces detained the child and his family. They haven’t been seen publicly since.
China then chose a different Panchen Lama, a boy named Gyaincain Norbu. Now an adult, he supports Beijing and urges Tibetan Buddhism to adapt “to socialist society with Chinese characteristics.” But he hasn’t found much of a following among believers in China or outside. “We don’t believe in their Panchen Lama, we don’t carry his photographs,” said Mr. Kee in Tawang.