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The Dalai Lama: Heresy!

December 3, 2007

Nov 29th 2007 | BEIJING

 From The Economist print edition

Communists can live with reincarnation. A referendum is a different matter

THE Chinese government's web portal has an odd-looking entry on its page
listing laws that came into force in September. Buried among new
regulations on issues ranging from registering sailors to monitoring
pollution is one on how to manage the reincarnations of living Buddhas.
Violators are threatened with prosecution. China's Communist
Party—though avowedly atheist—does not hesitate to pontificate on
religious matters that it sees as having a political dimension. Living
Buddhas make up the senior clergy of Tibet's religion. They are
traditionally selected from among boys considered to be reincarnations
of deceased office-holders. Controlling the selection process, in the
party's view, is crucial to controlling Tibet.

Tibet's exiled leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, who is 72, knows this too.
China, already enraged by his recent high-profile meetings with George
Bush and Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, is now incensed by his
proposal that in selecting the most critical reincarnation of all, his
own, new procedures may apply—his, not China's.

He has long has said he may not be reincarnated at all, or, if Tibet is
not free, that he may be reborn outside China. This would do much to
undermine any attempt by China to appoint its own Dalai Lama in the way
it chose a new Panchen Lama, the second highest-ranking leader of
Tibetan Buddhism, in 1995. (A rival reincarnation endorsed by the Dalai
Lama, a boy living in China, has not been seen since.) Recently the
Dalai Lama has gone further, proposing that his successor be chosen
while he is still alive, by himself or by senior monks. And this week he
even suggested that Tibetans could hold a referendum to decide on the
Dalai Lamas' future.

Appointing the 15th Dalai Lama during his predecessor's lifetime would
be a huge blow to China. It would enable the new incarnation to gain
credibility among Tibetans before China has a chance to appoint its own
puppet. Moreover, a referendum, introducing the idea of a popular
mandate, might not be heretical to Buddhists. But it is to the party.
Given China's opposition, it would be limited to Tibetans abroad, and
would doubtless endorse the Dalai Lama's wishes. China called the ideas
a violation of religious rituals and tradition. Who better than the
party to judge?
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