March 21, 2015

The Fifteenth?

The Economist WHEN the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, the body of Tibet’s spiritual leader was placed in state on a throne at the Norbulingka, his summer palace in the capital, Lhasa. It faced south. via Banyan

'Twice, however, overnight, its head had turned to the east. Also pointing east, a star-shaped fungus mysteriously sprouted on a pillar in the room. In the trances to which they were prone, state oracles tossed khatak, ceremonial scarves, to the east. Taking the hints, parties searching for the reincarnation of the dead lama headed in that direction, looking, in accordance with tradition, for an infant born at around the time of his death. They eventually identified the young Tenzin Gyatso as the 14th Dalai Lama.

'That incarnation will turn 80 this year and, though in good health, he is given to musing about his own death and reincarnation. It would be “logical”, he has suggested, for the reincarnation to be like him, in exile from Tibet, which he has not been able to visit since fleeing from the Chinese suppression of an uprising in 1959. Perhaps the 15th Dalai Lama might be female. Or perhaps the institution of the Dalai Lama, being man-made, might end, if the Tibetan people feel they do not need it.

'The theology of Tibetan Buddhism seems an improbable area of expertise for the Chinese Communist Party. But the Dalai Lama’s latest suggestion that he may be the last in the line has provoked fury from Chinese spokesmen and the official press. Padma Choling, the (ethnic-Tibetan) governor of the “Special Autonomous Region” of Tibet, accused the Dalai Lama of “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism”. A party paper, the splenetic Global Times, far from finding it presumptuous to criticise the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who is also its leading theologian, accused him of “spouting nonsense”.

'In part this is an argument over history and China’s “inalienable sovereignty” over Tibet. Mr Padma Choling argued that the 14th Dalai Lama had only been able to assume his role because the “central government” (ie, China) approved. This is nonsense. The search that began with the signs pointing eastward was complicated. It involved visions appearing in a holy lake; the advice of the Panchen Lama, another revered monk, who had identified three interesting boys near Kumbum monastery, in what is now Qinghai province in China; the boys being asked to recognise some of the previous incarnation’s belongings; the auspicious intervention of the first cuckoo of spring; and a long negotiation to extricate the boy from Chinese control and bring him to Lhasa. While he was on his way, the Tibetan government and national assembly declared him to be the 14th Dalai Lama. China’s government at the time—of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist party—sent a representative to the enthronement. As China sees it, the recognition of the incarnation requires the drawing of lots from a golden urn, overseen, traditionally, by the envoy of the Chinese emperor. In this case, China claims implausibly, its man gave permission for that procedure to be waived.'

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