In China, it’s not easy to become a “living Buddha.” First come the years of meditation and discipline. Then comes the bureaucracy.
China claims right to identify living buddhas
Although China’s ruling Communist Party is officially atheist, it has in recent months been laying down the law on reincarnation, tightening controls on who can call themselves the living rebirth of historical Buddhist holy men.
It launched a database of 870 licensed “living Buddhas” in January. And last week, an abbot from Sera Monastery near Tibet’s capital told China’s rubber-stamp legislature that the highest level of living Buddhas must be approved by the central government, while “other living Buddhas must be approved by local governments.”
Heart of issue: replacing Dalai Lama
The effort appears to be part of a broad attempt to control what happens after the death of the current Dalai Lama, Tibet’s enormously influential 80-year-old spiritual leader who lives in exile in India. Tibetans consider him to be the successor in a line of leaders who are believed to be reincarnated.
Communist Party officials are formally barred from practicing religion, but the government has for years demanded the power to regulate the supernatural affairs of Tibetan Buddhism. In recent months, they have framed their bureaucratization of the afterlife as a bulwark against fraudulent, profiteering monks.
Control in Tibet
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.
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.
Replacement for the current Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama hasn’t said what will happen after his death. By tradition, Tibetans identify a young boy as his reincarnate. But he has hinted that he may not be reincarnated at all, or his reincarnate may live outside Tibet. Chinese authorities have insisted on the right to oversee his “reincarnation affairs,” raising the possibility that there may be two Dalai Lamas with competing claims to legitimacy.
Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times; Article