The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first acknowledged the importance of the religious authority of Tibetan lamas in 1992 when it approved the elevation of Ogyen Trinley Dorje, a boy recognised by the Dalai Lama as the 17th Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Three years later, China asserted its claim of sovereignty in the centuries-old tradition of reincarnation by the resurrection of the Qing dynasty method of using the golden urn for the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second highest spiritual leader. Elliot Sperling, the world’s foremost authority on the subject, argues that the anachronistic resurrection of the golden urn is meant to establish legitimacy through historical continuity. But the existence of the golden urn in Tibetan religious and political affairs offers little evidence to confirm whether the Qing dynasty exercised any control over its impartial use. Many sources indicate that the urn was merely symbolic as the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas were chosen according to the wishes and traditions of the Tibetan Buddhist authorities.
In the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama, the Chinese authorities rigged the golden urn and literally handpicked their candidate. Arjia Rinpoche, a revered religious leader who was part of the selection committee, exposed this underhand operation in his book Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama’s Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule.
The Chinese authorities are said to have abducted the Dalai Lama’s chosen boy and his family members. Their whereabouts still remain shrouded in secrecy.
Similarly, Ngabo Ngawang Jigme, the then vice-chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, exposed Beijing’s claim of sovereignty in the recognition of Tibetan lamas on the basis that Kuomintang’s representative Wu Chung-tsin presided over the enthronement ceremony of the 14th Dalai Lama in 1940 in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Basil Gould, the British representative at the ceremony, observed that the Chinese delegates were not given priority over other foreign representatives.
In recent years, the Chinese government has further strengthened its control over the recognition of Tibetan lamas in Tibet through quixotic laws and orders. In July 2007, the state administration for religious affair issued an administrative diktat called the Order No 5 or formally known as the Management Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.
This consists of 14 articles designed to control the core belief system of Tibetan Buddhism. The regulation asserts control over the searches, testing, recognition, education, and training of religious figures. The United Front Work Department, the CCP organ that deals with religious and ethnic affairs, organised a patriotic training programme in October 2016 for a group of 20 young incarnate lamas on what could be described as a communist pilgrimage, visiting military bases, a defence academy and revolutionary sites, including Mao Zedong’s memorial museum.
In addition, the Chinese government, under the aegis of the Chinese Buddhist Association, launched an online database in January 2016. The database exclusively carries profiles of 1,311 Party-approved lamas. Although Beijing maintains that the database will “help protect the legitimate rights and interests of Tibetan Buddhism”, it is clear that it will use this database as a tool to further alienate the Dalai Lama and curtail the influence of all the top lamas of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, all of whom are in India, and that of Bon, Tibet’s homegrown religion.
In 2011, the Chinese government established the Tibetan Buddhist Academy near Lhasa and instituted a separate class for young incarnate lamas under 16. Six of them are currently in the academy. The grooming of these young lamas, including the 7th Reting Rinpoche and 6th Dedrug Rinpoche, whose immediate predecessors served as regents before the Chinese occupation of Tibet, clearly illustrates Beijing’s political intention; these cherry-picked lamas will be used to validate the potential Beijing-selected 15th Dalai Lama and to show the world that the Tibetan Buddhist clergy’s acceptance of its choice.
The urgency became evident when China began promoting its chosen Panchen Lama both domestically and internationally. The Panchen Lama’s appearance at the Third World Buddhist Forum held in Hong Kong in 2012 and his visit to Thailand in 2019 as a part of a Buddhist delegation are seen as Beijing’s intention to boost his international standing and recognition. Beijing will gradually increase his visits to Asian Buddhist countries, including Mongolia.
His frequent visits to the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas incorporated into the neighbouring Chinese provinces reflect the urgency with which Beijing seeks his acceptance by the Tibetan people. It hopes that this will give him the spiritual gravitas to select the next Dalai Lama given the tradition of mutual recognition between the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. This way, China can control the Tibetan spiritual space, something it has long sought to do.
Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute of the Central Tibetan Administration
The views expressed are personal