March is typically a tense month for Tibetans under the yoke of their Chinese rulers. It marks the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's 1959 flight into exile. Protests, like ones in 2008, typically erupt this month.
If any unrest occurs this year, few foreigners will be present. As in past years, China has shut the door to foreign tourism to Tibet this month, keeping the world’s eyes away. It wants no witnesses.
In reality, something more sinister is unfolding. China’s ruling party quietly plots the endgame for Tibet, scheming to handpick a docile reincarnation to the actual Dalai Lama and crush any hopes for greater freedom.
The current Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans believe is 14th in a line of reincarnations, will be 76 this year. He enjoys good health. His physicians tell him he has the body of a man in his 60s.
Yet the Dalai Lama is entering the twilight of a life of extraordinary achievement — and a measure of failure. From humble beginnings in a nomadic home, the Dalai Lama has arisen as a universal moral figure transcending Tibetan Buddhism.
He encourages interfaith harmony, preaching a message of warm-hearted, loving compassion for family and community. Millions of people flock to hear him speak. His charisma unsettles China’s leaders.
Despite his renown, and the publicity he has brought to the plight of the world’s 5.5 million Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has failed to improve the lives of Tibetans under China’s stranglehold, living in conditions that ensure their identity will grow evermore diluted and weak.
China’s Communist leaders struggle to block the revolutions shaking the Arab world from infecting their own restive minorities, particularly the Tibetans, whose high-mountain homeland holds precious water in the form of glaciers that feed Asia’s mightiest rivers.
And they patiently await the Dalai Lama’s death. Once he dies, their plan is to dictate the terms of reincarnation, handpicking a youngster as a reincarnated Dalai Lama compliant to their interests.
Party leaders announced in mid-2007 that they held sole power to approve any reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. They offered no religious basis, saying only that it was important to halt the influence of people from “outside the country.”
Clearly they do not want Tibetan exiles, including the Dalai Lama, to have a say in his own reincarnation or for a future Dalai Lama to be born outside of China’s borders.
For his part, the Dalai Lama says Tibetans are free to break with tradition. They may decide if a reincarnation should occur, even if it might be a girl. In another twist, he says an obscure esoteric practice might allow a reincarnation to be found before he himself dies. The only condition is that the reincarnation must be born in freedom outside China.
On Monday (March 7), the party’s governor in Tibet, Padma Choling, shed new light on Beijing’s plans. During the annual meeting of the Chinese legislature, he said the Dalai Lama would not be allowed to break with tradition or single-handedly abolish the institution of reincarnation.
“It's impossible, that's what I think,” Padma Choling said, according to Reuters. “We must respect the historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Party leaders claim that one of those rituals involves drawing lots from a golden urn with the names of candidates to serve as the 15th Dalai Lama. Some versions say the names will be held in sealed silk purses. Others suggest that the names will be on slips of paper inside molded balls of roasted barley. How easy will it be to ensure that China’s favored candidate is selected? China is a space-faring nation, and it won’t be rocket science.
When Padma Choling says Tibetans must “respect religious rituals,” what he means is that China must be allowed to rig the process.
China’s atheist Communist leaders now view themselves as arbiters of religious rituals as esoteric as reincarnation — as if they had meditated on Buddhist texts while reading Marx’s Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book.
In the end, it’s all about control. The party wants to dilute Tibetan culture, and ensure that all Tibetan high lamas, particularly the Dalai Lama, no longer represent a threat to its monopoly on power.
You can bet a molded ball of roasted barley on that.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tim Johnson, a former Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, is the author of the recently released Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China (Nation Books).