To explain and understand what this move means for Tibet there is some background to go over. The Chinese government recently passed a law that reportedly states that no Buddhist lama may be reincarnated without their permission. This is a misunderstanding of the law; what it actually states is that no lama may be recognized without the permission of the Chinese government.
As with any position of power derived from ‘divine mandate’, the process of being recognized as a Tulku (reincarnated lama) is somewhat tenuous and has been open to abuse even before the involvement of meddling bureaucrats from the Chinese State Council. The change in the law corrects, in their view, an earlier oversight on their part that created one of the most controversial political prisoners in the world.
In 1995 a five-year-old boy from Nagchu province, Gedun Chokyi Nyima, was arrested. He had recently been recognized by the Dalai Lama as Tibet’s second most important religious leader, the Panchen Lama. It is believed he has been kept under house arrest in Beijing for the last 16 years. A new, Chinese government-approved Panchen Lama was selected and enthroned. When the Dalai Lama dies, it is the role of the Panchen Lama to recognize the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. So, by controlling the Panchen Lama the Chinese government can legitimately control the selection of the Dalai Lama and all subsequent Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Of course, the legitimacy is questionable as no Tibetan or practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism recognizes the Chinese Panchen Lama.
For many years there has been speculation about what the Dalai Lama will do as he grows older and closer to death. The Dalai Lama has achieved the position of Tulku, a lama who is able to choose the manner of their reincarnation. With this in mind, there are four options open to him:
1) He could decide that he will not reincarnate again until Tibet is no longer under occupation. But this would go against his desire as a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who goes through the cycles of rebirth to help others achieve enlightenment).
2) He could publicly state where he will be reincarnated – ie. not in Tibet – thereby de-legitimizing any Dalai Lama claim from the Chinese government about a Dalai Lama from Tibet. He has taken this step already.
3) He could recognize his own reincarnation before he dies. This is a complicated and tenuous method that, whilst legitimate and not without precedent, would create problems for the Tibetan government in the eyes of those who do not believe in reincarnation.
4) He could give up his political power before he dies so that a legitimate governing mandate for Tibet will never be controlled by the Chinese government. This is the option he has chosen.
The future of Tibet will depend on the negotiations between members of the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) and the Chinese government. This is where change will come from. Pressure from campaigners and activists, like Students for a Free Tibet, creates a space for these negotiations to happen whilst affecting change on a day-to-day basis in Tibet. The risk with this transition is that the Chinese government will refuse to recognize the authority of the TGIE and will claim that political power still resides with the Dalai Lama.
This whole pantomime – a government that believes religion is the opiate of the people trying to wield religious power – is evidence of the power of the Tibetan independence movement. Without people watching and campaigning for Tibet, the Chinese government would never acknowledge the authority of the current Dalai Lama, let alone the TGIE. Our task now is to force them to acknowledge the authority of the TGIE and to keep the negotiations open. And we do that through political campaigning, through education and through nonviolent civil disobedience.