By Tenzin Tashi
In a significant update to the 18-year-old Tibetan Policy Act, strengthening U.S. support for Tibetan autonomy and religious freedom, a new legislation, called the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA) was signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, 2020.
The TPSA also establishes a US policy that the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including future successors to the Dalai Lama, is a decision to be made only by Tibetans without any interference from Chinese government. The bill states that if Chinese officials interfere in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, they will be subjected to sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act that could include having their assets frozen and denial of their entry to the US. The bill also calls on the Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues in the State Department to build international diplomatic coalitions that will oppose any effort by China to interfere in the Dalai Lama’s succession.
One of the most significant insertions in the new Act of 2020 is an issue relating to the “succession or reincarnation” of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The act categorically stated that: “Decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and in the context of the will of practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism”. It also means the wishes of the 14th Dalai Lama, any written instructions, should play a key role in the selection, education, and veneration of a future 15th Dalai Lama; and interference by the Government of the People’s Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear abuse of the right to religious freedom of Tibetan people.”
China claims that the successor of the Dalai Lama has to be decided by the Chinese authorities. The selection should take place within the China based on so called historical process. Chinese authorities claim that “The 14th Dalai Lama was found and recognized following religious rituals and historical conventions, and his succession was approved by the then central government,” They are of the view that the selection of the next (15th) Dalai Lama, must comply with Chinese law. The Chinese believed that the final authority in appointing a high lama belongs to them, sanctioned by history and custom. In 2007, the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) in China had decreed that reincarnations must be approved by the government otherwise they would be deemed invalid.
Recently,Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities have stepped up efforts to control the succession of the Dalai Lama by hosting their first major training on reincarnation involving monks from prominent Tibetan monasteries. Signalling their desire to exclude the Dalai Lama from playing any role in his own succession, a senior official at the training said the reincarnation system is never only a religious issue or a living Buddha’s personal right but an important representation of the CCP’s strategies and policies in the region.
For many years, the CCP’slong-term strategy has been to control the eventual reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in order to try to legitimize its rule in Tibet and to gain soft power over Buddhist practitioners worldwide. New US Act recognizes that the Dalai Lama’s succession is essential to the Tibetan people, represents a key test for the respect of religious freedom worldwide and is therefore vital to US national interests.
The legislation strengthens US policy in support of Tibet, a move that was reciprocated as “encouraging and empowering” by the representatives of the Himalayan Buddhist region that has been under the control of China for several decades.
As China continues its efforts to overtake the free world in global power and influence through its authoritarian model of development, this bill stands up against Beijing’s hostility and repression and rightly affirms Tibetan Buddhists universal right to select and venerate their religious leaders free from government interference.
Significance of TPSA
China has been attempting to dismantle Tibetan Buddhism since it invaded Tibet. It arrested (May 1995) Gedhun Choekyi Nyima (GCN) in Tibet, just three days after he was proclaimed (by the Dalai Lama) as the 11th Panchen Lama, the second highest Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. Since then he has never been seen. Instead, Beijing selected its own 11th Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu, within six months of disappearance of GCN, enthroned him at Shigatse monastery. The Panchen Lama installed by Beijing remains unpopular with Tibetans both in exile and at home. Concerns over the advancing age of the Dalai Lama, now 85, have renewed uncertainties in recent years over his possible successor after he passes away, with Beijing claiming the right to name his successor and the Dalai Lama himself saying that future Dalai Lama will be born outside China. Tibetans remain bitter about Chinese intervention in the selection of the 11th Panchen Lama.
The TPSA 2020 passed by the US has been hailed by the Tibetans, who were concerned over the possibility of the Chinese Government making an attempt to install someone loyal to it as the 15th Dalai Lama after the demise of the incumbent and use him as a tool to divert attention of the world from illegal occupation of Tibet. The proposed legislation will empower the US Government to impose sanctions on the Chinese Government officials, who might try to interfere in the process of selecting the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
The US law is specifically for Tibetan Buddhists because China has already started the process to identify its version of the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama. China has said its leaders have the right to approve the Dalai Lama’s successor, which many see as a coercive attempt to control Tibet, where ethnic Tibetans make up about 90% of the population. This means if the Tibetans decide to continue with the institution of the Dalai Lama, there could be two Dalai Lamas, just as there are two Panchen Lamas and two claimants to the title of the 17th Karmapa, the head of Karma Kagyu sect.
A Chinese recognised Dalai Lama would compromise high pedestal, on which Dalai Lama is placed. As the Dalai Lama said in his statement, the Chinese Communists who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, leave alone the concept of Tulkus, should not meddle in such areas. It is a tribute to the great legacy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to the courage and solidarity of six million Tibetans inside Tibet. Tibetans have been pushing for this for the last two years. This is a victory for the Tibetan freedom to choose the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
Involvement of reincarnation world wide
Recently, His Holiness has made clear that whether or not, a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should be recognised, was a decision for the Tibetan people, the Mongolians and people of the Himalayan regions to make. However, in the absence of clear guidelines, there was a clear risk that vested Chinese interests could exploit the situation for political ends. Therefore, clear guidelines for the recognition of the next Dalai Lama needs to be announced by the Dalai Lama, leaving no room for doubt or deception.
However, in the past, His Holiness has stated that he will leave clear instructions about this. He further warned that apart from a reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including agents of the People’s Republic of China. Speaking to NDTV (New Delhi, Apr 7, 2016), the Dalai Lama also reiterated the possibility of his reincarnation being found in India.
China may force its choice of the Dalai Lama but it will meet the same fate as that of Gyaltsen Norbu, China recognized 11th Panchen Lama who has never been accepted by majority of Tibetans.