To Re-Be or Not Re-Be, That is the Question

In 2011, the Chinese government enacted a law that prohibited Tibetan lamas or monks from reincarnating without government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Let’s for a moment forget the ridiculousness to trying to approve who may or may not reincarnate themselves, and focus instead on the high probability that this was merely a ploy to allow the Chinese to chose the next Dalai Lama, someone they could control.

Only problem is that if you understand Tibetan Buddhism then you know a Dalai Lama cannot be chosen, only found. That’s because the next Dalai Lama is supposed to be a reincarnation of the previous one. High Lamas and Tibetan governmental officials have to search for this person. Sometimes it takes a while. Took them four years to find the current Dalai Lama.

Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.
Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.

So, back in 2011, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, said that when he reached the age of ninety, he would decide for himself whether to reincarnate or not.  In the meantime, last year he suggested that it might be a good idea for his successor to be a woman, remarking,

Biologically, females have more potential . . . females have more sensitivity about others’ well being. If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come.”

Just recently, Tenzin Gyatso told a German newspaper he is actually doubtful about the need for successor:

We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

I suspect he might have had some tongue in cheek there about his popularity, but it’s true, and there may be a specific reason for this pronouncement. Commenting on the situation, Robert Thurman, Executive Director of Tibet House US, who is close to the Dalai Lama, indicated that by rejecting the need for a successor Tenzin Gyatso hoped to pave the way for a more democratic Tibet.

Now, the Chinese government, which doesn’t respect Tibetan Buddhist tradition enough to recognize that a Dalai Lama can’t be chosen, is accusing the current Dalai Lama of not respecting the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In a statement to the press, Chinese government spokesperson Hua Chunying said:

China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism. The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The (present) 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Hmm. I wonder.  If China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, then why is it being accused of persecuting the country’s Christian community by demolishing churches, tearing down crosses, and kidnapping bishops, and of course, why does it continue to interfere with Tibetan Buddhism?

The bottom line here is that if the Chinese government has its way, the Dalai Lama will reincarnate whether he wants to or not.

Sad, and rather silly. Technically, you know, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. See this post from 2010 that explains.

Yes, the whole reincarnation business between Tibet and China is a lot of silliness. But this is something we should take seriously, for Stephen Colbert says he has the solution.

Watch:

 

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Rebirth vs. Reincarnation

Reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept.

Reincarnation is the idea that the same soul or same person is reborn in successive bodies. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that is permanent. You will never be reborn as the same person ever again.

What Buddhism teaches is rebirth, the cycle of birth and death. You may carry over into your next life karma, or traces, of your former lives, but  you will be a new, unique person with no real memory of the past. According to Buddha-dharma, it’s very rare to remember a past life.

The concept of reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs; strictly speaking, it is not part of the Dharma or teachings.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens when we die is going to happen regardless of what we believe. Buddhism does not stand on assertions about what comes after physical death. Buddhism is about the experience of life, here and now.

The great Zen master Dogen once said, “This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”

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