Was it a coincidence? Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died of cardiac arrest in a county hospital in Sichuan province on 12 July. The Rinpoche, born in 1950 in Litang region of Eastern Tibet, had been awarded the death penalty in 2002 for a crime he never committed – masterminding five terrorist bombings in the province that killed one and injured a dozen others from 2000 to 2002, according to a Chinese Court.
Tenzin Delek’s sentence was commuted to a life term in January 2005, which he served till his tragic heart arrest in the Dazhu County’s Jail. The Rinpoche’s main crime was to have promoted the Tibetan language and culture in Kardze Prefecture of Sichuan; this was too subversive for China. His death comes at the time when Beijing makes renewed efforts to ‘promote’ religious institutions in Tibet. In the process, the Communist leadership has apparently acquired a sudden great knowledge of the most esoteric aspect of Tibetan Buddhism: ‘soul’ reincarnation!
In one day last week, China Tibet Online, affiliated to Xinhua, published five articles on reincarnation of lamas, more particularly on the present Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.
On one side, a senior Lama is left to die in prison, (‘China’s criminal law stipulates that prisoners serving life sentences are not allowed medical parole’, says Xinhua) and on the other, Beijing sponsors the ‘reincarnation’ process. Where is the trick?
According to the Communist regime, reincarnation is “a complete set of religious rites and historical mechanism,” and “as China adopts the policy of freedom to religious belief,” the Communist Party has decided to recognize ‘reincarnations’, but this ‘belief’ must follow the party’s rules and regulations.
That is why Beijing says that the present 14th Dalai Lama living in India has “no authoritative power on his [own] reincarnation issue.” He does not believe in the party.
For Beijing, the Dalai Lama’s recent statements about his reincarnation are “a blasphemy towards the religious rites and historical mechanism of Tibetan Buddhism, a great disrespect to the followers of the religion, and an absolute provocation towards the authority of the central government.”
Beijing seems increasingly nervous as it is unable to control the restive populations living on the Tibetan Plateau and once the Dalai Lama departs for the Heavenly Fields, the situation may degenerate further. The Communist leadership wants to prepare the stage for a ‘safe’ Chinese Dalai Lama, fully under the party’s control. The Communist Government is banking on the Golden Urn process to turn the tide in its favour.
Beijing’s tainted version of history is that sometimes “several ‘soul boys’ appeared at the same time; it indubitably aroused disputes between different sides.” To solve the problem, Emperor Qianlong would have invented the Golden Urn lottery.
Though Beijing says that the Golden Urn was regularly used to ‘test’ the right choice of candidate, interestingly, Beijing admits that the present and previous (13th) Dalai Lamas were ‘exempted’ from the test.
The Golden Urn was used by Beijing to select Gyaltsen Norbu, its own Panchen Lama candidate, while for the past 20 years, the boy selected by the Dalai Lama continues to languish under house arrest somewhere in China. How Norbu was selected is recounted by a Tibetan Lama, who participated in the ‘test’ and later managed to escape China.
The Lama, Arjia Rinpoche, the Abbot of the Kumbum monastery in today’s Qinghai Province, was part of the great tamasha to ‘select’ the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995. The process is explained in his book, Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama’s Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule.
In 1995, Beijing, furious that the Dalai Lama had ‘unilaterally’ decided on the new incarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, decided to use the Golden Urn.
In November 1995, an emergency meeting was called in Beijing to ‘clarify’ the Communist Party’s position: “We must not allow the Dalai’s separatist clique to interfere.” To avoid the Dalai Lama being involved in the selection process, the Golden Urn was the best method, it was decided. A few days later, some party cadres and high Lamas were called to Lhasa.
The test was to be held in the Jokhang Cathedral: “We landed at Gonggar airport in Lhasa, which was tightly guarded by People’s Liberation Army soldiers and armed policemen. Soldiers were lined up along the entire route ‘for our protection’. At the Lhasa Hotel, I saw squads of PLA soldiers with machine guns, as well as regular police, surrounding the hotel so that no one could slip in or out,” recalls Arjia. The Communist officials told the Rinpoches: “The Golden Urn Ceremony will take place tonight, please be prepared. If a separatist clique (followers of the Dalai Lama) attempts any disruption of the ceremony, everyone will be protected.”
The ceremony took place on 29 November, 1995 at 2 am.
Luo Gan, a Minister (later, a member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee) presided over the ceremony: “Inside the gold urn was a small case, which contained three ivory lots, an inch wide and seven or eight inches long. The names of the three candidates were written on three separate pieces of paper. The three ivory lots were placed into the Golden Urn.”
The name of the ‘selected’ candidate was Gyaltsen Norbu. An official present later told Arjia: “When we made our selection we left nothing to chance. In the silk pouches of the ivory pieces we put a bit of cotton at the bottom of one of them, so it would be a little higher than the others and the right candidate would be chosen.”
That was it.
There is no doubt that the selection of the next Dalai Lama will be done in the same manner, if Beijing is allowed to have its way. Though not mentioned in the recent articles, there is another factor that Beijing is aware of – the Panchen Lama has traditionally to affix his seal on the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation discovery. To make sure that their protégé obeys, President Xi Jinping gave him an ‘audience’ at Zhongnanhai in Beijing on June 10.
Apparently Gyaltsen Norbu, though selected by Beijing in a dubious manner, needed to be briefed: could he rebel like his predecessor and refuse to follow the diktats of the party? Everything is possible in the Middle Kingdom. During the ‘audience’, Norbu was probably told what he should do …in case a new Dalai Lama needs to be ‘recognized’ by the Communist Party.
Gyaltsen Norbu has also been promoted as China’s leading Buddhist leader.
A few weeks ago, he visited the Zongfo Temple in Jinghong (in Xishuangbanna Prefecture of Yunnan province). This monastery, located close to the Thailand border, is not a Tibetan but a Theravada centre. The visit was clearly a political move by Beijing which is keen to show that the young Lama is able to lead not only the Mahayana school, but the Hinayana too. Xinhua mentioned that while in Jinghong, Norbu participated in Theravada rituals or debates.
On July 15, the same Gyaltsen Norbu met with an eight-member delegation of Mongolian Buddhists headed by the Chairman of the Mongolian Buddhist Association at the Xihuang Buddhist Temple in Beijing. Xinhua says: “The Panchen Lama warmly welcomed the Mongolian delegation, accepted their worships and gifts, offered his gifts in return and gave them head-touching blessing, according to the religious ritual of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Obviously, Beijing wants their candidate Panchen Lama to play a more and more active political role in the Buddhist world, while those like Tenzin Gelek, who do not obey, will be left to their fate. However Gyaltsen Norbu’s popularity amongst the masses remains very low. His visits to Tibet have to be stage-managed. To manipulate an urn is easier than to win hearts. When will China learn this?
(The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of Fate of Tibet.)