China Will Make the Dalai Lama Reincarnate Whether He Likes It or Not

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The Dalai Lama has said he may be the last Dalai Lama, and that he will not reincarnate inside Tibet if it is still under Chinese control. The Chinese government is not amused.

In an interview on Sunday, the 14th Dalai Lama (born Tenzin Gyatso) was quoted by the German paper Die Welt as saying that perhaps it's best for the Dalai Lama to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. “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." This quote was quickly picked up by papers around the world (though it's worth noting the Dalai Lama's camp says his quote was taken out of context).

For China, which invaded Tibet in 1951 and beat back a political uprising by Tibetans in 1958, the idea that there would be no more Dalai Lamas was a bridge too far. China has long viewed the current Dalai Lama as a dangerous political separatist, calling him at one point "a wolf in monk's clothing."

A political tussle over reincarnation may bring a smirk to the faces of some, but for Tibetans inside China and living in exile it's serious business. The title of Dalai Lama stretches back to 1391 and is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be an unbroken line of reincarnations of the saint of compassion Avalokiteśvara. Since the 17th century until 1962, the Dalai Lama also controlled the Tibetan government, and 14th Dalai Lama remained the head of state for the Central Tibetan Administration, made up of Tibetans in exile, until formally resigning from the role in March of 2011.

In a statement to the press, Chinese government spokeswoman Hua Chunying said:

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."

In other words, there will be 15th Dalai Lama, and there's nothing the 14th Dalai Lama can do about it.

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In a statement in 2011, the Dalai Lama announced that he was devolving his authority as Dalai Lama in hopes that Tibet would move towards a democratic system, but that if a reincarnation was sought "there is an obvious risk of vested political interests misusing the reincarnation system to fulfill their own political agenda."

The doomsday scenario for many would be two Dalai Lamas, one named by Beijing and one named by Tibetans in exile, competing for the spiritual leadership of Tibet.

Adovocates for an autonomous Tibet are already taking to Twitter:

While some said the Dalai Lama had "no right" to make himself the last Dalai Lama:

Of course, all of this wrangling who gets reincarnted where may be simple politics. Richard Barnett, a professor at Columbia and an expert on Tibet, told Al-Jazeera that the Dalai Lama threatening to not reincarnate is a negotiating tactic as the Dalai Lama attempts to gain autonomy for Tibet and (perhaps) one day return to his homeland. "[I]t’s a way of signaling to the Chinese," said Barnett. "‘This is a bargaining chip — negotiate with me before I die.'"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.