border review | 1 November 2011

Dharamshala and Waco

Michael Martina (Reuters) comments on a People’s Daily article about the Dalai Lama’s stance that he will not be reborn in the PRC if Tibet is not free, and that there would be options to choose his future successor other than the traditional system of finding a reincarnation.

“The Dalai Lama not only is attempting to bury long established historical tenets of Tibetan Buddhism with him when he dies, but is adding another criminal charge to his teachings of separatism, which damages Tibet and Buddhism,” the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, said in a commentary. […] The Dalai Lama’s goal in denouncing the Chinese government’s right to supervise reincarnation is to preserve his clique’s grasp on the symbol of the next reincarnation and serve his political separatist aims," the commentary said. To help make its point, the commentary borrowed from recent American history, when U.S. federal agents raided the headquarters of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas, amid allegations of child abuse, statutory rape and underage marriage.
“At that time, David Koresh called himself Jesus, ensnared large groups of followers, publicly opposed national law, and in 1993 he was eliminated by federal agents who even used tanks,” the paper said.

While the US crushes a religious movement with military force, the People’s Republic is concerned about safeguarding traditional Tibetan religious culture. This argument, regardless of its accuracy or validity, points to the fact how central the notion of cultural heritage has become in Party discourse on Tibet (see for example this White Paper on the preservation and development of Tibetan culture). In the West, of course, allegations against the Dalai Lama for damaging Tibetan Buddhism are read as crude propaganda. What both sides fail to grasp is the extent to which the worldly power of reincarnated Lama lineages has always been a deeply political and contested affair. In the Tibetan Buddhist regions of Russia, for example, the system of reincarnation has long been replaced by election. The Party State’s quest to separate religion from politics and portray reincarnation as a matter of authentic “intangible cultural heritage” gives the debate about Tibet a new twist – albeit a no less political one.