DANIEL SEUNG TAK OH WRITES – The Dalai Lama is often seen as the face of peace, love, and compassion in the West. To the Tibetan people, he is the vanguard of their national identity and a living buddha. However, to the Chinese he is a dangerous demon, or as one CCP official put it, “A wolf dressed in monk’s robes.” Regardless of his controversial position, Tenzin Gyatson the 14th Dalai Lama may be the last one of his kind on this earth.
Let’s start with the context of the entire situation. A majority of Americans adore the Dalai Lama (Gallup Poll states he was the 6th most admired man in America), but that same majority also has no idea what he actually does. The Dalai Lama is officially the foremost spiritual leader of Gelug Buddhism. He is seen as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and his position is based on the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. So why does the CCP absolutely reject the living representation of the compassionate buddha? Although the West likes to portray it as another example of evil ChiCom tyranny, the CCP’s opposition to the Dalai Lama stems from China’s desire to maintain control of Tibet.
The official spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism is also unofficial political leader of Tibet: the Southwest ‘autonomous region’, in the Chinese term, of more than three million people that has been under the control of Beijing since the invasion of the region in 1951.
In 2017, Freedom House scored Tibet as second worst for human rights, after Syria and ahead of Somalia and North Korea. Since 1951, China has held strict control over Tibetan Buddhism and the ‘autonomous region’ as a whole. Temples and monasteries have been destroyed, CCP military police the region with an iron fist, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetan citizens have been killed. The situation in Tibet continues to be grim. To show briefly how dire conditions are in the region, nearly 150 Tibetans have literally set themselves on fire in protest since 2009. The CCP has been less than sympathetic and has only strengthened its occupation of the region. The situation in Tibet remains a gross human rights violation. Reports from Tibetan exiles have stated that Chinese military torture and kill innocent civilians on a daily basis; many have come to call it a perpetual hell on earth.
For my generation, Tibet is somewhat of a vague, old concept where we know it is important but we don’t really know why. However, In the 80’s and 90’s, Tibet was somewhat of a mainstream charity cause, with numerous celebrity figures including Steven Seagal and Richard Gere actively voicing their dissent against the Chinese occupation of the region.
There were even mass international “Freedom for Tibet ” concerts that hosted world famous artists like the Beastie Boys, U2, Rage Against the Machine, and Radiohead. So how could the Chinese possibly continue an occupation that violates human rights and is internationally condemned? To put it simply, they feel they have no choice. The Tibet region is rich in valuable minerals including gold and lithium, and major rivers in Tibet supply hydroelectric power to more than 1.35 billion people. It would be like the states of California and Texas combined demanding independence from the United States. An independent Tibet will just not happen, and the CCP will ensure that to the utmost of its ability.
This is where we come back to the Dalai Lama. He is not just a spiritual and political leader of Tibet; he is the representation of Tibet’s last hope for independence. Due to the tumultuous situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled it and is currently residing in nearby India. Despite stepping down from his official political duties, he has met with numerous world leaders and continues to be the figurehead of a would-be independent Tibetan nation.
Now that we are in the 2020’s, thoughts have come up regarding his death and the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. When a Dalai Lama dies, the 2nd most powerful Gelug Buddhist known as the Panchen Lama is in charge of finding the next reincarnation of him.
Once the Panchen Lama dies, the Dalai Lama will then search for that position’s next reincarnation. This religious cycle of hide-and-seek goes back and forth, and it is the only legitimate way of succession for both positions according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition. So going back to the case at hand, Choekyi Gyaltsen the 10th Panchen Lama, found and selected Tenzin Gyatso to be the 14th Dalai Lama. Once Gyaltsen died, the Dalai Lama started his quest to look for the reincarnated 11th Panchen Lama and chose Gedhun Nyima as the next Panchen Lama in 1995.
This is where the problem begins, because three days after Nyima was chosen to be the next Panchen Lama, Chinese officials had him and his entire family arrested and kidnapped. No one has seen or heard from the boy and his family since then. When the international community pressured the CCP on the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama in 2015, CCP officials stated that he is “being educated, living a normal life, growing up healthily and does not wish to be disturbed.” When the world demanded t know his whereabouts again, in 2020, the Chinese stated that he is “now a college graduate with a stable job”. As of now, no independent observer has seen Nyima since 1995 and the CCP have provided zero evidence confirming his status. This may seem outlandish, but as the late Billy Mays once said, “BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!”
If you thought that China kidnapping a child was bad enough, the Chinese decided to take it one step further. Chinese officials, copying a 200-year-old ritual, chose Gyaltsen Norbu as the “official Panchen Lama”. The CCP literally counterfeited its own Panchen Lama, and it’s actually quite ingenious. If the Panchen Lama is responsible for “finding” the next Dalai Lama, China’s Panchen Lama may choose a random Buddhist child who will grow coincidentally to be very favorable to the CCP’s position on Tibet. Throughout this process, the current Dalai Lama is furious with this outrageous sneak play and has stated that his reincarnation will never be determined by anyone but himself, and definitely not by Chinese Communists.
With the Panchen Lama situation being tumultuous at best (many have presumed that the actual Panchen Lama and his family were killed the night of their disappearance), the Dalai Lama has stated in 2014 that when he dies, he will probably not reincarnate as the next Dalai Lama or that he will reincarnate as the Dalai Lama outside of Tibet and China’s borders. This means that when he dies, the world may have two rival Panchen Lamas for the first time in history. With the already fraught situation in Tibet, the future looks bleak and the entire region may end up spiraling out of control.
This is a harrowing issue: Tibet may very well lose the leader that has given the country hope throughout the Chinese occupation. At this point, you can understand that the death of the Dalai Lama will be the death of prospects for an independent Tibet. It is becoming more and more plausible that the Dalai Lama will be the last of his kind. He may literally mark the end of Tibetan Buddhism, possibly even the end of an identifiable Tibet itself.
LMU undergraduate Daniel Seung Tak Oh is an Asia Media International staff writer.