This is not the first time that the Chinese government has involved itself in the process of rebirth, or transmigration of souls—which is part of Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism as well as a non-institutionalized folk belief in much of East Asia. Spiritual leaders in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition pass on their authority by being reincarnated. After a lama dies, his followers go about the business of searching communities to find the child in whose body he has reincarnated. Since in the Tibetan tradition spiritual leaders are also political leaders, and since Tibet is claimed by both the People’s Republic of China and by the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, reincarnation is a very serious matter of politics. (Tibet was independent from 1912 until 1950, when the new revolutionary Communist government in Beijing retook the territory. The Dalai Lama and his government were expelled in 1959.) And with unrest on the rise in Tibet and in Tibetan areas of Sichuan and other provinces, including mass protests, arrests, and self-immolation by monks, this is an unusually tense season.
Self-immolations by Tibetan monks in China are on the rise
Things are quite different in South Asia, in the Hindu tradition, where reincarnation is often believed to be instantaneous. (I am painting in broad geographical strokes here; this is the general pattern.) This means that in India one almost never reincarnates in one’s own family, and one almost never figures out who one was in a past life, since finding a deceased relative in his or her new incarnation would mean finding someone born at the exact moment one’s loved one died—which could be hundreds of miles away. Hindu anecdotes of discovering who one was in a last life often take the form of a child on a family trip to a distant city suddenly recognizing as home a house that neither she nor anyone in the family had seen before. On the Northwest Coast, a more likely scenario is a family waiting to see if spontaneous memories or birthmarks or personality traits emerge in a young person which will make the connection with someone that died either recently or longer ago. In both Asian and American traditions, dreams and other spiritual messages can help guide the search for a match. When modern Europeans and European-Americans believe in reincarnation, they are more likely to be follow the South Asian model, since those beliefs have spread to the New World via intellectual fashions such as Theosophy and yoga. (See works by my colleagues Gananath Obeyesekere, Antonia Mills, and the late Ian Stevenson for more information on the global phenomenon of reincarnation beliefs.)
As in much else, Tibetan Buddhism offers a far more disciplined and complex and even bureaucratized version of this search for a reincarnated person—a process that is a casual or peripheral, rather than imperative, feature of many other social systems. In the Tibetan tradition there are established protocols for the search which make use of a sophisticated body of knowledge and doctrine and highly trained individuals purported to have extraordinary powers. In the Tibetan version of reincarnation, there is more variation than in some other systems, and more control by adepts over the amount of time spent in the bardo—the limbo between lives—and over one’s destination as one re-enters the physical world through rebirth. There is a sense that Tibetan lamas are able to step in and engineer, or at least master the intricacies of, a cycle of reincarnation which others just ride along on unwittingly. This makes possible the carrying out of a form of political succession—inheritance is not quite the word for it—that is unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.
In the 1990s a controversy erupted over who would be the new Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is the second-highest ranking lama in the Tibetan tradition, after the Dalai Lama. After the 10th Panchen Lama, Lobsang Trinley Lhündrub Chökyi Gyaltsen, died in 1989, his followers set about to find his successor, who would be a boy born somewhere in a Tibetan community some time soon after the old Panchen Lama’s death. In 1995, at the age of six, Gedhun Chökyi Nyima was named by the current, 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), to be the reincarnation of Chökyi Gyaltsen and therefore the 11th Panchen Lama. At that point, the go-between sent by the P.R.C. government to negotiate with the Dalai Lama on a candidate acceptable to both Beijing and Dharamsala was arrested. Chinese authorities detained the young Chökyi Nyima as well, and he has not been seen dead or alive since May 17, 1995. A new liaison established, without Dharamsala’s participation or approval, a new process for “selecting” or “finding” the new Panchen Lama. Beijing drew up a list of candidates, including the missing Chökyi Nyima, and had them drawn from a large golden urn. This is quite a departure from the usual process, used to find Chökyi Nyima and others, which was to present young children with possessions belonging to the deceased lama and see if they can recognize them (a process familiar to researchers studying “cases of the reincarnation type” around the world). The results were about as difficult to predict as the average election in Communist China, and Beijing anointed its preferred candidate, Gyaincain Norbu, also six years old, as the next Panchen Lama. And there the stand-off has been ever since.
A protestor’s sign shows the missing Panchen Lama
The 14th Dalai Lama
Buddhism, one could argue, is not even a religion in the Western sense, in the way that Hinduism and Islam are. It is a system of mental discipline and a cosmological doctrine that does not feature a Deity of any kind, as we would think of it from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It began millennia ago as an atheist heresy within Hinduism. The Tibetan tradition in particular sees Buddhism as an all-encompassing natural philosophy, in some ways more like science than like religion. Confucianism, which also is sometimes called a religion, is likewise a system of social philosophy which can exist alongside Buddhism or any other ideological system; in fact it is quite congenial to Communist bureaucracy and also does not require belief in a Deity. It is possible to be a Confucianist and a Buddhist and a Communist and to follow the spiritual, ancestor-worshiping practices of one’s particular region or community. As to this last, there is a vast substrate of uninstitutionalized local folk religion in China, analogous in some ways to Shintoism in Japan. Much of it involves reincarnation-type beliefs, and Mao never thought he could stamp it out. China has also always had what Westerners would call a blurring of the line between “faiths” and a blurring between science and religion, as any American who has been to an acupuncturist can attest. When scientific advances in medicine became available in China, this did not become the occasion, as it did in some parts of the world, for the jettisoning of ways of thinking about health and the body that were tied to older philosophical and religious systems. The Asian approach to intellectual traditions is not as all-or-nothing as the European approach. And post-Deng “communism” has become a protean beast that takes whatever ideological forms it needs to in order to stay in power, including, for example, racist jingoistic nationalism (technically incompatible with scientific socialism) or even, today, free-market capitalism. It won’t be the Chinese Communist Party’s internal contradictions that bring it down as happened with Communism in Russia.
Because of all this, the idea of a modern national government constructing a transmigration-of-souls bureaucracy may not strike the average Chinese person as unusual in the way that it strikes Westerners. But one never knows: in a totalitarian society, it is always hard for outsiders to get a handle on what individual people actually believe and how much of the official line they buy into, as I found when I lived in China for much of last year. At times, too, the Party seems to be lording absurdities over the populace knowing they dare not challenge them. I well recall headlines in the Party’s English-language China Daily such as (and I am working from memory here, so if anyone finds the actual headline, please correct me), “Representatives of China’s Five Permitted Religious Groups Report That There Is Complete Freedom of Religion in China.” Reading China Daily can be like reading a parody of China Daily produced by the editors of the Onion. Do Chinese read such headlines and see them for the Orwellian nonsense that they are? Clearly, some don’t, and clearly many who do are careful not to admit it. Then again, some may find it perfectly natural that a Buddhist monk should get the proper paperwork stamped before attempting to be reborn in a new body. (To the average Chinese, the idea that even in the bardo one might be beset by petty bureaucrats is probably quite chilling.)
The new law, which takes effect in China next month, is one that we do not have full information on yet. I will be reporting on it in this space as I learn more, and I would appreciate any readers alerting me to sources or information on it as this story develops.
My big question, for the time being, is: how ever will this law be enforced?