Panel 3: Tibetan Buddhist System of Reincarnation and Why China wants to control it?

Theme 3

Tibetan Buddhist System of Reincarnation and Why China wants to control it?

The tulkus — emanate body — are understood to be manifestations of Bodhisattvas; these tall figures are a repository of wisdom and compassion who choose to be born again and again out of compassion in order to serve humanity. Thus, these bodies become the site of religion and path to conduct one’s own spirituality for the Tibetan Buddhist followers. In other words, the tulku form not only symbolizes but also embodies Tibetan Buddhism. With respect to the specific question of succession, it is crucial that tulkus are appointed in a “lineal” fashion, that is, they reincarnate their predecessor, get discovered as the ones, and then get reinstated in their rightful monastic seats left vacant by the predecessors. Therefore, the importance of tulkus and the entailing system of reincarnations is a serious matter for Tibetans. 

It is important to note that the significance of tulkus and their succession have characteristically gone beyond just religious rituals. Tulkus would also engage in other salient roles such as “counsellors, teachers, scholars, lineage holders, writers of authoritative texts, masters of ritual, artists, administrators of monasteries and complexes of monasteries, heads of sects and sub-sects, doctors, political advisors, performers of charitable works, government officials of various kinds, and so on.” This also shows the complex way in which Tibetan Buddhism — spiritually and culturally — was integrated within the Tibetan society, making the two inseparable. 

The CCP on the other hand, branding itself as an atheist body on the surface, is anything but that. It has been deliberately destroying the Tibetan Buddhism by controlling the process of reincarnation over which it has no legitimate authority. Such interferences do not take into consideration the ancient tradition and the sentiments of those who are attached to the Tibetan Buddhist system of reincarnation. The ongoing attack on religion in communist China is far from new. The Maoist Thought on which the People’s Republic of China is founded had deemed religion as an evil. The ban on religious activities during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) is a fresh memory among the CCP as well as the populations. Despite all, faith among Tibetan Buddhists failed to be destroyed and saw resurgence during the 1980s. The renewed attempt was made by the CCP to crush this freedom again through various impositions including a martial law in 1989. The CCP has also actively tried to impose its version of history about Tibet in China that describes the monastic order as purely a serfdom. Under this caricature, the CCP brandishes the religious figures as corrupt, from whom the poor suffered and therefore needed to be liberated. This however misinterpreted the popular perception of the rich religio-cultural bonds between the Tibetans and monastic order. 

Since tulkus embody Tibetan Buddhism, the tradition of witnessing tulkus’ ‘presence’ is crucial for developing one’s spiritual path further. However, the severe restrictions placed by the CCP to prevent Tibetans from witnessing the presence of important figures like His Holiness the Dalai Lama — everywhere from barring attendance to religious gatherings like Kalachakra in India and punishing those who have attended on return by seizing their passports, to bans on even placing his picture at home — snatches away the freedom of Tibetans to practice Buddhism among Tibetans in a manner they deem necessary. As a result, the majority of Tibetans and their successive generations in Tibet have been robbed of their faith under the CCP regime in China. 

Escalating Chinese intrusion in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation

The recent surge in CCP’s claims over the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is part of its larger political attack on Tibetan Buddhism. The CPC has remained opposed despite His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s verbal and written statements that explicitly vests the power to decide his reincarnation, or even the termination of institution of Dalai Lamas altogether upon Tibetans as they see fit. The CCP has remained opposed. The latter has instead resorted to an unfounded yet stiff position such as one made by Zhu Weiqun, then Chairman of Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee, that “Only the central government can decide on keeping, or getting rid of, the Dalai Lama’s lineage, and the 14th Dalai Lama does not have the final say.”

The Invalidity of the Golden Urn

Any claim that CCP may lay on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is far from valid. The emphasis on the custom of using Golden Urn to pick reincarnates of important sect leaders like His Holiness the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas overlooks the centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist tradition  and system of recognizing reincarnations.

The history of the Golden Urn goes back to the times of Manchu when the priest-patron relationship was established between Mongol kingdom and Tibet in the 1790s. The Manchu request was for a custom including picking lots from a Golden Urn to decide on rightful reincarnation of high Lamas for enthronement. Such a procedure was used only once but even that was observed passively. Neither the current His Holiness the Dalai Lama nor were the 9th and the 13th predecessors were not selected using this ritual. Even where the Golden Urn was observed, such as during the 10th Dalai Lama, it remained passive and not the critical part of the religious tradition. In fact, during the current His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the priest-patron relationship was already over, meaning not even a cursory customary claim over the reincarnation through something like the Golden Urn held water. 

CCP and its Perverse handling of Tibetan Buddhism

The CCP regards Tibetan Buddhism as an inherent threat to its existence (i.e. potential source of separatism). Thus, it has cracked down on Tibetans for practicing their religion freely and whatever little is allowed is heavily regulated, to manoeuvre it for its own political ends when needed. Contrary to the claim about progress in Tibetans’ human rights in so-called TAR, the recent restraints on retired government officials from practicing religion is nothing but a violation of religious freedom — one of the core categories of human rights. Worse still, the cost of not following the order means losing one’s vital source of subsistence, i.e., retirement pensions including access to free medical care. However, the fact that these diktats are deliberately kept oral makes it easy to conceal the ground realities from written (often international) promises of promoting Tibetans’ human rights.

The politicization of Tibetan Buddhism is most notably evident from the enforced disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama by the CCP. Instead of allowing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima to succeed as the 11th Panchen Lama as per the traditional system of reincarnation, the CCP installed their own party person in the position. This was unequivocally a political move to interfere with Tibetan Buddhism and undermine the Tibetan population. What is so perverse about this action beyond the interruption of the Tibetan system of reincarnation is that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was just a 6 years old boy when the CCP kidnapped him and his family in 1995. Even after 25 years their whereabouts is still unclear.

The installation of a CCP members’ son, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the 11th Panchen Lama cannot be mistaken as CCP’s reverence for the Panchen Lama institution. Just prior to Norbu’s installation,  the CCP had in fact jailed the previous Panchen Lama for speaking against the Chinese rule for the famines in Tibet in the 1960s. He passed away under suspicious circumstances after 8 years of imprisonment in 1989. By installing Norbu onto the revered seat of Panchen Lama, the CPC has been puppeteering to gain religious control while seemingly looking the part of according religious freedom in the country. He has been made the vice-president of Buddhist Association of China, and thus, an important party position as the member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). And it is this same body, the CPPCC, that has been key in overtly rejecting His Holiness the Dalai Lama from deciding his own reincarnation. Norbu’s installation therefore is entirely about playing Chinese communist politics and nothing to do with safeguarding Tibetan Buddhism. 

Simultaneously, Tibetans have managed to reject the China-appointed Panchen Lama. Instead, they recognize Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. This is because his appointment actually followed the Buddhist traditional reincarnation system. Despite the CCP restrictions, the traditional actors involved in the system of Panchen Lama’s reincarnation deliberately communicated with the already exiled His Holiness the Dalai Lama to confirm Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the correct reincarnation. For this, the CCP got all the monks involved imprisoned. Such dedication to see the Tibetan reincarnation system being followed in spite of crackdowns simply goes to prove how tightly Tibetans still hold onto their religious beliefs, regardless of how much the CCP tries to destroy it. 

Such politicization of the Tibetan Buddhism and controlling it for its own advantage defeats the impartial and democratic tenets that guide the reincarnation process. As Bodhisattvas, the tulkus serve the society by helping to defuse conflicts in society by acting as “go-between…free from partisan considerations and under a commitment to assist all beings, that enables him to perform this role.” As a democratic process, the fact that the tulkus in Tibet would be selected based on clues left by the very predecessors’ ensured that the seat of religious authority would only be rightfully occupied by select tulku regardless of what social strata he belonged to at birth. The effect of such selection according to His Holiness the Dalai Lama was, “The reincarnation of high lamas had democratic influence, because incarnate lamas often chose to be reborn in humble families as the Thirteenth Dalai Lama did, so that men from lowly surroundings, like myself, were found in the highest positions in the monastic world.”

Order no. 5 as Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism

In January 2007, China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs issued a new regulatory measure called “Order No. 5” on “management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” As one of the CPC’s main legislative tools to control Tibetan Buddhism, it requires an official registration of all the tulkus for approval to practice. Article 2 of the regulation says that “reincarnating living Buddhas shall not be interfered with or be under the dominion of any foreign organization or individual” and shall be (Article 7) “recognized by the provincial or autonomous regional Buddhist Association or the China Buddhist Association in accordance with religious rituals and historically established systems.” The CCP also began running a database on its websites of the China Buddhist Association under the State Bureau of Religious Affairs and “China’s Tibet” from 2016 onwards to track these tulkus. The constant watch on their activities shows complete disregard for the religious traditions or beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism and testifies to the intent of CCP to undermine His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This contradicts any argument that CCP offers about “standardizing governance on living Buddha reincarnation, protecting people’s religious freedom, maintaining the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism and the building of a harmonious society.” It also indisputably places the party over the tulkus.

Then, there are also deliberate efforts to indoctrinate the tulkus in China: In 2016, the CCP started a “training courses for newly reincarnated Living Buddhas” that would require the tulkus to undertake party activities like visiting the CCP memorial sites like Mao mausoleum. Other events include state-sponsored exhibitions to usher national religious policies, such as the one held in June 2020 called the ‘Exhibition on Tibetan Buddhism’. This event saw personnel from the United Front Work,  Propaganda Department, Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee and other research institutes. According to the Deputy Director and researcher at the Institute of History at the China Tibetology Research Centre, Feng Zhi, the exhibition served a way to make Tibetan Buddhism reincarnation system “comprehensive, three-dimensional, and true way” before the people. Such exhibitions across Tibetan areas are held to propagate the national religious policy of the CCP such as Tibet Buddhist Living Buddha Reincarnation Management Measures noted above. These acts of controlling the revered Tibetan religious figures and sponsoring their participation in patriotic public events is one of the many active ways of using religious actors for forwarding state agenda.

Interfering with reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist tulkus by sinicizing its practice stands most notably as a sign of attacks on Tibetan Buddhism in China. However, there are other pernicious ways through which the CCP hollows the Tibetan Buddhist heritage such as the traditional Tibetan medicine, Sowa Rigpa. China has begun appropriating Tibetan medicine as “Chinese ancient wisdom” and its symbolic Buddhist figure like Yuthog into Confucius-like. All this to erase the medicine’s fundamental link to the Tibetan Buddhism. According to Dr. Martin Saxer, anthropologist from LMU München, who studied the Tibetan Medicine noted that “When images of Buddhism are used, they tend to be general allegorical figures of Tibetan culture (monks in red robes, the Potala, scriptures) rather than expressions of the deep concern for the Buddhist roots of Sowa Rigpa, which many of the professionals working in the industry share.

Deification of Mao Zedong as the CCP’s religion

Not only is the CCP sinicization of the Tibetan Buddhism a contravention of the PRC’s constitutional provisions to protect Tibetan Buddhism, but also a display of how farce its own atheism is. Contrary to its criticism of traditional practices, the CCP has gone on to nurture the worship of political helmsmen like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Zhu De for political ends. The Shaoshan county where Mao Zedong was born has built a temple to deify him. It observes worship rituals similar to Buddhism and Taoism like lighting butter lamps, incense sticks, offering paper money, and even wrapping him in yellow robe akin to a Buddha. Unlike other religious temples in the country, the CCP allows minors to worship at Mao temples. These temples, of which there are several across the country, have become sites for Red Tourism. People making pilgrimages to these locations in turn help feed patriotism and allegiance to the CCP. 

While careful to guard any religious connotations that the Mao temples may attract however deified they may be, the CCP has conversely read everything that concerns Tibetan Buddhism as an inherent threat (i.e. of separatism). It is only so ironic that a personality like Mao is being deified by communist China with the same religious intensity that he had deemed poisonous throughout his regime. 



  1. Why  is China’s installation of “patriotism” by meddling with the Tibetan Buddhist system of reincarnation an inherent failure?
  2. Is the CCP ever-increasing control over the reincarnation system a sign of ethnic harmony or the complete opposite?
  3. What will be irretrievably lost if we allow the communist China to forcefully  appoint the reincarnation of an important Tibetan Buddhist figure as well as an international peace icon such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
  4. Should the Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system be trusted with the so-called atheist CCP?
  5. How is the Chinese Communist Party’s interruption affecting Tibetans and other followers of Tibetan Buddhism?
  6. How can the international community ensure the protection of the religious traditions of Tibet such as the ancient reincarnation system?
Panel 2: Religious Persecution: Crackdown on People of Faith in China
Panel 4: Countering China’s Persecution of Believers: Way Forward