[Buddha-l] New York Review blog about the Dalai Lama (fwd)

donna Bair-Mundy donnab at hawaii.edu
Wed Apr 20 00:56:46 MDT 2011

   This was forwarded to me by my husband.  Interesting.

                    	Have a safe and joyful day,

 			donna Bair-Mundy, Ph.D.
 			Instructor, LIS Program
 			Information & Computer Sci. Dept.
 			Hamilton Library, Room 003-B
 			2550 McCarthy Mall
 			University of Hawai`i at Manoa
 			Honolulu, HI 96822
 			Voice: 808-956-9518 Fax: 808-956-5835
 			<donnab at hawaii.edu>

Here's an interesting blog article from the New York Review of Books.


   Robert Barnett

The Dalai Lama’s recent announcement of his planned retirement was not well received
by China’s Foreign Ministry, whose spokeswoman described it as an attempt “to deceive
the international community.” Many assumed this to be a reference to the fact that
even after the Tibetan leader gives up his official position within the exile Tibetan
administration, he will continue to travel, give speeches, and be a symbolic leader to
Tibetans, a source of considerable frustration for Beijing. But Chinese officials also
appear to be worried about something rather more obscure: a little-known
seventeenth-century precedent in which the retirement of a Dalai Lama concealed a
convoluted plot to prevent China from choosing his successor.

For this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama of Tibet has issued a decree
announcing that a younger, largely unknown man is to take over as the political leader
of the Tibetan people. It happened before—in 1679. To explain why this detail of
history matters to the Chinese government requires a little background.

Until the Chinese army took over his country in 1950, leading him to flee into exile
nine years later, the current Dalai Lama, who is the fourteenth of his line, held
political authority over Tibet. Historically, Dalai Lamas were not always recognized
as having that power: the first four Dalai Lamas only had spiritual status as leading
Buddhist teachers of their time. It was the Fifth Dalai Lama who was first given the
authority to rule Tibet, following its invasion by a Mongol warlord who was a
ferocious supporter of the Dalai Lama’s sect and so placed him on the throne, when he
was twenty-five years old. That was in the Water-Horse year of the 11th Cycle, or
1642. The Fifth seems to have been extraordinarily capable, because under his rule,
backed up by the Mongols’ army, Tibet expanded into a vast and unified state covering
most of the Tibetan plateau, with an organized bureaucracy, tax, and census system.

But it is the events at the end of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s reign that seem to be of
particular concern to Chinese analysts at the moment. After 43 years of rule, the
Fifth announced that he had appointed a young Tibetan as the Sde-ba or head of the
government, a position similar to that of regent. He had appointed such officials
before, but now he was near the end of his life and was returning to a contemplative
existence as a meditator and a scholar (he wrote at least thirty works in his
lifetime, including some on the art of government). In 1679, he issued a decree
announcing the appointment of the official, called Sangye Gyatso, who later became one
of Tibet’s most famous writers.


Because of its exceptional importance, the Fifth signed the decree not just with his
name or seal, but with the full imprint of both his hands, dipped in gold and stamped
upon the document. The decree was made into a scroll, 12 feet long, calligraphed on
yellow silk with a painting of a curling dragon holding a wish-fulfilling jewel in its
claws underneath the text, protector deities and snow-lions at its foot, and a
portrait of the Dalai Lama at its head. It is one of the marks of Tibet’s national
tragedy that this scroll, a pinnacle of Tibetan decorative art and political history,
is no longer in Tibet: it is in exile too, in New York, having been carried out by a
Tibetan family when they fled from Tibet fifty years ago.

The Fifth went even further to emphasize the special nature of this decree: he had it
painted onto a wall of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, at the top of the triple stairs
that lead to the eastern entrance of the White Palace of the Potala, where it would be
seen by every visitor. No other administrative or political document in Tibetan
history is known to have received this treatment, and the mural is still there, since
the building was one of the very few monuments in Tibet spared during the Cultural
Revolution. The golden handprints have survived as well.


This centuries-old decree does not seem at first glance to have much similarity to the
Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s plans today, except that both concern the appointment of
officials to replace him in his secular responsibilities. The Fourteenth’s decree is a
very modern document—it describes his decision to democratize his government in
Dharamsala, India, and instructs the exiles’ parliament to change their constitution
so that, in the future, Dalai Lamas will no longer hold any political power. Instead,
the political leader of the exile Tibetans is expected to be an elected Prime
Minister, and on March 20, exile Tibetans went to the polls to choose who will hold
that post (the three final candidates are all laymen educated in the United States or
Britain or working there; the election results are expected in late April, after all
the diaspora votes have been counted).


But from Beijing’s perspective, the democratization of the exile government is a minor
detail. For them, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s underlying objective appears similar to
the Fifth’s: not just to create a robust government that will survive the death of a
charismatic leader, but also to forestall Chinese involvement in the selection of the
next Dalai Lama. Indeed, it is no secret that the Fourteenth’s democratic initiative
is designed to create an exile administration that will function independently until a
settlement is reached with China, in case, as seems increasingly likely, that does not
happen before his death—or that its most important task will be to find and establish
the next Dalai Lama without interference from Beijing.


However, in their reading, some Chinese analysts see a more elaborate machination in
play. At the time of the 1679 decree, the situation was roughly similar to today: a
powerful China—then under the newly established Qing dynasty—was actively claiming
overlordship of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama was in his final years. His new Regent,
Sangye Gyatso, was only twenty-six years old, and so was likely to live long enough to
handle by himself the fifteen-year-long process of finding and bringing up the next
Dalai Lama. But the Fifth did not rely on this alone to ensure that his succession
would remain in Tibetan hands: he had another, hidden strategy. It is this that has
led to heightened concern in Beijing today.

For three years after the double-handprint decree of 1679 had been announced, when the
Fifth had completely withdrawn from public life and knew his end was near, he gave
Sangye Gyatso additional instructions: the Regent was to keep his coming death a
secret. It was a ruse the Fifth had probably learned from the Bhutanese, who had done
the same on the death of their leader, also a lama, thirty-one years earlier.


When the Fifth died in 1682 at the age of sixty-five, Sangye Gyatso duly informed the
public that the Dalai Lama was in retreat. On the rare occasions when important
visitors were allowed an audience, he enlisted an elderly monk of similar age and
appearance to pretend to be the Fifth; the monk wore a large eye-shade, much like the
current Dalai Lama, albeit for different reasons.


The deception was so effective that it was fourteen years before the Chinese Emperor
realized he had been duped, and then only because some Mongolian prisoners of war
mentioned reports they had heard in Lhasa that the Dalai Lama had died more than a
decade earlier. By then the next Dalai Lama had been identified, educated, and
established: a succession crisis had largely been avoided. The Qing had been denied
any say over the selection of the Sixth Dalai Lama, thus taking away a fundamental
part of their claim to overlordship. “You, Regent!” thundered the Emperor Kangxi in a
1696 edict to Sangye Gyatso, “You are nothing except an administrator working for the
Dalai Lama, you were elevated to be the ‘King of Tibet’ by us! …This news should have
been communicated to us directly!”


Hence the concern in some quarters of Beijing that the current Dalai Lama might be
similarly using his retirement to prevent China from selecting his spiritual successor
and thus reinforcing its claim to sovereignty over Tibet. Control of the selection of
lamas is so important to that claim that the current Chinese leadership passed a law
in 2007 ordaining that only it has the authority to choose the reincarnation of a
Dalai Lama, or of any other lama. (Like their seventeenth-century predecessors,
China’s leaders show relatively little interest in political leaders among Tibetans;
it is the spiritual leaders who are seen as significant and powerful.) So we should
not be surprised that, weeks before the Dalai Lama’s announcement about his retirement
plans, elite analysts within the Chinese government were tasked with determining
whether he might also be planning to go into retreat in order to conceal his eventual
death. The level of concern was sufficient that even foreign views were sought, and I
was approached discreetly for my opinion (which was negative); no doubt others were
asked as well.


To a secular rationalist this might seem far-fetched: how could any modern leader hide
his own death? But major decisions in modern Chinese politics are often made on the
basis of historical antecedents, sometimes with positive results and at other times
with tragic ones. When Mao briefly allowed Tibet almost total autonomy in the 1950s,
it was probably in part because he knew from historians that it had never been a
province or an integral part of China in the past. When a Tibetan child was forcibly
installed by Beijing to be the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995, officials were following the
example of Chinese Nationalists, who in 1949 had imposed their own choice as the
previous incumbent. And again, when Jiang Zemin made a brutal decision to annihilate
the basically harmless Falungong cult in 1999, it is believed that he saw it as
analogous to the religious movement that had started the Taiping Rebellion and nearly
toppled the Qing in the mid-19th century.

Given this deep vein of historicism and mutual suspicion, it becomes easier to
understand the Chinese government’s hypersensitive reading of the events of 1679.
Indeed, when the Tibetan Drama Troupe in Lhasa made Budala gong mishi (“The Secret
History of the Potala Palace”), an epic 1989 film about the Fifth Dalai Lama’s 1679
decree and Sangye Gyatso’s successful deception of the Qing Emperors, it was
immediately banned, and it has never been shown publicly in China. And eight years
later, the Party Secretary of Tibet, Chen Kuiyuan, issued an unprecedented declaration
that Sangye Gyatso was henceforth to be considered a “separatist chieftain,” though he
carefully avoided reminding readers of the reasons. Positive mention of the Regent has
been banned in Tibet or elsewhere in China ever since.


The Party, it seems, does not forget the past, or at least not episodes in which its
imperial predecessors were outmaneuvred by Tibetans, lamas, or their appointees. This
is by no means the only perspective found among analysts in Beijing, much of whose
work is no doubt of great astuteness. But it provides an indication of the centuries
of mistrust that must be overcome before China and the Tibetan leadership can resolve
their differences.

April 6, 2011 10:30 a.m.

More information about the buddha-l mailing list