Exiled leader fights back at Chinese attempt to control Buddhist selection process

©Mary Altaffer/AP
The Dalai Lama.

The centuries-old tradition of choosing a new Dalai Lama may be about to change from the mysteries of reincarnation to the realities of a referendum to hold off the increasing influence of the Chinese government in the process.

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader yesterday offered the prospect of a referendum before he dies to decide how to pick the Himalayan people's next living Buddha - incensing China which insists on the right to approve incarnations.

At a gathering of religious leaders from around the world in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, the 72-year-old appeared to be prepared to break with a historic system to choose the spiritual and political head of the Tibetans.

"If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, it will continue," he told reporters.

"When my physical condition becomes weak, and there are serious preparations for death, then [the referendum] should happen," said the 1989 Nobel peace prizewinner. "[But] I am good for another few decades."

China, which has sought to snuff out Tibetan nationalism since its forces invaded in 1950, condemned the proposal. "The Dalai Lama's statement is in blatant violation of religious practice and historical procedure," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

In the past few months, Chinese politicians and the state-controlled media have stepped up the rhetoric against the Tibetan leader, who is accused of being a "splittist" because he advocates more autonomy for his people. It appears that Beijing's hardening position, after six rounds of talks over five years between the two sides, has prompted the Tibetan leader to consider radical options.

Traditionally "living Buddhas" are identified in boyhood through a mixture of tests and divination by Buddhist monks after a lama dies. But this summer Beijing announced it would control the process and reserve the right to approve incarnations - the final straw for the Tibetan government-in-exile that has operated for five decades from the Indian hill station of Dharamsala.

"The Communist party of China have no moral or spiritual basis for such measures," said Tempa Tsering, the Dalai Lama's representative in New Delhi. "Any attempt by the Chinese to pick a successor will result in false idols."

Tsering said Tibetans had already seen this happen with the second most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama. There are now two rival Panchens. The boy recognised by the Dalai Lama is now 19, and is said to be in a Chinese prison.

Analysts say the Dalai Lama's move is designed to avoid this "duplication of deities". First a poll of Tibetan Buddhists would determine whether they should continue with the Dalai Lama system. If the vote was yes, the Dalai Lama said he would be reincarnated after his death outside China or he would choose a new Dalai Lama before he died. There is a precedent for such events. Earlier this year the Dalai Lama said one of his teachers anointed his reincarnation while still alive.

In calling for a vote among traditional Tibetan Buddhist communities from the Himalayas to Mongolia, the Dalai Lama is challenging the dominance of communist governance over tens of millions of people and thousands of square miles of land within China. As well as Tibet, huge numbers of his followers are found in the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Inner Mongolia.

It is even possible the Dalai Lama may not be reincarnated at all. "Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism is incredibly complicated," said Phunchok Stobdan of New Delhi's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

"Mythology speaks of the next Dalai Lama not returning to earth. There is also a provision for a regent to rule in place of a Dalai Lama. Other times lamas have foretold the place and even the family into which they will be born."

Stobdan said China was vulnerable to external pressure in the run up to the Beijing Olympics - the reason why the Dalai Lama has been received by more heads of state than for many years.

To the anger of China, the monk has met US president George Bush and German chancellor Angela Merkel as well as holding talks with the heads of Australia, New Zealand, Austria and Canada.

The issue threatens to divide Europe, where China is using its growing economic clout to reward friends who refuse to meet the Dalai Lama, while introducing punitive actions against "difficult" countries that accept his visit.

Since Merkel met the Tibetan leader, China has halted a number of scheduled bilateral meetings with Germany. By contrast, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has avoided any mention of the subject on a visit to Beijing, where he has signed billions of dollars worth of nuclear and aviation deals.

The mood of Gordon Brown's first visit to China as prime minister - tentatively planned for early next year - would change dramatically if he received or expressed sympathy for the Dalai Lama before then.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the failed uprising against nine years of Chinese Communist party rule. Since then resistance has flared sporadically only to be suppressed with brutal ease.

Beijing's determination to control religion in Tibet remains unabated because Buddhism is so bound up with Tibetan identity. This week, 800 paramilitary police locked down the village of Baiga after a dispute between Tibetans and majority Han Chinese.