The Chinese rejection of the Dalai Lama’s choice of the next Panchen Lama, the second most important Tibetan lama, represents the greatest threat to the Tibetan institution of the incarnate lama in its history. It is a long history. With the decline of the Tibetan monarchy in the ninth century, political and religious authority shifted gradually to Buddhist teachers. Because many of these were Buddhist monks who had taken vows of celibacy, the problem of succession eventually arose. In some cases, authority was passed from a monk to his nephew. But by the fourteenth century (and perhaps even earlier) a form of succession had developed in Tibet that, although supported by Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, seems unique in the Buddhist world. This was the institution of the incarnate lama, or tulku (sprul sku). The term technically means the emanation body (nirmanakaya) of a buddha, the body that appears in the world to teach the dharma, taking whatever form, animate or inanimate, that is appropriate to benefit suffering sentient beings.
The Tibetans’ choice of this term for the incarnation of a great teacher implies a profound difference in the ways that ordinary beings and incarnate lamas take birth in the world. For the former, rebirth is harrowing, a frightful journey into the unknown and a process over which one has no control. The rebirth of an incarnate lama is a very different matter. As “emanation bodies,” incarnate lamas are technically already buddhas, free from the bonds of karma. Their rebirth is thus entirely voluntary. They need not be reborn at all, yet decide to return to the world out of their compassion for others. Furthermore, they exercise full control over their rebirth. For ordinary beings, rebirth must take place within forty-nine days from the time of death. Incarnate lamas are under no such constraints. For ordinary beings, the circumstances of the rebirth—the place, the parents, the form of the body, and the capacity of the mind—are instead all determined by karma, that is, they are the fruition of past deeds. For the incarnate lama, all of these are a matter of choice and are said to have been decided in advance, so that a dying lama will often leave instructions for his disciples as to where to find his next rebirth.
Since the fourteenth century, all sects of Tibetan Buddhism have adopted the practice of identifying the successive rebirths of a great teacher, the Dalai Lamas being the most famous of some three thousand tulkus. The institution of the incarnate lama has proved to be a central component of Tibetan society, providing the means by which authority and charisma, in all of their symbolic and material forms, are passed from one generation to another. Indeed, the spread of Tibetan Buddhism can effectively be traced by noting the increasingly large geographical areas in which incarnate lamas are discovered, extending today to Europe and North America. In a recent case of life imitating art, in Seattle (where the “Little Buddha” of Bertolucci’s movie was discovered), the son of a Tibetan father and American mother was identified as the new Deshung Rinpoche.
The incarnation system has weathered numerous crises. There have been disputes over succession, as for example in the case of the seventh Dalai Lama in the early eighteenth century. Some decades later, the Shamar Rinpoche sided with the Gurkhas in a war against Tibet in 1792. As a result, his future incarnation was outlawed, only to be restored. During the same period, in an apparent effort to end corruption in the choice of incarnations, the Manchu emperor Qianlong declared that Tibetans should use a lottery system, drawing the name of the next incarnation out of a golden urn. But the golden urn was rarely used, and when it was, it was simply employed to confirm the choice the Tibetans had already made by their own methods.
Since the Tibetan diaspora in 1959, the great majority of incarnate lamas have been discovered in the refugee communities, and not in Chinese-occupied Tibet. Nonetheless, because both the last Panchen Lama (who died in 1989) and his predecessor had had close ties with the Chinese, there was considerable speculation and anxiety about where the next Panchen Lama would be discovered.
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