By Jonathan Kaiman for the Los Angeles Times
In China, it's not easy to become a “living Buddha.” First come the years of meditation and discipline. Then comes the bureaucracy.
“The highest level of living Buddhas must be approved by the central government,” Phurbu Tsering, the abbot of Sera Monastery near Tibet's capital, Lhasa, said at a meeting of China's rubber-stamp legislature on Monday. “Other Living Buddhas must be approved by local governments.”
China is laying down the law on reincarnation, as Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama — Tibet’s enormously influential spiritual leader — enters his twilight years with no successor in sight. Although the ruling Communist Party is an officially atheist organization – officials are barred from practicing religion – it is perennially uncomfortable with forces outside of its control, and has for years demanded the power to regulate the supernatural affairs of Tibetan Buddhist figures, determining who can and cannot be reincarnated.
The Dalai Lama, 80, fled the Himalayan region in 1959 after a failed uprising; Chinese authorities revile him as a “separatist,” although he claims to only want increased autonomy for the region.
Authorities have framed their bureaucratization of the afterlife as a bulwark against fraudulent, profiteering monks. Yet experts say it's also part of a wide-ranging effort to tighten control over the turbulent region.
“From the point of view of Beijing, the whole apparatus seems to be about giving Beijing control over the appointment of the next Dalai Lama,” said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University. The Chinese term huofo, or living Buddha, refers to high-ranking religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism, but it has no true equivalent in the Tibetan language.
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