Reincarnation is a difficult gig for Buddhists. Being reborn for yet another life is not a good thing; bad karma (i.e., residue from bad choices in life) keeps a soul on the wheel of samsara. Because life-after-life involves suffering, a Buddhist strives for Nirvana, or enlightenment, which releases a soul from the cycle of being reborn yet again. Reincarnation is a difficult gig for Buddhists also because unlike Hinduism, Buddhism denies the very existence of a soul (atman) as an entity. How, then, can something that does not exist go on to be re-clothed in another body for another life? Yet another problem for the devout Buddhist concerns government officials who claim that they can decide whether a certain soul reincarnates, and if so, into which body. In 2014, for example, the Chinese government made it known that it would pick the next reincarnated Dalai Lama—the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.
In March 2015, Chinese officials declared that the Dalai Lama would indeed reincarnate in spite of the fact that he had announced that his soul might not reincarnate. Zhu Weiqun, a Communist Party official, told reporters that the Dalai Lama had no say over whether he would reincarnate. Zhu said it would be for the Chinese government to decide. “Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China,” he said in his capacity as leader of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The decision-making power would of course be used to maintain control over the Tibetan region of China. In other words, Chinese government officials intended to install a puppet Dalai Lama after the current Dalai Lama passes; he in turn was considering not reincarnating so the government could not do so. The decision, he said, “is up to the Tibetan people.” In short, the doctrine of reincarnation was at the center of a control battle between a government and a religious leader.
For a government to make such a decision and even claim the ability to find the reincarnated person after the then-current Dalai Lama’s death necessarily involves brazen presumption. Nevertheless, presumptuousness is also in the Dalai Lama’s assumption that whether he reincarnates is up to him or the Tibetan people. Implicit in the assumption is the belief that a person can know one’s own karma. Since the Buddha was aware when he was enlightened, however, the Dalai Lama could have stated that he had become enlightened and would not, therefore, reincarnate. Absent enlightenment, in other words, knowledge of what will happen after death is faulty at best. I must conclude that both Zhu and the Dalai Lama were taking religious liberties for the sake of achieving and maintaining control of an institution, the Dalai Lama. Buddhist enlightenment, in contrast, is a letting go of such a desire, as well as the suffering that undergirds it. From the perspective of a soul between bodies, what would it matter what is going on back here? A soul in the process of transmigration would presumably be carried on by its own past karmic residue rather than internally-directed forward so as to maintain control among the living.
In short, this case demonstrates that both government and institutional religion can over-reach. From a governmental standpoint, encroaching onto the religious domain is fraught with competency issues as well as a rather blatant category mistake. From the perspective of a religious functionary such as the Dalai Lama, the challenge involves not getting suckered into a government’s obsession—that of control—at the expense of the religious aims, such as enlightenment (i.e., not suffering anymore). In fact, that the Buddha’s orientation to eliminating suffering had been dwarfed by a reincarnation-metaphysic is itself problematic, for that metaphysic can allow for considerable clutching, and thus suffering. For the Dalai Lama to let go, and thus be free of the suffering that prompts a desire to maintain control and even over-reach, he would have to transcend reincarnation and even his belief that he has a soul. Ultimately, he would need to transcend his own institutional religion; it would not even make sense for him to say that he would or would not reincarnate!
1. Chris Buckley, “Feud with Dalai Lama Spills into the Afterlife,” The New York Times, March 12, 2015.