There are some events that are so absurd that a straightforward report cannot be adequately satirized: the report is its own satire. On March 11, 2015, The New York Times reported that the Chinese government is greatly upset by a remark of the Dalai Lama that he may decide not to be reincarnated. For several centuries the succession of the Dalai Lama, the highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism, has been decided after his death or even before by a group of High Lamas (monks with superior spiritual powers). Following ancient rituals of divination this committee goes in search of a child who will exhibit characteristics that indicate the supernatural presence of the preceding Dalai Lama. The term “succession” is somewhat misleading: in traditional Tibetan belief the Dalai Lama has always been the same; his spiritual self just migrates from one body to another. (Another misleading term here–most Buddhist schools have held that the self is an illusion.) Actually, he always succeeds himself.The present Dalai Lama (#14 in the sequence) is soon to turn 80 in this incarnation, so the problem of “succession” may not be far off. I don’t know whether any previous holder of the office decided to forego reincarnation. (In Buddhist understanding this implies that the individual in question has attained full Buddha-status and thus can escape the endless cycle of incarnations—unless he decides to delay his final departure and, out of compassion for all “sentient beings”, becomes a Bodhisattva and continues to preach the Eightfold Path—I’m not clear whether that is what #14 has in mind). Not long ago he said that the choice belongs to the Tibetan people, presumably via the government-in-exile in India, and that the search for the lucky child should avoid any territory under Chinese control.I have deep respect for Buddhism, which I regard as the most interesting antithesis of the monotheistic faiths of Western Asia. However, I assume that the agitation of the Chinese government does not derive from respect for Buddhist metaphysics, but from much more mundane concerns. In anticipation of the problem of succession the government issued a law prohibiting “unauthorized reincarnations”. After the recent threat of the Dalai Lama to forego reincarnation, Zhu Weigun, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, made the following statement: “Decision-making over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama… resides in the central government of China”. The recusal of the Dalai Lama is a “betrayal” of Tibetan Buddhism. The government has long waged a campaign against the Dalai Lama, whom it regards as a “splittist” and an enemy. He must not be allowed to control his own succession, which Beijing intends to manipulate in order to bring about a result it favors. It previously employed this measure in the choice of the Panchen Lama, the second person in the Tibetan hierarchy.The dominant form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet belongs to the Tantric version of the religion. Tantra is a very ancient Indian tradition of meditation, broadly related to Yoga, with influences on both Hinduism and Buddhism. Its main characteristic is the close connection of physical and spiritual disciplines. There are some sexual practices in that tradition which have attracted some prurient interest in Western countries, but I understand that these practices are rather marginal in the Asian countries of origin. The techniques employed in the search for the reincarnated Dalai Lama are mostly rooted in Tantric divination—discovering a child’s memories of past lives, reactions of the child to objects related to the previous incarnation, dreams and visions of lamas on the search committee, especially if experienced on a ceremonial visit to a putatively sacred lake in Tibet. These omens are taken very seriously. But of course they can be faked and manipulated by agents of government for the purpose of achieving a politically desired outcome. This of course is what the Communist government did successfully in the selection of the Panchen Lama, and what it intends to do in the next round—an intention cleverly subverted in what will likely be the present Dalai Lama’s final act of defiance. No wonder that the Communist authorities are enraged! They are not the first to have tried this type of interference in the divination process. The Manchu dynasty tried it during the last imperial period in China.This episode should be seen in the context of the emerging policies of Xi Jinping, president of the Chinese People’s Republic since March 2013. It’s a bit early to tell, but a few features of his regime are becoming clearer. He is definitely not a political reformer—no signs of Gorbachev-like glasnost. In foreign policy, he is a proponent of a strong assertion of China’s role as a big power, especially in its back yard. He also favors a preservation of market economics—a robust capitalism as the centerpiece of the “Chinese road to socialism”. He is pushing through at least a rhetorical campaign against corruption, with attendant purges of Communist party cadres. He has been increasing authoritarianism, tightening control over dissidents, and building a personality cult for himself the likes of which have not been seen since the time of Mao. He has renewed the emphasis on Party rule and a (probably not quite serious) insistence that the Party continues to adhere to the ideology of Marxism-Maoism (including its materialist worldview). There seems to be a tightening of control over religious institutions, especially Christian ones. The virtually hysterical attack on the Falun Gong as an “evil cult” (the concept is elastic) belongs in this picture.There is little doubt that some of the practices in the Tantric tradition contain elements of magic, though these became more muted in the sophisticated Hindu and Buddhist developments. But there is one matter in which Marxism and Confucianism have something in common: a contempt for magic and superstition, and the identification of these with religion in general. The enlightened person has no use for either, though both can on occasion be useful in enlisting the uneducated masses for political purposes of the elite. As to Marxism, the following episode from the Soviet Union could just as well refer to a Party member in China: A group of American tourists are being shown around by an Intourist guide. (Intourist was closely watched by the security services to make sure that the tourists do not see what they are not supposed to see and have no illicit conversations with uncontrolled locals.) In this episode a group of American tourists has just left their hotel for the day’s planned activities. Just then a black cat runs across in front of the group. One American says, not really seriously: “A black cat running across our path. Perhaps we should go back and start over again?” The Intourist guide is puzzled, then says: “Oh, I understand—you are religious!”.It is impossible today to read the Times or any other newspaper with good international coverage without one story after another crying out for a good satirist (or a retired script writer for Monty Python looking for work):
- Barack Obama, who campaigned against George W. Bush’s “war against terrorism” now seeking allies for his “war on extremism”.
- Marine Le Pen, head of the Front National (now the third-largest party in France), repudiated the notorious anti-Semitism of her father (the founder of her party) in exchange with fiercely anti-Muslim rhetoric.
- China’s ruthless capitalism presided over by a Communist government displaying many red flags and a large picture of Mao at the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
- Avigdor Lieberman, an outspokenly anti-Arab member of Netanyahu’s government, had advocated for a law which raised the threshold for a party entering the Knesset to 3.25% of the popular vote. Even with a lower percentage, the divided parties of the Arab minority (which consists of 20% of the population of Israel) had little influence in national politics. Lieberman’s own party, Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel is our Home”) ended up just barely scraping by the threshold with 5% of the vote, winning six seats in the Knesset. The newly formed party comprising all existing Arab parties, the Joing Arab List, confidently crossed the threshold and ended up with 13 seats. (How does one say in Hebrew “hoist by his own petard”’?)
I will conclude by mentioning my intention to play an active role in the following three organizations, which do not (yet) exist, but should: Speech-Impaired Rappers against Discrimination. LESIHA – Lesbian Surfers for the Independence of Hawaii. Tea Party Donors for a National Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in El Paso,Texas. To every reader of my blog: Vaya con Dios!