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Two Dalai Lamas?

by Maclean Kay, Calgary Herald, Nov 30, 2007

Calgary, Canada -- Reincarnation is hard enough to grasp, but choosing your reincarnated self before you die? That’s a really mind-melting concept.

To better ensure a worthy and politically independent successor, the Dalai Lama has suggested he might select his eventual replacement himself.  This is problematic, because according to Buddhist belief, each successive Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the one before; His Holiness’ idea of reincarnating before he actually dies is difficult to digest.

Traditionally, he would be chosen (or, if you prefer, found) among young boys born in Tibet shortly after the previous Dalai Lama dies.  Lower-level Lamas search Tibet, usually for a few years, seeking young male children who appear to be familiar with certain possessions of the previous Dalai Lama.  (One can also be forgiven for thinking it’s not hard to find two-year-olds who think everything is “mine.”) Once discovered, the reincarnation is brought to Lhasa to be trained.

The reason for breaking with centuries of religious tradition is nakedly political. Relations between the Dalai Lama and Beijing have seldom been worse.  Beijing considers Tibet an integral part of China, and isn’t shy about making it so: thousands of ethnic Han Chinese have been moved there, which the Dalai Lama has called “cultural genocide.”

What’s more, Beijing claims the next Dalai Lama will need its permission to be reincarnated.  That is, the reincarnation of the Living Buddha would be selected by an officially atheist communist.  By seizing control of the selection process, Beijing hopes to co-opt a persistent irritant and quash not only Tibetan separatist sentiment, but considerable sympathy for it worldwide.

Did His Holiness overplay his hand?  Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike may be forgiven for puzzling over the idea of reincarnating before death.  While wonder is a prerequisite for religion, can too much wonder lead to outright disbelief?

The truth is this is nothing new.  Reactions to external or internal political pressures shape much (not all) of the doctrines and Truths held dear by many mainstream religions.

For example, if you asked to meet “Jesus Christ” in first-century Galilee, you’d be met with a blank stare.  There is little historical doubt this man existed, but he certainly wasn’t called Jesus, but Jeshua or Yahshua.  Why wouldn’t he be referred to that today?  Christians regard him as the Son of God and saviour of man, but don’t even have his name right?

In the early years when Christians were still persecuted, a number of “apologists” wrote open letters defending Christianity, acting much like news pundits taking positions on current hot topics.  They all wrote in Greek, as was conventional at the time, and used Greek concepts and ideas to portray Christianity as more than a troublesome, breakaway Jewish sub-sect.

Much like Charles, Carlos, and Karl are linguistic variations of the same name, when the apologists referred to the Big Man himself, they used Hellenized version, Iesous. (The letter J wouldn’t exist for another 1,300 years.)  According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, some even called him “Jason,” phonetically similar, but more fashionably heroic.  We refer to the Son of God not by what he was called, but by what others felt was a more marketable, less Jewish name, just like Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas.

A more recent and much more comparable example: the fourth president of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Wilford Woodruff, publicly declared the end of Mormon polygamy in 1890.  He wrote in his diary this was “for the temporal salvation of the Church,” in the face of fierce American opposition to Mormons in general and statehood for Utah for particular.  Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Utah became a state of the union six years later.  Woodruff overturned an institution that had been held as a revelation from God to the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and he did so for very wordly reasons: namely, statehood.

 What appeared to have been cynical acts by the apologists and Woodruff didn’t diminish the faith of their believers: both Christianity and its Mormon offshoot thrived afterwards.  That’s the thing with faith and metaphysics: whatever the details, the core principles and beliefs are unaffected.

If Christians call the Son of God by something other than his name, if Mormon men marry but one woman despite the urgings of their first prophet, and if the Dalai Lama reincarnates before he dies, these are still just details.  Just like Boccaccio’s Abraham, who witnesses the Roman clergy’s depravity and converts to Catholicism, because only a true faith could survive such corruption, people who want to believe can rationalize just about anything.

If the "Living Buddha" decides he can reincarnate before he dies, who am I to argue?  Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing him shake hands with himself.

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