The Economist, 21 March 2015
MY COLLEAGUE Banyan reports in the print edition this week on the surreal spat involving China and the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, who is nearly 80, has been denounced by Chinese officials and media for daring to suggest that he might not be reincarnated after his death. A European-based follower of the Tibetan leader, who knows him well, explains the position thus: “If there is no useful role for him to play spiritually, educationally, culturally, then there is no point in [his] coming back as the 15th Dalai Lama.” Such statements have been dismissed as “nonsense” in China, where it is presumably hoped that a manageable successor to the exiled leader will emerge, on Chinese territory.
This may be an extreme example, but plenty of similarly surreal situations have arisen in religious history. Authoritarian regimes generally want to co-opt religion as well as curb it; they want to make sure that faith’s huge mobilising power is used to their own benefit and not as an inspiration to their opponents. That maxim can apply at least as much to avowedly materialist or anti-religious regimes, and their successors, as to any other. The problem, from the state’s perspective, is that neither suppression nor co-opting tactics ever fully succeed, especially if the religion in question is great, ancient and resilient.
For one thing, if you repress a religion in one place, that can make it thrive elsewhere. Just as brilliant Russian theologians, fleeing the 1917 revolution, galvanised the Christian scene in France and England, Tibetan Buddhism now flourishes not only in Dharamsala, the Indian headquarters of the exiled Dalai Lama, but in around 40 other countries across the world. (It may be a back-handed compliment to the influence of diaspora Buddhism that about 25% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, though it’s a fair bet that not many of them fully understand the Buddhist concept.) Secondly, even in the epicentre of repression, harsh regimes generally underestimate the ability of great traditions to survive adversity.
In common with other religions, Buddhism in the Soviet Union suffered fierce repression in the 1930s, with many lamas sent to prison camps. Then the faith was allowed to play a carefully controlled part in stirring up patriotic sentiment during and after the second world war. But the Kalmyks, a historically Buddhist nation in European Russia, were deported eastwards in their entirety as a punishment for allegedly colluding with their German occupiers. Throughout all these travails, a tradition of Buddhist spiritual teaching (in which some ethnic Russians, from Leningrad, played a distinguished part) was never broken. Buddhist techiques of mind control can be quite a help, apparently, in enduring incarceration or exile.
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Buddhism ranks with Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism as one of the “traditional religions” whose leaders, in return for a broadly loyal stance, enjoy privileged access to the Kremlin. Religion-watchers think Mr Putin may be contemplating the re-creation of something like the Council for Religious Affairs which existed in communist times: a state bureaucracy which watches and regulates all forms of faith and obliges them to deal cordially with one another.
But co-opting religious leaders, and then expecting them to be predictably docile, never entirely succeeds, or at least cannot succeed indefinitely. However close they may be to the state, religious figures will lose credibility unless they sometimes stand up for the faith they profess. If they are completely supine, they are not much use. As Banyan points out, the Chinese-backed Panchen Lama (another senior spiritual figure in Tibetan Buddhism) has just made a few waves by speaking out on the need for more monks. Although his standing is low in the Buddhist diaspora, which believes there is another, more legitimate holder of that position, his rating would presumably be lower still unless he made such statements.
China backs its claim to be involved in Tibetan Buddhism, and specifically in the choosing of the Dalai Lama, by saying that an envoy of the Chinese emperor used to oversee the drawing of lots from a golden urn. Mr Putin, visiting Buryatia (a stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism) in 2013, traced his country’s oversight of the Buddhist faith to the Empress Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great. (The Russian bureaucracy for overseeing Islam, by contrast, claims to be following a tradition established by Catherine the Great.) It’s significant that both China and Russia root their declared right to monitor and channel religious life in epochs and regimes that long predate communism.
The trouble, from the state’s point of view, is that you can monitor and channel religions as much as you want, but you can never be sure which direction the current will flow. Religious traditions, if they are worth the name, can suddenly produce charismatic figures, mystical movements, prophets, seers, new incarnations and indeed all manner of things that no bureaucrat ever dreamed of. The state can respond to such phenomena but it cannot micro-manage them. Whatever happens after the end of the current Dalai Lama’s life (or, as some would say, the end of the Dalai Lama’s current life), that will surely be true of Tibetan Buddhism.