BBC hosts debate on whether and where the Dalai Lama will reincarnate

What the bloody hell is up with the BBC? Reader Steve (with the side comment “fookin idjits!”) called my attention to a discussion on the BBC News site in which four people debate whether and where the present Dalai Lama will reincarnate. That’s like the Beeb having a serious debate on whether Xenu stored preserved humans in volcanoes before blowing them up with hydrogen bombs, and whether Paul Haggis is still afflicted with thetans.

This is all because the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso—in exile in India—has affirmed that he will refuse to reincarnate in Tibet, and therefore may be the last Dalai Lama. In response, the Chinese government has insisted that the 15th and next Dalai Lama will indeed reincarnate in Tibet.

This is all hilarious stuff, but also shows that the common assertion that Gyatso is down with science is completely bogus.  He believes in reincarnation, for crying out loud!

Anyway, here are a few inadvertently rib-tickling excerpts from the BBC debate.

Chonpen Tsering: Reincarnation process must not be manipulated

Chonpen Tsering is the Dalai Lama’s representative in northern Europe.

“The lamas – the senior religious figures – are able to determine firstly whether they are reborn, and if they are going to be reborn, where they’ll be reborn.

“The present carnation, the present Dalai Lama, can decide. The rebirth is his choice.

*******

Jia Xiudong: Dalai Lama is playing a political game

Jia Xiudong is senior research fellow at the China Institute of international studies in Beijing.

“I believe that the tradition will be maintained [and] the Dalai Lama will be reincarnated.

“There’s a role for the current Dalai Lama to play for the reincarnation, but I believe he should not exaggerate that role.

“For example, he just cannot stop the tradition individually.

“It is tradition passed from centuries ago.

*******

Robert Barnett: China wants a ‘tame’ lama

Robert Barnett is director of the Modern Tibet Studies Programme at Columbia University in New York.

“I think we have to look at all of this as negotiating moves on both sides. So the Dalai Lama is making these speculative, philosophical statements about, ‘I might be coming back, I might not. I might come back as a woman.’

“This is his normal method as a Buddhist teacher of the kind that he is to make people think. But it’s also a negotiating move with the Chinese to expose them to the kind of ridicule that they’ve put themselves in now by claiming to be able to arbitrate on matters like religion and reincarnation.

“This Dalai Lama has been so effective as a religious leader, even more so than as a political leader, that there’s going to be huge force among his followers for him to come back. So it’s quite likely that it’s going to happen.”

*******

Jamyang Norbu: Dalai Lama must reincarnate for the sake of Tibet’s future

Tibetan writer and activist Jamyang Norbu fell out of favour with the present Dalai Lama when he criticised his “softly softly” approach to China.

“He doesn’t have much of a choice. The lama’s reincarnating is a political institution.

“It’ll have to be the choice of the Tibetan government in exile and of the people.

“China will have their candidate up and running, and you can be 100% sure that they will.

“They’ll just pick some Tibetan kid who looks cute enough and they’ll put him up there and they’ll say, ‘This is the Dalai Lama.’

“If we don’t have our own candidate from the general Tibetan Buddhist world, then they win by proxy.

*******

And my own addition:

Professor Ceiling Cat: This is all insane.

I’ve been to Tibet, and it’s sad to see the systematic dismantling of Tibetan culture by the Han Chinese. When I visited monasteries, monks would furtively ask me if I could give them a picture of the Dalai Lama (Gyatso), as those pictures are forbidden.

That said, if you know about the old Buddhist theocracy in Tibet, it was by no means a paradise. Further, Tibetan Buddhism is just as rife with superstition and delusion as any other faith. It is romanticized in the West, but that’s largely because the religion is being suppressed by the Chinese government.

One of those superstitions is reincarnation, and here it’s being used in a political chess game between Tibetan Buddists, the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government. There is, of course, no way to prove that any child born, whether he be in Tibet, India, or elsewhere, is a reincarnated Dalai Lama, though Buddhists do have some “tests” (seeing, for instance, if a kid recognize objects belonging to the last Dalai Lama).

I can’t resolve this problem, but I can add two things. First, the Dalai Lama is given undue respect. He’s the Pope of Buddhism, and though he’s pretty friendly to science, still believes in superstitions like reincarnation and karma. But in general he does follow the physician’s dictum: “First do no harm.” Second, the BBC is crazy to host a debate like this. They can write an article about the fracas, and give the different opinions, but they needn’t have people taking reincarnation seriously. If they do, they could at least write a disclaimer: “Note: There is no reliable evidence for a human soul, nor for the fact that it can leave the body of a dead person and install itself into a child.”

 

64 Comments

  1. Matt G
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Well I, for one, hope he does reincarnate, if only because I don’t want the Christians to have a monopoly on that “coming back to life” stuff.

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Jesus only came back to life once, and he didn’t do much. Dalai Lama has come back to life 13 times. The latest Lama had a little boxing match with Brian Blessed. I’m sure he’s accomplished more than that but that was probably a big moment for him, still something more than a Jesus has done.

      • Posted March 25, 2015 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

        “GYATSO’S ALIVE!!!”

        /@

        • Matt G
          Posted March 25, 2015 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          The tomb was empty!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 26, 2015 at 1:06 am | Permalink

        What’s the betting Brian Blessed will reincarnate forever. Anywhere there’s a huge, loud, hairy character with the personality of a bulldozer… 😉

  2. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    When the Dalai Lama dies, the current political situation means there will be several kids claimed to be his next incarnation, like when there were multiple popes. It’s all about power and control, as always with religion.

    I’ve seen something recently that claims that by 2050, China will be the country with the most Christians. It’s actually not unlikely with all the Christian proselytizing there. What effect that will have is interesting to contemplate.

    • Posted March 25, 2015 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      I was just reading about the multiple popes — Bertrand Russell has a particularly memorable passage about it.

      At last, in 1409, a council was summoned, and met at Pisa. It failed, however, in a ridiculous manner. It declared both popes deposed for heresy and schism, and elected a third, who promptly died; but his cardinals elected as his successor an ex -pirate named Baldassare Cossa, who took the name of John XXIII. Thus the net result was that there were three popes instead of two, the conciliar pope being a notorious ruffian.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted March 25, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Quelle surprise! A criminal pope! ‘Cause that never happens … 🙂

        • Posted March 25, 2015 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          Looking a bit deeper, it turns out the Catholic Church has decided he was an anti-pope, one of a long list of many. I never knew such a thing existed!

          • StephaJL
            Posted March 25, 2015 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

            Indeed, some authors list over forty of them. Mary Stroll has a very recent monograph on the phenomenon in the 11th century, & others have published studies of some individual antipopes.

            On a slightly tangential note which may be of interest to readers here, the example of the papacy was recently used to support a theory of theocracy as a form of dictatorship: Wintrobe & al. “The Dictatorship of the Popes”. Kyklos 66.3 (2013).

            • HaggisForBrains
              Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

              Do popes and antipopes annihilate each other if they touch?

              • stephajl
                Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

                Oh mi gato — you may have just invented the most powerful weapon this world has ever known! All we need to do is foment another Schism or convince Ratzinger to make a play for reinstatement, & we could control the world.
                (^_-)

              • Posted March 25, 2015 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

                In fact it’s necessary that they do so to create the bosons that give rise to mass.

                /@

              • Posted March 26, 2015 at 3:19 am | Permalink

                That’s the secret history behind the Schism — it was orchestrated by the Vatican to prevent just such a meeting!

              • tony in san diego
                Posted March 26, 2015 at 8:44 am | Permalink

                That’s where the God Particle comes from!

        • dongiovanni
          Posted March 25, 2015 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          Jacques du Cahors, if I remember corruptly. Also known for persecuting Franciscans.

        • dongiovanni
          Posted March 25, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          *correctly.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

        “…an ex -pirate named Baldassare Cossa, who took the name of John XXIII.”

        Damn. There went our only chance to have Pope Bald Ass.

        • Posted March 26, 2015 at 3:20 am | Permalink

          Yes, would have been a good compliment to Pope Boniface!

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 26, 2015 at 4:19 am | Permalink

            😀

    • StephaJL
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      I hadn’t even thought of that! I hope the situation doesn’t become too … messy.

  3. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    When I visited monasteries, monks would furtively ask me if I could give them a picture of the Dalai Lama (Gyatso), as those pictures are forbidden.

    I hear pictures of Phil Silvers can be problematic as well.

    Tourist Had to Get It Off Her Chest: ‘Dalai Lama’ Was Sgt. Bilko
    November 13, 1987|Associated Press
    LONDON — A Chinese soldier in Tibet who tried to tear off a British woman’s “Sergeant Bilko” T-shirt has become the first known case of someone mistaking Phil Silvers for the Dalai Lama…

    • Randy Schenck
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Well, that’s a good one. Not many looking in today who would have a clue what you are talking about…Sargeant Bilko T-shirt. Has to be 1950s TV.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted March 25, 2015 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        It’s probably a good tip for travelling in Tibet – take along a few pics of the Dalai Lama to use as tips. Just don’t get caught doing it.

  4. Alex Shuffell
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    The Chinese government deciding who will be the next Dalai Lama is the sort of thing that will create new sects of Buddhism. There will be people complaining that the Chinese chosen Lama isn’t really reincarnated and there will be dozens of parents deciding that their new baby is the real reincarnation of the Lama. Maybe with the Chinese government being able to select and raise the new Lama kid they can bring back the idea of an Emperor of China.

    • Posted March 25, 2015 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      “I’m the Dali Lama. And so is my wife!”

      /@

      • stephajl
        Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        I burst out laughing when I read this! It reminded me of two things:
        1) “I am Spartacus”. “No, I am Spartacus”. … etc.
        2) The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (Vaughan Bell provides a diverting account here: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2010/05/jesus_jesus_jesus.html)

        • Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          But not _The Life of Brian_?

          /@

          • stephajl
            Posted March 25, 2015 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

            That too! — but then the others crowded it out, particularly the Three Christs of Ypsilanti. (Apparently, a lama can have several incarnations simultaneously. I wonder if there has ever been an anti-lama …).

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        That’s just surreal.

  5. Dominic
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    We can say that he did not get any choice in taking this job, or so I suppose!

  6. docbill1351
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Apparently at the BBC they’ve been binge watching DOCTOR WHO.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      “Make me one with everything…”
      “Change comes from within…”!

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      If thirteen regenerations is not too many for a Time Lord…

  7. rtkufner
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    “Reincarnation process must not be manipulated”

    “Dalai Lama must reincarnate for the sake of Tibet’s future”

    Coffee was spilled: from nostrils.

  8. rtkufner
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    *spewed

  9. Jeff Rankin
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    …by claiming to be able to arbitrate on matters like religion and reincarnation.

    Hey, I actually think Robert Barnett is on the right track! But not in the way he expects and on a different scale.

  10. Dave
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Why don’t they just clone the old fraud before he dies? That would end the kerfuffle once and for all.

    Personally, I have very little time for all this “Free Tibet” stuff. It seems to be mainly an affectation of westerners mesmerized by the image of an idyllic Shangri-La full of gongs, prayer flags, incense and happy smiling peasants who are just longing to live in a mediaeval theocracy. The fact that an independent Tibet would probably be a wretched, impoverished backwater ruled by a bloated class of unelected clerical parasites doesn’t seem to bother them. For all its faults (and yes, I acknowledge they are many and various), remaining part of China at least holds out the chance for some development and modernity to take hold in Tibet. I’m not convinced that Tibetans would be better off in an independent state than where they are now.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      … For all its faults (and yes, I acknowledge they are many and various), remaining part of China at least holds out the chance for some development and modernity to take hold in Tibet. I’m not convinced that Tibetans would be better off in an independent state than where they are now.

      The way that native Americans are better off in the USA? That development and modernity is mostly going to the benefit of ethnic Chinese moving in, not to the native Tibetans.

    • Posted March 25, 2015 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Well, I will grant you that the Tibetan society pre-1950 was a pretty brutal feudal one.

      But are they better off under the Chinese? I don’t think so. The Chinese are doing their best to erase the Tibetan culture (except in tame “zoos” for foreign visitors).

      How about independence and a modern system? Doesn’t seem impossible to me.

      • Posted March 26, 2015 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        More the point – the idea is simply that the Tibetans should have the freedom (political, not metaphysical :)) to decide for themselves how they want to live. (Individually and collectively.) This does not entail independence (or the reverse).

        Unfortunately, there are so many Han and other non-Tibetan Chinese in Tibet now, any solution is likely to be awkward.

    • Posted March 26, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      Counterexample: Bhutan. Please inform yourself.

  11. quiscalus
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Can’t they just clone him? Then he’d be the “Dolly-Lama”!

    I”ll be here all week, folks!

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      That was good!

  12. Kevin
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    “Beam me up Scotty” – Dalai Lama_n

    “Beam me back Scotty” – Dalai Lama_n+1

    “Oh crap, I am little again. Damn you Heisenberg compensators” – Dali Lama_n+1

  13. Posted March 25, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I find this a little sad too. Here’s a people trying to preserve their culture and resorting to belief in belief to make the politics right.

  14. Posted March 25, 2015 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ll believe in reincarnation when a baby is born that can speak a language fluently, and preferably an ancient one (eg. Ancient Greek or Egyptian). Surely if you are reincarnated, if you have even some of the memories of your past life then you would remember how to communicate instead of having to be taught.

  15. Posted March 25, 2015 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    When I was in Nepal, I bought a stack of cards with photos of the DL on them. Whenever I met someone in a special place who was evidently of Tibetan origin (easy to tell generally speaking) I handed them one of the cards. They were thrilled. It was pretty amazing to watch, actually.

    Would I do it now? Maybe so. It made them happy. Nothing I would ever do would deflect their reverence for the DL. I am opposed to the cultural cleansing being carried out by the Chinese in Tibet.

  16. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    As a gesture of solidarity, I too affirm that I will not reincarnate in Tibet.

    • Michael
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      That’s up to the Chinese government.

  17. Si
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Probably most western media cleave to the politically correct view that every religious idea – no matter how ridiculous – must be respected.

    You might be doing the Dalai Lama a disservice though – this may be a purely political move.

    • StephaJL
      Posted March 25, 2015 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      I wondered something similar when I read it. Does he *really* believe? Or is he just a very savvy politician & making these noises for political reasons? (Or am I being unusually cynical?)

  18. Jacky
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    To Jerry Coyne, in response to your comment “This is all hilarious stuff, but also shows that the common assertion that Gyatso is down with science is completely bogus. He believes in reincarnation, for crying out loud!” Can you prove non existence of soul and next life? At least Dalai Lama is making an effort to bring materialistic science and inner science of buddhism together.

    • Posted March 25, 2015 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Read Chapter 10 of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, “The Dragon in My Garage,” and then get back to me.

    • Posted March 25, 2015 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      Also Sean Carroll’s presentation at Skepticon 5.

      /@

  19. lanicarroll
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Oh, sigh, disheartening. I’ve been a Tibetan Buddhist pretty much all my life, almost as long as I’ve been an atheist, and I’ve got to say, if you understand the Buddhist theories of reincarnation, you’re doing better than I am. Apparently, though, a lot of people understand them perfectly–perhaps by a principal of osmosis, since I don’t think these people have read Tsongkhapa, say–and on the basis of this understanding can confidently dismiss Buddhism as being dumb, dumb, dumb. (Though, for instance, Buddhism absolutely does not believe in the existence of a soul, so I question the accuracy of this osmotic knowledge.)

    It’s quite true that many Buddhists have the primitive beliefs about all this that are being attributed to the Dalai Lama, but he’s a highly educated man—I would hesitate to guess what his understanding is. But to criticize the Dalai Lama for supposedly believing in your own crude version of reincarnation–isn’t this classic straw man stuff?

    **And the Dalai Lama’s position is not comparable to the Pope’s in any way, shape, or form. He is a member of the Gelugpa sect, one of four Tibetan sects (and one Tibetan non-Buddhist sect), and he has absolutely no authority to dictate what any of the other sects believe—everyone would be shocked if he tried. He’s been attempting, for very good reasons, to influence Gelugpa beliefs on one highly-charged issue (an issue dear old Hitch completely misrepresented in God Is Not Great), but this is very unusual for a Dalai Lama. (This is the problem with a refutation-long and boring, I’m afraid, and not nearly as interesting as a one-liner.)**

    Hahah—I feel like those Christians who are always sniveling, “You just don’t understand our religion,” but it is disconcerting to see Westerners again and again trivialize a magnificent philosophical tradition based their contempt for the most primitive of new-age beliefs. Guys, Buddhism is not equivalent to karma, tarot, seances, table tapping, tea-leaf reading, or talking to your dead Aunt Mildred via tin cans and string. Really.

    • Posted March 25, 2015 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      Will, reading what the Dali Lama himself wrote (“Reincarnation” http://ow.ly/KOgYX), there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly hard to understand, on the basis that he intended to write clearly in plain English.

      It is apparent from that article that the Dali Lama believes that the mind continues between lives: “nothing can eliminate the continuity of subtle clarity and awareness”.

      This is clearly a claim that the mind exists as mentality distinct from matter. He underscores this plainly himself: “no modern psychologist, physicist, or neuroscientist has been able to observe or predict the production of mind either from matter or without cause.

”

      Mentality without matter is a classic definition of supernaturalism.

      So, Jerry’s criticism here seems entirely warranted.

      /@

  20. Posted March 25, 2015 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Lama #14 admits there is no power of prayer and that you don’t need religion to be moral in his 2009 update of “Art of Happiness” and he sucks up to science in his speeches often enough but he is still as out there as they come. I posted this past July on his rather absurd beliefs despite his lip service to science at: http://wearedone.org/?p=1904

    astrology, reincarnation, divination….

  21. lanicarroll
    Posted March 25, 2015 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ant.

    I don’t agree, but you’ve made me curious. I was reading someplace recently that the Dalai Lama was speculating to some of the neuroscientists he’s fond of meeting with that there couldn’t be consciousness without a physical basis, so it’s something he thinks about (and, as I said, he was leaning toward the necessity of a physical basis). I’ve always thought that Buddhism insisted on a physical basis, but I’m not completely sure. Now I’m going to have to do some research! “Subtle clarity and awareness”–the Buddhist concepts aren’t necessarily easy to define, but I don’t think they imply an absence of a physical basis. As I said, time for research.

    Some of these high lamas had educations that are hard for us to imagine, the kind of education that probably doesn’t exist anywhere anymore. The Dalai Lama was brought up studying Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka, which would be like growing up studying Wittgenstein. He’s by no stretch of the imagination a brainwashed sheep.

    For me, reincarnation in Buddhism has always seemed almost indistinguishable from total extinction, so it’s just not that interesting. What reincarnates? Maybe a tendency. Certainly not a person, since a person doesn’t exist as a solid thing in the first place. It’s all very tenuous, and not very interesting, but in the West, Buddhism=reincarnation, and reincarnation of a person. Sigh. Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka, that’s where the good stuff is.

  22. Posted March 26, 2015 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Makes me think of that hilarious headline that I’ve seen the other day in a German newspaper (here in my translation): “Chinese CP wants to force the Dalai Lama to reincarnate” (for those who can read German: http://sz.de/1.2390056). Ever since I read that I’ve been wondering how the are gonna do it … force it at gunpoint? Threaten to sue him if he doesn’t? The suspense is rising!

  23. Rational Mind
    Posted March 26, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. They are obviously on the horns of a Dalai Lama. 🙂


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