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According to the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), once characterized religion as “poison.” The modern CCP maintains official atheism to this day, but that hasn’t stopped officials from claiming control over the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation.
Angered by recent comments by the 14th Dalai Lama, 79, that he might not have a successor, Chinese officials have lashed out at the exiled spiritual leader and reasserted long-standing policies that grant them control over the recognition of reincarnate lamas.
“It's none of their business,” Tenzin Dolkar, executive director of the New York–based Students for a Free Tibet, said in a statement to Tricycle. “The Chinese government needs first and foremost to prioritize addressing the grievances of the Tibetan people which have led to at least 137 self-immolations in Tibet, end its repressive policies, respect the rights of the Tibetan people, and end its illegal colonial occupation of Tibet.”
The overwhelming majority of last words or written statements by Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 have called for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet or included wishes for his long life. But the current Dalai Lama’s popularity inside Tibet has not kept CCP officials from taking a hardline position on the man they consider to be a dangerous separatist.
That hard line extends into the afterlife.
“Whether we're talking about the Dalai Lama's reincarnation or the continuation of his lineage, accepting or rejecting it is in the hands of the Chinese government—not other people, and certainly not the Dalai Lama himself,” Zhu Weiqun, who heads the Chinese government committee that handles ethnic and political affairs, told reporters earlier this month.
Zhu went on to accuse the Dalai Lama of adjusting his public statements about his future reincarnation based on donations and of using his religious title as “a lever, a tool of separatist doctrine.” Padma Choling, the appointed governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, made similar comments a day earlier.
“This man-made institution will cease. There’s no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama [won’t] come along that disgraces himself or herself. That’s very sad. So [it’s] much better that the centuries-old tradition cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama,” he told the BBC, before breaking into laughter.
The aging leader also made some serious points, telling Die Welt that since he devolved his political authority to an elected government in 2011, the institution of the Dalai Lama may have “had its day.” In the end, he told the BBC, the institution’s future will be up to the Tibetan people.
Yet China has long claimed authority over the reincarnation process. In the 18th century, the Qing Emperor imposed a system for confirming Tibetan reincarnations by lottery, which was then only used a handful of times. In 1995, however, Chinese officials revived the system to install their own candidate as the 11th Panchen Lama, detaining a young boy whom the Dalai Lama had recognized. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Reincarnation has reemerged as a political issue with the approach of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday next July and his recent comments about his successor.
“Zhu Weiqun's comments represent the strong opinions of the majority of upper-level Party officials,” Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer and journalist who lives in Beijing, told Tricycle in an online message. “They have the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard, and the Kuomintang behind them—domineering, dumb attitudes. So, it's futile to consider the issue of Tibet or whether His Holiness the Dalai Lama will or will not return to Tibet under such power grabbers. . . . This proves once again that the CCP lacks sincerity and has no plans whatsoever to work with the Tibetan people to address what they're hoping for with regard to the Tibet issue.”
The matter of whether or not it is possible to negotiate with the Chinese government in good faith is controversial within the Tibetan community, with some arguing for the necessity of nonviolent protests to pressure the Chinese government into negotiations and others arguing for an exclusively diplomatic approach.
Recent comments by Zhu, Padma Choling, and other Chinese officials are likely to aggravate that disagreement, which is tied up in larger questions of whether Tibetans should seek full independence or simply greater autonomy within China. The Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration adopted a policy of seeking autonomy rather than independence around 1974.
“The Chinese leadership are pragmatic,” said Kaydor Aukatsang, the Dalai Lama’s representative to the Americas. “They know they will never find someone more moderate or easier to deal with than the current Dalai Lama. . . . So while His Holiness is still healthy and active, the Chinese government should seriously reevaluate their positions and seriously consider reaching out to His Holiness.”
Joshua Eaton is an independent journalist who covers religion and society, human rights, and national security. Shan Wang contributed translations from Chinese.
When I first started practicing meditation, my teacher taught me that the breath—ever-present and unconditional—is the link between body and mind. When we place our full attention on the breath, we pull ourselves out of the past, away from the future, and directly into the present moment. Or at least that’s how the common instruction goes. But using the breath to enter the proverbial here-and-now is easier said than done.
The first few times I sat to meditate, I tried to focus on the steady rise and fall of the chest and the sensation of the air passing in and out through the nostrils. When my mind wandered away, I noted the distraction and returned my attention back to the breath. It didn’t take long for me to notice that my inhalations felt short and shallow, like I wasn’t taking in very much air. I also experienced tightness and congestion in my chest and throat. These sensations weren’t surprising—my breathing had been fraught since I was a kid. Growing up, I often experienced scary bouts of shortness of breath and wheezing. I managed these breathing issues by distracting myself and avoiding the activities that aggravated them. As I got older, I hoped they would go away on their own.
Alas, as I progressed with my meditation practice, the distressed breathing remained right there to greet me. Coming face-to-face with my breathing did not bring me into the coveted present moment; it dredged up memories of coughing during soccer practice and waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air. I began to lose faith in my ability to meditate. With my breath causing so much anxiety, how could I ever use it to deepen my practice?
Around this time I began to study pranayama, a yogic discipline that offers many different techniques for steadying and controlling the breath. I discovered two very useful practices to prepare for meditation. These techniques are especially helpful for those who feel anxious or feel tightness in their chests and air passages. Both practices can bring equanimity to the breath and a sensation of expansiveness to the chest, preparing one to sit in a steady and composed manner.
Stabilize the Breath with Equal-Part Breathing
Prolonged anxiety and stress can cause irregular breathing patterns like sighing, yawning, and huffing. As these disruptive habits find their way into our meditation practice, we may discover it very difficult to steady the mind. To reestablish balanced breathing prior to meditation, try the following modified practice of sama vrtti, or equal-part breathing.
In sama vrtti, we produce inhalations that last the same duration as exhalations. To begin, sit up very tall in order to lengthen your torso as much as possible. Take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale, also entirely through the nose. Then start to inhale through the nose as you count up to four, stretching your inhalation all the way to the end of the count at a pace that feels comfortable to you. As you exhale through the nose, count to four again at the same pace, stretching your exhalation all the way to the end. Repeat this cycle several times or for as long as you need until you begin to feel the breath evening out.
Create Space with a Three-Part Breath
I’ve found that the practice of viloma, sometimes described as a three-part breath, can alleviate sensations of restriction in the chest and torso. In viloma, a practitioner alternately deepens and pauses her inhalation for short periods of time, which encourages the chest and rib cage to gradually expand.
To begin, either sit very upright or recline on your back. Take a few deep, even, and steady breaths. Then slowly inhale over a count of three, drawing in your breath so much that the lower abdomen expands. After the third count, hold the breath for two counts. Then, inhale into the lungs and lower chest for another three counts, feeling the rib cage expand outward. Hold the breath for another two counts. Now, inhale for another three counts, filling the very upper region of the chest just below the collarbone. Hold the breath for five counts. Then, over a ten-count exhalation, slowly and evenly release the breath through the nose. Repeat this cycle several more times, continuing at a pace that feels comfortable to you.
After many cycles of this practice, the breath gets deeper and the chest feels more open. That sensation of spaciousness in the body produces a similar effect on the mind: thoughts will seem less congested and tangled than they did prior to the exercise.
When we’re trying to meditate, the breath—especially if it’s labored or irregular—can feel like yet another hurdle to clear. After much practice, I’ve learned that difficulty in breathing isn’t reason to move away from the practice or to give up. It is, rather, the best opportunity to become more intimate with the breath. It’s also a reminder for us to take the time we need to prepare the body for meditation. By doing so, we invite the breath to become our closest ally—one we can rely on to inform us about and eventually lead us back to the spaciousness right here and now.
Lauren Krauze is a yoga teacher living in New York City.