Thinking outside the Urn: China and the reincarnation of Mongolia’s highest lama

The Chinese government’s prerogative to manage the rebirths of incarnate lamas is being tested in Mongolia. One of the highest lineages covered by the Qing’s ‘Golden Urn’ system at the basis of PRC reincarnation law is passing to its next holder, with the Dalai Lama’s involvement. Despite clear signs that China cares, no public position has emerged so far. To determine what China’s approach to the reincarnation issue might be, we have to go through some Mongolian history and a bit of leaf-reading. The very relevance of state management of rebirths to China’s foreign relations indicates to what extent Qing imperial thought permeates PRC policy. Reincarnation diplomacy is real and has an impact on Chinese policies towards its closest neighbours.

On the last day of his ninth visit to Mongolia last November, the Dalai Lama announced that the tenth reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba རྗེ་བཙུན་དམ་པ་ Khutugtu, the highest Mongolian lama, had been found as a Mongolian boy. However, this boy would not be publicly enthroned because of his young age.China certainly objected to the Mongolia visit, and responded to it with sanctions. As I have discussed in a recent piece, China only showed a will to normalise relations after the Mongolian government produced a ‘non-apology’ that regretted the “misunderstanding” and stated an assumption that the Dalai Lama would not visit again under during the current parliament. Although China’s protests didn’t mention the reincarnation issue, China’s interest in it is revealed by its mention in the various Chinese and Mongolian versions of the Mongolian position. To quote from the most explicit ones: the public announcement of the new Jebtsundamba (and, in one version, his education) will be the responsibility of Mongolian monks, without “outside participation.” The implication being that, as the process is a strictly religious matter, it falls beyond the government’s purview. So far, that seems consistent with the plans of Mongolian clergy, who said in January the tenth reincarnation would be enthroned by Mongolian lamas, and that the process had not started yet.

The rebirth lottery

Before the current controversies over the tenth, previous Jebtsundamba reincarnations played a role in Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese politics: the ninth, the eighth, the second, the first and indeed the zeroth.

The first Jebtsundamba was the polymath Zanabazar (from Sanskrit Jñānavajra, in Tibetan ཡེ་ཤེས་རྡོ་རྗེ, both meaning ‘wisdom diamond-thunderbolt’; 1635-1723), the second son of the Tüsheet ᠲᠦᠰᠢᠶᠡᠲᠦ Khan Gombodorj, who ruled over one of the Mongol polities of the time. As a child, he was recognised as the reincarnation of Tāranātha, a great exponent of the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Jonang’s association with political opponents of the Gelug school, which was then consolidating its secular power over Tibet, led the fifth Dalai Lama, head of the Gelug, to suppress it. The Jonang school only survived in Amdo (today’s Qinghai province), while Jonang monasteries in Central Tibet, including Tāranātha’s main seat, were forcibly converted to the Gelug. Although all Jebtsundambas, from the first on, had Gelug tutors and were recognised by successive Dalai Lamas, there has been some scholarly controversy0 over whether Zanabazar’s recognition as Tāranātha reincarnation was originally a Jonang challenge to the Gelug or, as the earliest available Tibetan documentary evidence would appear to suggest, a Gelug manoeuvre to claim Tāranātha’s legacy. Regardless of its significance in Tibetan factional politics, the recognition of Gombodorj’s son as a major incarnate lama helped buttress the Tüsheet Khans’ claim to primacy among the Khalkha (eastern) Mongols, matching the status of the other centres of Mongol power: the Dzungars in the west and the southern Mongols, already allied to the Manchus’ emerging Qing dynasty. Zanabazar’s later role the Khalkhas’ submission to Kangxi, key to the Qing’s eventual defeat of the Dzungars and conquest of much of Central Asia, made Mongolian nationalist historiography blame him for the subsequent centuries of Chinese rule. Chinese scholars praise him, for much the same reasons.

After an anti-Qing rebellion among the Khalkhas in which the second Jebtsundamba had an ambiguous role (his brother was executed for cooperating with its leader), emperor Qianlong ordered subsequent reincarnations to be born in Tibet, in what would later become part of the Golden Urn (金瓶) selection system, a Qing-managed ‘reincarnation lottery’ that gave imperial authorities control over the highest religious figures in Tibet and Mongolia. Qing-approved high lamas, who would recognise the emperor as a Buddhist ruler (cakravartin, ‘turner of the wheel’), rather than locally-born leaders who could help catalyse challenges to imperial power, were key to Beijing’s Central Asian policy.

For the next five reincarnations, the Urn lottery worked as expected, providing empire-friendly, purely religious figures who spent their short lives (only one lived into his thirties) as Tibetan-born foreigners in Mongolia.

Then the Empire lost at its own rigged raffle. Although also from Tibet, the Eighth Jebtsundamba adapted well to life among the Khalkha. He learnt the language, and his popularity and political savvy made him the centre of Outer Mongolian politics, culminating in his proclamation as theocratic ruler of independent Mongolia when the Qing fell in 1911. By the time he died in 1924, the Communists were in power, and decreed the end of the lineage. According to the historian J.Boldbaatar Ж.Болдбаатар, Mongolian lamas defied the prohibition and tried to install a Mongolian boy named Tüdeviin Luvsandorj Түдэвийн Лувсандорж as ninth reincarnation. These attempts failed to get Tibetan approval and were thwarted by the Mongolian government, fearful of the emergence of another popular figure with aspirations to theocratic rule. In what could well be the first Communist attempt to legislate reincarnations, the 1926 Party Congress asserted in a resolution that the Jebtsundamba wouldn’t be reborn again in Tibet or Mongolia after the eighth incarnation, since he was due to become general Hanuman1 in the mythical realm of Shambhala. The government later launched a brutal suppression of Buddhism that precluded any further efforts to revive the lineage (remarkably, the Mongolian boy that had been selected to continue it managed to survive the crackdown and lived as a layman until 1948).

Meanwhile in Tibet, a boy born in 1933 was secretly identified as the 9th Jebtsundamba reincarnation. He left Tibet in 1959 and lived, mostly in poverty, in Nepal and India, until being announced as 9th Jebtsundamba by the Dalai Lama after the end of Communism in Mongolia in the early 1990s. He first visited Mongolia in 1999, creating a good deal of controversy, and had to wait until 2010 to be allowed in again and made a Mongolian citizen. He died in Ulaanbaatar in 2012. The Mongolian public would likely only accept the next reincarnation to be born in Mongolia, and indeed that’s where the Dalai Lama says he told the old 9th Jebtsundamba to go in his next life. That’s why there was expectation that the reincarnation would be announced during last November’s visit.

Remarkably, Qianlong’s Urn lottery is still running. The continuity of Qing-inherited control over reincarnations is central to the justification of the PRC’s prerogative to appoint the most senior Tibetan Buddhist clergy. Current PRC reincarnation law explicitly refers to the Golden Urn system, as did its ROC precedent in 1936. Incarnate lamas continue to play a key role in Tibetan society, and government control over this hierarchy is meant to help legitimise Beijing’s right to rule Tibetan Buddhists, precisely as devised by 18th-century emperors. The Urn system, embedded in Chinese law, sits at the top of this structure. The current Dalai Lama’s assertions that it will be up to him to decide where to reincarnate next, if at all, were strongly attacked by Chinese officials, indeed on grounds of historical continuity centred on the Urn system. The PRC has used it exactly once, selecting its 11th Panchen Lama in 1995 after detaining the candidate approved by the Dalai Lama. Given how invested PRC discourse is in the legitimacy of the Urn system, an outside-the-Urn Jebtsundamba can be perceived as a challenge to imperial continuity, and a ‘rehearsal’ of a more serious one, the Dalai Lama’s own succession outside China.

What does China think?

Despite the challenge to PRC religious policy implied by an outside-the-Urn reincarnation, China hasn’t published any statements on the 10th Jebtsundamba, and the only public evidence of its concerns is its reflection in the Mongolian response.

To try and guess what Chinese officials think about the Jebtsundamba reincarnation, we can look for views on the previous lineage holder, recognised without Chinese consent. A 2009 article by Selengge ᠰᠡᠯᠡᠩᠭᠡ 斯林格, head2 of the Russia and Mongolia Research Institute at the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences, is sceptical about his legitimacy. The paper examines the “complex and sensitive problem” of the 9th Jebtsundamba reincarnation, highlighting the involvement of pro-Japanese Mongolians (Demchugdongrub Дэмчигдонров (De Wang 德王) and Li Shouxin 李守信) in his recognition process, and the role of the “Dalai clique” (达赖集团, Party-speak for the Dharamsala-based Tibetan government in exile) in his 1999 Mongolia trip. Selengge’s views, coming from a senior researcher who has been involved in exchanges with Russia and Mongolia, are significant, and consistent with the idea that Chinese authorities consider the Jebtsundamba lineage to have finished with the 8th reincarnation.

Another data point for assessing the official Chinese attitude towards the 9th Jebtsundamba is provided by the little-known fact that the PRC actually allowed him to lecture and perform rituals at his ancestral monastery, the Püntsokling ཕུན་ཚོགས་གླིང་ 彭措林 in Lhatse, Tibet, both before and after his enthronement by the Dalai Lama. The Püntsokling is strongly associated with Tāranātha, who greatly expanded it into the main monastery of Central Tibet and seat of the Jonang order, as part of whose suppression it was made a Gelug monastery under the Fifth Dalai Lama. As tenth reincarnation of Tāranātha, the ninth Jebtsundamba inherited this connection to the Püntsokling. He lived in or near the monastery, without revealing his status as Tāranātha reincarnation, until 1959, first as a simple monk and then as a layman, after he abandoned his vows and married his first wife. His first visit to Tibet after ‘liberation’ came in 19843, when he worked with the local government to rebuild the Püntsokling, by then converted into a granary. His status as Jebtsundamba reincarnation was still only known to a few, and is unlikely to have been revealed during his months-long stay in Tibet. The local authorities‘ willingness to work with him to restore the monastery can’t be read as any sort of recognition. Quite the contrary: despite his key role in reestablishing the Püntsokling, I’ve seen no mention of the ninth Jebtsundamba in Chinese materials on the monastery, suggesting his presence there has become a ‘delicate’ issue.

More remarkable is the ninth Jebtsundamba’s last visit to Tibet. He had now been publicly established as such by the Dalai Lama, and the climate in China had turned more adverse towards exchanges with the exile Tibetan community. This last visit has been described by Fabian Sanders based on conversations with the ninth Jebtsundamba. The following account is based on his 2001 article, to my knowledge the only published account of the final visit, and a personal communication. One of the main goals of the visit was to establish contacts with representatives of the Jonang school, which, as mentioned above, had been suppressed after Tāranātha but still survived in Amdo (Qinghai). The Jebtsundamba wasn’t allowed to travel to Qinghai, but he did go to Lhasa and from there to the Püntsokling, where he performed rituals and helped acquire statues for the monastery. He left Tibet when rumours began to circulate about “investigations” against him initiated by the Chinese authorities.

The final visit illustrates the ambiguities in Chinese attitudes towards the ninth Jebtsundamba: although he was allowed to perform rituals in an open capacity as Tāranātha reincarnation at Tāranātha’s own monastery, which could be read as a degree of tolerance, if not recognition, of his status, the fact that the visit was cut short, and information about it apparently expunged from accounts of the Püntsokling’s recent history show that the PRC authorities have been uncomfortable with the ninth reincarnation for decades. These contradictions are now transmitted to the the tenth reincarnation, whose legitimacy depends on that of his predecessor. If the ninth reincarnation was unacceptable to China, so should be the tenth; but if the ninth could officiate on PRC soil as embodiment of the zeroth, the Urn system’s monopoly has been undermined.

A more explicit discussion of the Jebtsundamba issue, complete with policy recommendations, appeared in a 2011 article published by the China Energy Fund Committee (中华能源基金会, CEFC), a think tank whose initialism mirrors that of the company that established it, CEFC (华信). Andrew Chubb and John Garnaut have written about CEFC (company and think thank) and its links to the PLA and specifically military intelligence. The article, in all likelihood signed with a pseudonym4, calls the restoration of the Jebtsundamba lineage in Mongolia “a great victory and a breakthrough for the Dalai clique” that can sow discord in Tibetan Buddhism by challenging the reincarnation system “unified” by Qianlong’s Golden Urn procedure. “The Indian government and the CIA” were involved. The Chinese government should foster religious exchanges with Russia and Mongolia, dispatching “virtuous and respected high monks” and using “social and economic methods” to compete with the Dalai clique. Using the example of the Gang gyan Development Company (བོད་གངས་རྒྱན་དར་སྤེལ་ཀུང་སི་ 西藏刚坚发展总公司), associated to the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and established by the 10th Panchen Lama in 1987, the article proposes China should “use the form of a company” to sell religious artifacts, drawing on “China’s advantageous position in trade with Russia and Mongolia” to “monopolise” the “religious market.” Finally, China should take the lead to coordinate the establishment of a “unified system for the search, recognition and final announcement” of incarnate lamas in the three countries, in order to restrict Dharamsala’s influence. Though unofficial, such advice is consistent with China’s current approach to Mongolian Buddhism, that involves cultivating ties to Dalai-unfriendly Mongolian monasteries and seemingly exploiting, as elsewhere, the Dorje Shugden controversy.

After such efforts didn’t prevent the Dalai Lama’s participation in, at least, the announcement of the new reincarnation, they might now be focused on trying to isolate him from Dharamsala, especially during his training years. Mongolia’s response to Chinese protests does suggest China privately requested that no exile Tibetan lamas anoint or tutor the future Jebtsundamba. Precedent for ‘tolerated’ reincarnations, although none as senior as the Jebtsundamba, exists. Indeed, China didn’t object to, for example, the Dalai Lama’s 2004 recognition of the Jalkhanz རྒྱལ་ཁང་རྩེ Khutugtu, the latest representative of what is likely the oldest lineage of Khalkha Mongolian incarnate lamas. As Johan Elverskog, known for his work on the Mongols and the Qing, puts it, the PRC “recognise they don’t need to control all the reincarnations, especially those outside the 1949 borders, and don’t care about Nyingma or Sakya incarnations – or [Treasure Revealer (གཏེར་སྟོན་)] Steven Seagal.”

At any rate, a Mongolian, but China-friendly, Jebtsundamba without Dharamsala ties is probably the most ambitious goal China can attain: trying to enforce the Golden Urn procedure would amount to imposing, or vetting, a religious leader on Mongolia, and the backlash could seriously hurt Chinese interests there. A subtler, longer-term approach, such as that which appears to be underway, can find allies within Mongolia’s political and religious establishment, and still succeed at a degree of extraterritorial enforcement of the PRC’s Qing-inherited religious policies. Such a senior outside-the-Urn reincarnation might be hard to accept for the would-be cakravartins at the Relevant Departments, but it seems they’ll have to live with it.

Thanks to Agata Bareja-Starzyńska, Robert Barnett, Andrew Chubb, Johan Elverskog, Victor Mair, Fabian Sanders and others I prefer not to name for comments and invaluable help in gathering information for this piece.


0The son of the Tüsheet Khan was ordained as a small child. He was recognised as incarnate lama by the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, who bestowed initiations on him while he studied in Tibet since 1650. That much seems uncontroversial. The issue is whether he was first educated in Mongolia by Jonangpas, or was a Gelugpa all along, and who and when first recognised him as the reincarnation of Tāranātha.

Tibetan and Mongolian sources on Zanabazar, beginning with the earliest extant biography, completed in 1702, with Zanabazar still alive, by his disciple the Khalkha Zaya Paṇḍita Lozang Trinle བློ་བཟང་འཕྲིན་ལས་, are connected to the Gelug school. Any early Jonang influence on Zanabazar could have been ‘harmonised’ away from these Gelug accounts. Junko Miyawaki 宮脇淳子 has called narratives of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas’ recognition of Zanabazar as reincarnation of a major figure of the rival Jonang sect “ahistorical”. She notes that, while a 19th-century Mongolian biography (reproduced and translated by Bawden) says that he received the title Jebtsundamba during his stay in Tibet, thus in or after 1650, the Qing veritable records (Qing shilu 清实录) record the “Jebtsundamba Khutugtu under the Tüsheet Khan” (土谢图汗下泽卜尊丹巴胡土克图), along with other Khalkha lamas, offered tribute in 1648, showing the title was already in use before its recognition by the Dalai Lama. Qing historical sources thus contradict a later Mongolian text, but are still consistent with the Khalkha Zaya Paṇḍita’s biography (reproduced and translated by Bareja-Starzyńska), where the boy is enthroned at age five by a Gelug incarnate lama, the Wensa Tulku དབེན་ས་སྤྲུལ་ཀུ་, a fact then “reported to the Victorious Father and Son” (i.e. the Dalai Lama and either his regent or the Panchen Lama), who “identified [Zanabazar] as the reincarnation of the Jebtsundamba” (རྒྱལ་བ་ཡབ་སྲས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་གཞོགས་སུ་ཞུས་པར་རྗེ་བཙུན་དམ་པའི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུར་ངོས་འཛིན་གནང་།; this and the next translation based on Bareja-Starzyńska’s). Although this still doesn’t disambiguate who this ‘Jebtsundamba’ was found to have reincarnated in Zanabazar, the Zaya Paṇḍita’s biography does say that later, in or after 1651, the Panchen Lama “confirmed that he was a reincarnation of the Lord Tāranātha” (པན་ཆེན་ཐམས་ཅད་མཁྱེན་པས་རྗེ་ཏཱ་ར་ནཱ་ཐའི་སྐུ་སྐྱེ་ཡིན་གསུང་). However, that still doesn’t settle the question of whether Gelugpa lamas had already identified Zanabazar as Tāranātha reincarnation before his 1650 trip to Tibet.

The name the fifth Dalai Lama uses to refer to Zanabazar in his autobiography would seem to provide key evidence. While Miyawaki interprets the name, Jamyang Chöje འཇམ་དབྱངས་ཆོས་རྗེ་, as the boddhisattva Mañjuśrī, other scholars, including Agata Bareja-Starzyńska in a 2010 article, have argued that it refers to the founder of Drepung monastery. That would be consistent with later lists of pre-Tāranātha existences, one of which claims to have been composed by Zanabazar himself. These lists usually contain another fourteen existences before Tāranātha, with Jamyang Chöje (a historical figure) as the eleventh.

1The Party Congress resolution is given in English translation by Bawden, who quotes the Shambhala general’s name as “Hanamand”. The idea that the Jebtsundamba will eventually be reborn as this figure is a Mongolian tradition and surely wasn’t made up by the Communists, but that Shambhala battle it alludes to was scheduled for centuries later.

This general fights under the 25th king of Shambhala, Raudracakrin, in the Kālacakra-tantra. The relevant line (third pāda of v. 162 in Banerjee’s edition) reads

अश्वत्थामं महाचन्द्रतनयहनूमांस्तीक्ष्णशस्त्रैर्हनिष्यत्

aśvatthāmaṃ mahācandratanayahanūmāṃstīkṣṇaśastrairhaniṣyat

Hanūmān, son of Mahācandra, will strike Aśvatthāma with sharp weapons. (Tr. Newman, my emphasis.)

I find the long ū in the name striking. A short u, as in the deity of the Hindu epics, would indeed scan better (the sragdharā metre requires a short syllable). The annotated Tibetan translation by Butön བུ་སྟོན་(as quoted by Orofino) has a short vowel (ha nu manthas, which is consistent with the name for the Hanuman of the epics in other Tibetan texts).

2He was vice-director when the article was published.

3The 1984 visit to the Püntsokling is discussed by Sanders and in Selenge’s article, whose source for that information is an article by Udo Barkmann. Unfortunately, Selenge only cites Barkmann’s article by a Chinese translation of the title without mentioning when or where it was published and I haven’t been able to identify the original paper.

4The CEFC attracted a good deal of attention in 2011 through a rather bellicose opinion piece (English version) published in the Global Times and signed by Long Tao 龙韬, which Chubb and Garnaut found to be a pseudonym used by Dai Xu 戴旭, an Air Force senior colonel (大校).The pseudonym (’the dragon’s strategy’), as has been noted, alludes to the Liu tao 六韬 or Six strategies, a classic military treatise. The article about the Jebtsundamba is signed by Na Lan or (more likely) Nalan 纳兰, likely also a pseudonym that could refer to the Manchu Nara clan in general or to its most famous representative, the early Qing poet Nalan Xingde 纳兰性德.