Dharamshala’s history as a nest of intrigue may appear to be losing its sheen as the great power competition between the US and China has overshadowed the fate of Tibet.
But a rare incident in which over 600 Mongolian Buddhists gathered in the Himachal Pradesh city for the anointing of the next Jebtsundamba Khutuktu has brought back attention to the intrigues of the Buddhist world.
On March 8, a US-born boy was anointed as the ‘10th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche’ or the 10th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu of Gelug lineage of Khalka Mongols, according to The Times.
In 2012, the 9th ‘Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche’ passed away in Ulaanbaatar after leading the Mongolian Buddhists for years from the Himalayan town of Dharamshala.
Jebtsundamba Khutuktu of Mongolia is no ordinary monk. The monks’ lineage was declared theocratic rulers after northern Mongolians declared independence in 1911.
“His predecessors had a close association with the Krishnacharya lineage of Chakrasamvara. One of them established a monastery in Mongolia dedicated to its practice. So, his being here today is quite auspicious,” said the Dalai Lama at the ceremony.
Mongolian media reports suggest that the anointed boy is one of the US-born Mongolian twins Aguidai and Achiltai Altannar, sons of Altannar Chinchuluun and Monkhnasan Narmandakh. The former is a professor of mathematics, and the latter a chief executive at a conglomerate.
The identity of the anointed Rinpoche is being kept secret as the fall from the Chinese response to the anointing remains unknown. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named the new Panchen Lama, and the Chinese authorities imprisoned the child and appointed their own Panchen Lama. Dharamshala may have feared a similar kind of fate falling on the boy.
The Jetsun Rinpoche is the third highest monk in the Buddhist world. His anointing will rattle Beijing as it looks to influence Mongolia in a contested space of geopolitics in Asia.
According to scholar Robert Barnett, Mongolia is maintaining silence on the appointment of the Rinpoche as it concerns Beijing’s response to an official acknowledgement.
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What’s today known as Mongolia emerged from the last vestiges of the Yuan Dynasty after Genghis Khan’s ancestors failed to control the vast territory spanning parts of China.
The efforts to integrate what was in historic times known as ‘Outer Mongolia’ – modern-day Mongolia – have been made by multiple Chinese emperors in the past.
In 1691, Qing emperor Kangxi established 35 Prefecture Banners in the northern Khalka Mongols, bestowed princely titles to their chiefs and made Jebtsundamba Khutuktu the highest religious leader. Beijing installed its representatives in what was then roughly called Outer Mongolia to integrate the vestiges of the Yuan Dynasty.
But the attempts at ethnic assimilation by the Qing empire were resisted, which led to a rather brutal and forceful attack on Mongolia by the Qianlong emperor against the Dzungar Khanate, described as Dzungar genocide by historians. The campaign brought parts of Dzungar Khanate into the Qin empire, an area today known as Xinjiang.
But the fate of the Qing empire began to decline at the beginning of the 20th century, ultimately leading to the abdication of the last emperor of China. That’s when the theocratic leaders of Mongolia, the eight Jebtsundamba Khutuktu or bogd khan, used the opportunity to declare the independence of Outer Mongolia.
To the north, Russia played a crucial role in helping modern-day Mongolia maintain its autonomy from the Chinese empire and later the Republic of China under Chiang Kai Shek.
Though Outer Mongolia came under ‘Chinese territory’ once again in 1919 as the Bolshevik revolution kept Tsarist Russia busy.
Later, Stalin used his influence as the Chinese Civil War progressed to seek independence for Mongolia, throwing his support behind Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang Party instead of Mao’s Chinese Communists. We have learned through recently declassified material that Stalin wanted to create a buffer zone between the USSR and China and used the turmoil of the Chinese Civil War to allow Mongolia to declare autonomy from the Republic of China.
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A database of monks
Meanwhile, China is setting up a database to verify the identity of monks to tackle the problem of fraudulent individuals pretending to be ordained Buddhist or Taoist monks.
State-run religious organisations are carrying out the campaign to verify the monkhood of individuals.
The database was announced by the Buddhist Association of China and the Taoist Association of China, both official religious affairs governance bodies of the Beijing government.
The Chinese state media has tried to justify the rationale behind the move.
“In recent years, some people have impersonated religious personnel to cheat and lie, which seriously tarnished the image of religious groups, causing strong dissatisfaction among religious groups and believers, who have called for stricter management and serious punishment of such illegal activities,” reported China Daily.
On the surface, the move appears to be an attempt to fight the problem of people impersonating Buddhist monks, but it would likely be used by the authorities to carry out a religious crackdown.
One such example of a fraud case is the story of Wang Xingfu, who pretended to be a Qigong master and a fake living Buddha. Wang was charged with rape and amassing over 200 million yuan ($29 million).
Mongols are proud of their history and ties with Tibet. But currently find themselves sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south. Mongolia now sits in the middle of a key pipeline project to plug China’s energy needs.
Beijing hasn’t stopped its fixation with the Dalai Lama and the politics of the Buddhist world. Mongolia’s strong sense of national identity rooted in Buddhism will irk Beijing’s mind as it will seek to discredit the legitimacy of the 10th Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche.
Mongolia is set for a heated geopolitical contest as Russia’s weakened global position will give Beijing a confidence to interfere in Ulaanbaatar’s religious and political life.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)