Being a Lama means you don’t get to really be a kid, anymore. Your toys are walking sticks and umbrellas that belonged to predecessors. Instead of playing in the dirt wearing an older sibling or cousin’s hand-me-downs, or playing video games in jeans and a t-shirt, you have to wear sacred robes and sit and chant all day in a drafty mountain monastery heated with burning dried yak poop. Lamahood is lame.
The ritual practice of choosing Tibetan Lamas began in Qing China during the 18th century, when an incursion of Nepalese Gorkhas beckoned intervention. Thus the selection process was always an imperial innovation, and only remains one today, whatever else we might say about Chinese policy in Tibet. At the center of the dispute between Lhamo Thondup, aka Tenzin Gyatso, exiled 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, and the government of China in Beijing, is the selection of the successor. It is ever so.
The Qianlong emperor wanted to prevent the aristocratic families of the plateau from monopolizing this very same selection process through corrupt oracles, as they had done for centuries.
According to Katia Buffetrille in Brill’s Revisiting Rituals in a Changing Tibetan World, the Manchu throne decreed in 1792 that the pool of eligible god-children should henceforth be chosen at random, by casting lots.
There followed “various modifications that took place in the practice of this ritual between the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th” until the dispute over the 11th Panchen Lama began when the exiled Lhamo rejected the lottery system in 1995.
Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 6-year-old boy he chose, was then kidnapped by the People’s Republic of China. He would now be 33. If he remains a “prisoner of conscience,” however, then so does any Lama. Lamahood sucks. A Lama spends all day surrounded by monks, praying and meditating and achieving enlightenment while his every need is met by others. No fun at all.
Tibetan god-children can be chosen as young as 2, or about the same age that children learn to say “no” and use pronouns, because the spirit of the dead Lama has entered the mother’s womb during pregnancy, which is a bit rapey but makes some rational sense.
To further complicate the selection process, however, the many parts of a Lama’s soul-being may split off to inhabit different children, requiring monks to decide which child has the greatest amount of dead Lama-spirit inside them. (A 1993 film starring Keanu Reeves in the titular role as Little Buddha was inspired by this theological wrinkle.) The intensity of this selection process is legendary among religious scholars.
If I seem flip, it is only because the outcome for the child, in the form of a childhood, is so horrific. Upon selection, using the ascribed personality characteristics of the previous Lama as a subjective guide, the new Lama is no longer even a human child at all, any more, but a little Buddha.
Life as a divine incarnation and object of veneration requires inhuman perfection. One might even call it inhumane.
Long before social media made it impossible for youthful idiocies to be erased from the internet, god-children had to perform public rituals and prayers and sacrifices, or even be sacrificed to the gods themselves, because innocent blood is the most magical kind.
Innocence is always perfected and protected in the esoteric child. Lhamo Thondup has never been married. He has never been on a date. He has never had a job or a bank account. He gets whisked around in limousines and airplanes and there are people to ensure he is never seen anywhere being wrong with anyone, ever, about anything, because gods cannot be wrong.
Rather than a display of hidden pedophilia, the scene that rocked the world this week is evidence that a man locked into the innocence of childhood from the age of 4 until the age of 87 will say and do dumb, gross things that a 4-year-old child might do, but in an 87-year-old man’s body, because he never learned to be an adult at all. Puberty was allowed, but adulthood was denied to him, and it shows. He has no filter.
In this way, Tibetan Buddhism has always seemed at odds with the lesson implied in the story of Siddhartha Gautama. Born in the 6th or 7th century BC, the future Buddha was the son of King Śuddhodana, who surrounded his son with an elaborate palace to banish all signs of disease and suffering, so that Siddhartha did not know they existed.
Obviously, this proved unsustainable. Siddhartha snuck out of the palace to see the world outside. Observing a man dying of old age, and learning of the reincarnation cycle, Buddha cast aside his princedom and his privileges to seek an end to all human suffering. At first, he adopted an ascetic life, seeking enlightenment in self-harm. True enlightenment came only after he abandoned mortification of the flesh and sought a middle path between the extremes of heaven and hell, of wealth and poverty.
Growing up is hard to do, perhaps even harder to do in the best of times. Contemporary First World parents replicate Śuddhodana’s palace by helicoptering and attachment-parenting their children to death, sterilizing the poor dears with puberty blockers to spare them the pain of growing up. Sparing children all pain and sacralizing their pure, perfect innocence makes them into permanent children, not gods.
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Matt, he’s a creep.