Tibetan Buddhism has long been led by the Dalai Lama, the 88-year-old spiritual leader who fled Tibet in 1959 and has been living in exile in India ever since.
Beijing considers the Dalai Lama a separatist and asserts that only the ruling Communist Party — an avowed atheist organization — can name his next incarnation and those of other high lamas.
By seeking to control the religion’s leadership, China hopes it can all but erase the Dalai Lama’s influence in Tibet and any challenges to the party’s rule. As the Dalai Lama has gotten older, tension has mounted over the eventual contest between Tibetans in exile and Beijing over his legitimate reincarnation.
Why is Mongolia involved?
The Dalai Lama commands a large following in Mongolia, where nearly half the population of 3.4 million identifies as Buddhist.
Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia more than seven centuries ago. The faith was violently suppressed for over 70 years when Mongolia came under socialist rule in 1924, but Mongolians began re-embracing it following democratic reforms in the 1990s.
The reverence for the Dalai Lama has put the Mongolian government in a difficult position because it relies on China for virtually all its trade. Beijing closed border crossings between the two countries, imposed tariffs and canceled bilateral talks in response to the last time the Dalai Lama visited Mongolia in 2016.
Who is Mongolia’s spiritual leader?
The Bogd is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. Known formally as the Jebtsundamba Khutughtu, the position dates back nearly 400 years to descendants of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan.
An 8-year-old boy currently represents the 10th incarnation of the Bogd (pronounced bogged). The previous one died in 2012.
While Tibetan Buddhists do not adhere as strictly to hierarchy as other organized religions, like the Roman Catholic Church, the Bogd is considered the third most important senior position in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama was a herder’s son who was anointed by the Dalai Lama in 1995, but he was kidnapped by China and replaced with a monk chosen by Beijing.
How are new lamas chosen?
The process is mysterious, at best. Tibetan Buddhist leaders say they follow an ancient custom of parsing mystical visions and astrology to help narrow their search.
Candidates are then tested to see if they show any traits that could be deemed especially holy. In the case of the boy chosen to be the next Bogd, religious officials said he was just a toddler when he underwent a secret test and successfully identified the previous Bogd’s personal artifacts.
Over the centuries, the process has been open to criticism that the selections have been about politics and sometimes corruption. In the late 18th century, Emperor Qianlong of China tried to address this by drawing lots from a golden urn to select lamas. This “golden urn” system has been resurrected by the Chinese Communist Party as Beijing has pushed to control appointments of senior monks, though few outside the country consider it legitimate.