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A Mongolian boy has been declared an important leader for Tibetan Buddhists


The Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists have declared their third most-important spiritual leader has been reincarnated in the body of an 8-year-old boy in Mongolia. The news has brought joy to Buddhists, but it's also expected to create problems between Mongolia and neighboring China, which regards Tibetan Buddhism with suspicion and often outright hostility. Julian Dierkes is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIAN DIERKES: Well, thank you for your interest.

SIMON: Do we know much about this young man?

DIERKES: We don't really. There's a little bit of news reporting, but that's not quite confirmed yet. I think it's probably deliberately being kept a little bit vague.

SIMON: For his own safety?

DIERKES: In part although we believe him to be in Mongolia, and so there wouldn't be any threat to him. But, you know, he's 8 years old by the reporting - maybe keep him out of the limelight a little bit.

SIMON: Yeah. Tibetan Buddhists say he is the 10th reincarnation of the Khalka Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche. How do they know? How did the news come out?

DIERKES: I am not a specialist on Buddhist reincarnations and how they find them, but it is a process the clerical hierarchy follows. And the announcement now has been an official announcement. There was an earlier announcement by the Dalai Lama when he was visiting Mongolia last that the search was on and that they were expecting to name someone. But that was not quite 10 years ago, but a while ago. And now the official announcement came.

SIMON: What's the significance of this?

DIERKES: There is sort of the domestic significance in that Mongolians are Tibetan Buddhist, and this is big news to them. The international significance is largely the relationship with China. And it does have implications for that and - that are still unclear. And that'll play out over many years. But that's the other aspect that probably has drawn attention to this.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that. What concerns the Chinese about this? Or what aggravates them about it?

DIERKES: Well, you know, like most authoritarian or fascist regimes, they have their fragilities, shall we say. And you already mentioned that Tibetan Buddhism makes them very nervous. And so having a whole population of Tibetan Buddhists to the north of China in Mongolia and a potential change in leadership for the Buddhist hierarchy could mean, you know, more excitement amongst Mongolian believers, a reinforcement of Buddhist beliefs, maybe a changing attitude towards China, but also international support for the Dalai Lama, who is also aging. And so ultimately, there is expected to be a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese regime would like to assert authority over that process, but, of course, it has nothing to do with the religious aspects. But when these announcements come that reassert the religious authority over this reincarnation process, I think that makes the Chinese regime nervous.

SIMON: Yeah. Have they made any announcement?

DIERKES: They haven't reacted officially yet, no.

SIMON: How could they react?

DIERKES: There has been reactions in the past. So I mentioned, the last time the Dalai Lama was in Mongolia was in late 2016. And given the fragility of the Chinese regime on this, they made a lot of noise at that time and sort of raised some import duties and fees and in - and put pressure on the Mongolian government. In response, at the time, the government said the Dalai Lama will not be coming to Mongolia again. And so those kind of reactions have happened in the past for the Dalai Lama visits, at least.

SIMON: And what kind of problems does that create for Mongolia?

DIERKES: Mongolia is very much dependent on China economically, both imports and exports. And so Mongolia produces particularly copper and coal, but other minerals as well. And conversely, imports come largely from China whether that's foodstuffs or consumer goods or machinery to support the mining industry. So economically, Mongolia is almost entirely dependent on China. And so when China then closes the border, it has a huge impact on the Mongolian economy.

SIMON: This is going to sound incredibly naive, but why doesn't the Chinese government just say, look, the - it wasn't the Mongolian government that decided this young man's the lama. It was a group of religious leaders. And there's a separation between church and state.

DIERKES: Yeah, funny - right? - that - you'd think a secular state, like the People's Republic of China, would recognize that other governments aren't involved in this kind of thing. But, you know, there is more Mongolians living in China than there are in Mongolia. And so there is a nervousness about any kind of Pan-Mongolian sentiment. And that's a governmental issue although - it's linked to Tibetan Buddhism, but it's also sort of, you know, some kind of an ethnic feeling of fraternity between Mongolians in China and in Mongolia.

SIMON: What kind of life is this 8-year-old young man going to have for - well, for the rest of his life?

DIERKES: Well, Tibetan Buddhism is very much focused on learning. And so presumably, he will spend a lot of time being educated in monasteries, primarily. I suspect that may well be mostly in Mongolia, but it might be elsewhere. He's not going to lead a life of luxury at all. It's really going to be a life, certainly for the foreseeable future, devoted to learning.

SIMON: Julian Dierkes is a associate professor at the University of British Columbia. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

DIERKES: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LELAND WHITTY'S "WINDOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.