March 2023 was an exciting month for Buddhists in Mongolia. On March 8, around 600 of them attended a special ceremony in a temple located in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama named an eight-year old Mongolian boy the 10th Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoché. This title is given to the third most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism, who acts as the leader of the faith in Mongolia, a predominantly Buddhist country.
“We have the reincarnation of Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoche of Mongolia with us today,” the Dalai Lama told the crowd present at the ceremony. The excitement was palpable thousands of kilometers away in Mongolia. The previous Jetsun Dhampa spent only the last year of his life in Mongolia, after moving there from India, where he lived most of his life in anonymity and exile. He was not safe in his home country of Tibet, due to the Chinese occupation of the region. Life in the communist Mongolia, where the authorities propagated atheism, was not a viable option.
The joy and excitement are mixed with fear and anxiety, however, anticipating China’s reaction to this development. The Chinese government views the Dalai Lama as a separatist and seeks to control Tibet’s population via its own appointed religious leaders. His previous visits to Mongolia were followed by threats and penalties levied by the Chinese government, hurting the Mongolian economy.
US-born, one of twins, and member of a rich and powerful family
There are few details known about the tenth Jetsun Dhampa.
He is reported to be eight years old and have been born in the US, meaning he has dual nationality, Mongolian and American. The Mongolian media has reported that the tenth Jetsun Dhampa is one of a pair of twin boys, named Aguidai and Achiltai Altannar, from a rich and powerful family. His father, Altannar Chinchulun, is an Associate Professor at the National University of Mongolia, where he teaches math.
His mother, Monkhnasan Narmandakh, is a national resources conglomerate executive. Her Facebook page suggests that she runs a mining company called Polymet Group and a construction company called Moncement. None of their social media pages contain any news about their son being named the tenth Jetsun Dhampa. The boy’s grandmother, Garamjav Tseden, is a former parliament member.
Here is a photo of they boy’s mother on the cover of the Forbes Mongolia magazine, published on her Facebook page.
The existence of the tenth Jetsun Dhampa was announced in 2016 during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia, when he said that the search for him was already underway. Seven years after finally finding and meeting him, the Dalai Lama said the following words at the ceremony:
“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.”
He is expected to serve as the spiritual leader to approximately 1.7 million Buddhists in Mongolia, who make up more than half of the country’s population of 3.3 million.
Looming religious crisis in Asia
The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th in the lineage of spiritual and political leaders who have been ruling over Tibet for more than 600 years. Tibet’s independence ended in 1951 when China annexed it. Following the unsuccessful revolt against the Chinese occupation in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala in northern India, where he set up a government-in-exile.
The Chinese grip over Tibet has tightened over the years, making his return to Tibet unlikely. For the Chinese authorities, the Dalai Lama is a separatist who wants to break Tibet away from China, although he has declared in the past that he only seeks a “meaningful autonomy.”
As the Dalai Lama, who is 87, nears the end of his life, the questions over his succession are growing, alongside fears that his death could lead to an unprecedented religious crisis. He has previously stated:
The person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.
This means that the Dalai Lama will decide himself whether he will be reincarnated or not, and he has postponed that decision until he turns 90. Multiple ideas have come from the Dalai Lama regarding his successor, including that the next Dalai Lama will come from India, and that he may name his successor before dying.
Whatever succession scenario takes place, it is clear that it will not follow the centuries old tradition of searching for and finding the next Dalai Lama in Tibet. The Chinese government has enshrined into the law that the Communist Party will have a final say on the matter of succession and reincarnation of top level religious leaders in Tibet.
This YouTube video explains the relationship between China and Tibet and why the Chinese government views the Dalai Lama as a separatist.
The fears that China will not tolerate any Tibetan religious leaders appointed without its consent materialized in 1995. After the Dalai Lama named a small boy in Tibet, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, as the 11th reincarnation of Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in the faith, Gedhun disappeared within three days. The Chinese authorities replaced him with a candidate of their own. This Panchen Lama will come in handy when the Dalai Lama dies, and he and other Communist Party appointed lamas are tasked with finding the next Dalai Lama.
However, the Dalai Lama has shared that he will leave the instructions on finding his successor to the Gaden Phodrang Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving and promoting Tibetan culture and supporting the Tibetan people in India. This has opened up the possibility that the 15th Dalai Lama will come from India, since the group has no access to Tibet. Thus, it is likely that there will be two Dalai Lamas in the future, one in Tibet and one in India.
A new player in Tibet–China relations
In this context of uncertainty, the reincarnation of the 10th Jetsun Dhampa in Mongolia is especially important, given he will be one of the top lamas who will participate in all the activities related to searching for and recognizing the next Dalai Lama. Should the Dalai Lama die unexpectedly, he will remain as the sole legitimate religious figure, having been recognized by the Dalai Lama himself.
China definitely cannot be content with these developments. That is the reason why some Mongolians are anxious over its reaction, which has not come so far. The Chinese authorities have vehemently opposed Mongolia’s interaction with the Dalai Lama, who has visited the country nine times between 1982 and 2016. Each visit was accompanied by strong calls from China to deny him entry and threats of serious consequences in case of disobedience.
The 2002 visit was followed by the closing of borders, and the 2006 visit saw the suspension of flights between the two countries and an increase of import tariffs. In 2016, after the Dalai Lama’s last visit, China froze negotiations for a USD 4.2 billion loan to Mongolia, forcing the Mongolian government to issue an apology and promise that the Dalai Lama would not visit Mongolia again.
This is expected, given China is Mongolia’s biggest and most important economic partner, accounting for more than 80 percent of total exports, 60 percent of imports and more than 40 percent of its GDP. With the emergence of Jetsun Dhampa in Mongolia, the relationship between these two countries moves toward a more even one, however. Mongolia has got not only a spiritual leader but a powerful trump card with which it can influence relations between Tibet and China.
By Nurbek Bekmurzaev