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China 2006

In search of a Reincarnated Lama…

Jocelyn Ford Jan 11, 2006

O.K. So how would YOU go about finding a Reincarnated Lama in China?

It turns out Tibetan Buddhism is enjoying a quiet boom among urban ethnic Chinese…

shenzhen- reincarnated buddha karma tenbei gyentsen rinpocheDSC08023.JPG

Some say it has to do with the rising standard of living; more people are beginning to think there’s got to be more to life than fancy cars and liquor.

Some say it has to do with guilt over how the hi-flyers got their money — Buddhists believe if they don’t do good deeds, they could be reborn as, say, a worm… or worse, a mad ghost.

Some say the boom has to do with greater religious freedoms.

Some prominent business people and celebrities talk to the media about being Tibetan Buddhists, and they are inspiring less successful wannabes. Maybe religion can bring them riches?

And nowadays, it’s easier for Lamas from remote parts of the country to reach potential believers.


Transportation and communications are bridging the distance. And unlike in years past, nowadays Chinese are free to travel around the country without first seeking permission. Lamas in flowing robes are no longer stopped by police when they wander the streets of wealthy Eastern cities.

So, quite a few Tibetan Lamas are making the arduous trip from remote parts of Western China to the cities. They are spreading their beliefs, and finding patrons to host them. It’s sort of like a continuation of the old days. Centuries back, Chinese Emperors were patrons of Tibetan Lamas. Some believed by showering temples with money, they could protect their kingdom, bring prosperity to their subjects, and acquire good Karma for their next life.

These days, Reincarnated Lamas are the honored guests at dinner parties. Some stay in their followers’ homes, and perform rituals.

Tibetan Buddhist Believers join ritual for  long life  DSC08034.JPG

Winter is a good season to look for them in China’s coastal cities, especially the southern boomtown Shenzhen, because it’s brrrrr! cold in the highlands of Sichuan and Qinghai.

(Yes, there are about as many Tibetans living in three western provinces, Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu, as live in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the place that most Americans probably associate with Tibet. And Tibetans in these other provinces generally are not as repressed.)

But the Chinese government is wary. It’s afraid of big organizations of people with shared beliefs.

So back to my search. That means I can’t go look up the “Reincarnated Lama Society of Beijing.” I’ve heard there is a special government-organized training session underway in Beijing, but the high Lamas attending this are not allowed to fraternize with outsiders.

So finding one is a word-of-mouth affair.

The most surprising part, though, was how easy it was to find the trailhead… I discovered that even two 30-something friends of mine had become believers in the past year…

Tune in Friday January 13th to hear the story of Natural Foods saleswoman Jenny Cao’s spiritual trip, and what her Lama has to say about people like her.

A special thanks to Jann Ronnis, a Tibetan studies doctoral student at the University of Virginia, for his information, insights, and introductions.

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