Autocrats worry about Buddha power. In much of Southeast Asia, monks occupy the loftiest of moral high ground. According to the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, misdeeds in past lives affect problems in the current one. Do something bad in this life and you'll probably come back as a "sentient being" in your next one—but not necessarily a human. During Burma's bloody crackdown in September, some soldiers tried to "defrock" monks prior to detaining them, in a bid to soften their own karmic crimes. In 1988, I saw a Burmese soldier trying to give alms to Buddhist monks, who refused him by turning their begging bowls upside down. The guy seemed upset. He didn't want to be reincarnated as a toad, I suppose.
Authorities in Beijing, who've been criticized for supporting the Burmese junta, have reason to be queasy about monk-led protests both at home and abroad. Opposition to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951 erupted first in Buddhist monasteries. Resentment still simmers. On Nov. 19, two teenage Tibetan monks quarreled with a Chinese shopkeeper and were detained. Some 200 sympathizers protested and five were arrested for "fanning the riot," according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. After the Dalai Lama was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in October, clashes broke out between Chinese security forces and Buddhist monks. Celebrations were quashed and 3,000 police reportedly surrounded the Drepung Monastery near Lhasa, where monks learned of the award through Web sites and YouTube.
Tibet's "living buddhas" are a special case. Revered as reincarnated deities, they are said to exert an unusual amount of control over their future lives. Which led to the recent spat between Beijing and the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama over the politics of reincarnation. It began when Beijing authorities decreed that reincarnated deities must be Chinese citizens authorized by the religious-affairs bureau, meaning no reincarnations in exile.
The exiled Dalai Lama responded by suggesting a variety of novel ways he might come back. At 72, Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama; he once told me he could return as two Dalai Lamas. Later, he said he might help choose his own successor, or come back as a woman, or have his power pass to a legislative body. Buddha power at the ballot box? That sounds like double trouble for Beijing.