02/11/2011 01:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Communist Buddhism: China Steps Up Its Tibetan Meddling

Thomas Jefferson gushed over the 1st Amendment, writing in 1802 that it guaranteed "a wall of separation between Church & State." The American Constitution would protect religion from political meddling, and politics from religious meddling.

The Chinese Constitution looks quite a bit different. It states, in admirable bluntness, "the government strengthens the building of socialist spiritual civilization." Thus, in China, instead of a separation of church and state, you get full synergy. Each church, mosque and temple must prove itself "patriotic." The Communist Party (not the Pope) chooses China's Catholic bishop. The Party runs an association that offers Chinese Muslims "a correct and authoritative interpretation" of the Quran. And, as we can see in a recent item in the New York Times, Tibetan Buddhism is also being pulled under the Party apparatus.

The story focuses on Indian suspicions that the Karmapa Lama -- the third highest ranking Tibetan leader after the Dali Lama and the Panchen Lama -- is a Chinese spy, sent by the Communist Party to meddle in Indian and Tibetan affairs. This is big news since the Karmapa Lama will, in all likelihood, lead the Tibetan movement when the Dali Lama dies. The Karmapa is 25 years old, charismatic and stunningly handsome (some of my Buddhist friends call him "His Hotness").

The Karmapa is most certainly not a Chinese secret agent. But when government gets into bed with religion (by force of by invitation), things get muddied.

If we dig into the Times story a bit more, we can see "government-strengthened spirituality" muddying up more than just the Karmapa. In fact, the Communist Party is seeking to impose its will on the selection process for all Tibetan Lamas. For 500 years, the state did not interfere with this process; instead, monks used divine lotteries and symbols from the heavens to find infant reincarnations of recently departed deities. But the transition past the current Dali Lama will be different: In 2007, the Communist Party passed a law allowing itself to "regulate reincarnation." Move over monks; discovering the next human form of the bodhisattva of compassion is a job for government cadres. (If you find it strange that the officially atheist Communist Party is in the business of selecting reincarnated gods, well, you're not the only one.)

The second bit of "government-strengthened spirituality" comes from a look at the Panchen Lama, traditionally the Dali Lama's right hand man. Through 13 reincarnations, stretching back to the 1400s, young Dali Lama's have been coached by older Panchen Lamas, learning how to take their place as spiritual and political leaders. The next Dali Lama will not have this coach, however, since the Communist Party kidnapped the Panchen Lama two decades ago. No one knows his fate.

"Government-strengthened spirituality" is an oxymoron. Government, at its best, builds stable bridges and makes sure cops and firefighters are well paid. It regulates economic activity rather than spiritual. It does not get involved in issues of transcendence, Heaven, Hell or anything else metaphysical. When politicians forget this, it's not so much government that is imperiled -- it is spirituality itself.