When iron birds fly and Chinese leaders ponder the politics of reincarnation ...

Its origin is much disputed, but an often-repeated Tibetan saying goes as follows: "When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the world, and the dharma (Buddhist teachings) will come to the land of the red-faced man."

Because of Chinese occupation, a Tibetan diaspora is indeed scattered across the globe. But are the iron-bird and horse-on-wheels images references to airplanes and automobiles? And what about red-faced men? Is that a reference to Native Americans? As noted, the authenticity of this supposedly ancient prophecy is much in doubt.

Authentic or not, it's undeniable that various Buddhist practices and traditions have found widespread acceptance in the West. The world's best-known Buddhist, Tenzin Gyatso, much better known as the Dalai Lama, a man of gentle demeanor and a contagious laugh, is in good measure responsible for this. He's also the subject of what may be the year's oddest religion news story.

China, in case you missed it, is upset that the Dalai Lama has threatened not to reincarnate. Ponder that for a minute.

While not an entirely new story, it is, on its face, an illogical one. An officially atheist dictatorship is demanding that a Tibetan Buddhist religious tradition be followed even though it regards the tradition to be superstitious folly. Talk about being cursed to live in an interesting time!

China's position is, of course, all about further cementing it's political control over Tibet (more on this later). However, even if they're not atheists, the majority of Westerners also regard reincarnation as, to put it mildly, highly improbable -- reducing this entire episode for them to some sort of eye-rolling religious comedy.

It's axiomatic that every believer's living reality is some competing believer's convoluted and irrational fantasy. Also axiomatic, I believe, is that the job of mainstream media religion journalists is to report on, as fairly and authoritatively as possible, the cacophony of religious traditions demanding inclusion today in the United States, Canada and other pluralistic Western nations. That's even if religious practitioners themselves often fall short of coexisting with mutual respect and charity of spirit. Mind you, however, striving to understand other world views does not rule out critical inquiry when required.

Buddhism -- a complex world religion with scores of ethnic and theological divisions -- is just one of them. Much may be said about Buddhism's current popularity. Mindfulness -- the term applied to a highly Westernized meditation technique -- one shorn of its ethnic component and presented more as a psychological tool than religious exercise, though it's derived from Buddhism's Vipassana tradition -- is currently having its media moment. Despite the risk of oversimplification, I'd define mindfulness as strengthening self-awareness so as not to be emotionally swept away by every transient thought. "Mindful" — an online and print magazine to which I've contributed essays in the past -- is a recommended resource on the subject.

Rather than recount the lengthy story of Buddhism's transplantation, I'll refer you to my
GetReligion colleague Richard Ostling's "Religion Q&A" column from a few months ago ("Turn, Turn, Turn") so we can get back to the Dalai Lama story.

The current Dalai Lama -- who I first interviewed in 1979 in Los Angeles during his first visit to the U.S. and Canada -- is the 14th in a monastic line that began in the 14th Century. Not until the 5th Dalai Lama, an honorific that is often roughly translated as "ocean of wisdom," did the position become dominant over all other Tibetan Buddhist lineages. Until he decided to resign his political post in 2011 to usher in a more democratically installed leadership, the current Daily Lama was Tibet's political as well as its religious leader. Since 1950, Tibet has been occupied by China. The Dalai Lama, though already installed, was just a teenager then.

How the Dalai Lama was traditionally chosen and the concept of reincarnation within his esoteric Vajrayana Buddhist tradition make for fascinating reading, whether or not you put any stock in them. Again, rather than detail the many twists and turns myself, let me point you to this slimmed-down 2009 retelling from The New York Times. The piece also provides more political context on the reincarnation dispute.

Not long before the latest burp in this saga hit the news, another story focusing on Buddhism also surfaced that to most Westerners must have seemed at least equally as odd as the Dalai Lama's reincarnation kerfuffle. This one featured the mummified remains -- make that self-mummified remains -- of a monk found inside a Buddha statue from China estimated at about 2,000 years old. China, in its vast territory, is home to several Buddhist traditions. Tricycle magazine, a must read for reporters hoping to stay abreast of contemporary Buddhism, ran this news piece. I spotted online stories on the subject in some more mainstream publications, but none had the detail of the Tricycle piece.

The world of religion overflows with practices and beliefs that can seem incomprehensible and bizarre to the uninitiated. I, for one, relish this aspect of the religion beat. What a way to discover humanity's seemingly endless permutations! Thanks to today's unprecedented freedom of travel and communications, so much of what was once exotica can now easily be encountered, sometimes in our own neighborhood, and if not, surely online.

Too bad this opportunity coincides with a period of major retrenchment in the serious coverage of religion news, both locally and globally. Anyone out there have a viable idea that might reverse that?

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