May 2015 - Dalai Drama

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I’ve been writing this column for thirty-four years. The question I’m asked most often1 is “Where do you find things to write about?” And the answer—an answer I have very little occasion to use now that the voices telling me to kill Donald Trump have stopped—is, “They assail me from all sides.”


I can’t understand why everyone isn’t doing this. The pay is decent, there’s no heavy lifting, the opportunity for personal exorcism is immense, and you don’t have to handle fish. Seems to me all you have to do is watch television, pay attention to Congress,2 and ingest the occasional peyote button, and things to write about announce themselves as clearly as Jiffy-Pop.

And, of course, there are the shoemaker’s elves.


Every night, while I’m sleeping, shoemaker’s elves concoct crazy-ass, fake news stories, print them up into ersatz newspapers they have humorously denominated The Register and The Los Angeles Times, and toss them onto my driveway. I don’t know why they do this;3 it seems pretty inscrutable behavior to me. But it makes filling this space every month much easier.

Today, for example, my facsimile of The Register ran a story captioned, “Reincarnate or Else, China Says.” You don’t have to be O Henry to recognize that as a column. Short of “Elvis is Alive and Living in Alex Kozinsky’s Basement,” it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that. My smile was so big, it made it hard to eat my Rice Krispies.

Where do they get this stuff?  Where in the world do the elves come up with crazy ideas like this to write about? Well, wherever it is, it is apparently not a bottomless source, because they’re now recycling stories. This Chinese reincarnation shtick is a re-run of a storyline they made up in 2007.

At that time, the newspapers the elves had written insisted that the People’s Republic of China was legislating reincarnation. I knew that couldn’t be true because China was more atheistic than Nietzsche.

But the newspapers said so. They said the Chinese government includes a bureaucracy called the State Administration for Religious Affairs, a frighteningly Orwellian appellation given China’s official position on religion. At the time I had no idea what China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (let’s call her SARA) did on a day-to-day basis. I mean, what kept SARA occupied, given that China is an atheist state whose official government position, distilled of all the circumlocution, is that religion is crap?

Well, it turns out one of the things SARA was doing was promulgating a rule that prohibited reincarnation without prior approval of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. Honest. No reincarnation without a permit. And these are people not known for their sense of humor.

One of the more puzzling aspects of this new set of statutes was that it strictly forbade reincarnating in Tibet. Under any circumstances. No, I am not having a stroke, that’s what the statutes—at least as reported by the L.A. Times elves—said.

Turns out there was method in that madness. The legislation was a bill of attainder5 aimed at the Dalai Lama. 

The Dalai Lama is regarded by the Chinese government the way the Speaker of the House is regarded by the Obama Administration. And he keeps popping up in Tibet.6 His followers believe that each time the DL dies, he is reincarnated in Tibet.

So the Chinese tried to legislate him out of existence. They figured by making it illegal to reincarnate in Tibet, they could wait for Tenzin Gyatso (DL #14) to die, and then arrest the next person who claimed to be the Dalai Lama for illegally reincarnating. Wrap up this whole Tibetan Buddhism thing once and for all.

Brilliant! 750 years of Tibetan Buddhism round-filed in one fell swoop.7 But that crafty lama may outsmart them yet again. Much to the spluttering chagrin of the Chinese government, eighty-year-old #148 says he just may choose not to reincarnate. Anywhere. He says maybe they won’t have Tenzin Gyatso to kick around any more.

As he points out, there’s no telling what the next Dalai Lama might be like. “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.”

You gotta love the guy. You also gotta wonder if anyone made that suggestion to John Adams or George H. Bush. 

Well, the Chinese are positively apoplectic. This would completely confound their plans to choose their own Dalai Puppet—one who accepts China’s presence in Tibet.  

So they’re now insisting he has to reincarnate. Their position is that the Dalai Lama is required to reincarnate—under their terms and conditions.

They now claim, “The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government,”9 and that, if necessary, that government will follow “religious procedure and historic custom” in choosing a successor to #14. I assume that will involve a reincarnated panel of judges including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Martin Luther.

This really strains the jaw muscles of diplomats and theologians trying to maintain a straight face. But I’m loving it. I think an atheistic government staunchly insisting it will interpret Buddhist custom and appoint the next Dalai Lama—in the same way as it would appoint a reincarnated Minister of Culture or a zombie Director of Farm Labor—is a show that gives new meaning to the phrase, “Chinese acrobats.”

This comes along at the perfect time for me. As I write this, Downton Abbey has ended and the baseball season has not yet begun. I was a little worried about finding adequate entertainment for weeks in which we do not have oral arguments.

Now I’m covered. God bless those elves.

(1) Other than, “How is it you aren’t on the Supreme Court?” 
(2) Granted, that’s a little painful, but you 
have to be willing to suffer for your art. 
(3) Ask the Brothers Grimm. 
(4) Yes, crass, but accurate. What’s more important to you in a judge—accuracy 
or taste?
(5) Pretty sure I haven’t had a chance 
to use that expression since I graduated 
law school. Somehow it’s not the thrill you 
would expect out of something anticipated 
that long.
(6) Which, coincidentally, is where the 
Obama Administration wishes the Speaker 
of the House would pop up. 
(7) Yeah, I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but 
it’s Shakespeare, for crying out loud. He 
invented the phrase. Show the proper 
(8) No surprise that a guy who carries Pete Rose’s number would be crafty.
(9) Who would have thought an atheistic government would run into trouble separating church and state?

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.