Tibetan Buddhism’s third-highest-ranking religious figure has weighed in on the sensitive debate surrounding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, saying that it is up to the exiled spiritual leader to decide whether he is reborn. Ogyen Trinley Dorje, known as the Karmapa Lama, expressed in an interview this week his “complete belief” that the Dalai Lama can decide his own fate after death, in a rejection of China’s claims that its government holds ultimate authority to determine the next leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

"In Tibetan traditions, we don't talk much about the reincarnation of a living master," he said in a Wednesday interview with Radio Free Asia. "However, now many questions are being generated. In my view, it is only the Dalai Lama himself who should decide about his future reincarnation. So I am confident and have full trust in his decision. There are many presumptive statements and guessworks, but I am not worried."

According to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, the soul of the Dalai Lama is typically reincarnated following his passing to continue the spiritual leader’s important work. But for many Tibetan Buddhists, the discussion of their leader’s reincarnation is as much a political matter as it is a spiritual one. The 79-year-old has lived in exile in India since his failed uprising against Chinese rule of Tibet in 1959 and is considered to be a dangerous separatist by Beijing.

After the Dalai Lama speculated in December that he might not reincarnate, China’s government hit back by publicly asserting its own authority to determine and approve the future Dalai Lama. Tibet’s China-appointed governor, Padma Choling, even went so far as to accuse the Dalai Lama of blasphemy for doubting reincarnation. "If he says no reincarnation, then no reincarnation? Impossible. Nobody in Tibetan Buddhism would agree to that. We must respect history, respect and not profane Tibetan Buddhism," Choling said last month.

The idea of respecting tradition was echoed by a Chinese official when asked about the Karmapa’s comments, Reuters reported on Thursday."The Dalai Lama's reincarnation must respect the relevant religious rituals, historic custom and the state's laws and rules," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.

The avowedly atheist government’s interest in the religious matter shouldn’t come as a surprise given the significance it places on the future of Tibet’s leadership, which they hope they can mold to be more amenable to Chinese rule over the restive region.

China’s attempts to give itself a larger role in the process of selecting the next Tibetan Buddhist leader is a form of “mission creep” in the service of its mission to find a “tame” successor to the spiritual leader, said Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibet Studies program at Columbia University in New York. “They have invested huge resources into trying to find a tame lama,” he wrote in a commentary for the BBC. "This is one of the most fascinating issues in the whole story: nobody in the Communist Party seems to have ever considered the possibility that they could rule Tibetans without a lama to be their intermediary.”