NEW YORK, July 23 - The official Chinese media's ignorance of Tibetan culture never ceases to surprise us.
The Xinhuanet today reported that a forthcoming session of Buddhist theological exams in Lhasa will be presided over by a panel of "16 buddhas"!
Sixteen Buddhas? The reference is, of course, to reincarnations of spiritual masters, who in their previous lives had attained a high level of realization, but may still have a long way to go before attaining the Buddhahood, or enlightenment.
To call them "Buddhas" is to embarrass the concerned individuals as it is to provoke hilarity among other Tibetans.
But the good news, at least on the face of it, is that the Chinese government has now decided to lift the ban on the awarding of Geshe Lharampa (Doctor of Divinity) degree in Tibet.
A preliminary test for this highest academic degree of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism will be held on 28 July in the Jokhang Temple of Lhasa, the Chinese online news agency reported.
Quoting Mr. Tubdain, head of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinhuanet said the preliminary test will be taken by "six dignitary monks with an average age of 70" from the monasteries of Sera, Drepung and Ganden.
Those passing the preliminaries will have to sit the final exams at the next year's Prayer Festival, which follows the three-day Tibetan New Year.
"Only those who win the two rounds are eligible for the honor. A panel of 16 buddhas and Tibetan Buddhism experts has been established to preside over the exam."
In 1959 China banned the Geshe Lharampa program as a "superstitious feudal practice".
It was briefly revived in the late 1980s on the insistence of the late Panchen Lama, only to be banned again in 1988 in the wake of a series of pro-independence demonstration in Lhasa.
Well-placed sources inside Tibet say the revival of this program should not be seen as an act of benevolence.
"It is naive to think that the Party has suddenly developed a serendipitous respect for the Tibetan spiritual culture... There is no desire on the part of the authorities to revive serious studies for the Lharampa degree," one source said on conditions of anonymity.
"The move is politically motivated, and aimed at cleansing the Tibetan monasteries of Dalai Lama's influence."
The hidden agenda, according to this source, is to groom an army of so-called spiritual masters, whom the Party will appoint as heads of Tibetan monasteries. Their primary job in the monasteries will be to work as agents of Chinese thought police.
"In other words, they will be entrusted with the responsibility of seeing to it that the monks and nuns become "patriotic citizens" with full loyalty to the Motherland and the Communist Party," the source said.