The Dalai Lama
(seated) at the
November 29, 2019 (Photo: AP)
ON A COLD winter’s morning in Dharamsala last week, in a large hall filled with the highest lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, appeared the old but cheerful figure of the Dalai Lama. He moved slowly over the green carpet—one hand of his held by the current head of the exiled community, the Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, and supported by others from behind—as he stopped to exchange pleasantries, even slapping the bald head of a high lama in jest, before taking his seat upon the dais, behind him a row of thangkas.
This was the last of the three-day long Tibetan Religious Conference, which is held every few years for the high lamas and heads of monasteries to discuss ecclesiastic and monastic issues. But on its very first day, this conference of some 200 lamas had issued what it called The Dharamsala Declaration, a resolution stating that Tibetans want the institution of the Dalai Lama to continue, even after the current incumbent, and that the authority over how and in what manner the next reincarnation would occur would rest solely with the current Dalai Lama.
Concerns about the Dalai Lama’s health and about his reincarnation aren’t new. But things have begun to heat up in the last few weeks. Representatives from the Chinese government have been making several statements saying that Beijing holds the authority to pick the next Dalai Lama. While back in October, long before the religious conference at Dharamsala, the Tibetan government in exile had held a Special General Meeting on Reincarnation whereby a resolution was passed saying that only the current Dalai Lama and his office (Gaden Phodrang Trust of the Dalai Lama) had that right. Weeks later, Samuel Brownback, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, had visited Dharamsala and said that the US supported the Dalai Lama’s role in picking his successor. He has since talked about how this issue has to be raised at the UN, and a global discussion is required, lest something befall the current Dalai Lama.
Back on the last day of the religious conference, the Dalai Lama sat upon his seat, delivering an hour-long address on dharma and the current political situation in Tibet, recounting anecdotes from his life, often breaking into a smile, appearing oblivious to the discussions on his mortality and the future of his lineage.
Concerns about the Dalai Lama’s health and reincarnation are not new. But things have begun to heat up. Chinese representatives have said Beijing holds the authority to pick the next Dalai Lama
Share this on
After he ended his address and the audience began to applaud, he suddenly interrupted the next speaker as if something had occurred to him. He began to recount an anecdote. “A few years ago, I met some newspapermen in America who asked about my reincarnation,” the Dalai Lama said in Tibetan. And then, taking off his glasses and bringing his face forward, he went on: “I asked them, ‘Look at my face. Is there any need to hurry?’ They said, ‘There’s no need.’” The Dalai Lama erupted in peals of laughter, even as the audience sat silent, listening in rapt attention. “I’m 84 years old, reaching 85,” he said. “My body is very good; my mind is filled with happiness. Remember that.”
The Tibetan community finds itself at a precarious juncture. The support for their freedom struggle, at least among international governments, from its high points in the 1980s and 1990s, has now perceptibly dwindled. In India, the youth have begun to leave for better opportunities in other countries. And every year, when Tibetans gather to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6th—an important date in the Tibetan calendar outside Tibet—there is also an unspoken realisation that their leader is ageing. Very rarely do Tibetans discuss his mortality, but the fear is there.
The relationship between Dalai Lamas and Tibetans is—as the resolution passed by the religious conference puts it—like that of the head and the neck, the body and its shadow. Can the two ever be severed? And if it were, what would happen to the one that got left behind—the shadow without its body?
The Dalai Lama tries to alleviate this anxiety. He often points to the prediction of the state oracle, the Nechung Oracle in Dharamsala, about how he will live to be at least 113. Once, when he told someone that he thought he could live for another 10-20 years and the person responded by asking him to ‘stay for another 75 years,’ the Dalai Lama had remarked: “Oh that’s a little long I think, it might be a little impossible.”
The Dalai Lama has appeared somewhat inconsistent about what exactly he wants. He has said the lineage may continue; that the next Dalai Lama could even be the first female Dalai Lama; and he has also said that the institution might have served its purpose—that it would be better for the institution to cease to exist while still popular. He has, of course, tried to limit the political influence of the position by handing over the political reins to the democratically elected Tibetan administration in exile, effectively only serving as a spiritual master since.
What the Dalai Lama has been most consistent about is his wish that the institution’s future rest with the Tibetans. In a rare 2011 edict on his reincarnation, he said that when he turns 90, he will consult the Tibetan public and high lamas to re-evaluate whether the institution should continue, and if so, the responsibility of picking his successor will rest with his Gaden Phodrang Trust. He also laid out the three possible ways his successor could be chosen: he could either reincarnate after his death, or his successor could get selected, or he may decide to emanate during his lifetime.
The Dalai Lama has said the future of the institution depends on Tibetans. It is our job to make our thoughts very clear: Yes, we want the institution to continue, says Lobsang Sangay, political head of the Tibetan government in exile
Share this on
“China is very worried if the Dalai Lama decides to emanate,” says Amitabh Mathur, the former adviser on Tibet affairs to the Ministry of Home Affairs. “The Dalai Lama doesn’t want to reveal too much of his hand… My hunch is he is inclined to his reincarnation.” According to Mathur, the Dalai Lama also appears to not want to close the option of a resolution of the Tibet issue during his lifetime. “There is contact between the Dalai Lama and China, he has admitted to it too, and he still remains optimistic,” he says.
It remains very likely that in the future there may be two Dalai Lamas: one appointed by the Chinese government and another supported by the Tibetan community. China has, strangely for a communist state, tried to seize control of such an otherworldly process of reincarnation by enacting a law that makes it mandatory for every reincarnate lama to be authenticated by the Chinese government. There is also a database of authenticated living Buddhas, which can be browsed through a website and, of course, doesn’t feature the most famous of them.
“It’s quite ridiculous. There are some 300 or more lamas that have already been picked [this way] by China,” says Sangay, the Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). “It seems they think the Tibetan issue will disappear after the current Dalai Lama… In history, there have been attempts at imposing a pope. But it has failed… If [China] pick a Dalai Lama, it will have zero credibility.”
ACCORDING TO SANGAY, the recent developments at Dharamsala, reiterating the Dalai Lama’s control over his reincarnation, is to make things clear: “The Dalai Lama has said the future [of the institution] depends upon Tibetans. It is our job to make our thoughts very clear, ‘Yes, we want the institution to continue.’ It is up to the Dalai Lama now.”
Asked how and when he would like the reincarnation to occur, Sangay points out that he has made his preference clear in the past: “I have said that I would like the Dalai Lama to emanate [in his lifetime].”
What would he like now?
“It depends on him [the Dalai Lama].”
How much international support a reincarnated Dalai Lama receives, however, is a big question. Mathur expresses surprise at how strongly the US has sided with the Dalai Lama’s position. But he wonders if this support by the Trump administration is something transactional, one of many ways in attacking China during the ongoing trade war, or something more meaningful.
The Indian Government has so far been conspicuously silent on the issue. A few months ago, Chinese authorities said that any interference by India would impact bilateral ties. “India won’t express anything clearly [now]. But they are enthusiastically watching,” says Karma Gelek Yuthok, the minister of religion and culture in the CTA. “It’s going to be very important for them. But they won’t say anything directly.”
India, a source points out, may have to play an important role when the reincarnation occurs: “What if the 15th Dalai Lama is from India, maybe a Tibetan with an Indian passport, or just a Tibetan residing in India? What happens then? It will have to decide.”
Samuel Brownback visited Dharamsala and said that the US supports the Dalai Lama’s role in picking his successor. He has since said that the issue needs to be raised at the UN
Share this on
New Delhi has so far been inconsistent in its position on Tibet. The source points towards the 2018 circular (from Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale) that was leaked to the media and asked Government officials and elected leaders to stay away from attending CTA-organised events marking the Dalai Lama’s 60th year in India. Then, once a furore ensued, BJP leaders (Ram Madhav and Mahesh Sharma) were dispatched to show their solidarity at one such event.
Another low-point occurred over the Karmapa Lama, the influential head of the Karma Kagyu sect, who many believe could play an important role in a post-Dalai Lama world. He hasn’t returned to India after he left a few years ago, and it now emerges that he has acquired a Dominican Republic passport. According to rumours in Dharamsala, he was shabbily treated when he lived in India— with severe restrictions imposed on his travels and a general suspicion that he was a Chinese spy. He was even accused of financial misdeeds.
When asked, Mathur says that the Karmapa Lama never expressed any discomfort about his travels: “It could have been resolved had he said so… We need him here [in India] shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dalai Lama.”
When asked about New Delhi’s position on the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, he says: “The only thing is that the process of communication between the [Indian] Government and the Dalai Lama goes on without any disruption. So both know what is happening.”
TO A SCEPTIC, SUCH an institution—of a reincarnating lineage—may appear an anachronism, but looked at purely as a form of political succession, it has actually been quite successful. Unlike the empires built by dynastic kings, which eventually crumble under the weight of incompetent successors, or even democracies, where no leader ever enjoys complete support, the institution of the Dalai Lama has actually gone from strength to strength, a reincarnate always building upon the influence and prestige of the former, drawing power, as strange as it may seem, not from the temporal world but some otherworldly source. It has helped that some especially politically sharp Dalai Lamas have come along over time.
The first, Gedun Drupa, was born in 1391 and grew up to become an abbot and esteemed scholar-saint. When he took the vows of a monk, Babur and the Mughal dynasty were more than a century away, La Santa Maria would not leave port for almost another 80 years, and the earth was still considered flat. But with each passing succession, as more monasteries and territory were brought under its sway—a region spreading from the Kalmyk region of Russia in the east to parts of China in the west, and from Mongolia up north to Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and the Himalayan regions of India in the south—the institution’s power rose. In the time of the fifth Dalai Lama (the ‘Great Fifth’), Tibet was unified.
There have been dangers and attempts to control the institution in the past too. Those were dealt with. But the institution has never faced a threat quite like today’s China.