The Dalai Lama set off a firestorm last month by announcing that he will no longer reincarnate in a political role, effectively ending his centuries-old political lineage.
It's the latest in a series of controversial statements about the future of his role—including a hint that his next incarnation may be born outside of Tibet, and may be a woman. And it's another indicator of a sea change in how the Tibetan diaspora is adapting and revising its traditions for life outside of occupied Tibet. Though the Dalai Lama's statement was hastily reported in the media as meaning that he will not reincarnate at all, what he's saying is much more layered: he's looking to reincarnate as a spiritual leader only, and transition the Tibetan government-in-exile from needing him as a central authority, and towards a democratically-elected committee.
"We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries," the Dalai Lama told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag in September. "The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama… If a weak Dalai Lama comes along, then it will just disgrace the Dalai Lama."
"Tibetan Buddhism is not dependent on one individual," he added. "We have a very good organizational structure with highly trained monks and scholars."
While the Dalai Lama officially devolved his political role in 2011 (the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile is currently Harvard-educated legal scholar Dr. Lobsang Sangay), this statement further underlines his desire to democratize the Tibetan government—which he has been pushing for since the 1960s.
"He has been very happy since 2011, when he resigned from any political role," Dr. Robert Thurman told me (Thurman is a Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, and is one of the Dalai Lama's primary interfaces with Western media and academia). "He also changed the constitution and made the final implementation of a change that no lama will be head of state in any future government that Tibetans approve of."
While that change may further endear the Dalai Lama and Tibetan diaspora to broadly supportive Western governments, China is not pleased—though the People's Republic considers Tibetan Buddhism another "opium of the people," it quite likes the idea of central authority—especially if it controls that authority's next incarnation.
Bodhisattvas of Compassion
As it is in many religions, reincarnation is an article of faith in Tibetan Buddhism—a process that has been studied, mapped and analyzed in detail by meditating lamas as if it were a subject akin to astrophysics, and described in texts like the Bardo Thödol. It's also considered to work differently for different individuals, depending on their level of Buddhist practice and attainment.
The Dalai Lama is considered to be a Bodhisattva—a practitioner who has reached the highest levels of attainment, but who has delayed their own final realization, swearing instead to continue reincarnating until all sentient beings are freed from delusion and attain to enlightenment. He's also considered to be the human incarnation of the deity Avalokiteśvara, the embodiment of absolute and universal compassion. Both a sequentially incarnating human and the temporal manifestation of a divine being—not minor stuff.
His human journey began in 1391, when Gendun Drup—who would become the first Dalai Lama—was born in a cowshed in central Tibet. After becoming a monk, he studied under Tsongkhapa, the legendary founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism (which would become the most prominent and organized branch of Tibet's many sects and sub-sects, somewhat akin to the Catholic Church in the West). Drup became one of the most celebrated lamas in the country, occupying a critical spiritual role in the growing Gelug sect. At Lhamo La-tso lake, he was granted a vision of the fearsome blue-skinned, red-haired, blood-drinking female guardian spirit Palden Lhamo, who promised to protect his reincarnation lineage. Since that time, Gelug lamas have meditated at Lhamo La-tso for guidance in finding each successive incarnation of the Dalai Lama.
The role of the Dalai Lama was officially codified in his second incarnation, but it wasn't until several lifetimes later that he came into his own—as Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, one of the most critical figures in Tibetan history. Not only did the Fifth firmly establish the Dalai Lama office as a political role, he also unified Tibet, ending centuries of civil war by brutally crushing the rebel factions (with Mongolian aid) and uniting the country under himself.
The office of Dalai Lama subsequently became an embattled political role, with several incarnations likely murdered by political rivals or Chinese infiltrators. It was Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, who declared Tibet politically independent from China in the early 20th century, exiled Chinese citizens from the country, and began to modernize the still-feudal nation.
Which brings us to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, enthroned in 1950, in the middle of Communist China's invasion of Tibet. Only one year later, he would be forced to accept Tibet's formal re-incorporation into the PRC; in 1959, he would flee for his life to India, where he has ruled the Tibetan government-in-exile since.
While the 5th Dalai Lama faced the political burden of unifying Tibet, the 14th has been forced to preside over its destruction—witnessing the ongoing genocide of the Tibetan people and their cultural traditions within Tibet's borders, all the while struggling to re-assemble and ensure the survival of those traditions in India and the West.
I saw the Dalai Lama speak in New York in 2007. Though cheerful, he was also flatly realist. He underlined that his singular goal is to ensure the survival of the Tibetan people, and chuckled at the tendency of Westerners to see him as a magically-powered, spiritual Santa Claus. When asked about the future of Tibet, and if it would survive the PRC's mass murder, religious suppression, strip-mining and strip-malling, his answer was sobering and succinct:
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know."
The Geopolitics of Reincarnation
Reincarnation isn't just a matter of faith or history. It's also a flashpoint in Tibetan-Chinese political relations. And only days after the Dalai Lama's announcement that he was ending his political incarnations, China hit back.
"China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing. "The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism."
Earlier, in 2011, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a public statement that only Beijing can appoint the next Dalai Lama, and that any attempt to do so by Tibetan-recognized reincarnation would violate Chinese law. In 2007, the PRC stated that reincarnations of lamas can only be recognized after an applications process to the State Council.
The Tibetan government-in-exile has rejected this; the Dalai Lama has ruled that "apart from the reincarnation recognized through legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People's Republic of China." By ending his political incarnations, the Dalai Lama may well be hedging against a future in which China attempts to appoint its own Dalai Lama, claiming they have found his next incarnation and using their puppet to manipulate Tibet.
It's not like there isn't precedent for such a move. In May 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the new incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most powerful figure in the Gelugpa school after himself. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese government disappeared Nyima, and appointed their own Panchen Lama. Nyima has not been seen since.
"[China] passed a law in 2007 that they control all reincarnations, and it's likely that they will go ahead and try to appoint their own Dalai Lama," Dr. Robert Barnett, Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia, explained to me. "There is some indication that they've set up committees to handle this, and may be planning to do this, but we can't be sure. Chinese leaders unquestionably have a vital need for a religious leader working on their behalf as an intermediary in Tibet, but they've obviously had problems finding a credible person to do that."
Tibet's Uncertain Future
Leading a diaspora both politically and spiritually while its home country is being destroyed is an unimaginable burden. Add to that the pressures of celebrity and the Western media, and dealing with the projected Orientalist fantasies of a West that has come to see the Dalai Lama as a kind of New Age Pope, without much actual understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, and it's no wonder that the Dalai Lama—now 79—is urging democratized rule.
While the decision not to return as a political leader is final, the Dalai Lama has publicly stated that he will not make the ultimate decision on whether he will return as a spiritual leader until he is 90 (in 2025). According to Dr. Barnett, reincarnation is not determined by individual lamas, but is urged by religious adherents through petition and prayer, making it highly unlikely that the Dalai Lama will not declare that he will return in a spiritual capacity. Because of this, according to Dr. Barnett, the Dalai Lama's comments to Welt am Sonntag are "not a categorical statement that there will not be a Dalai Lama in the future."
The uncertainty about both the future of the Dalai Lama role and the remaining lifespan of the Dalai Lama himself may be contributing to anxiety in Tibet, where a wave of self-immolations has accelerated since 2009 in response to the brutality of the Chinese occupation.
"If people did feel that he was he was expecting to die or definitely not coming back, that would have an effect," said Barnett. "People inside Tibet are becoming apprehensive of the potential loss of a leader and spokesman. There are signs that this has made people in Tibet tense about the future. Some people think that [the immolations were] related to insecurities as a result of his decision to retire, but we don't know that for sure. There's very little doubt that there's huge support for him in Tibet and that people would be dramatically affected if they felt he was about to die."
Dr. Thurman feels otherwise:
"[The Dalai Lama] doesn't consider that his decision has caused turmoil," he stated. "The immolation activity stems from the time of the Beijing Olympics, when the Tibetans had a plateau-wide nonviolent revolution, and the Chinese made an incredible crackdown, putting armored police and vehicles everywhere. Thousands of people were arrested and tortured, monks were not left to peacefully pursue their activities, and were forced to pledge allegiance to the PRC, just like in the Cultural Revolution. Monks and laypeople had no room to breathe, and probably felt like carrying out some sort of attack against the Chinese, but instead they immolated themselves to maintain non-violence. This was also found by a Chinese human rights commission, who reported that the immolations were caused by the hardline activities of the secret police and not the Dalai Lama; the report was then rejected by the top people in China, and the lawyers have been put away."
Despite the grim outlook in Tibet, the next generation of Tibetan political leaders remains hopeful about the future of the Tibetan people and resistance movement:
"The fact that the Dalai Lama devolved his leadership shows the incredible trust that he has placed in our people in regards to leading our movement and struggle, especially today, when there is an ongoing crisis with self-immolations," Tenzin Dolkar, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet told me. "His Holiness is our spiritual leader and will continue to be. We have faith and deep trust in His Holiness and his advisors to make the best decisions in regards to the next phase."