Reincarnation and realpolitik: Dalai Lama’s succession dilemma

by AFP Staff Writers

Mcleod Ganj , India (AFP) March 7, 2024

Esoteric questions of reincarnation rarely have real-world political consequences, but many fear the search for a successor to Tibet’s Dalai Lama could inflame regional rivalries.

The 88-year-old spiritual leader, Tenzin Gyatso, has shown no indication of serious health issues, and has said that his dreams suggest he could live until he is 113.

But as Tibetans mark on Sunday the 65th anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese forces that led to him fleeing into exile in India, the question of who will succeed their ageing leader is in sharp focus.

Tibetan activists are keenly aware that his death will mark a major setback in his push for more autonomy for the Himalayan region.

It would deprive the cause of a Nobel Prize winner whose moral teachings and idiosyncratic humour have made him one of the world’s most popular religious leaders.

Many expect China will name a successor.

That raises the likelihood of rival nominations for the six-century-old post, including one chosen by exiled Tibetans based in India, a regional rival of China.

Tensions between the world’s two most populous countries have already flared after a deadly Himalayan border clash in 2020.

Here, AFP explains how realpolitik may impact the question of reincarnation.

– Reincarnation or emanation? –

While the bodies of previous Dalai Lamas have been entombed in stupa burial mounds, Tibetans believe their soul carries on, living in a new being.

Tibetan monks traditionally choose the Dalai Lama through a ritualistic search that can take years, seeking telltale signs a child is the reincarnation of a spiritual leader first born in 1391.

The 14th Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala since the failed uprising in 1959, has floated the possibility of a non-traditional succession.

He already ended the post’s political powers in 2011 in favour of an elected Tibetan government-in-exile.

Keeping Beijing on its toes, he has alternatively suggested that his reincarnation could be a girl for the first time, or that he might be the last Dalai Lama.

Instead of reincarnation — whereby the soul returns in a newborn — there is also the intriguing possibility of “emanation before death”.

In that case, Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama’s spirit could transfer to an adult successor.

“It is possible for the Lama to appoint a successor who is either his disciple or someone young who is to be recognised as his emanation,” the Dalai Lama said in 2011.

– What will China do? –

China’s officially atheist government has called the Dalai Lama a separatist.

In 1995, Beijing detained a child that the Dalai Lama had recognised as the Panchen Lama — another influential religious figure.

China, meanwhile, selected another child to become the Panchen Lama.

Rights groups have described the boy who was detained as the world’s youngest political prisoner, and his whereabouts remain unknown.

The Dalai Lama is determined his successor will not face the same fate.

“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,” he warned in 2011.

“It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives… to meddle in the system of reincarnation,” he added.

He has also preemptively dismissed suggestions his successor’s name must be plucked from a “Golden Urn” — which Beijing controls — by saying its use “lacked any spiritual quality”.

India, meanwhile, which has long-hosted tens of thousands of Tibetan exiles, would be expected to continue its support and back a successor approved in the process set out by the Dalai Lama.

But that could raise tensions between the neighbouring powers, who have already clashed in contested border areas, including Ladakh, home to a sizeable Tibetan population.

– What has the Dalai Lama said? –

The Dalai Lama has promised to write a “predictive letter” for monks to follow around his 90th birthday in July 2025.

He has said responsibility for choosing any successor will “rest primarily” on his Gaden Phodrang Trust, a Zurich-headquartered foundation.

But he has also suggested he may be the last Dalai Lama.

“If I die before Tibetans regain their freedom, it is only logical to assume that I will be born outside Tibet,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Freedom in Exile”.

“Of course, it could be that by then my people will have no use for a Dalai Lama, in which case they will not bother to search for me,” he added.

“So I might take rebirth as an insect, or an animal — whatever would be of most value to the largest number of sentient beings.”

Tibet’s Dalai Lama: A life in exile in 10 dates
Dharamsala, India (AFP) March 7, 2024 -
Tibetan Buddhists believe the current Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of a spiritual leader first born in 1391.

The 88-year-old has led Tibetans through some of the most calamitous events in their history.

As Tibetans mark on March 10 the 65th anniversary of his exile following a failed uprising, here are key dates in the life of leader, monk and Nobel laureate Tenzin Gyatso.

– 1935: Farming family –

Lhamo Thondup is born to a farming family in the rural village of Taksar on July 6, 1935, more than a decade before the Communist Party establishes the People’s Republic of China.

Situated on a high-altitude plateau, dubbed by some the “roof of the world”, Tibet has alternated over the centuries between independence and control by China.

At the time, Tibet is largely autonomous, after shaking off both the grip of China’s three-century Qing dynasty and a British invasion.

– 1937: 14th reincarnation –

He is just two when Buddhist monks in disguise arrive at his family home searching for the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, who had died four years earlier.

The monks are convinced they have found the right boy when he asks for prayer beads that had belonged to his predecessor.

In 1940, he is enthroned as Tibet’s leader, taking the monastic name Tenzin Gyatso.

– 1950: China takes control –

The Chinese army pours into Tibet, crushing a ramshackle resistance. Beijing says it “peacefully liberated” the rugged plateau.

– 1954: Meets Mao –

He visits Beijing and meets Mao Zedong, who he says tells him that “religion is poison”.

– 1959: Flees to India –

He flees Lhasa after China pours troops into the region to crush a popular uprising.

Too sick to ride a horse, he crosses the snowy mountain passes into India on the back of a dzomo, a cow-yak hybrid.

India allows a Tibetan government-in-exile in its northern town of Dharamsala. Beijing calls him a “wolf in monk’s robes”.

– 1967: Launches global campaign –

He visits Japan and Thailand, the first stops on a globetrotting campaign to promote his cause, hobnobbing with world leaders and Hollywood stars.

China’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 devastates Tibet.

– 1988: ‘Middle Way’ –

He abandons demands for Tibetan independence for the “Middle Way” approach for greater autonomy. China continues to call him a separatist.

– 1989: Nobel –

He receives the Nobel Peace Prize for advocating solutions based “upon tolerance and mutual respect”.

Beijing, who months earlier had crushed large-scale demonstrations in Lhasa calling for independence, condemns the award as “preposterous”.

– 2011: Political retirement –

He steps down as political head of Tibet’s exiled government to make way for a democratically elected leader.

– Today: Monastic life –

He maintains a rigorous monastic life, rising before dawn for prayers.

“I always consider myself as a simple Buddhist monk,” he writes on his website. “I feel that is the real me.”

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