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Between the Lines: Interpreting the Dalai Lama’s Statement on his Successor [The China Beat]

By Robert Barnett, Columbia University
On September 24, following a meeting of the leaders of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, Northern India, the Dalai Lama issued a 4,000-word statement in Tibetan and English entitled “Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation”. The document—the full text is available here—uses theological concepts and Tibetan terms that can be confusing, and what is most interesting about it is that it is not about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation: it is about his succession, which we learn is something very different. So in this note I’ve tried to sketch out some of the practical implications that seem to lie behind the statement.
The statement is in large part a response to a legal document promulgated by the Chinese authorities in 2007 which declared that only the Chinese government is allowed to decide who is or is not the reincarnation of a lama (see here and here(PDF) for more). That regulation gave Beijing alone the authority to select the next Dalai Lama and so set the stage for a major dispute once the current one dies. The Dalai Lama’s statement, which describes the Chinese claim as “outrageous and disgraceful”, makes clear his position on that issue.
The statement also relates to his decision earlier this year to end the “Ganden Phodrang” system, the name given to the system of government in Tibet led by the Dalai Lamas since 1642, which had continued in exile since 1959. In the past that government had a major role in overseeing the selection of each Dalai Lama, but as of this May, the term “Ganden Phodrang” now refers just to the office or estate of the Dalai Lama which manages the affairs of his lineage. The statement addresses the future role of this institution, now that it involves a largely religious figure distinct from the Tibetan government. But in practice the statement is of much greater significance than that implies, because the Dalai Lama remains the symbolic heart of Tibetan nationhood—a role noted in the exiles’ new constitution. His ability to arrange for a smooth succession is of far greater importance to Tibetan people, and therefore to Chinese policy-makers, than is the Tibetan government.
The fact that the announcement followed a meeting of Tibetan religious leaders of all schools also has an important implication: it suggests that the Dalai Lama has sought the agreement of all the main religious leaders of Tibetan Buddhism for the new succession system. The Dalai Lama may be discreetly realigning the role of future Dalai Lamas to make them less closely identified with his own school or sect, that of the Gelugpas. This reflects the Dalai Lama’s ongoing effort over several decades to counter the strong sectarian tradition among Tibetan Buddhists, one which is often found among western followers, too.
The Selection of the Next Dalai Lama
One of the main messages of the September 24th statement is that only the Dalai Lama or the managers of his lineage can decide on his successor and the method of selection. As expected, it states categorically that a successor cannot be selected “by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China” apart from the Dalai Lama and those he has appointed as his lineage authorities. It adds that the details of the selection procedure for the Dalai Lama’s successor will be announced in about 14 years time, when the Dalai Lama will be around 90 years old. It thus discusses only the likely methods of selection, not the identity of the person who will be selected. This move seems designed to convey the Dalai Lama’s confidence about the long-term prospects for implementing a successful hand-over, and gives him plenty of time to get Tibetans used to the new procedure that he is proposing.
In its introduction, the statement analyzes the role of rebirth in Buddhist thought and argues that this is based on logical reasoning, not faith. It also discusses the important role of reincarnation of lamas in the Tibetan traditions. But in fact, the bulk of the statement is not about reincarnation. Instead it is a carefully worded announcement about the need to modify the reincarnation system, if not replace it, at least in some instances.