SEARCHING FOR THE NEXT DALAI LAMA
THE NEXT - OR THE LAST DALAI LAMA?
“According to Buddhist teachings,
After death we are involuntarily reincarnated
Back into existence.
“A being who has achieved enlightenment,
A Buddha, can willingly
Choose their next life form.”
The quotation above comes from a documentary shot in Tibet. The film is, as its genre suggests, a true story. It’s an audiovisual record of a forlorn disciple’s solitary search for the reincarnated spirit of his recently deceased master, a Lama who now presumably inhabits another individual’s body; as is traditional. When he eventually discovers it, the dead Lama’s spirit is encased within a young boy’s body: presenting the disciple with a challenge in the form of safely removing the child from his family’s home to a monastery, whilst persuading the family that the move is a good thing for everyone. On average, journeys in search of a reincarnated being take two years to accomplish. However, in the docu-film (entitled Unmistaken Child) the disciple’s search took four years’ travelling to complete the task: the same length of time it took to discover the whereabouts of the current Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso. He possesses an entire series of differing names to represent the many different offices and groups all under his leadership. The simplest of all is a one-word name, Kundun: which simply means Presence.
His Holiness (H.H) is the fourteenth in a direct line of Dalai Lamas. After the inaugural enthronement of the very first Dalai Lama, the evolution of this personage evolved successfully in accordance with what is sometimes referred to as a “master plan” devised by a Superior Boddhisatva named Avalokiteśvara. Boddhisatva, a Sanskrit word used by the Mahayana branch of Buddhists, describes a “person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings”. (The present Dalai Lama is considered to be a Boddhisatva too.) Avalokiteśvara conceived the idea of incorporating such a figurehead to help unify Tibet’s spiritual and political leaders in the 17th Century; the Office has long symbolised the Buddhist character of the nation’s spiritual community, maturing into a lengthy tradition unique to Tibet.
The quote above refers to two of the most definitive features of Buddhist experience: enlightenment and reincarnation. Enlightenment is a rare accomplishment, attained purely through an accumulation of karma over numerous lifetimes; a positive surfeit of merit, it grants the subject a permanent and irreversible state of heightened awareness. Theoretically, enlightenment can be accomplished over a single lifespan, however in practice it’s hardly ever accrued quite so swiftly. Either way, it requires the cultivation of an exceptionally altruistic spirit, and the reality is that even a long lifetime devoted to meditation and the development of a perfectly compassionate nature is scarcely ever sufficient time to meet this objective through a singular effort, however highly sustained the effort may be. The requisite amount of karma and the number of hours spent enhancing mindfulness and expanding awareness is an all but impossible goal, however many virtuous lives you’ve lived. Even if one’s karmic ‘score’ is off the charts, enlightenment remains a distant possibility for most practitioners, no matter how many acts of compassion one effects. The candidate may well be an angel, and yet an angel deficient in the necessary realistic vision, for instance. He could be perfect in all ways yet may be slightly lacking in the unrelenting rationalism which distinguishes a Boddhisatva from an ordinary regular person.
Case in point: take one of the countless live interviews H.H has performed on live television. Watch how his cool thinking and unflappable objectivity simply can’t be breached: not even the toughest interviewer is capable of souring the always-joyful mood he brings to every public encounter. When an interviewer from the BBC tries to provoke his ire by changing the subject to China and its cruel repression of Tibetan culture, H.H remains buoyant and quick to joke at a second’s notice. He won’t be drawn into specifics and he never surrenders to his emotions. Nor will he respond in kind to the negative criticism of the anchorperson cajoling him into making a critical, off-hand remark which can be recycled into a provocative soundbyte. In short, His Holiness is effortlessly in control during every encounter, and the more sensitive the encounter, the more control he subtly applies.
Take for example a 2014 television interview. Instead of vilifying the Chinese authorities for its acquisition and repression of Tibet, he almost justifies China’s actions, calling it “economically, a very important nation; a great nation,” even. This calm invincibility derives from his uncanny ability to see anything and everything from another person’s point of view, and he never stoops to giving anyone a taste of their own medicine - China included; despite the incessant victimization of Tibet’s spiritual leader who retired from political life in 2011. The positive energy inside him is unstoppable: he always contemplates the bigger picture and his comments are invariably macro in nature. On the rare occasions he permits mention of a traumatic or dispiriting event, the closest he comes to confirming the suspicions on most spectators’ minds is to turn the misgiving into a joke.
He refuses to criticize the many governments and leaders who have recently withdrawn from scheduled meetings with him, and he suggests the interviewer asks them, not him, why it is they reneged on their plans. In the case of the U.K’s awkward apologies to China for having met with him, he tells of how he has a friend in the British government who confided in him that Britain’s “pockets are more or less empty” and, as he graciously explains on camera, it is therefore a matter of practical importance that the U.K appease China and attempt to sweeten its relationship with the Chinese as much as possible. Invariably his solutions are pragmatic, whilst his understanding of Realpolitik never turns personal. Maintaining constant objectivity is one reason his good will is impossible to break.
On the China issue, he smiles and remains elegantly silent. This despite ongoing Chinese campaigns to diminish the Dalai Lama’s influence with malicious rhetoric. The rhetoric has been especially subversive in recent months, slandering H.H as if he were an evil, not a supremely compassionate, being, and calling on officials in foreign countries not to attend even apolitical Tibetan events in recent weeks, such as an utterly harmless “Thank you, India” celebration - which Indian officials boycotted. The Dalai Lama has been hounded down by China since it crushed the national uprising of Tibet in 1959, which conflict forced him into permanent exile in Dharamsala, India. Still, no trace of bitterness toward China is perceptible in the great man. He possesses every reason imaginable to justify returning China’s insults or seeking vengeance for its treatment of the Tibetans who look to him for protection and inspiration, and who continue to do years after his retirement from politics. His intransigence appears to reflect a total indifference to China, which is of course an ambiguous sort-of put-down in itself.
Then again, whoever the uncensored press of the Western world is probably aware of his true feelings towards Chinese oppressors. It’s quite an act he pulls off whenever he speaks in public. Somehow he ensures neither he nor his enemies are exploited or ambushed by the spontaneous nature of TV interviews, not to mention the wiles of a media hungry for controversy. And you never know what he’ll say next; the adaptability and quickness he exhibits makes for unpredictable turns in the dialogue, an improvisational device he could easily deploy in order to subvert his critics. Yet he restrains himself from leveraging such opportunities to advance his own cause or simply to defend his beliefs - opting for the witty yet illustrative anecdote instead of direct condemnation. He’s forever laughing, whether on the air of off - with a lightness which is highly infectious. One could go on about how hard it is to ‘read’ his face when his eyes sparkle with vitality, but there is more at stake here than his exemplary performances before the global media.
The inscrutability of his expression and the elusive pertinence of his words constitute a superbly effective tactic for maintaining benevolent control of the dialogue without force. One never knows what he’ll do next, never mind say next. What appears to be a casual self-confidence or the most sublime sense of humour - interrupted only by bouts of euphoric giggling - belies the harder truths he is nonetheless obliged to confront, no matter how much fun he has playing the fool (or so it seems) in public. Instinct tells me that his best work, the hardest work he must perform, he does in private. I imagine he thinks more clearly that way? In public, however, he maintains his cheerful, visionary composure. So it is with H.H. the Dalai Lama. The more he radiates his trademarked loving kindness, the more the audience loves him back. This is no surprise: they are, after all, in the presence of a god.
Now you see. Replaying and studying countless hours of footage, now you understand a little bit of the truth about being the Dalai Lama. At last you glimpse a flash of his inner life, a corner of his unsurpassable mind, or his lightning-fast intuition glimmering for a nanosecond. The truth is, H.H the Dalai Lama has scarcely lived a normal day in his life. Perhaps he has no concept of what ‘normal’ means? More likely, he has no need of any such idea in his judgement-free and unbiased mind. ...But of course! How could he possibly know what ‘normal’ is or ‘normal’ does? His life has not been short on drama. Is this the reason why he’s so gracefully adroit in evaluating whatever situation or problem he turns his mind to? He is a consummate professional, a natural when it comes to media and entertainment, always several steps ahead of his interviewers. Like a puppet-master - only, a puppet-master without a trace of arrogance or superiority. Yet to call him a master is to over-simplify: he demonstrates mastery without imposing his will like a dominant master. He’s neither one thing or another, neither master nor servant. If anything, he’s both at once - and he plays many more roles, as required. It may be one of the secrets to his worldwide popularity, you finally comprehend? If one could detect just one secret to his success - his is one of the few universally-recognized faces in the world - could this be it? The fact that he thinks about things?
His Holiness has probably spent more time thinking than anyone in history. He has certainly had much to think about in the course of his passionate and productive life; one loses count of how many books he has written. Meditation takes him beyond thinking, when thinking alone is insufficient. He attains an unparalleled clarity of mind in order to solve clear and present problems as well as to explore what we call ‘the mysteries of the universe. Not so mysterious to him, maybe? He spent no less than eighteen years steeped in academia, studying how the world and universe work in every technical sense, mentored by the finest scholars in Tibet from the age of five.
He must have investigated the mind of the universe - or, equally, the universal mind. To a Buddhist, the universe itself is made up of the mind; just as the mind is made out of the universe. Buddhists believe in this paradox, and doubtless H.H believes it too, one presumes. It’s easy to feel your way around the universe if you’ve been here many times before in previous lives. You needn’t learn the names of constellations in the night sky if you recognize them by sight.
Compassion is key to H.H’s leadership. Compassion and reciprocity. Leadership is something H.H knows much about. The Dalai Lama is now the longest-serving leader in the world - longer even than England’s Queen Elizabeth 2nd.
The electricity he brings to every encounter works like a magic spell upon all but the most cerebral personalities. What is this magic? For one thing, H.H plays upon the compounding effects of reciprocity like a virtuoso, entrancing his audiences without pandering to them. The more fun he has, the more fun we have; the more fun he has. It’s all about reciprocity. The closer you watch, the more you understand: H.H is not one but many selves converging inside one persona. Without contest, he is a compelling personality; he’s a scholar and a man of the world, in that he’s the first Dalai Lama to export Tibetan Buddhism to the rest of the world. His wit is as sharp as a blade but the blade is as gentle as velvet. He is a prolific author and a tireless public speaker. For over fifty years he has been the spiritual and political leader of Tibet despite governing his people in exile. At the same time, he is of course a ‘Supreme Being’ - a Bodhisattva.
There are many selves, or spirits, alive inside the Dalai Lama. All at once, they talk and think in harmony on multiple planes. His personal warmth is famous and his presence evidently sparks a ‘contact high’ whenever an admirer meets him. His intelligence reveals itself in numerous ways in the course of just a few minutes, like an orchestra warming up its instruments. What makes him the intriguing person he is must be the cumulative power of the thirteen Dalai Lamas who preceded his reign: they are all incorporated into the mind and body of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. No wonder he seems so alive.
The author and journalist Pico Iyer is a rare individual too. Rare in the sense that, as he puts it himself, “I feel I do know a little bit about the [Dalai Lama], after 44 years of travels and talks with His Holiness, and nine recent Novembers travelling right by his side for every hour of his working day (8:30am - 4:30pm, every day) in Japan”. That he has clearly counted every hour, if not each minute, of the time he has spent in the company of the 14th Dalai Lama testifies to His Holiness’ charisma. Have you ever admired anyone so much that you have calculated the quantity of time spent in their company? I haven’t.
A much-engaged speaker, following the runaway success of his cult book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (an instant classic published by TED Talks, for whom he has also spoken), Mr Iyer is a close friend of the Dalai Lama’s. He is the author of THE OPEN ROAD: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama - the only biography of the Dalai Lama to be recognized by H.H Himself. Not only recognized but tacitly approved of - and quite correctly. It’s no small achievement, writing a portrait of one of the world’s biggest, most magnetic personalities without overdoing it. Reading Pico Iyer’s portrait of H.H is a journey in its own right; a journey I recommend taking. It doesn’t matter if you know nothing about Buddhism, it’s still a mesmerising and intimate portrayal of the Dalai Lama. Without his book, H.H would remain an enigma to me. With his book, I was granted access to the higher altitude where H.H is most comfortable.
What does the future portend, now His Holiness is eighty-two years old? (He looks twenty to thirty years younger than this.) His advisors will naturally have some idea about what should happen following the death of His Holiness, which will occur in the next fifteen to twenty years by his own estimation. The might of a newly empowered China looms larger than ever upon the Himalayan nation’s destiny. So does the question of the successor to the present Dalai Lama - the 15th Dalai Lama. H.H the 14th has iterated the possibility that he may be the last of the Dalai Lamas… It is a revolutionary statement. However, his comments have been taken with a pinch of salt - as noted, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether H.H is joking or not when he speaks, in part because he’s always smiling or grinning. In the last year or so, H.H broke with over three hundred years of tradition by announcing that he’s considering appointing a successor himself to the Office of the Dalai Lama. That is, appointing the next Dalai Lama before, not after, he dies. If he ultimately does so, he’ll supercede the uniquely Buddhist link in the genealogy of Dalai Lamas - which is, of course, reincarnation. To some, the very idea of changing the rules like this might appear sacrilegious; it’s a bold statement, at the very least. Can it be taken at face value?
It’s the big question. In departing from the convention he would be making a radical change to the entire order he represents. One consequence is that his appointee, traditionally a reincarnation, will be chosen and not found - as opposed to vice versa. Such a fundamental conversion is probably anathema to strict Tibetan Buddhists. A move like this severs the magical link between one Dalai Lama and another, uprooting centuries of protocol. It would overturn the very method by which H.H. himself was discovered as a young boy, when a search party from Lhasa discovered his whereabouts through metaphysical signs and cues; they then verified his identity as a reincarnation of the recently deceased 13th Dalai Lama by presenting him with a number of objects including a handful of the 13th Lama’s possessions. The precociously intelligent child, then called Tenzin, immediately recognized the deceased’s possessions and claimed them as his own without prompt. This ritual is one of several methods used to verify the (reincarnated) soul of the incumbent Lama: it is central to the Dalai Lama mythology. Terminating the entire exercise invokes far-reaching implications which could contradict the sanctity and integrity of the Office itself? So it would seem on the surface.
That said, one must acknowledge the existence of compelling arguments for ‘modernizing’ the Office of the Dalai Lama. As Pico Iyer confirms, H.H Himself feels at times constrained by the trappings of his office and title. Consider the future Dalai Lamas, whose entitlement to the throne is based upon the cycle of reincarnation: they may find this process increasingly out of sync’ with life in the 21st Century and beyond. Global trends and values like democracy and secularization might make the Dalai Lama’s Office look eccentric or backwards. The risk to appearing out-of-date is the limitation of the (Tibetan) Buddhist Way to reactionaries, possibly curbing the slow but steady expansion of Buddhism worldwide by potentially putting off novices who are drawn to the Way but have trouble accepting unscientific concepts such as the reincarnation of the spirit. H.H often speaks of science and enlightenment together, as if to suggest that now God may be dead (to some) but in his place we have the promise of science, whose discoveries show us the inner working of complex phenomena previously seen as mysteries or articles of faith. His bold statement isn’t therefore quite as reckless as it superficially looks. The most-central tenet, the key characteristic, of the Buddhist Way is compassion; reincarnation is central too, but it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end - the objective - is the flourishing of the Buddhist way of life. The well-known and also central concept of karma applies within the confines of a single life as much as it does in the context of multiple lives connected by the cycle of reincarnation. You could argue it applies more within a single life than across multiple lives? Whatever one’s viewpoint, it’s clear the trappings and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism are independent of the Buddhist Way and its practices. The trappings are the form; the Way is the content. The latter is timeless, mobile and universal; it hasn’t changed since the life of Buddha many centuries ago. In this sense Buddhism is and already was a modern religion. Its eternally advantageous content even carries a trace of postmodern irony. - Take the phrase, “It’s not a religion, it’s a Way”.
The most immediate dilemma facing the 14th Dalai Lama is the question of China. Tibet was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1951 and today China rules western and central Tibet, whose official name is - somewhat disingenuously - the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’. Wikipedia describes Tibet as “a historical region covering much of the Tibetan Plateau in Central Asia”. A country often called “the roof the world”, a land whose snows are incidentally visible from space, Tibet was an exclusive nation previously closed to foreigners - as British colonialists discovered for themselves during a one-sided stand-off in 1903, when they sustained twelve casualties versus the six hundred suffered by the non-violent, or simply poorly armed, Tibetans. Tibet was indeed the highest country on Earth; now it’s the highest ‘region’ on earth. Tibet’s average elevation is indeed 4,900 metres (16,000 ft), an altitude which requires adjustment for anyone visiting from “the lowlands”, as Thomas Mann referred to non-mountainous regions in his book The Magic Mountain. The wording implies the subordinate nature of low- or no-altitude existence when compared with the splendour of higher altitudes. The highest summit on earth, Mount Everest, is found in Tibet, at the elevation of 8,848 m (29,029 ft) above sea level. No matter how powerful the Chinese superpower becomes, what is quite immovable is the Tibetan Plateau itself - a magnificent plane easily glimpsed in maps of Asia due to its startling size. (It’s vast.) The romantic idea of Tibet as a transcendent mountain realm, as the roof of the world, is not only an image: it’s a reality too. And the reality isn’t lost on the Chinese.
Several reasons explain why China must, at any cost, keep Tibet economically and defensively, as a vital part of its military master plan - according to George Friedman of Stratfor Worldview. Chief amongst these is the fact that all the major rivers in China and surrounding areas have their source in Tibet. This includes mighty Indian and Southeast Asian rivers like the Brahmaputra and the Mekong - which, for example, descends from the Tibetan Plateau down through China's Yunnan Province, before striating Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam then finally discharging into the South China Sea. If China controls Tibet, it controls the water of nearly half its hemisphere. Given that Northern China is water-poor, control of such a gigantic asset is essential to its national interest and its population’s survival.
China also needs the “Tibetan Wall” to keep India, the hemisphere’s other superpower, at bay. China is called a 'dry island’ because it’s separated from the rest of the world by impassable mountains and desert wastelands on all sides but for its relatively minor eastern flank, separated from Japan and other neighbours by sea. The Himalaya range represents an utterly impassable barrier from military and geographical points of view. Hadrian of Carthage may famously have walked over the Alps, but he and his elephants would find the Himalaya an impossible logistical challenge. China’s borders are, as you see, naturally robust. So robust, the consensus is that China can never rule the world because it’s so completely and deeply protected on all sides, due to the topography and terrain of the border regions. This explains why China applies so-called ‘soft power’ across the rest of the world, usually in the form of foreign direct investment - as well as the construction of an expressway linking the easternmost parts of Asia to the westernmost parts of Europe. China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative links Bangkok and Beijing to Amsterdam and Madrid without leaving terra firma, the Eurasian Continent - the largest landmass on the planet. Unfortunately for post-Brexit England, it stops just short of the U.K.
The biggest provocation for change in regard to the Office of the Dalai Lama - whose H.Q is no longer physically located in Lhasa but in the Indian mountain state of Uttar Pradesh, along with Tibet’s government-in-exile - comes from its giant neighbour. China leveraged the Dalai Lama’s power vacuum, after forcing H.H into exile, by taking command of Tibet’s army in H.H’s absence. Ever since going into exile, H.H has serially repudiated his 1959 agreement with the Chinese government, while China has maintained a fiercely dominant and antagonistic attitude towards Tibet. The Dalai Lama Himself remains the major obstacle to further progress toward a Chinese/Tibetan integration, as imposed upon the Tibetan people - the people whose loyalty to the H.H the Dalai Lama has not diminished despite his retirement.
The Chinese have a serious cultural and commercial interest in the Office of the Dalai Lama, whose power it covets and seeks to acquire. There’s been talk about a Chinese 15th Dalai Lama - something H.H dismissed by forecasting that the next Dalai Lama, assuming there will be a next Lama, will be found in Tibet or Mongolia specifically. Pico Iyer, whose analysis of the situation follows shortly, suggests the possibility that the next Dalai Lama needs no discovery because he’s already alive and active. (See the end of this article.) As for China, it can not credibly announce the discovery of a new Dalai Lama until the 14th Lama has died - due to the integral tradition of reincarnation. If Beijing were to appoint a Chinese Dalai Lama after H.H’s death, and assuming the Tibetan Office finds or appoints its own Dalai Lama in line with convention, then a Catch-22 might occur, wherein there could be two Dalai Lamas at the same time. An absurd situation which is, however, a real concern; and which could in theory take place, considering that Buddhism has ancient roots in China too. In such an event, conflict would surely follow? Any conflict would be as one-sided as always: China’s population is 1.4 Billion and growing fast, whilst Tibet’s is only six million. Were Tibet to allow the unthinkable to happen: and to permit a Chinese Dalai Lama to assume office, hypothetically speaking, then the risk of an unworthy or corrupt Dalai Lama holding office is unsettling, to say the least. As H.H Himself told the BBC, "we don't want a stupidly acting Dalai Lama" in the future… Let alone two Dalai Lamas? No Buddhist wishes to upset the religious base. It would end badly for all if this were to happen.
Consequently, the idea that the 14th Dalai Lama could in fact be the last of his kind is not quite as catastrophic as it sounds initially? Following a successful 369-year-long reign of Dalai Lamas over Tibet, it may be more appealing to thwart a potential expropriation of Tibetan-style Buddhism entirely than to take a laissez-faire approach to the future?
It may turn out that the only way to preserve this tradition is to vaporize it, or to decentralise its administration while protecting its core - for instance, by closing the Dalai Lama’s office. It’s understandable H.H wishes to keep geopolitics away from the spiritual realm. He is a more radical man than he looks, as Pico Iyer observes in the following pages. As H.H confided to a BBC interviewer, he feels that his generation has created many problems. However, he said with a mischievous smile, "now it's time to relax, and to let the 21st generations solve the many problems we created in the 20th Century… It's a good thing they like to work so hard,” he adds, laughing at his self-fulfilling joke, “because we created a lot of problems so they’ll have sufficient work to keep them happy, solving the problems that we created!” Again, his trademark laugh echoes beyond the stage set.
If science really has replaced God, or replaced God’s absence, then perhaps the institution of the Dalai Lama is no longer necessary in the 21st Century. Or is it more necessary than ever now? - It’s not an easy question to answer.
The question, therefore, is not, What does the future hold for the Office of the Dalai Lama? The real question is, What does the Dalai Lama hold for the future? The point being: the future lies in his hands, at this point, and in his hands alone. It’s quite a moment in history to witness. And the big question requires as much ingenuity and foresight as it does strategy and tactical thinking.
A common Buddhist saying is that “you are what you think”. Or as the Buddha eloquently phrased it, “Mind is the forerunner of all things”. Similarly, whatever H.H the Dalai Lama thinks and concludes in the next 10-20 years is what will come to pass in the future. It’s quite a responsibility - although he is accustomed to great responsibility and has been ever since he was enthroned to his office as a sovereign child. The reason he’s so relaxed may be that he’s highly trained in the art of thought; as a result, he’s more than able to contemplate a problem for as long as necessary in order to solve it. How many people do you know who can do that in our digitally distracted and attention-span-shortening world?
H.H meditates for five to eight hours per day, rising at three o’clock in the morning to do so. This I know thanks to the Pico Iyer biography. H.H meditates for even longer if times are difficult, in which case even more time for thinking and meditating is required. As long as he can think, and find the time to think, we’ll be fine. Somebody has to think about these things. If Mind is the forerunner of all things, then whatever H.H decides about reincarnating or not, his choice will have repercussions. The future really is in his hands, if you follow? It’s not the other way around. - Knowing this gives one reassurance.
If anyone knows what the future may or may not hold for H.H and his fellow Tibetans, and if anybody knows what makes the Dalai Lama tick, that person is Pico Iyer. From the neutral perspective of a journalist familiar with it, Pico kindly explained his interpretation of the Tibetan situation to me. His insights need no dilution; there’s nothing to be gained by paraphrasing him.
“I sometimes think it's hard for the world to appreciate how very complicated the chess-game the Dalai Lama has been caught up in for almost seventy years now, since he took political as well as spiritual power over his people at the age of fifteen. He's opposed by the government of the largest nation on earth, whose authorities call him an "evil spirit" and "a wolf in monk's clothing," and he somehow has to defend not just the present, for 6 million Tibetans and 14 million Tibetan Buddhists, but the future, too, once he is not physically around to protect his people.
“A Bodhisattva is pledged to help as many people as possible, as selflessly as possible--to live and think only, in effect, for others. And for years now I've heard the Dalai Lama say that the Dalai Lama incarnation has outlived its usefulness. For many hundreds of years, it helped to try unify Tibet at a time when most Tibetans lived within the borders of Tibet. But since 1959, he feels, with so many Tibetans in exile, and scattered around the world, it does not serve the purpose it once did. And the Dalai Lama is as pragmatic and realistic a soul as I have ever met, a doctor of the mind, as I see it: if the institution of the Dalai Lama is not doing much good, and is only creating divisions, then far better to get rid of it!
“Of course, for Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhists around the world, the current Dalai Lama and the title and role he carry have been of greatest importance, in holding together a disparate community and in offering a voice for Tibet across the world. And of course, the Dalai Lama did retire politically--and give up temporal power--in 2011, after Tibetans in exile had voted for a new political leader. But the fact of the matter is that his is the voice still that all look to when it comes to matters Tibetan, and, though he is no longer the official political leader of his people, he still has to carry the responsibility for leading and inspiring them into the years after his death.
“Many people fail to realize how quietly radical the Dalai Lama is, because he knows that, so long as your foundations are strong and clear, it's easy to change the clothing you wear. He follows the news more closely than any journalist I know, and that is partly with a view to constantly evolving and refining fresh means to the same unchanged ends.
“Thus, for example, he tells Tibetans living in the heat of South India to give up their heavy traditional mountain clothing and to wear un-traditional [sic] Tibetan clothes: what works at 15,000 feet is not suited to the tropics. In exile he has effected many changes perhaps he could not have brought if surrounded by the tradition and formalism of old Tibet: allowed women to become abbots, brought Western science to his monks' curriculum, brought democracy to his people--and benefited from the counsel of rabbis, imams, Popes, Hopis and scientists as no Dalai Lama has done before.
“In the same way, he clearly feels that it's a good thing to dispense with the mere trappings of the name and title "Dalai Lama" if some more contemporary and global kind of leadership is needed. He'll always dispense with or make over forms if it will help all sentient beings.
“I have long been sure that he would identify his successor while he was alive, in part so that any boy alighted upon by Beijing (or by others) would not have so much credibility, and in part to secure the transition process after he dies. Tibet these days does not have the luxury of being able to choose a little boy at two (as was the case with the current Dalai Lama) and put him through eighteen years or more of training before he comes to power. Even in old Tibet, many Dalai Lamas never came of age because of all the politicking between regents and other factions overseeing an infant leader.
“There's no one alive who knows the Tibetan community as well as the Dalai Lama, and there's no one alive who knows the needs of the Tibetan community as he does; having led his people for 78 years--longer than the Queen or any living leader--he is the only person within the Tibetan community who can choose someone ideally suited to leading a scattered community in many cases living thousands of miles from Tibet.
“Choosing not to be reborn is one of the things a high lama is believed to be able to do; many Tibetans hold that the 13th Dalai Lama deliberately died early so that a new, young Dalai Lama could take on the challenges of Tibet in the mid and late twentieth century. And I'm sure the Dalai Lama will be consulting his most trusted colleagues and remaining teachers as he makes his decision. One thing that often strikes me about him is that he seldom considers himself a teacher, and always defers to the many spiritual teachers he has had in his life (his last book was a long biography of his senior tutor).
“I have long had one candidate in mind as the likely successor--someone who has lived close to the Dalai Lama all his life and who has been connected to him over incarnations--and I'll be intrigued to see if that is the Dalai Lama's choice. Now that Tibetans in exile have a democratically elected leader, the new spiritual leader of the Tibetans will merely have to be someone of great spiritual clarity and authority who can read and then meet the spiritual needs of his far-flung flock.
Pico has the last word here. His concluding statement is tantalizingly open-ended. It bears thinking about in greater depth because the answer to all these questions will be influenced by what he says - and by what his statement suggests to an open-minded reader:
“The curious challenge of this incarnation for him is that he has always had to have one eye at least on the political consequences of his spiritual decisions.”
With thanks to Pico Iyer
GQ.de, July 2018