The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the spiritual leader of Tibet, turns 84 on July 6. With his advancing age, the question of who will succeed him, has become more pressing.
Winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most recognizable faces of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is an important figure bringing Buddhist teachings to the international community.
The successor to the Dalai Lama is traditionally located by senior monastic disciples, based on spiritual signs and visions. In 2011, however, the Chinese foreign ministry declared that only the government in Beijing can appoint the next Dalai Lama and no recognition should be given to any other succession candidate.
The Dalai Lama’s succession today is not just a religious issue, but a political one as well. The Dalai Lama is a highly influential figure.
All of the Dalai Lamas are thought to be manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. The 14 generations of Dalai Lamas, spanning six centuries, are linked through their acts of compassion.
For Buddhists, the ultimate goal is enlightenment, or “nirvana” – a liberation from the cycle of birth and death. East Asian and Tibetan Buddhists, as part of the Mahayana sect, believe bodhisattvas have reached this highest realization.
Furthermore, Mahayana Buddhists believe bodhisattvas choose to be reborn, to experience the pain and suffering of the world, in order to help other beings attain enlightenment.
Tibetan Buddhism has developed this idea of the bodhisattva further into identified lineages of rebirths called “tulkus.” Any person who is believed to be a rebirth of a previous teacher, master, or leader, is considered a tulku. Tibetan Buddhism has hundreds, if not thousands of such lineages, but the most respected and well-known is the Dalai Lama.
The current Dalai Lama was enthroned when he was 4½ years old and renamed Tenzin Gyatso.
The search for him began soon after the 13th Dalai Lama died. Disciples closest to the Dalai Lama set to identify signs indicating the location of his rebirth.
The district of Dokham, which is in the northeast of Tibet, matched all of these signs. A 2-year-old boy, named Lhamo Dhondup, was just the right age for a reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, based on the time of his death.
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Today the selection process for the next Dalai Lama remains uncertain.
In 1950, China’s communist government invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama fled in 1959 and set up a government in exile.
The Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetan people and his exile has created anger inside Tibet. China’s threats to manipulate the selection process is believed to be a way to impose control on the Tibetan people.
In 1995, the Chinese government caused the disappearance of the Dalai Lama’s choice for the successor of the Panchen Lama, the second most important tulku lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, when he was 6 years old. The Chinese government appointed their own Panchen Lama.
China also wants to appoint its own Dalai Lama. But it is important to Tibetan Buddhists that they are in charge of the selection process.
Because of the threat from China, the 14th Dalai Lama has made a number of statements that would make it difficult for a Chinese appointed 15th Dalai Lama to be seen as legitimate.
For example, he has stated that the institution of the Dalai Lama might not be needed any more. However, he has also said it was up to the people if they wanted to preserve this aspect of Tibetan Buddhism and continue the Dalai Lama lineage.
Another option the Dalai Lama has proposed would be for him to appoint his reincarnation before he dies. In this scenario, the Dalai Lama would transfer his spiritual realization to the successor. A third alternative Tenzin Gyatso has stated is that if he dies outside of Tibet, his reincarnation would be located abroad, most likely India.
Lastly, he has mentioned the possibility of being reborn as a woman, but added that he would have to be a very beautiful woman. He believes that appearance is important in transmitting Buddhist teachings.
The Dalai Lama is confident that no one would trust the Chinese government’s choice. In April 2019, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia Subcommittee that the Congress would not recognize a Dalai Lama chosen by the Chinese government.