Thinking Aloud: Tibetan Succession Crisis?

Dec. 25, 2014 by Darius

Since the 15th century, the Dalai Lamas have served as Tibet’s spiritual leaders.  This week, though, the current Dalai Lama hinted that he might be the last of the line.  The Dalai Lama said it would be better for Tibet’s people that the institution of the Dalai Lama cease to exist entirely than that his successor be “stupid.”  What the Dalai Lama probably really meant by “stupid” was “a creature of the Chinese government.”

New Dalai Lamas are chosen in a rather complicated way.  After a Dalai Lama dies, senior monks and lamas identify a home where the Dalai Lama’s spirit has been reincarnated (sometimes by following the direction of the smoke from the cremation of the previous Dalai Lama).  The lamas identify a child within the home (up to this point, always a boy), who then undergoes various tests to determine if he really is the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.  The lamas then report their findings to the government of Tibet, and the boy becomes the next Dalai Lama.

However, there have been some kinks and variations in the succession process throughout the centuries.  Today, the Chinese government claims that it has the right to approve any future Dalai Lama based on one such variation.  During the 18th century, the Chinese emperor played a role in choosing the Dalai Lama: the names of several candidates were placed in a golden urn, and the Chinese emperor selected one.  However, this practice was rarely used was abandoned soon after it begun.

Further complicating things are the roles of other senior Tibetan lamas.  The Dalai Lama’s effective second-in-command is the Panchen Lama who is, among other things, responsible for approving the choice for the next Dalai Lama.  The Chinese government claims the precedent involving the golden urn is to be used for the succession of all senior lamas, including the Panchen Lama.  In 1995, the previous Panchen Lama died.  The Tibetan leaders, including the Dalai Lama, refused to allow the Chinese government to control the selection process for the next Panchen Lama.  That didn’t stop the Chinese, who picked their own Panchen Lama anyway.  As a result, there are currently two Panchen Lamas—one chosen by the Chinese government and one chosen by Tibet’s leaders.

It is all but certain that when the Dalai Lama dies the Chinese government will try to promote its own candidate for the post, whether the Dalai Lama intends to reincarnate or not.  The ensuing conflict will likely bring even greater suffering to the Tibetan people.  And given that three Tibetans have self-immolated in protest just this week, that is suffering the Tibetan people could really do without.

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