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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Can You Choose Your Reincarnated Successor?

February 2, 2009

By MICHAEL POWELL, The New York Times
February 1, 2009

The search for the present Dalai Lama commenced in earnest in 1935 when
the embalmed head of his deceased predecessor is said to have wheeled
around and pointed toward northeastern Tibet.

Then, the story goes, a giant, star-shaped fungus grew overnight on the
east side of the tomb. An auspicious cloud bank formed and a regent saw
a vision of letters floating in a mystical lake, one of which — Ah — he
took to refer to the northeast province of Amdo.

High lamas set off at a gallop and found a 2-year-old boy in a distant
village. This child, they determined after a series of tests, was the
reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

There is little linear about lama succession in Tibet. And now, as the
14th Dalai Lama journeys into his 74th year, the question of how to pick
his successor has come to preoccupy both him and his followers, as Tibet
stands at an ever more precarious political pass.

Late last year, the Chinese government again rejected the Dalai Lama’s
proposal for a rapprochement that would yield greater autonomy for
Tibet. In recent days, Chinese troops have raided thousands of homes and
detained at least 81 activists ahead of the 50th anniversary in March of
the failed uprising that forced the Dalai Lama into exile in India.
China seems inclined to tighten its grip and wait out the aging leader,
insisting, a bit improbably for a government that is officially atheist,
that it has the legal right to designate the Dalai Lama’s next

When Tibetan representatives met last autumn at their Parliament in
Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas, their worries about the future
echoed down the corridors. A few argued for a militant line, insisting
on independence. A majority heeded the Dalai Lama’s counsel to find a
pacifist middle way. But the unanswered question remains: How much
longer will Tibetans be able to rely on their charismatic and learned
spiritual leader, whose persona is so entwined with the destiny of Tibet?

The Dalai Lama has openly speculated about his next life, his
reincarnation, musing that he might upend historical and cultural
practice and choose his reincarnation before his death, the better to
safeguard his exiled people.

But doubts creep in.

Can even so highly evolved a Buddhist as the Dalai Lama select his
reincarnation? Will upending the old way of searching for the Dalai
Lama’s incarnation, in which priests search for omens, portents and
meteorological signs, undermine the legitimacy of his successor?

Since he fled Chinese rule by foot and horseback over the Himalayas in
1959, the Dalai Lama has traveled restlessly and spoken passionately
about Tibet. The fruits of his labors are many: The world is spotted
with Tibetan centers, and prayer flags flap from Delhi to London to
Zurich to Todt Hill in Staten Island. Tibetan culture is celebrated in
Hollywood and in popular art. (Exiles number about 130,000; about six
million Tibetans live in Tibet and China).

But a darker vision of Tibet’s future is easily divined. This Dalai Lama
dies and his successor is young and inexperienced and holds no sway in
the chambers of the powerful. Slowly, ineluctably, the Tibetans become
just another of the globe’s landless peoples lost in the shadow of a
rising superpower.

“Definitely when someone as charismatic and popular as the Dalai Lama
passes away, the Tibetans will suffer from less outside attention,” says
Tenzin Tethong, a fellow in the Tibetan Studies Initiative at Stanford
University. “We will lose a strong unifying symbol.”

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is no theocratic
traditionalist. Should his people ever reclaim Tibet, he says an elected
parliament and prime minister should rule; the Dalai Lama would occupy a
religious station.

“He is thinking outside the box about Dalai Lama rule,” said Robert
Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia
University and author of “Why the Dalai Lama Matters.” “He’s trying to
get it through the Chinese heads that he’s helpful to them. Their
waiting for him to die is completely misplaced.”

Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, although not in the sense of
an irreducible self passing from body to body. They describe a dying
candle lighting a new one; one’s essence passes on.

Typically, when the Dalai Lama dies, the royal court appoints a regent
who rules until the next reincarnation comes of age. Over the centuries
some regents grew fond of their power and some Dalai Lamas expired
prematurely, not to mention suspiciously. The sense of the regency as a
time of peril persists.

It is within this context that the Dalai Lama speculates about how to
pull off his next reincarnation. Perhaps the four sects that constitute
Tibetan Buddhism might form a Tibetan version of the Roman Catholic
College of Cardinals and pick a successor. Perhaps he will return as a
girl, or as a non-Tibetan.

Or perhaps he will pick his future self.

Professor Thurman offers his own speculation. The Dalai Lama, he says,
might declare that a younger lama is the reincarnation of his own
long-dead regent. Then the Dalai Lama could die and reincarnate as a new
baby, which would be identified after the usual study of portents and
signs. “Maybe the one he names as the reincarnation of the regent would
transfer the Dalai Lama title back to him when his next reincarnation
comes of age,” Mr. Thurman said.

Who could gainsay that?

Politics might pose a challenge as great as metaphysics. The Chinese
insist that their army freed Tibetans from theocratic slavery and that
Tibet is inseparable from China. They are not shy about enforcing their
writ. In 1995, the Chinese government rejected the Dalai Lama’s choice
of a 6-year-old boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, a
spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism’s dominant sect, and then appointed
its own. The child chosen by the Dalai Lama vanished into Chinese custody.

“The thinking is a bit odd,” Mr. Thurman said, “as the Chinese
Communists don’t believe in former or future lives and it is illegal to
propagate religion in China.”

Still, China’s power grows as the Dalai Lama ages. Han Chinese now crowd
out ethnic Tibetans in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and exiles are uneasy,
some taken again to searching for portents of what’s to come. To find
themselves without a transcendent leader at this time is, as D. H.
Lawrence once wrote of the Brazilian Indians, to risk being consigned
“to the dust where we bury the silent races.”
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