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Between the Lines: Interpreting the Dalai Lama’s Statement on his Successor

October 21, 2011

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.

This becomes clear towards the end of the statement, when it lists just three selection procedures that are likely to be used to identify the Dalai Lama’s successor. None of the three procedures involve reincarnation as it is usually understood—the practice of carrying out a series of divinations, consultations with oracles and tests for some three or more years after the death of a lama to identify a child as his reincarnation. Instead, the three methods discussed in the document refer to emanations (sprul ba) rather than just reincarnations. In Tibetan the difference between the two is much more subtle than in English: both refer to a “manifestation” of a lama’s mind or qualities. A reincarnation (sprul sku) is a manifestation that appears later as a separate body, whereas an emanation (sprul ba) is one that might be of any kind—even realizing the meaning of a particular teaching or idea is regarded as a form of manifestation by the lama. Over the centuries many lamas in Tibet have been recognized as emanations of a particular form of the Buddha or of an especially famous lama from the past—often someone who had lived centuries earlier. It is a person who embodies or reflects the qualities of that Buddha-form or lama, but not the same person. One could say that an emanation is like a mirror-image or reflection of a particular lama, while a reincarnation is the next link in their chain of lives. But there was no formal procedure for identifying an emanation and such recognition was not generally used as a way to appoint a successor. Most of those considered to be emanations had been recognized earlier in their lives as important reincarnations, so their positions and status were already clear.

In the new statement an emanation is defined, in the context of identifying a successor, as someone living and identified before the death of the predecessor lama. The statement lists three ways in which an emanation can be recognized, of which the first is when a person is seen as having the same “mind-stream” (rgyud chig pa) as the older lama. This is a highly technical term meaning that the person’s spiritual realization is of such an advanced level that they in effect have unity of consciousness with the lama. This procedure is already known under another name: It is equivalent to the rare but well-known Tibetan practice of recognizing someone as a “ma-ndey trulku” (ma-’das sprul sku), meaning a person recognized as a reincarnation before the death of the predecessor.

The second and third selection methods seem new. One is for a person to be recognized as an emanation on the basis of their close personal contact with the lama or with his life’s work and objectives (“connection through the power of karma and prayers”). This seems designed to allow a relatively wide range of choice and qualifications in the search for a successor. The last method is to recognize a person as having “come as a result of blessings and appointment”. This appears to allow a person to be appointed as an emanation even if they had not worked with the previous lama, and the text specifically mentions that it could allow “a disciple or someone young” to be appointed.

The statement thus indicates, if read carefully, that the Dalai Lama is more than likely to be succeeded by an emanation, not necessarily by a child reincarnation. It is possible that both could take place—first an emanation, and then, a few years later, a reincarnation as well. But this is not explicitly stated. The possibility of an emanation-successor is an innovation if it includes one selected by appointment. If an emanation system is used, then the successor will most likely be identified before the death of the current Dalai Lama, and will probably be an adult or young person rather than a child.

Multiple Successors

Two important details stand out in the statement. The first appears to be a confirmation that an emanation can be appointed without having to assert that he possesses a level of realization identical to that of the Dalai Lama:

“Since these options are possible in the case of an ordinary being, an emanation before death that is not of the same mind-stream is feasible”.

This confirms that an emanation can be appointed by the Dalai Lama, or can be appointed by the lineage authorities because of the successor’s special qualities, such as his (or, in theory, her) close connections to His Holiness, without being recognized as having achieved the same mind-stream as the Dalai Lama.

The second point allows for more than one emanation:

“In some cases one high Lama may have several reincarnations simultaneously, such as incarnations of body, speech and mind and so on.”

This is a well-known feature of the Tibetan system and is quite common with high lamas, but has never happened with the Dalai Lamas before, since until this year they were throne-holders of the Tibetan state, so having more than one claimant to political office would have been problematic. With the political role of the Dalai Lama eliminated, this is no longer the case.

The Lineage Authorities

A third point is mentioned incidentally and is entirely new: the identity of the lineage authorities is specified. The lineage authorities, or managers, for most lamas are the staff and monks of their “labrang” or private residence, sometimes referred to as an estate. It is always this office that is has the responsibility to search for a reincarnation. But with the Dalai Lamas, the job was shared with the Tibetan government, as we have seen. Now, the statement makes clear, the Tibetan government will no longer have responsibility for managing the Dalai Lama’s lineage or running the succession process. Instead, in the absence of a Dalai Lama the management of his lineage will be in the hands of “the Gaden Phodrang Trust”, a previously unknown body that appears to have been recently constituted and is said to be located within the Private Office in Dharamsala. The officials who will run this trust, and thus what is in effect the labrang, have not been named, though there is some speculation that they might include the former Prime Minister of the exile government, Samdong Rinpoche, who recently took up a position in the Private Office.

The statement also says that the officials of the Gaden Phodrang Trust are to consult in future with the heads of the Tibetan Buddhist school and the main oracles. The relevant oracles have always been involved in such decisions, but the involvement of all the leaders of the Tibetan Buddhist schools is new, as far as I know. The decision-making process is thus separated—at least in principle—from the Tibetan government and no special status is given to the Gelugpa school. This could be a significant historical shift, since, although some of the Dalai Lamas took up and defended the practices of other schools, in the past their lineage was strongly associated with Gelugpa orthodoxy. Now it seems that a more ecumenical or non-sectarian approach is indicated.


In summary, the statement indicates that an emanation system is most likely to be used to select the successor to the current Dalai Lama, instead of or in addition to a reincarnation system. The Tibetan public is clearly being prepared for this outcome. The concept of emanation is already well known in Tibetan Buddhism, with many high lamas also considered to be emanations. But it is unusual, if not unique, for the recognition of an emanation to be used as a formal succession system.

There is an obvious benefit to the Tibetans of using an emanation system. Since it means that the successor would probably be an adult or young person, and that they would probably be recognized before the death of the current Dalai Lama, the great drawback of a reincarnation system could be avoided: the 20 years or so that it takes to find and train a successor. In the past, Tibetans attempted to solve the interregnum problem by appointing a Regent, but this had almost always failed because the Regents were seen as weak, prone to corruption, and as lacking in authority, even though almost all of them were “hutuktu”, or reincarnations of the highest rank. This was a major factor in the weakness of the historical Tibetan state. It had been expected that the current Dalai Lama would try to provide a new solution to that problem, and this is clearly it.

However, it has been centuries since the Tibetan people have been led by a person who is an emanation but who is not also a high-ranking reincarnation, and some Tibetans have expressed discomfort about the prospect of following a religious or symbolic leader who only has emanation status. For the first time in over three centuries, the successor of the Dalai Lama will have no political obligations, but it may still be hard for his successor to sustain popular support without being a reincarnation.

The statement thus reflects many practical considerations. Primarily, it seems designed to leave the Dalai Lama and his lineage managers a workable range of possibilities when they come to making their choice. For example, while it shows that there is no need to wait for the discovery of a reincarnation, it leaves open the possibility that if such a child is found, he or she might take over from the emanated successor once he or she reaches maturity. But it is rooted in Tibetan custom and has been presented in a traditional manner that may be effective in gaining acceptance from the Tibetan public for the new system, although the real test of that will come only after the current Dalai Lama has died.

The Dalai Lama’s initiative is a complete rejection of the position taken by the current Chinese authorities. It has already been rejected by them in turn as an abuse of “historical conventions as well as laws and regulations”, adding that “there is no such practice of a living Dalai designating his own successor” and accusing him of “political brainwashing”, a “political scheme and vicious motives”. However, there are no known Tibetan laws or regulations about succession systems. Instead, Tibetan Buddhist tradition has always relied on the skills of its lamas in their ability to adapt customary practices. The September 24 initiative is an example of such an adaptation, involving important but neglected elements of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, framed pragmatically to address the key weakness of the reincarnation system. Overall, it represents an example of the Dalai Lama’s on-going effort throughout his career to adjust religious and cultural traditions to suit contemporary conditions.

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