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Exile and the Kingdom

August 15, 2009

Telegraph India
July 19, 2009

For six hundred years, the discovery of a Dalai
Lama involved divine oracles, prophetic visions
in Tibet’s sacred lakes, mystical cloud
formations and many other supernatural elements.
It would be a revolutionary break with that past
if the 14th Dalai Lama’s idea of choosing his
successor through a "democratic election" comes
to fruition. But then, history is made by such
men of destiny. History-making should easily be
part of the legacy of the 14th Dalai Lama, whose
life in exile from communist China marks the
beginning of a new chapter in Tibetan history.
What he does will be of immense significance to
the future of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. His
idea of how to choose his successor is not just a
question of the survival of the institution of
the Dalai Lama; it will have a profound impact on
every aspect of life for Tibetans living in Tibet
and elsewhere in the world. And the impact may
not be confined to the community belonging to his
own Gelukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. There have
been other greats among his predecessors,
especially the fifth and the eighth Dalai Lamas.
But the burden of history that the 14th Dalai
Lama carries is unique in its spiritual as well as political significance.

The Dalai Lama has used the half-century of his
exile from Tibet to open the mystical world of
Tibetan Buddhism to influences of modern science
and education. At the same time, his has been a
hard and bitter struggle to preserve Tibetan
religion and culture. It would be preposterous to
suggest that he would put all that aside in
search of a "democratic" way to keep the
tradition alive. This is not the first time he
has spoken of the need for ushering in changes
for the institution of the Dalai Lama. He has
often spoken of himself as the “last” of the
line. “The new Dalai Lama does not necessarily
have to be my own reincarnation,” he told Michael
Harris Goodman, the author of The Last Dalai
Lama, more than 20 years ago. He has also hinted
at some new, democratic procedure to choose his
successor several times in the past. His latest
remarks do not elaborate on the nature of the
democratic selection of his successor. He has
given no hint as to whether it would be
restricted to his own sect or to the entire
Tibetan Buddhist community, what the electorate
will be like or, most important, how he will deal
with the Chinese response to such a choice. It is
almost certain that China will do everything it
can to scuttle the process in Tibet.

But it can be reasonably assumed that his ideas
for change are also an agenda for continuity that
takes into account the complexities of the modern
world. They go hand-in-hand with attempts to
marry a monastic tradition with modernity. His
exile has given Tibetans a new idea of
nationhood. More than ever before, the future of
this nation rests on his testament.
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