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The last of the Dalai Lamas?

December 3, 2009

Sydney Morning Herald, December 3, 2009

The stalled quest for a modern, autonomous Tibet...the Dalai Lama,
chosen for the role at the age of four, has been in exile for 50 years.
Photo: Kate Geraghty

Even the current Dalai Lama questions the institution's future
relevance, writes Joyce Morgan.

He has spoken all week about the future; of the environment, the world's
rivers, melting glaciers and the youth who will inherit this ailing
planet. Indeed ''Our Future'' is the title of his 10-day Australian
tour. But behind the scenes it is the future of the Dalai Lama, the
institution, that is increasingly occupying the thoughts of those who
for more than half a century have looked towards the exiled political
and spiritual leader as the face and voice of Tibet.

Could the 14th Dalai Lama be the last in the 600-year-old lineage? And
if so, who then will lead the Tibetan people? Such questions have
gathered pace not just as the Dalai Lama advances in years but because
50 years after he fled into exile across the Himalayas, a return to his
homeland and a political solution to Tibet seems further away than ever.

''[What happens] after me, that is up to the Tibetan people and also it
will depend on circumstances,'' the Dalai Lama says.

We sit in a side room at Sydney's Entertainment Centre, a room and a
venue more typically associated with visiting rock stars than red-robed
monks. He is about to take to the stage to deliver several hours of
spiritual teachings to several thousand assembled in the auditorium. And
despite a bout of flu, his focus and seemingly inexhaustible energy is
striking. At 74, he circles the globe constantly giving teachings and
meeting world leaders. His pace seems to have quickened as though the
problems ahead require greater effort.

The Dalai Lama is many things to many people. A living Buddha to his
followers, an international media celebrity and, to China, a splittist
and a devil in monk's robes. He is also the world's longest-serving
ruler. He has led his people longer than Queen Elizabeth II, King
Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand or Fidel Castro. He has seen Chinese
leaders come and go. And in the past year he has seen regular talks
between his envoys and China stall. He has also seen his efforts to
establish autonomy - rather than independence - for Tibet within the
Chinese system, rejected.

''What next'' is increasingly the subject of discussions among the
Tibetan leadership. So too is a succession plan. And the Dalai Lama
acknowledges that, in the short term, appointing a senior figure as an
interim leader while he is alive is a possibility. ''Almost like a
deputy Dalai Lama,'' he says. ''That is one idea. But [it is] not decided.''

Some have suggested such a role could be filled by the Karmapa Lama, now
in his mid-20s, who might rule until a new Dalai Lama comes of age. The
Karmapa, the Tibetan-born head of the Kagyu sect, fled into exile in
India as a 14 year-old.

But it is the longer term that is the real issue. The institution will
continue as long as it is useful, the Dalai Lama has said. And some of
his statements have suggested that he believes it no longer is. He told
students in Japan last year that although the Dalai Lama had been the
spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan people for hundreds of years,
that time had gone.

A statement on his website puts it this way: ''I feel the institution of
the Dalai Lama has served its purpose.''

Nonetheless, it is a comment that can be interpreted in diametrically
opposed ways.

''If after some time things become normal and the Tibetan people enjoy
meaningful autonomy and freedom of religious practice [and] materially
more prosperity ? and people say the Dalai Lama institution is not
necessarily relevant, then we will stop,'' he says. ''If on the other
hand, while we remain outside as refugees, I think most probably the
Tibetan people want to have another Dalai Lama.''

But if the institution does continue, it seems unlikely to continue in
its current form, not least because of the unique - and to Western ways
mystifying - manner in which the Dalai Lama and other high lamas are chosen.

For hundreds of years, when each Dalai Lama has died, senior lamas have
conducted a search across Tibet to find an infant successor. The child
is regarded as the reincarnation of the previous office holder and the
process of selection can involve consulting oracles and interpreting
auspicious signs. The current Dalai Lama was selected in this way as a
four-year-old.

But since 2007 the Chinese Government has insisted that it must approve
the recognition of all reincarnate or high lamas. It is for this reason
that the Nobel peace prize winner has signalled that if there is a
future Dalai Lama he - or she - will not be found in Tibet or China.

Instrumental in selecting the Dalai Lama in the past has been the
Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's second most important figure. In a
sense they have operated down the centuries like a tag team, one being
involved in the recognition of the other.

But this is not likely to happen this time. For when the current Dalai
Lama announced in 1995 that a six-year-old Tibetan boy was the new
Panchen Lama, China took him into custody - he has never been heard of
since - and appointed their own. At that time, some saw this as an
attempt by China to eventually control the selection of the next Dalai
Lama. Now the strategy seems to be to wait him out.

In the meantime - and with the stalemate in official dialogue between
China and the Dalai Lama - he has been encouraged by support he has
received from Chinese intellectuals. This has included from a group of
prominent Chinese lawyers who issued a report mid-year saying that last
year's riots in Tibet were rooted in legitimate grievances and not a
plot by the Dalai Lama.

''Although intellectuals are very few compared to their masters ?
eventually their influence [on] the masters are very important. So
therefore things are changing,'' he says. ''This is a hopeful sign.''

Increasingly, he has attempted to talk directly to Chinese people,
including in Sydney yesterday when he met a group of 300 Chinese
Australians. A similar meeting is expected in Melbourne next week where
he will also attend the Parliament of the World's Religions.

The 14th Dalai Lama says that whether he is the last Dalai Lama is not
for him to decide. He has more pressing concerns.

''My business is to utilise my life for some purposeful service to the
well-being of other people. That's my main concern,'' he says.
''Building a society with modern education and also our traditional
values ? If society remains weak even a world leader cannot do much.''
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