Could Tibetan Buddhism face the Last Lama?

Living in exile in India, one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism concedes he may be the last to hold the position of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is considered both a spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists. When a Dalai Lama dies his successor is not chosen but instead his reincarnated form is found. This usually takes between two to three years, but after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama it took four years to find the spiritual reincarnation. A child by the name of Lhamo Dhondup was declared to be the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

The Panchen Lama is the second highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism, and is selected by the Dalai Lama himself. When the Dalai Lama dies it is the responsibility of the Panchen Lama to find the next Dalai Lama. When a candidate has been found by the Panchen Lama, he undergoes a series of secretive tests before being confirmed as the next official Dalai Lama. One of these tests involves presenting the possible Dalai Lama with a serious of items, some of which were possessions of the previous Dalai Lama. If he manages to pick out the possessions it is seen as an indication that he is the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. In 1955, the current Dalai Lama selected a 6 year old boy by the name of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima to be the 11th Panchen Lama. A mere 2 days after being selected the boy and his family were arrested by the Chinese government and have not been heard from since. Chinese officials claim the boy is alive and healthy and simply does not wish to be disturbed, but many Tibetans continue to demand to know where he is. 6 months later, China announced that it had found the real Panchen Lama, a boy named Gyaltsen Norbu who was the son of two communist party members. He is referred to by some Tibetans as the “Panchen Zuma” meaning false Panchen.

China claims Tibet has been part of the Chinese nation since the mid-13th century. Many from Tibet disagree with this, as Chinese rule over Tibet has not been constant. From 1920 until 1950, Tibet functioned as an independent nation, despite not being recognised as such by the Chinese government. In 1950, Chinese troops were sent in to occupy Tibet and the following year a delegation was signed ceding sovereignty of Tibet to China. The Dalai Lama was called upon to assume full political power within Tibet. After an unsuccessful Tibetan uprising in 1959, he was then forced to flee to Dharmsala in Northern India. This has caused resentment amongst many Tibetans and Chinese rule has been sporadically challenged over the years. “What’s not understood here [in Ireland] is that the Dalai Lama is both a spiritual and a political leader in Tibet…that’s where the situation gets a lot more difficult” said one practising Tibetan buddhist in UCD. “The current Dalai Lama claims to want autonomy for the region rather than complete independence from China. However this does not stop the Chinese from viewing him as a threat to their rule, and they have even referred to him as a ‘wolf in monks robes’.”Fearful that the Chinese will use their Panchen Lama to elect a Pro Chinese successor, the Dalai Lama has said that if he does reincarnate he will do so in a country outside of Chinese control or perhaps not choose to reincarnate at all meaning he may be the last “legitimate” Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama claims that it would be better for the old tradition of his reincarnation to end rather than allow a false Dalai Lama to sully the tradition. "There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won't come next, who will disgrace himself or herself," he said. Many practising Tibetan Buddhists have wondered if they should be allowed to elect religious leaders for themselves democratically and have divested the political power of his rule to an elected official who is also with the Dalai Lama in India. The Chinese government however do not believe that it is within his power to do away with this tradition and claim that only the central government can decide on keeping, or getting rid of, the Dalai Lama's lineage.

If China choses to nominate a successor to the current Dalai Lama, and their nomination is rejected by the people of Tibet, this could greatly exacerbate the already tense situation. Over 150 people have chosen to set themselves on fire, or self-immolate, in Tibet as a form of protest against the Chinese government. The goal of these protests is to bring attention to what they view as harsh and unjust Chinese rule and the oppression of Tibetan Buddhist culture, as well as to appeal to both the return of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama to Tibet. Many of the protesters who survive the initial self-immolation are often detained by Chinese officials who view it as a disturbing the peace and creating an atmosphere of terror. The Dalai Lama has maintained a neutral stance on the self-immolations as he fears that if he supports them the Chinese will blame him for the acts but to condemn them would be offensive to the families of the protesters stating “If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong” in The Hindu newspaper. However, he has also stated that he thinks the self-immolations are occurring as a direct result of Chinese policy. While the Chinese claim that he is inciting the protests, and he has expressed his deep sorrow at the deaths and injuries of the protesters, he has not called for these protests to stop.