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Dalai Lama offers his flock a vote on whether he should be reincarnated

by Jeremy Page, The Times, November 28, 2007

Amritsar, India -- Faced with Chinese plans to seize control of his reincarnation, the Dalai Lama has come up with two revolutionary proposals — either to forgo rebirth, or to be reborn while still alive.

<< The Dalai Lama

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader proposed yesterday to hold a referendum among his 13-14 million followers around the world — before his death — on whether he should be reincarnated or not.

If the majority vote against it he said he would simply not be reborn, ending a lineage that tradition dictates dates back to the late 14th century, when a young shepherd was appointed the first Dalai Lama.

If the vote was in favour he said that he might appoint a reincarnation while he was still alive, breaking the 600-year-old tradition of being reborn as a small boy after his death.

His proposals not only raise some mind-bending metaphysical questions: they put China’s atheist Communist leaders in the unusual position of claiming to be the protectors of Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The 1989 Nobel Peace laureate, 72, said that he was in good physical condition, that detailed discussions on his succession had yet to begin, and that several options were being considered.

But he admitted that his proposals were designed to thwart China’s plans to select the next Dalai Lama and thus tighten its grip on the Himalayan region it has controlled since 1950. “Yes, a referendum, yes, it’s possible,” the Dalai Lama told The Times at an interfaith conference in the north Indian city of Amritsar.

“When my physical [condition] becomes weak and serious preparation for death [has started], then that should happen,” he said. “According to my regular medical check-up it seems another few decades, I think, are there, so no hurry.”

The Dalai Lama has traditionally been chosen by senior monks who interpret signals from the last reincarnation, scour the region for promising young candidates and then set a number of tests.

The current Dalai Lama — the 14th — was born into a farming family and identified at the age of 2 after passing tests, including identifying his predecessor’s rosary from among several others. He fled Tibet in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule and has been living in India ever since, heading a 200,000-strong Tibetan exile community from the northern town of Dharamsala.

He now campaigns for greater autonomy within China, but Chinese leaders accuse him of still seeking independence for Tibet, which they see as an integral part of their territory.

They have tried to cultivate friendly lamas, but the 10th Panchen Lama — the second-most-senior Tibetan Buddhist figure — famously turned on them in a speech in 1989, soon after which he died. The young Karmapa Lama, the third-highest ranking, escaped to India in 1999.

In August China’s Government claimed exclusive rights to approve all Tibetan lamas’ reincarnations in one of its strongest moves yet to establish control over the region’s clergy.

Yesterday it condemned the Dalai Lama’s proposals. “The reincarnation of the living Buddha is a unique way of succession of Tibetan Buddhism and follows relatively complete religious rituals and historical conventions,” the Foreign Ministry statement said. “The Dalai Lama’s statement is in blatant violation of religious practice and historical procedure.”

The Dalai Lama said there was a historical precedent for a lama being reincarnated while still alive, giving the example of one of his teachers who died last year. He did not say how the referendum would be conducted, but said that it should include all those in the Himalayan region, Mongolia and elsewhere who have traditionally followed Tibetan Buddhism.

The six million Tibetans inside China would almost certainly be unable to participate, but another seven to eight million follow Tibetan Buddhism in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Russia and the West.

“If the Tibetan people, the majority of Tibetan people and concerned people feel OK, then the Dalai Lama institution will cease,” he said. If a majority voted to continue the tradition, he said that he would choose one of several succession options to try to protect his lineage from Chinese interference.

One is to handpick a successor outside Tibet — perhaps an adult, more qualified to represent Tibet on the world stage than a small boy. Another is to hold an election with a group of senior lamas along the lines of the “college of cardinals” that selects the Pope. A third option is to allow power to pass to the next most-senior lama in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy outside Tibet, who is the Sakya Lama, based in India. A fourth option is to follow the traditional method.

“If my death comes while we are still as refugees then my reincarnation logically will come outside Tibet,” he said. “But the Chinese Government may appoint another Dalai Lama. So like the present Panchen Lama’s case . . . in fact it creates more confusion.”

What the Dalai Lama said

On succession plans

As early as 1969 I made it clear that [whether] the very institution of the Dalai Lama continue or not, is up to the Tibetan people. So [if] the majority of the Tibetan people should feel the centuries old institution of the Dalai Lama [is] no longer much relevant then the Dalai Lama institution automatically will cease.

Then there’s no question of succession of Dalai Lama. On the other hand, should the Tibetan people and also some concerned people like the hundreds and thousands of people in the Himalayan range traditionally sharing same Tibetan Buddhism... want to keep this institution, then the question is, if you want to keep this institution, then the succession could be different methods or ways like the Pope’s election among his elder, experienced and respected senior leaders.

Then another thing like seniority - that is also a possibility. Another possibility is the previous sort of traditional way - after the death of the person, then search the rebirth. Whether it’s the same person or same being or not, I don’t know. It’s not very important, but some karmic, certain spiritual factors. Someone who can succeed the previous life’s work.

Then another thing - in Tibet in the past and even in my generation, there are cases of the person who before death is already choose his or her own reincarnation...

The very purpose of reincarnation is to carry the task which started by previous life, which is not yet accomplished. If my death comes while we are still as refugees then my reincarnation logically will come outside Tibet, who can eventually carry the work which I started.

But meanwhile the Chinese government may appoint another Dalai lama... So like the present Panchen Lama’s case. One is Panchen Lama of Tibetans’ hearts, one is on the official throne. In fact it creates more confusion. So a similar case will happen…

On the timing of the succession

According to my regular medical checkup, it seems another few decades, I think, are there so no hurry.

Anyway occasionally the Tibetan spiritual leaders meet together sometimes, very casually, to talk already, but serious detailed discussion has not yet started.

On a referendum

If the Tibetan people, the majority of Tibetan people and concerned people feel OK, then the Dalai Lama institution will cease.

If the centuries old Dalai Lama institution ceases, the 14th Dalai Lama was not the best one but certainly not the worst one – quite popular Dalai Lama. So if the centuries old institution ceases at such a popular Dalai Lama’s case, I think very good.

Recent few centuries, the Dalai Lama has become an important part of that, but that does not mean that whole Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan nation depends on the Dalai lama institution - no. If I die today, some setback for the Tibetan people’s struggle that will happen, but eventually the national struggle of an ancient nation with a rich cultural heritage, therefore the Tibetan spirit, will not go away with my death.

Reincarnation for beginners

  • Buddhism teaches that the soul is reincarnated as another being - possibly an animal - based on one’s karma, or accumulated actions
  • Tibetan Buddhism is unusual in its belief that a senior lama can be reincarnated as a young child
  • Lamas are believed to be reincarnations of those who have reached Nirvana but chosen to return to the mortal world to teach others
  • The Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and can choose whether to be reincarnated or not
  • When a Dalai Lama dies, senior monks look for signals about his reincarnation in their own dreams, on his corpse and in the smoke when he is cremated
  • They also go to a holy lake to look for a vision or another sign about where to look for the new Dalai Lama


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