Is This the Last Dalai Lama?

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet. His departure exposed the rift between the Tibetan faithful and the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.), one which has not closed in the six decades since—and which threatens to become even deeper once the current Dalai Lama, 83-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, passes on.

For the Tibetan community inside and outside of China, the prospect raises painful but unavoidable questions: How will Tibetans within the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) be allowed to mourn a religious leader that Beijing has previously demonized as a “wolf in monk’s robes”? Will Tibetans remain largely non-violent (at least toward bodies other than their own) in expressing their resistance to P.R.C. policy on religion? And, of no small consequence given the central importance of the institution of the Dalai Lama to Tibetan Buddhists, how and when will the successor to the Dalai Lama be chosen? How will this process inflame or forestall tensions on the Tibetan plateau, and, more broadly, between China, India, and the United States?

The process of selecting the Dalai Lama has often been fraught with intrigue and violence. Tibetan masters recognized each successive Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of his predecessors; after a Dalai Lama’s death, they searched for his reincarnation among recently-born children, interpreting various signs and clues to do so. (Martin Scorsese dramatized this tradition in his 1997 film Kundun.) An inherent political weakness in this process was the interregnum—the time between the previous Dalai Lama’s death and the eventual maturity of his successor. Regents appointed to rule during the interregnum period often lacked authority among the people, and a suspicious number of Dalai Lamas died at young ages as various individuals vied for power and influence.

This historically tense interregnum period promises to be even more fractious under the current circumstances, with the Dalai Lama exiled in India and Beijing asserting that it alone has the final say in anointing his successor. Even though the Dalai Lama voluntarily devolved his authority as a temporal leader to the elected Tibetan government in exile in 2011, his status as Tibetan Buddhists’ spiritual authority remains unchanged—and, indeed, is the source of Beijing’s continued frustration with and fear of him.

As one possible way to avoid the interregnum problem, the Dalai Lama issued a statement in 2011 that offered an alternative to reincarnation as the mechanism to determine a successor. Briefly, this involves the concept that superior Bodhisattvas can manifest themselves into multiple bodies simultaneously, and can thus “manifest an emanation” while still alive. This would allow the Dalai Lama to “emanate” into another person before his death, thereby expressly choosing his successor. The statement also says that, “Alternatively it is possible for the Lama to appoint a successor who is either his disciple or someone young who is to be recognized as his emanation.” (Former Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University Robert Barnett’s analysis of this statement offers a deep dive into the details of the emanation mechanism.) Notably, the statement does not definitively rule out reincarnation, but rather offers the theological underpinning for continuing the Dalai Lama lineage even if selection is based on some other mechanism. Though the concept of emanation avoids the interregnum problem, it has its own shortcomings; it may prove a tough pill for devout Tibetan Buddhists to swallow, as this would be the first time that the Dalai Lama would have only emanation status and no reincarnation status (it is possible to have both).

Since the 2011 statement, the Dalai Lama has made a number of comments about his succession, sometimes suggesting that he may reincarnate as a woman, reincarnate outside China, or even that that the institution of the Dalai Lama may not continue after his death, depending on the circumstances. The Dalai Lama said several times late last year that it is the Tibetan people who should decide whether or not there will be another Dalai Lama, a choice which determines the necessity of outlining a succession mechanism. He also stated that his successor will be “a high lama or high scholar," or a person “around 20 years old,” as the practice of choosing an infant as a reincarnate lama “eventually becomes [a] disgrace.”

Fundamental and explicit in this position is the notion that only the Dalai Lama himself can ultimately initiate his reincarnation:

[R]eincarnation is a phenomenon which should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. Therefore, the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized. It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her. It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives . . . to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas . . . Such brazen meddling contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards. Should this situation continue in the future, it will be impossible for Tibetans and those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to acknowledge or accept it.

For Tibetans who follow the Dalai Lama, this closes off all possibility that any option offered up solely by Beijing could be considered legitimate. Not only does the Dalai Lama have the exclusive prerogative to decide whether or not he reincarnates, the C.C.P. explicitly does not have the authority to declare a successor.

Beijing, by contrast, insists that Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations—including the Dalai Lama—can only be selected with approval from the Chinese government. In 2007, it issued regulations to “institutionalize management on reincarnations of living Buddhas,” which require that only legally-registered temples can submit applications to receive a “living Buddha permit.” Even before the Dalai Lama’s 2011 statement, a Chinese government official said that the Dalai Lama does not have the right to alter the succession process and must follow the “historical institutions and religious rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.” The same official said in 2015 that the Dalai Lama’s comments on emanation or ending the Dalai Lama line “profane” Tibetan Buddhism.

Beijing’s claims of succession authority rest on a reincarnation selection process involving what is known as the “Golden Urn.” At the end of the 18th century, the Qing dynasty ordered that, after Tibetan masters had identified one or more candidates for a lama’s reincarnation (including but not limited to the Dalai Lama), the names of the candidates were written on tally sticks, put into a designated receptacle—the Golden Urn—and one candidate’s name drawn out. The Golden Urn was indeed used in a number of reincarnation selection processes, and when it was not, the Qing’s representatives in Tibet were still consulted and kept the capital informed of the selection process.

It is worth noting, however, that the Qing Dynasty’s role in recognizing the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation rested on the idea that the Chinese emperor had his own religious gravitas: He was deemed to be the emanation of a particular Bodhisattva, thereby endowing him with serious religious authority. Thus, as scholar Elliot Sperling wrote in 2013, “with the end of the Qing . . . the Golden Urn ritual would seem to have come to an end as well.” Sperling describes the insistence on the Golden Urn as an “anachronistic resurrection . . . rather than an element of continuity with earlier traditions,” further stating that,

It is hard not to see something cynical in this: the use of the Golden Urn in recognizing Tibetan incarnations is clearly meant to impart legitimacy to Chinese control over the incarnation of high lamas (with a particular eye to the Dalai Lama’s next incarnation) through the establishment of historical continuity. The PRC, in excoriating the Dalai Lama for not accepting its use of this Qing procedure, is consciously manipulating an element in earlier Sino-Tibetan relations. Certainly there has arisen no new vogue in China for Qing institutions elsewhere in the PRC. It is impossible to ignore here China’s desire for historical precedent as a simple legitimizing element for its administration of Tibet. The fact is, the use of the Golden Urn is one of the few elements of history that Chinese authorities feel they can call on to reinforce the modern Chinese notion that China’s central government enjoyed primacy in Tibetan affairs from the Yuan period (1271-1368) up to the present. The notion that Tibet somehow warrants the restoration of this one element of Qing rule is best viewed as part of a larger struggle to bring history and historical precedent to bear on the legitimacy of PRC policies and rule in Tibet today.

In this way, the avowedly atheist C.C.P. has essentially mandated the following prerequisites must be in place for it to recognize the Dalai Lama’s successor as legitimate: first, that the successor must be the result of reincarnation; second, that his selection must culminate in the drawing of lots from the Golden Urn; and third, that the other bureaucratic processes as detailed in P.R.C. regulations must be followed to officially recognize the reincarnation. Beijing has not only rejected the notion of emanation, but also the idea that the current Dalai Lama may be the last. As Barnett noted, “nobody in the Communist Party seems to have ever considered the possibility that they could rule Tibetans without a lama to be their intermediary.”

The Dalai Lama’s and Beijing’s stances are in fundamental opposition to each other, boding ill for a neat resolution to the eventual succession process. It is the Dalai Lama’s own spiritual authority that has tamped down Tibetans’ violent resistance to Chinese rule in recent decades, though violent attacks in Tibetan areas are not unheard of. Without the Dalai Lama’s force of presence, the risk of violence in Tibetan areas of China increases dramatically. While the Chinese government has positioned itself to respond quickly and decisively to any unrest, this does not mean that Tibetan areas would not still see some outbreaks of violence or a simmering, low-level insurgency. The result would likely be more bloodshed, further human rights abuses, increased numbers of Tibetans fleeing the country (though the P.R.C., with Nepal’s help, has been largely successful in stemming outflows of Tibetans seeking to leave China permanently), and perhaps even violence elsewhere in the world if exile Tibetans decided to attack Chinese facilities abroad.

All of this is possible even without considering the succession question. Add succession into the mix, however, and there are additional complications. Should the Dalai Lama decide to continue his line, he would almost certainly reincarnate or emanate outside of China; Beijing, no matter what the Dalai Lama says regarding his succession plans, will almost certainly orchestrate a search for his successor among children in Tibet. In fact, the P.R.C. already has a clear template for how to identify and anoint a high Tibetan lama: In 1995, after the Dalai Lama (in absentia) named one Tibetan boy as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, Chinese authorities functionally kidnapped the child and his family, naming and installing their own chosen boy as the next Panchen Lama. (The fate of the Dalai Lama-appointed Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, remains unknown.) This example speaks to Beijing’s willingness to use strong-arm tactics in matters of Tibetan Buddhist succession. If the Dalai Lama indeed reincarnates or emanates outside the P.R.C.’s borders, what might Beijing’s diplomatic reaction be to the country where the next Dalai Lama lives or is born, if that country does not take swift measures to denounce the lama’s legitimacy? Could Sino-Indian border tensions increase if Beijing deems New Delhi too supportive of an exile Tibetan community that rejects Beijing’s claims of authority on the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation? What if more Tibetans do manage to make their way to India as refugees?

What role might the United States play in any such international drama? Washington, across administrations and branches of government, has long expressed concern over Tibetans’ religious freedom. Last week, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback said Chinese authorities’ handling of the Panchen Lama selection “indicates that they are likely to interfere with the selection of the next Dalai Lama. The international community must make clear now that we believe that members of the Tibetan communities, like members of all faith communities, should be able to select, educate, and venerate their religious leaders without government interference.” So while the United States does not take a position on how precisely the Dalai Lama’s succession should proceed, it does clearly state that the decision should rest in the hands of the Tibetans themselves—thus implying any unilateral action on the part of the Chinese government would likely not be recognized as legitimate by the U.S. government.

The Dalai Lama may be aware of the risk of additional domestic or international turmoil if his succession is not more definitively delineated in advance. In his 2011 statement, he indicated that he would announce a decision about his successor, or at least outline a clear selection procedure, when he was about 90 years old (in 2025). Yet, it may be that he and other Tibetan religious leaders are looking to speed up this timeline; a committee of high priests was supposed to convene in November 2018 to find a way that “one elder, truly popular and respected, can be chosen as Dalai Lama.” That particular gathering was later postponed indefinitely. The pressure to find a bloodless way forward, however, continues unabated.

The opinions and characterizations in this paper are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government.