Tibetans Grapple With Dalai Lama Succession

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Mark Nolan / Getty

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama talks to the media before presenting "Teachings On Stages Of Meditation" at the Soothe Complex in Sydney, Australia.

The long life of the Dalai Lama is, for Tibetans, a profound blessing. But while they might pray to postpone the moment of his passing, the leaders of the Tibetan community are no longer shy about preparing for it.

"People have made repeated requests that His Holiness should help us in finding an unmistaken successor," says Lhakdor (he uses only one name), a delegate to this week's summit in Dharamsala and director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Tibetans do not want a repeat of the calamitous succession of the Panchen Lama in 1995, when China chose its own candidate. Pictures of the little boy whom the Chinese rejected as the 11th Panchen Lama — he is believed to be imprisoned — are still displayed here and there around Dharamsala. Tibetans fear that China will make a similar disruptive move after the Dalai Lama's death, taking advantage of the long traditional process of divining his next reincarnation through a series of clues.

So what is the alternative? The buzz among the delegates is the idea that it is possible to know the reincarnation of a senior lama while he is still alive. The Dalai Lama mentioned it recently, stirring up hopes that he would name a direct successor, as well as a fair bit of theological head-scratching. "It's something about the body, mind and spirit being split in two," one delegate told me.

"There has been some confusion," says Lhakdor, a monk who travels frequently with the Dalai Lama and has worked as his translator. To be clear: he says the Dalai Lama is simply referring to an alternative to the traditional search parties, in which the senior lama gives clear clues about where his reincarnation will be found, to be followed after his death. Critics of the practice say that while it might have some historical precedent, it is outdated and could open up the Dalai Lama to the charge that he is trying to create a dynasty. "It's a bit discredited," says Jamyang Norbu, an outspoken pro-independence activist. "This was used by reigning family of the Lama to hold on to power."

Whether or not the Dalai Lama decides to take that unusual step, he seems to have begun the succession process in other, more subtle ways. Senior lamas of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism now regularly attend the Dalai Lama's teachings. The Dalai Lama has arranged for the Karmapa, an important lama who escaped from a Tibetan monastery eight years ago, to be tutored in several languages, including Korean, an indication of a wider global role.

Most important, the summit itself is an attempt to make the Tibetan government in exile more democratic, more inclusive and better able to make decisions without the Dalai Lama. The delegates took the first step in that process on Saturday. They passed a resolution that reaffirmed support for the Dalai Lama's "Middle Path" approach to China but also, for the first time, acknowledged and validated those pushing for full independence or an end to negotiations. "It is significant," says Lobsang Sengge, a delegate and fellow at Harvard Law School whose research focuses on the internal democracy of the exile government. The key to the Tibetan community's future leadership, it turns out, may be Tibetans themselves.

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