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Happy Birthday Dalai Lama: Decoding the Succession Storm

The fuss about the Dalai Lama’s successor decoded.

Updated
Explainers
3 min read
The Dalai Lama before making a speech in southern England on June 29, 2015. 
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(This article was first published on 6 July 2015. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the 14th Dalai Lama’s birthday.)

Snapshot

The current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso assumed the position of the most important Buddhist leader in 1940.

His birthday is also celebrated as World Tibet Day in an attempt to generate greater awareness about the problems being faced by the Tibetan population, in the region and across the world, as they struggle to take back Tibet from China, who they believe is illegal occupying the land and suppressing the people.

The present Dalai Lama has, arguably, the widest fan base in comparison to any of his predecessors. He is well-liked and respected in non-Buddhist communities as well.

He has, however, created some waves by announcing that he may be the last in the line of Dalai Lamas.

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The Position of the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is considered the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the official head of the Tibetan government. The head monk is believed to be a descendent of a long line of Tulkus – those who choose to reincarnate.

Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Boddhisattva is the name given to those who have attained enlightenment, postponed nirvana and chosen to be reborn to serve humanity.

Reincarnation and Succession

When a Dalai Lama dies, the Galugpa High Lamas as well as the Tibetan government look for his reincarnation. The search is for a boy who was born around the same time that the Dalai Lama passed away.

The search does not, usually, bear fruit immediately; it can take a couple of years. The longest search duration was for the current Dalai Lama – four years.

The monks sometimes dream about locations or distinguishing features that can help them identify the successor. If the Dalai Lama is cremated after his death, they begin the search in the direction that the smoke takes. They also look for signs from the holy lake Lhamo Latso.

Once, a suitable boy is found, a range of artefacts are presented to him to ascertain if he is the reincarnation. If he chooses artefacts that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, it is believed the right successor has been found.

However, this method of search is not set in stone and the Buddhist tradition offers ways to revise the practice.

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The Successor Controversy

Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is reincarnated in Tibet, which is where the search is conducted. However, the current Dalai Lama has put forth many possible scenarios regarding his successor.

The Dalai Lama has said that because of the Chinese occupation of the Tibetan land, his successor may be born elsewhere and that he might identify him during his own lifetime, which is a departure from tradition.

He has also expressed doubts about whether he will be reincarnated at all and has said that this is in the hands of the Tibetan public. He has suggested that the line of Dalai Lamas may end with him, raising questions about the importance and relevance of the position in present times. The governor of Tibet, appointed by the Chinese government, has accused the Dalai Lama of blasphemy in light of these statements.

In the midst of this speculation, the Chinese government has said that it has the power to appoint his successor. The Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-exile has said that the appointment of the successor cannot be the Chinese Communist Party’s prerogative as communism doesn’t believe in religion.

It’s like Fidel Castro saying, ‘I will select the next pope and all the Catholics should follow. That is ridiculous.’
— Lobsang Sangay, Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-exile to Reuters

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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