We still haven’t heard any confirmation of the report published in a Mongolian newspaper claiming that a Mongolian boy has been identified as the 15th Dalai Lama. Right now I’d like to get some thoughts out, though. If confirmed, this will be pretty big news.
First, a Mongolian Dalai Lama wouldn’t be strange at all, despite how it appears. Mongolia was traditionally a stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism, which flourished there after the conversion of Altan Khan in the 1570’s. Prior to the decades spent as a Soviet satellite state huge monasteries contained a large percentage of the overall Mongolian population. The title ‘Dalai Lama’ itself was first bestowed by Altan Khan himself, and the fourth Dalai Lama (1601-1617) was ethnically Mongolian. Other historical Mongolian high lamas include a close advisor of the 13th Dalai Lama and the debate master at Drepung Monastery who administered the first of the present Dalai Lama’s final exams.
Second, how about the issue of selecting the next Dalai Lama while the current one is still alive? Traditionally they wait until the current Dalai has passed away and then begin preparations for finding his successor, and even then it would normally take a few years before one candidate was selected and confirmed. I’m sure some Buddhist theological justification will be presented if this turns out to be true, but off-hand I’d liken this to some lineages in Bhutan, whose version of Buddhism is extremely closely related to Tibetan Buddhism. There you can have multiple people counted as incarnations of the same Buddha, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that has been done in some Tibetan lineages as well. It might be unusual for a Dalai Lama, but certainly still possible.
Third, this would fit with hints the Dalai Lama has dropped over the years, and with what we know of Dharamsala’s overall strategy for Tibetan Buddhism. In a number of interviews from the last two or three years he’s mused out loud about the possibility of finding a successor while he’s still alive, and said that the child would almost certainly have been born outside of China (and Chinese-controlled Tibet). We’ve also seen some indication that the Dalai Lama and his advisors would like to restore Tibetan Buddhist practice in countries where it has suffered over the last century, and the selection of a Mongolian child would likely garner a lot of interest in Mongolia- and draw Mongolia closer to the Tibetan cause. Historically Mongolia was a major partner in Sino-Tibetan relations, and a treaty of mutual recognition between Tibet and Mongolia was one of the few instances of Tibetan diplomacy with the outside world following the 13th Dalai Lama’s declaration of independence from China. Perhaps Dharamsala would like to see Ulan Batar restored as an ally again.
Finally, there’s China. Obviously the real reason any of this is even being considered is because Beijing has made it clear that they intend to interfere with the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama. From the Panchen Lama affair we can see how they’ll do it- disappear any child identified by legitimate Tibetan Buddhist leaders, and install their own at a ceremony in the Jokhang using all the trappings of Buddhism they can muster. Their Panchen Lama will be the linchpin of the entire thing, the ‘proof’ they provide of the validity of their choice. That he himself is viewed as a ‘fake’ Panchen by the Tibetan public is immaterial because Beijing could care less about what they think- meddling with the selection of these senior lamas is just a way to deprive the Tibet movement of leadership.
This move could take a lot of wind out of their sails. They’ll complain about it loudly at the time, and have their puppets in the media and Tibet provincial government do so as well in the strongest terms. But when the Dalai Lama does eventually pass away and the Chinese government selects their fake Dalai, they won’t get much out of it if Tibetans and the rest of the world have all been settled on the identity of the next one for years. The loss of the 14th will certainly be a blow to the movement- but with elected leadership like Mr. Sangay, charismatic religious figures like the Karmapa, and a young Dalai Lama already working together it’ll be impossible for Beijing to declare victory on that day.
The unconventional selection method might not win everyone over, but if it’s true this might be a pretty shrewd play by Dharamsala. Presumably we’ll know for sure some time soon.