“Between the Lines: Interpreting the Dalai Lama’s Statement on his Successor”

Robbie Barnett has parsed the details from the Dalai Lama’s statement on his successor, and written a piece on ChinaBeat explaining it all:

One of the main messages of the September 24th statement is that only the Dalai Lama or the managers of his lineage can decide on his successor and the method of selection. As expected, it states categorically that a successor cannot be selected “by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China” apart from the Dalai Lama and those he has appointed as his lineage authorities. It adds that the details of the selection procedure for the Dalai Lama’s successor will be announced in about 14 years time, when the Dalai Lama will be around 90 years old. It thus discusses only the likely methods of selection, not the identity of the person who will be selected. This move seems designed to convey the Dalai Lama’s confidence about the long-term prospects for implementing a successful hand-over, and gives him plenty of time to get Tibetans used to the new procedure that he is proposing.

The statement thus indicates, if read carefully, that the Dalai Lama is more than likely to be succeeded by an emanation, not necessarily by a child reincarnation. It is possible that both could take place—first an emanation, and then, a few years later, a reincarnation as well. But this is not explicitly stated. The possibility of an emanation-successor is an innovation if it includes one selected by appointment. If an emanation system is used, then the successor will most likely be identified before the death of the current Dalai Lama, and will probably be an adult or young person rather than a child.

There is an obvious benefit to the Tibetans of using an emanation system. Since it means that the successor would probably be an adult or young person, and that they would probably be recognized before the death of the current Dalai Lama, the great drawback of a reincarnation system could be avoided: the 20 years or so that it takes to find and train a successor. In the past, Tibetans attempted to solve the interregnum problem by appointing a Regent, but this had almost always failed because the Regents were seen as weak, prone to corruption, and as lacking in authority, even though almost all of them were “hutuktu”, or reincarnations of the highest rank. This was a major factor in the weakness of the historical Tibetan state. It had been expected that the current Dalai Lama would try to provide a new solution to that problem, and this is clearly it.

However, it has been centuries since the Tibetan people have been led by a person who is an emanation but who is not also a high-ranking reincarnation, and some Tibetans have expressed discomfort about the prospect of following a religious or symbolic leader who only has emanation status. For the first time in over three centuries, the successor of the Dalai Lama will have no political obligations, but it may still be hard for his successor to sustain popular support without being a reincarnation.

The statement thus reflects many practical considerations. Primarily, it seems designed to leave the Dalai Lama and his lineage managers a workable range of possibilities when they come to making their choice. For example, while it shows that there is no need to wait for the discovery of a reincarnation, it leaves open the possibility that if such a child is found, he or she might take over from the emanated successor once he or she reaches maturity. But it is rooted in Tibetan custom and has been presented in a traditional manner that may be effective in gaining acceptance from the Tibetan public for the new system, although the real test of that will come only after the current Dalai Lama has died.

The Dalai Lama’s initiative is a complete rejection of the position taken by the current Chinese authorities. It has already been rejected by them in turn as an abuse of “historical conventions as well as laws and regulations”, adding that “there is no such practice of a living Dalai designating his own successor” and accusing him of “political brainwashing”, a “political scheme and vicious motives”. However, there are no known Tibetan laws or regulations about succession systems. Instead, Tibetan Buddhist tradition has always relied on the skills of its lamas in their ability to adapt customary practices.


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