News of the 14th Dalai Lama’s retirement from politics was no surprise to those of us who follow his “career”. He has said many times he planned to relinquish his role in government to democratically elected leadership. But what took him so long?
years, detractors have accused the Dalai Lama of scheming to retake Tibet and restore the old feudal theocracy, in spite of his public statements in favur of secular, democratic government. If he was so “democratic”, they asked, why did he still assume political authority over exiled Tibetans? And those of us inclined to defend him could only say, he’s going to step down eventually. It’s a relief that eventually has arrived.
On the other hand, Tibetans aren’t sure they are ready to let go of their political lama. Samdhong Rinpoche, Tibet’s prime minister in exile, told the Hindustan Times that without the Dalai Lama, the legitimacy of the Tibetan government in exile might be undermined. The Tibetan exile community, he said, had been functional largely because its members accepted the Dalai Lama’s authority.
Consider the circumstances of Tibetans as a people in diaspora. For centuries, its geography isolated Tibet from the rest of civilization. The Chinese occupation, and China’s reaction to the Lhasa uprising of 1959, drove the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders into exile, with monks and lay people following. And so the long isolation was ruptured, and Tibetans, their culture and Tibetan Buddhism abruptly spilled out into the modern world.
Since 1960, the Central Tibetan Authority (CTA) – better known as the Tibetan government in exile – has occupied headquarters in the lower Himalayas of northern India. For some time the CTA has had an elected parliament and prime minister governing the Tibetan exile community. The CTA makes no claims of political authority in Tibet, and in the event freedom is restored to Tibet it is expected to dissolve.
But in the meantime, the exiles are guests of India, not citizens, occupying a kind of bureaucratic twilight zone. The presence of the Tibetan community likewise has placed India in an uncomfortable position with regard to its powerful and contentious neighbor, China. This awkwardness was on display last month after a police search uncovered nearly $1.6m in cash stored in boxes in a monastery. The money was in currencies of several countries, including China, which set off heated speculation in Indian news media about spy lamas secretly controlled by Beijing.
But the money was the offerings of faithful visitors, accumulated over many years. Because of Indian foreign currency laws, the Tibetans could not deposit the money in a bank without government approval, which never came. So the cash was stored in a monk’s dormitory. “Many typical transactions, from buying land to depositing foreign currency in Indian banks, are either illegal or a bureaucratic nightmare for Tibetans,” Ishan Tharoor wrote in TIME magazine.
In these tenuous circumstances, the Dalai Lama’s leadership has been a source of stability and cohesion for the Tibetans. But he is 75. This week’s announcement may be his way of telling the exiles they need to find stability and cohesion without him, and sooner rather than later. In any event, “Dalai Lama” is not an occupation from which one can retire. The role embodies the history, mythology and spirituality of the Tibetan people, and His Holiness will continue to be a venerated Buddhist monk and teacher. His political duties may be the least important part of his job.
The real challenge to Tibetan Buddhism is yet to come. Earlier this week, the government of China announced a new law, to go into effect next month, stipulating the procedures by which a lama may reincarnate. Seriously. Beijing has also ordered that the 15th Dalai Lama must be born in China and will be recognized by government authority.
When the 14th dies, it is a near certainty that China will give the title of Dalai Lama to the son of a loyal ethnic Tibetan Communist party member, and Beijing will pressure western governments to recognize their boy, and not the child chosen by lamas in India, as the head of Tibetan Buddhism. What’s to become of Tibetan stability and cohesion then is anyone’s guess.