As Dalai Lama turns 85, his lineage’s future is as uncertain as Tibet’s

As the Tibetan Buddhist leader ages, a confrontation with China over the legitimacy of his successor looms.

(RNS) — The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who turns 85 Monday (July 6), is not only arguably the world’s best-known Buddhist figure. Through the force of his personality he has made his nation’s struggle for autonomy from China a global cause, and his influence has prompted many in the West to adopt if not Buddhism as a religion then many of its practices and principles, such as meditation and spiritual visualization.

Yet as fans of the Dalai Lama celebrate a landmark birthday, the future of his 600-year-old lineage and its ramifications for his occupied homeland are uncertain.

Though His Holiness, as followers refer to the Dalai Lama, is said by Tibetan officials to be in good health after hospitalization in 2019 for a reported chest infection, the looming question for Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan national cause is, what will happen when the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner inevitably —  in blunt Western terms — dies? 

“Of course we Tibetans think about this a good deal,” said Ngodup Tsering, head of the North America branch of the Office of Tibet, an arm of Tibet’s official government in exile. “It is foremost for us.”

The title Dalai Lama, which translates roughly as “ocean of wisdom,” is rooted in the traditional and intricate Tibetan Buddhist concept of reincarnation. Certain highly evolved spiritual adepts, such as the Dalai Lama, are believed to be able to control their reincarnations.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama greets devotees as he arrives to give a religious talk at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, on Nov. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)

For Tibet, this holds profound political implications. The Himalayan nation has been under Chinese military occupation since 1950. Since then the government in Beijing has taken methodical steps to erase Tibet’s distinct culture, flooding the region with ethnic Han Chinese brought from outside Tibet while limiting religious activity and all signs of reverence for the Dalai Lama.

Until 2011, when he voluntarily transferred that role to a democratically elected leadership, the Dalai Lama was also Tibet’s political chief. His abdication, said Tsering, who is based in Washington, D.C., “allows a new generation of younger Tibetans to take the mantle of leadership.” 

However, the question of his religious leadership remains.

The current Dalai Lama — the 14th in a line of tulkus, or human reincarnations of, it’s believed,  the very first Dalai Lama, born in 1391— fled Tibet for India in 1959 after a failed uprising. He has lived in exile ever since.

China’s leadership, its avowed atheism notwithstanding, insists that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate so that the position can continue. Tibetans maintain Beijing’s interest is only motivated by its intent to seize the next Dalai Lama while he is still a young boy to control him and crush the political movement for Tibetan autonomy.

This is the course it took with the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s second ranking official. Three days after the current Panchen Lama was recognized in 1995, he and his family were kidnapped by the Chinese and he has not been heard from since.

Beijing has installed a proxy in his place, though he has been rejected by an overwhelming majority of Tibetans as a Chinese political tool.

The Dalai Lama has said for several years that he might not reincarnate, hoping to avoid leaving his own successor with a similar fate, or to prevent the Chinese from presenting their own version of the Dalai Lama. “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next,” he said in 2014. Other times he has said that if he does reincarnate, it’s likely to occur in the global Tibetan refugee diaspora rather than in Tibet itself.

In late 2019, the various factions that comprise the Central Tibetan Administration, which directs the Tibetan exile government, voted to urge the Dalai Lama to reincarnate.

“The Tibetan people and the administration want him to come back,” Tsering said. “So many around the world are encouraged by him. It would be demoralizing if there was no Dalai Lama and a great political loss. The position is so central to the Tibetan tradition, to the Tibetan mind.”

“I’m sure (Tibetans) will keep the name for sure,” said Robert A.F. Thurman, a Columbia University professor emeritus who directs Tibet House, a Tibetan cultural center in New York, and is one of the Dalai Lama’s closest Western associates. “One way or another, there will be a Dalai Lama.”

The Dalai Lama, child in center, during his first trip to Lhasa in 1939. The Dalai Lama was roughly 4 years old at the time. Photo courtesy of Ira Rifkin

Among the possibilities, according to Tibetan beliefs, is that the Dalai Lama will reincarnate himself before he dies, said Thurman.

“It’s called maday tulku. The idea is that the Dalai Lama is reborn as a child while he still exists as an adult. The child is then raised for 20 years clandestinely so he can enter the picture with the charisma of  his adult self.”

Melvin McLeod, editor-in-chief of Lion’s Roar, a leading English-language international Buddhist magazine based in Halifax, Canada, explained  the complexity of Tibetan reincarnation thinking as follows:

“Buddhism in general holds to a basic assumption that we experience a series of rebirths to progress up the spiritual ladder. Tibetan Buddhism in particular has a very highly developed understanding of what happens after death and prior to rebirth. … It allows for certain individuals who because of their high level of spiritual development attained over years of deep meditative practices can guide their reincarnation.”

The Dalai Lama himself appears to be in no rush, despite his age, to resolve the issue. His official website maintains that when he is about 90, and in consultation with Tibetan Buddhist leaders and ordinary followers, he will decide whether and how he will reincarnate. He indicated he will leave written instructions as to how his reincarnated self can be found to minimize the possibility of Chinese deception.

Last year, the Dalai Lama also said he had dreamed that he will live to 110, a statement that Tibetans take very seriously because of their belief in his advanced spiritual powers.

Tsering said “the Dalai Lama will do what he thinks is best for all humanity, not just Tibetans, because as a Buddhist he is concerned with the betterment of all humanity.”

And for now, those close to him say there is little urgency. At 85 — 86 according to Tibetan tradition, which adds a year for time spent in the womb — “he’s in excellent shape,” said Thurman. “The Mayo Clinic watches over him with Western medical diagnostics and he has Tibetan physicians who watch him with traditional Tibetan methods.”

The global Tibetan Buddhist diaspora will celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday with a host of events, which because of the pandemic are restricted to online. To mark the milestone, the Dalai Lama has released an audio album titled “Inner World,” in which he recites teachings and mantras (words or sounds that serve as meditation aids)  accompanied by music. 

And how will the Dalai Lama himself  celebrate his day?

“As a Buddhist, as a lama (monk), as a renunciate, the Dalai Lama doesn’t attend birthday events or make a big deal over his birthday. It’s just not important to him,” said Tsering. “He asks people to mark a birthday only with doing something good for others.”