Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, is 81 years old. Even for somebody living well, as he seems to be, that’s a long time to be alive, and when any major religious or political figure makes it into old age it’s natural to talk about succession. But the question of whether there will even be a 15th Dalai Lama, and who will identify him or her (it hasn’t happened yet, but it could) if there is, has all the makings of a major international incident.
Presumably we all know the basics about the Dalai Lama, but let’s review a couple of things. The Dalai Lama is the preeminent figure in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered to be a reincarnation (well, successive reincarnations) of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara. Owing in large part to a political alliance with the Mongols, the Gelug school starting in the 16th century began to gain political control over Tibet, and starting in the 1640s the 5th Dalai Lama came to rule Tibet. That state of affairs continued (though, to be clear, Tibet existed for most of this time as an autonomous region under some larger power’s protection–like the Mongols, the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Britain) until the People’s Republic of China, fresh off of winning the Chinese Civil War, outright annexed Tibet in 1950. The current Dalai Lama took office in 1950, under Chinese control, but fled to India in 1959 and has been the leading figure in the Tibetan independence movement ever since.
Because each successive Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara, succession is always a bit complicated. It’s not as though a sitting Dalai Lama can appoint a successor, because his/her rightful successor technically can’t even be born until the current Dalai Lama passes. Then you have to identify the new incarnation, which is a process that involves a lot of meditation, visions, and then testing the candidate(s). One of the final tests involves earning the recognition of the second most-important figure in the Gelug school, the Panchen Lama, and this is where things are pretty dicey at the moment. The Panchen Lama (we’re currently on the 11th) is believed to be the reincarnation of another bodhisattva, named Amitābha, and his recognition (as in he must “recognize” that the candidate is actually the new incarnation of Avalokiteśvara) is necessary for a new Dalai Lama to be named. This also works in the other direction–the sitting Dalai Lama must recognize a new Panchen Lama–or, well, it’s supposed to work that way.
So what’s the problem? Well, to cut to the chase, there are currently two 11th Panchen Lamas. While most of the Tibetan religious establishment (including the Dalai Lama) recognizes one Panchen Lama, the Chinese government recognizes another. And Beijing has gone to considerable and maybe terrible lengths to make sure that their 11th Panchen Lama is the only available 11th Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama who seems to have the recognition of most Tibetan monks, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was abducted by the Chinese government in 1995 at the age of six and, apart from a few official government pronouncements, has not been heard from since. He’s arguably the most famous abductee in the world, and he was definitely the world’s youngest political prisoner, and that’s assuming he’s still alive. The Chinese government insists that he’s fine, living a “normal life,” and he’d really like all you people to just leave him alone, trust us, but they’ve never actually let anybody see him. Which seems ominous.
In late 1995, the Chinese government named its own Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu, by drawing lots from the so-called “Golden Urn.” This is a historically legitimate way to select a Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama, especially in cases when other tests don’t distinguish one candidate from the others. However, it was first introduced in the 18th century by the Qing Dynasty, who used it as a means to control the selection process. That’s obviously what the current Chinese government is trying to do as well–so obvious, in fact, that everybody knows it and almost nobody is buying it.
It’s pretty clear why Beijing intervened in the selection process and imprisoned or maybe even killed a six year old kid to do it: because he offers a pro-China alternative to the current Dalai Lama right now, and especially because of the Panchen Lama’s role in selecting a new Dalai Lama. If you control the former, then you control the selection process for determining the latter. In preparation for the current Dalai Lamas death, Norbu has lately been trying to raise his profile in order to try to gain the acceptance of the Tibetan Buddhist community, which he’ll need in order to recognize the next Dalai Lama and have his recognition be treated as legitimate, but understandably he’s got an uphill battle ahead of him. Not that China seems to mind:
“Ultimately, China has made the necessary plans to find and choose a Dalai Lama of its own once the present Dalai Lama passes away,” said Elliot Sperling, a professor at Indiana University and an expert on Tibet. “And certainly the Chinese Panchen Lama will play a big role in that process.”
China’s enthronement of both the Karmapa Lama and the Panchen Lama can be seen as dress rehearsals for the eventual nomination of a new Dalai Lama, experts said.
“In the case of the Chinese Panchen Lama, the authorities have found that they can indeed install a lama who is rejected by large segments of the Tibetan population, and maintain him in his position by simple coercion and state power,” Sperling said. “This is significant because they will certainly find little support for a Dalai Lama chosen by the Chinese state.”
(The Karmapa, mentioned above as the “Karmapa Lama,” is the head of a different school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu, and is, like the Dalai Lama, considered an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara. There are also two Karmapas at the moment, but in this case it’s because of a dispute among the monks responsible for recognizing the new Karmapa. The Chinese government is involved in that dispute, but it’s not really driving it–in fact, the PRC and the Dalai Lama both recognize the same claimant, but the last Shamarpa, who is kind of the Karma Kagyu counterpart to the Panchen Lama, recognized the other claimant, and there are other Tibetan figures who say both of them are legitimate.)
The current Dalai Lama has in the past insisted that he will not reincarnate “under Chinese control,” and more recently has suggested he might not reincarnate at all. There’s obviously some gamesmanship here, an attempt to pre-delegitimize whomever China selects, but there does seem to be a non-trivial possibility that the Tibetan religious establishment will not–or at least not immediately–recognize a 15th Dalai Lama. The Chinese government will almost certainly recognize one, but based on the reception their Panchen Lama has gotten it seems unlikely that their Dalai Lama will gain much support.