The issue of the Dalai Lama’s succession has been in the news for quite some time, especially after the Tibetan diaspora elected Penpa Tsering as the new “Sikyong”, or president; incidentally, this election must have irritated no end Communist China that always proclaims its “superior”, though undemocratic, system of governance to the world, especially on the occasion of the centenary of the Communist Party of China in July.
During an interaction with the Tibetan media, the Sikyong, who heads the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, said after taking the oath on May 27 that he already had three video audiences with the Dalai Lama, who “expressed his wish to visit China and Tibet. He has this wish for a long time”, Mr Tsering told Tibetan journalists.
Visiting China may not be a great idea now, but it’s up to the Tibetan supreme leader and for his people to decide.
The question of succession was apparently not discussed though it is vital in the present context of China becoming more authoritarian and belligerent, using every occasion to reaffirm that it’s the Communist leadership who will decide the present Dalai Lama’s successor.
The recently published white paper “Tibet Since 1951: Liberation, Development and Prosperity” states: “In 1793, the Qing [Manchu] government restored order in Tibet and promulgated the Imperially Approved Ordinance for Better Governance of Tibet (the 29-article ordinance) …[which] stipulated that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and other grand Living Buddhas had to follow the procedure of drawing lots from the golden urn.”
Though the Golden Urn procedure was rarely used thereafter, the fact is the Manchus realised the weakness in Tibet’s system of governance, that is rule by reincarnation, and were quick to exploit it.
In the eighteenth century, on three occasions, Manchu troops marched into Tibet, each time at the request of the Tibetan government -- once to defend Tibet against the Gurkha invasion (1792), and twice to restore civil order after internal troubles (1728 and 1751).
Each time, the special relationship, known “Choe-yon” (priest-patron), was invoked by Lhasa: the Dalai Lamas and other lamas were the gurus (or priests) while the Manchus were the “patrons”, or protectors of the Buddhist state.
The instability of the rule by incarnation can be attributed to the gap between the time a Dalai Lama passes away and when his successor is old enough and able to practically assume power. The 20 crucial years in between the two have always been used by incompetent regents or the Ambans (Chinese ambassadors in Lhasa) to influence Tibetan politics.
It was even murmured that the Chinese Ambans had found the trick: during the nineteenth century, four Dalai Lamas died before reaching majority: Luntok Gyatso, ninth Dalai Lama (1805-1815); Tsultrim Gyatso, tenth Dalai Lama (1816-1837); Khedup Gyalsto, eleventh Dalai Lama (1838-1855); and Trinley Gyatso, twelfth Dalai Lama (1856-75). They never ruled.
Later, with the decline of the Manchus, there was no protector to look after the “priests”, this until the thirteenth Dalai Lama assumed power and asserted Tibet’s independence.
When one studies the history of modern Tibet, one realises just how unstable what the British officials called the “minority” was; most of the time, no decision was taken by regents too cautious that they could be criticised at a later stage.
Many concrete examples can be given; it would show that it is probably the main reason why Tibet lost its independence.
After the thirteenth Dalai Lama passed away in 1933, two regents ruled over Tibet; but soon, a dispute between the Reting and Taktra Rinpoches ended in a near civil war, with the Tibetan Army supporting Taktra and bombarding Sera Monastery, Reting’s alma mater. The least that could be said is that most of the regents were not up to the mark.
One solution to avoid the past situation after the present Dalai Lama’s departure has been mentioned by the Tibetan leader himself in 2011, in an elaborate statement about his succession.
The Dalai Lama spoke of the origin of the custom of recognising “Emanation Bodies”, or “tulkus”; and he further elaborated: “The main purpose of the appearance of a reincarnation is to continue the predecessor’s unfinished work to serve Dharma and beings. In the case of a lama who is an ordinary being, instead of having a reincarnation belonging to the same mind-stream, someone else with connections to that lama through pure karma and prayers, may be recognised as his or her emanation.”
The Tibetan leader continued with his esoteric description: “Alternatively it is possible for the lama to appoint a successor who is either his disciple or someone young who is to be recognised as his emanation. Since these options are possible in the case of an ordinary being, an emanation before death that is not of the same mind-stream, is feasible.”
He cited great nineteenth century master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, who said: “Reincarnation is what happens when someone takes rebirth after the predecessor’s passing away; emanation is when manifestations take place without the source’s passing away.”
Another problem linked to incarnations is finding a new reincarnation is a rather unscientific process which can be manipulated at will; for example, doubts have been raised about the authenticity of many “high tulkus” such as Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama, as well as other “high” lamas like Reting Rinpoche, the regent’s incarnation during the Dalai Lama’s minority, Samding Dorjee Pagmo, the senior-most female “tulku”, Tsemoling, reincarnation of another former regent, or Phagpala Delek Namgyal, head lama of Chamdo monastery; all of whom live in Tibet today and are actively collaborating with Communist China. Are they genuine tulkus?
Viewed from a political angle, many issues would be solved if the Dalai Lama decides to go for an “emanation”. First, he himself would select the next Dalai Lama and the Chinese will have no say in the process; further, it would bring a far greater stability to the political scene in exile.
Ultimately, of course, it’s the Dalai Lama’s choice and India, a secular republic, cannot intervene in his decision. But New Delhi must officially declare that the Indian government will stand by the Dalai Lama’s decision, while he should keep in mind the Indian population on the borders with Tibet.
In the meantime, one can only wish the new Sikyong good luck to keep the flock together in these tumultuous times.