In a recent interview, the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism conceded that he may be the very last to hold the title. The reason, it would appear, has as much to do with metaphysics as it does with Chinese meddling.

"The Dalai Lama institution will cease one day. These man-made institutions will cease," he told the BBC. "There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won't come next, who will disgrace himself or herself. That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama."

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By "some stupid Dalai Lama" the 79-year-old spiritual leader is referring to a China-propped successor. Indeed, the Chinese government has made it clear that it will choose the next Dalai Lama, a move that will guarantee a China-friendly leader. Or, it could mean the very end of the lineage all together.

As reported in Reuters, the chairman of China's ethnic and religious affairs committee, Zhu Weiqun, has spoken out, saying the Dalai Lama has "no right to play with established custom."

"Only the central government can decide on keeping, or getting rid of, the Dalai Lama's lineage, and the 14th Dalai Lama does not have the final say," Zhu said, referring to the present incumbent.

The Dalai Lama has suffered numerous setbacks in recent years while Tibetan regions have maintained their stability, said Zhu, who was heavily involved in the past in Beijing's failed efforts to talk to the Dalai Lama's representatives.

"At the same time, the attention of public opinion in the West to the Dalai Lama is going down by the day," he added.

"The Dalai Lama also has no good ideas. All he can do is use his religious title to write about the continuation or not of the Dalai Lama to get eyeballs overseas."

The current Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after Chinese troops quashed an attempted uprising in Tibet, is responding to this prospect by insinuating that the next Dalai Lama could be illegitimate — a kind of Chinese-friendly puppet. The current Dalai Lama is seen by China as a separatist.

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At the same time, he's also suggesting that the next Dalai Lama will simply refuse to reincarnate. Sean Silbert from the LA Times explains:

Tibetan Buddhism teaches that after death, nearly all of us are flung back into the world of the living under the influence of harmful impulses and desires. But through compassion and prayer, a few can choose the time, place and the parents to whom they return. This affirms Buddhist teachings that one's spirit can return to benefit humanity; it also serves to maintain a strong theological and political structure based around monasticism and celibacy.

The process through which reincarnated Buddhist masters, known as "tulkus," are discovered is not uniform among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. But generally, through dreams, signals, and other clues, senior monks identify candidates from a pool of boys born around the time the previous incarnation died. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in the line of the Gelug school. The son of a farmer, he was recognized in 1950 after he correctly picked out objects owned by his predecessor, such as a bowl and prayer beads, jumbled among unfamiliar items.

The refusal to reincarnate would prevent the Chinese government "from inserting itself into the process for political ends."

In future, how any of this could be proven after his death is unclear. But by speaking out in this way, the Dalai Lama has planted the seeds of doubt.

Also, the Panchen Lama, the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, plays a key role in the selection of the next Dalai Lama. Back in 1995, the Dalai Lama named a young boy as the Panchen Lama, but China rejected this and chose its own candidate (who is not recognized by Tibetan Buddhists). Chinese authorities took custody of the Dalai Lama-chosen child, and his current whereabouts are unknown.

[ BBC | Reuters ]

Image: Christopher Michel/Flicker/CC