Fifth Dalai Lama The figure of the Dalai Lama is the head of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He is revered as the reincarnation of all his predecessors and an incarnation of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and the Buddha. The Dalai Lama's full name is Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshi Tenzin Gyatso---Holy Lord, Gentle Lord, Eloquent, Compassionate, Learned defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom. Among the other names he is known by are the Absolute Wisdom, the Living Buddha, the Holy One, the Defender of the Faith, the Ocean, the Excellent Understanding, Kundun ("The Presence"), the Mighty of Speech and the God-King.
The title of Dalai Lama is not passed down from father to son. The present Dalai Lama is not related to the Dalai Lama that preceded him, but rather is believed to be the repository of a spirit that resided in his predecessor and the Dalai Lamas that preceded him. Because the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation, no family dynasty was established. Chenresig is a a deity who has chosen to remain on earth to help people achieve enlightenment.
Dalai is the Mongolian word for “ocean.” Lama is a Tibetan word for monk. While the press like to refer to the Dalai Lama as a "Living God” or “God-King” Tibetans view him more in human terms despite their deep reverence for him and regard him more as a “Monk-King” or “Philosopher King.”
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Official Dalai Lama site dalailama.com ; First Through 14th Dalai Lama dalailama.com/biography/the-dalai-lamas ; Early Dalai Lamas minnesota.publicradio.org ; Dharamsala (Home of Dalai Lama ) site mcllo.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Dalai Lama Quotes brainyquote.com ; Dalai Lama Foundation dalailamafoundation.org ; Nobel Prize Biography /nobelprize.org ; Links in this Website: DALAI LAMAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PRESENT DALAI LAMA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMA’s CURRENT LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMA AND POLITICS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PANCHEN LAMAS AND LAMA CONTROVERSIES Factsanddetails.com/China ;KARMAPA LAMA Factsanddetails.com/China
Tibetan History: Tibetan History Timeline haiweitrails.com ; Friends of Tibet friends-of-tibet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; History of Nations site historyofnations.net ; Chinese Government site on Tibetan History xinhuanet.com ; Book: Tibetan Civilization by Rolf Alfred Stein. Robert Thurman, a friend of the Dalai Lama and professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, is regarded the preeminent scholar on Tibet in the United States. Tibet Under China: Tibet China Conflict PDF file eastwestcenter.org ; Tibet and China, Two Distinct Views Chinese Government’s Take on Tibetan History ; index-china.com; Book: The Dragon in the Land of Snows by Tsering Shakya (Random House, 1998) is a first rate book on the history of Tibet under Chinese occupation. Links in this Website: TIBETAN HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBET UNDER CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ;
First Dalai Lama There have been 14 Dalai Lamas. The first, a nephew of Tsongkhapa, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, was born in 1351 and was a shepherd. The title of Dalai was first bestowed on the 3rd Dalai Lama by a Mongol chief named Altan Khan when the Dalai Lama visited the court of the Mongol Khans in the 16th century. The 5th Dalai Lama is credited with uniting the warlike medieval tribes of Tibet. In 1642, he became the political and spiritual leader of all Tibet.
As has been the case with kings and world leaders, there have been good Dalai Lamas and bad ones and ones whose lives have ended in tragedy. Many died young , including the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas. Some were rumored to have been poisoned. Others were believed to have been murdered. Only half of the men who held the title have lived to see their thirties. At least four are believed to have been killed amid palace intrigue. In 1682, a government minister hid the death of the Dalai Lama for fifteen years, secretly ruling with the help of a look-alike.
One of the worst was the 6th Dalai Lama who was more interested in women and alcohol than he was in studying and leading. He used to sneak out of Potala in disguise to visit local brothels. A Jesuit monk who lived Lhasa as the time of his leadership wrote that “no good-looking person of either sex was safe from his unbridled licentiousness.” His ineptitude gave China an excuse to intercede in Tibetan affairs.
The 13th Dalai Lama barely escaped an assassination attempt allegedly orchestrated by his own regent. He recognized Tibet’s backwardness made it vulnerable to aggression by more advanced nations of the world. His plans to improve and reform the Tibetan bureaucracy and military were thwarted by the monastic elite.
Rule of a New Dalai Lama
“Typically, when the Dalai Lama dies, the royal court appoints a regent who rules until the next reincarnation comes of age. Over the centuries some regents grew fond of their power and some Dalai Lamas expired prematurely, not to mention suspiciously. The sense of the regency as a time of peril persists.” [Source: Michael Powell, New York Times, January 31, 2009]
In the past, the periods that followed the deaths of the Dalai Lama, when Tibet was governed by regents, were less stable, because the regents did not have the mandate of the Dalai Lama. Regents also often engaged in power struggles with rivals---stories of one lama poisoning or imprisoning another were not uncommon. [Source: Edward Wong, the New York Times, June 6 2009]
The atheist Chinese government has improbably insisted that it has the legal right to designate the Dalai Lama’s next reincarnation.
Activities of the Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama initiation Traditionally, the Dalai Lama was not supposed to mix with ordinary Tibetans. Most of his time was spent inside his home, the 1,000-room Potala palace in Lhasa.
The Dalai Lama traditionally has kept the preserved corpse of his teacher in his palace. The present Dalai Lama keeps the plastic-coated body of his teacher Ling Rinpoche, who died in 1983, in his home in India.
The Dalai Lama’s main duties as religious leader have been to preside over important ceremonies and rituals and make decisions with the help of an oracle who goes into trances to communicate with spirits and predict the future.
In the old days, when the Dalai Lama left his palace, he was transported in a yellow silk sedan chair carried by 20 army officers in red hats. The Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography that when he was carried around when he younger he was surrounded by an entourage of hundreds of men, including monks, musicians, swordsmen mounted on horses, "porters carrying my songbirds in cages and my personal belongings all wrapped in yellow silk," and monastic police carrying "long whips, which they would not hesitate to use" if people came too close.
Tibetan Buddhist Oracle
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: The Dalai Lama “relies most heavily on the "state oracle," a deity called Nechung, who communicates through a human medium, usually a monk.” According to the Dalai Lama's description in his memoir, the medium slips into a trance "with bulging eyes and swollen cheeks. . . . His breathing begins to shorten and he starts to hiss violently." The Dalai Lama poses questions, and the oracle responds with enigmatic advice. On complex affairs of state, he writes, "I seek his opinion in the same way as I seek the opinion of my Cabinet." For further help, the Dalai Lama relies on a form of mo divination, in which choices are written on pieces of paper and placed in balls of dough. He then swirls the balls in a cup until the right answer tumbles out. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]
When how he balances his trust in science with his faith in the supernatural, he told The New Yorker that he views the oracles as "consultants." "After I consult human beings and these oracles, if there's something clear, something which I can now decide, thenI decide,” he told me. He said he had made “all major decisions” from the age of sixteen with the help of the oracles, and he had become convinced that they are correct. [Ibid]
“These days, the Nechung medium is Thupten Ngodup, an amiable fiftyish monk who likes to garden in his spare time,” Osnos wrote.. “When I visited him one morning in Dharamsala, he explained that he’d been an ordinary monk, overseeing the sculptures and incense at a monastery, until one day, in 1987, when the deity suddenly chose him as the medium---a physical sensation that he compared to an electric shock. “My position is very difficult,” he said. He had joined the monastery at the age of nine, never expecting much drama. “When the oracle chooses me, I’m just a normal monk.” His job now requires him to be on call whenever the Dalai Lama needs a consultation. “Anytime His Holiness needs, he calls.” [Ibid]
Search for New Dalai Lama and the Golden Urn
Sixth Dalai Lama In the event the Dalai Lama dies, there are provisions for the selection of a council of regents that would rule until a new Dali Lama is found. The next incarnation of the Dalai Lama is supposed to be born 49 days after the current Dalai Lama dies, but already a controversy has arisen over who the successor will be.
After a Dalai Lama dies a search begins for a successor, a "soul child" who has fulfilled certain prophecies and whose body shows certain signs that he has received the spirit of the departed Dalai Lama. The search is carried out by senior monks who travel the countryside on horseback after experiencing a divine vision while sitting beside a divine lake.
In process of choosing a new Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama’s closest aides look for divinations in the sacred lake. A mountain god transmits oracular messages by possessing a high lama. Monks scour villages for boys precocious in their spiritual attunement. [Source: Edward Wong, the New York Times, June 6 2009]
After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1933, senior lamas journeyed on horseback to the sacred lake of Lhamo Lhatso, not far from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. There, they said, they received a vision that pointed to eastern Tibet as the site where the reincarnation would be found. Earlier, a medium of the Nechung Oracle, the mountain god that serves as the state fortuneteller, was said to have turned eastward in a trance. [Source: Edward Wong, the New York Times, June 6 2009]
After a candidate had been selected---it can be a girl or a boy but usually it is a boy---he is questioned and asked to pick out the previous Dalai Lama's possessions from copies of the originals.
According to the regulations stipulated by the Qing government (1644-1911), the final step of confirmation of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is the "drawing of lots from a golden urn" ceremony. The Golden Urn was given as a present to Tibet in 1792 by the Chinese Emperor Qianlong, a pious Buddhist, as a way of selecting a Dalai Lama when there was a dispute involving several candidates. The Golden Urn is currently in the possession of Beijing and regarded as symbol of their authority over Tibet.
In the golden urn ceremony, the names of the soul boys that have made it this far are written on slips of paper and placed in silken purses, which are placed the special golden urn. Traditionally, the Resident Official of the Qing government in Tibet, in the presence of the representatives of Tibetan monks and laymen, drew one name. The soul boy whose name is drawn is then recommended to the Tibetan National Assembly, who vote on whether or not to approve the new Dalai Lama.
If he is approved, the new Dalai Lama is carried into Lhasa with much fanfare. He then undergoes rigorous religious training---which includes the study of philosophy, monastic discipline, metaphysics and logic---until he accedes to power at the age of 18. The problem with the system is that there is leadership vacuum of almost 20 years between the time one Dalai Lama dies and his successor comes to power. During this Tibet has traditionally been led by a regent
See Search for the Present Dalai Lama. See Dalai Lama
New Proposals for Selecting a Dalai Lama
Golden urn In November 2007, the Dalai Lama said that the Tibetan people will vote on a new system of leadership before he dies. Among the proposals on the table are getting rid of the Dalai Lama, choosing a new Dalai Lama outside of Tibet while the current Dalai Lama is still alive, holding an election of senior lamas sort of like the “college of cardinals” that selects the Pope and passing power to the next senior-most monk. The effort is a response to concerns that China will manipulate the current system to chose a leader it wants.
The Dalai Lama proposed a referendum on the issue in Tibet voted on by Tibetan Buddhists. If a majority rejects the referendum then the Dalai Lama would not be reborn and the institution of the Dalai Lama would come to an end, ending a tradition that dates back to the 14th century. If a majority supports the referendum then the Dalai Lama would likely appoint a new Dalai Lama while he was still alive.
The move came after the Chinese government introduced a new regulation in September 2007 that stated that no “living Buddha” can reincarnated without permission form the atheist Communist government and that “living Buddhas” are required to “respect and protect the principals of unification of the state.” The new regulations seems to have been passed to undermined the authority of the Dalai Lama and lamas loyal to him.
It is not clear how the referendum would be conducted. No doubt it will be impossible for Tibetans in Tibet and China to vote, which means the decision would be based on the opinions eight million Tibetan Buddhists that live outside of China, mostly in Nepal, Bhutan, India. Mongolia, Russia and the West. The proposal also puts the Chinese government in an unusual position of being the upholders of Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
The Dalai Lama has also proposed choosing his own successor. Selecting a reincarnation of oneself before one dies does not seem tp be an issue with most Tibetans. If the Dalai Lama were to do this it would shorten the period in which there was no Dalai Lama. Barnett said Tibetan Buddhism allows great flexibility in changing old systems.
Dalai Lama on the Next Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama said in May 2009 in an interview with The New York Times that all options for choosing his reincarnation were open, including ones that break from tradition. That could mean that the next Dalai Lama would be found outside Tibet, could be a woman or might even be named while the 14th Dalai Lama was still alive, before his soul properly transmigrated. Meanwhile, the party, officially atheist and accused of ravaging Tibetan culture, insists that religious customs must be followed.[Source: Edward Wong, the New York Times, June 6 2009]
“The Dalai Lama is thinking outside the box about Dalai Lama rule, Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and author of Why the Dalai Lama Matters , told the New York Times. He’s trying to get it through the Chinese heads that he’s helpful to them. Their waiting for him to die is completely misplaced.” [Source: Michael Powell, New York Times, January 31, 2009]
Some have speculated that perhaps the four sects that constitute Tibetan Buddhism might form a Tibetan version of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals and pick a successor. Perhaps he will return as a girl, or as a non-Tibetan. [Ibid]
In Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives, religious leaders have been debating whether to bypass the traditional process. Meanwhile, many Tibetans say they will honor whatever the Dalai Lama decides to do.
Dalai Lama Choosing the Next Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama choosing his own reincarnation before his death raises some serious political and metaphysical questions. “Can even so highly evolved a Buddhist as the Dalai Lama select his reincarnation? Will upending the old way of searching for the Dalai Lama’s incarnation, in which priests search for omens, portents and meteorological signs, undermine the legitimacy of his successor?” [Source: Michael Powell, New York Times, January 31, 2009]
Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, although not in the sense of an irreducible self passing from body to body. They describe a dying candle lighting a new one; one’s essence passes on.
The Dalai Lama has said, “At a certain stage, the Dalai Lama institution will disappear.” Many Tibetans though find that idea unthinkable. He has also said several times that he may be the last Dalai Lama. He told the New Yorker, “It’s up to the Tibetan people. If in twenty years time they feel it irrelevant, then there will be no more Dalai Lama. Sometimes I think this present, stupid Dalai Lama is not the best, but he’s not the worst either.” Then he added with a laugh, “But if there is another Dalai Lama I have to make it clear that next reincarnation will certainly appear outside Chinese control.”
Appointing a New Dalai Lama While the Dalai Lama is Alive
The Dalai Lama said one possibility was that his reincarnation would be chosen and trained even while he was alive, so some of my sort of work is carried continuously. That, however, is a controversial point among lamas, some of whom insist that a successor can be chosen only after the Dalai Lama’s death. [Source: Edward Wong, the New York Times, June 6 2009]
The primary candidate for this job is the Karmapa Lama, who could serve as a regent or interim communal leader or even the Dalai Lama. Often at the Dalai Lama’s side, he is seen as charismatic by many Tibetans. He was once endorsed by the Chinese government, speaks Mandarin Chinese and practices Chinese calligraphy, making him a possible bridge to Beijing.
“Professor Thurman offers his own speculation. He told the New York Times The Dalai Lama, might declare that a younger lama is the reincarnation of his own long-dead regent. Then the Dalai Lama could die and reincarnate as a new baby, which would be identified after the usual study of portents and signs. Maybe the one he names as the reincarnation of the regent would transfer the Dalai Lama title back to him when his next reincarnation comes of age, Thurman said.” [Ibid]
China and the Next Dalai Lama
A traditional selection process would be easily controlled by the Chinese government, since the process is rooted in the landscape of Tibet, which the Chinese seized in 1951. China has already positioned itself in other ways, including enacting a law in 2007 that says all reincarnations of senior lamas must be approved by the government. [Source: Edward Wong, the New York Times, June 6 2009]
The Communist Party, aware that Buddhism is central to Tibetans, has tried to select and prop up lamas who will support the government while still retaining legitimacy among the people.
Chinese officials are hoping that will change with their selection of the next Dalai Lama. Lian Xianming, a scholar at the China Tibetology Research Center, a government-supported institution in Beijing, said that since the Qing Dynasty, which began in the 17th century, all reincarnations of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama required approval by Beijing after going through the traditional method of selection. The real Dalai Lama will be the one who has gone through the historical process, he said.
In February 2009, Beijing said that it must approve the Dalai Lama’s successor. See New Proposals for Selecting a Dalai Lama, Separate Section for Dalai Lamas
Dueling Dalai Lamas
Both the Chinese and the Tibetan exiles are bracing for an almost inevitable outcome: the emergence into the world of dueling Dalai Lamas---one chosen by the exiles, perhaps by the 14th Dalai Lama himself, and the other by Chinese officials. Even the Dalai Lama has said there will likely be rival dalai lamas after his death, with one among the Tibetan exile community and another appointed by Beijing, each with powerful tutors and advisors. [Source: Edward Wong, the New York Times, June 6 2009]
It’s a huge but ultracritical issue, with no clear outcome or solution except one: trouble, said Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University. It is going to end up with two Dalai Lamas and thus with long-running conflict, unless the Chinese agree to a diplomatic solution pretty soon.
This is a religious matter, the Dalai Lama said in the interview. Of course there’s a political implication there, but it’s mainly a religious matter, spiritual matter, so therefore I have to discuss it with leaders, spiritual leaders.
Image Sources: 1) Purdue University, Columbia University, Dalai Lama com
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2011