The Dalai Lama calls death a "change of clothing” and has said as a Buddhist "I visualize death every day." Tibetans fear that a leadership vacuum after the Dalai Lama’s death could weaken the movement. The death of the Dalai Lama, Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “is likely to fuel unrest in Tibet and, potentially, affect the behavior of the Chinese government, making it one of the few foreign-policy questions that hinge on matters of reincarnation. A senior Obama Administration official told me that the White House is expecting "something like the Avignon popes," the feud that upended Europe in the fourteenth century with a competition among multiple Catholic authorities. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

The Tibetan emigré community is keen to anticipate the moves Chinese authorities are likely to make when the Dalai Lama dies. Beijing insists it has the right to approve the reincarnations of the senior Tibetan monks and has said the next Dalai Lama will be born in China. Qiangba Puncog, formerly the region's governor and now head of the National People's Congress, said "Of course there will be some small shockwaves [when he dies] due to religious factors, but we will take that into consideration and will surely guarantee long-term political stability in Tibet."

But the Dalai Lama has suggested that since he is likely to die in exile, he will also be reincarnated there. Many observers expect to see two individuals with competing claims to succeed him — one chosen by China, the other by the exiles - in a situation akin to the controversy over the Panchen Lama.

Many think it will be much harder to iron out an agreement after the Dalai Lama dies with the absence of a central figure for the Tibetans to unify under and many young leaders favor a more radical, militant, even violent approach in Tibet — and that could mean serious trouble in the future. On this issue the Dalai Lama told Newsweek, “The older generation may go away but the newer generations carry the same spirit. There are some young leaders — unfortunately even militant leaders — coming up.” .

Views on What Will Happen After the Dalai Lama Dies

Tenzin Tethong,a fellow in the Tibetan Studies Initiative at Stanford University, told the New York Times. “Definitely when someone as charismatic and popular as the Dalai Lama passes away, the Tibetans will suffer from less outside attention, we will lose a strong unifying symbol. [Source: Michael Powell, New York Times, January 31, 2009]

Ezzat Shahrour, chief of Al Jazeera’s Beijing office, said: “What I worry about is certain religions around the world are tending to extremism. Now the Dalai Lama is old, and he has not long to live. However, the Tibetan Youth Congress is tending towards becoming an extremist organization. I'm not sure whether Tibet will become a chaotic place like today's Gaza Strip, if China finds no solution.”

William Powell wrote in the New York Times, “A darker vision of Tibet’s future is easily divined. This Dalai Lama dies and his successor is young and inexperienced and holds no sway in the chambers of the powerful. Slowly, ineluctably, the Tibetans become just another of the globe’s landless peoples lost in the shadow of a rising superpower.” Wang Lixiong, the Chinese writer who has correctly predicted Tibetan unrest before, wrote not along ago, “While the Dalai Lama is still alive . . . Tibetans harbor hope. But once the Dalai Lama dies . . . grief will give rise to frenzy.” And, yet, Lodi Gyari says that his Chinese counterparts across the table are more unyielding than ever. “They always say that the clock is ticking for you,” he told me. “I say, “Yes, it is certainly ticking for me. But it is also ticking for you.” [Source: New Yorker, New York Times]

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.

The Karampa Lama has been suggested as temporary leader after the Dalai Lama’s death. The Dalai Lama has spoken positively of the reincarnation of his former teacher. Samdhong Rinpoche is the Tibetan kalon trip, the Tibetan equivalent of a prime minister. He was selected with 85 percent of the vote.

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. 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.

Choosing the Next Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama’s successor has traditionally been located by senior monastic disciples, based on spiritual signs and visions. The Dalai Lama has said it is a matter to be decided by the Tibetan people while China says that only Beijing can appoint the next Dalai Lama. In November 2019, more than 150 Tibetan religious leaders that the Dalai Lama, should have the sole authority to choose his successor. A resolution adopted by the leaders at a conference said the Tibetan people will not recognize any candidate chosen by the Chinese government for political ends. ““The karmic bond between the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan people having been inseparable and the present status of the Tibetan people being extremely critical, all Tibetans genuinely wish for continuation of institution and reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in future,” the resolution said. [Source: Associated Press, November 28, 2019]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: As a practical matter, he believes that the traditional practice of identifying a young Tibetan boy as his reincarnation may no longer make sense, not only because he lives in exile but also because times have changed. He has taken to musing aloud that he might be reincarnated as a woman, or that Tibetans might vote on whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue at all. Or, he says, he might select his own reincarnation while he is still alive — a theological twist known as madhey tulku — which would give him the chance to train a successor and avoid the gap in leadership that has always been a time of instability for Tibetans. Only one thing is certain, he says: his successor will be found outside Tibet.”

The Chinese government has passed a series of laws stipulating that it has ultimate authority over the "management of living Buddha reincarnation," which Evan Osnos of The New Yorker callled “an act of remarkable intellectual flexibility for the officially atheist Communist Party.”

Dalai Lama on 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.”

Dalai Lama’s Written Instructions About His Reincarnation

In September 2011, AP reported, the Dalai Lama said that if he is to be reincarnated he will leave clear written instructions about the process. He said in a statement that when he is "about 90" he will consult Buddhist scholars to evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue at all. In his statement he said if the institution of the Dalai Lama were to continue, then he would leave behind "clear written instructions about it." "Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People's Republic of China," he said. [Source: Associated Press, September 26, 2011]

A few days later Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news conference that Dalai Lamas have never decided on their own successors. "I would like to point out the title of the Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government and is otherwise illegal. The 14th Dalai Lama was approved by the then republican government," Hong said. "There has never been a practice of the Dalai Lama identifying his own successor."

China has said that religious law requires that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama be born in a Tibetan area under Chinese control. The Dalai Lama has said his successor could be born in exile and has even floated the idea of choosing his own successor while still alive — perhaps even a woman.

On China’s claim to have hand in choosing his successor, the Dalai Lama said, “This is a religious matter, in previous times there were some instances when the Chinese Emperor was involved, but in these cases the emperors were believers, many of them followers of Tibetan Buddhism, some them even received teachings from the Dalai Lama. The Communists are non-believers. Worse, they believe religion is poison and Tibetan religion is backward, so it must sooner or later be eliminated, and they consider me a demon. Why are they showing concern about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation? It is illogical. My reincarnation, my rebirth is up to me. I have the full authority, no one else.” [Source: Times of London, August 7, 2011]

Dalai Lama: No Need for Successor

The Dalai Lama has said that he was open to various ideas for succession. But he has also said the Tibetan issue exists apart from him and will continue to do so. In September 2014, he told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag newspaper that he should be the last Tibetan spiritual leader. His comments were similar to his previous statement that "the institution of the Dalai Lama has served its purpose", but were even more explicit. "We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama," he said. "If a weak Dalai Lama comes along, then it will just disgrace the Dalai Lama," he added with a laugh, according to a transcript of the English language interview. He also said: "Tibetan Buddhism is not dependent on one individual. We have a very good organisational structure with highly trained monks and scholars." [Source: AFP, September 7, 2014]

Asked by the German newspaper how much longer he may carry on his advocacy duties, the 79-year-old said: "The doctors say I could become 100 years old. But in my dreams I will die at the age of 113 years. "I hope and pray that I may return to this world as long as sentient beings' suffering remains. I mean not in the same body, but with the same spirit and the same soul." On the question of whether he may ever be able to return to Tibet, he said: "Yes, I am sure of that. China can no longer isolate itself, it must follow the global trend towards a democratic society."

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 Under DALAI LAMAS, THEIR HISTORY AND CHOOSING NEW ONES

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.

China and Lamas

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.

This is one of the chief indicators that China has failed in Tibet, said Barnett, the Columbia scholar. It’s failed to find consistent leadership in Tibet by any Tibetan lama who is really respected by Tibetan people, and who at the same time endorses Communist Party rule.

Ezzat Shahrour, chief of Al Jazeera’s Beijing office, said: “Some Western countries and media organizations have successfully projected the Dalai Lama as the sole legal representative of Tibetans around the world. However, the government of Tibet Autonomous Region hasn't put forth a person representing Tibetans to talk on an open basis about their worries and problems with the Chinese Central Government. Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities haven't a widely-accepted Tibetan representative, through whom they may mitigate problems. In this circumstance, the Dalai Lama becomes the sole legal representative of Tibetans, and Tibet thus becomes a global issue.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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