The Dalai Lama, until now both the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, has resigned the political aspect of his position. He retains his spiritual role. The official political head is now the Tibetan Parliament in Exile and a freely elected prime minister, both of which the Dalai Lama himself has helped establish.
To understand the reasons and implications for his decision, it's helpful to understand the history of the Dalai Lama position. The title 'Dalai Lama' refers to the head of the lineage of teachers within the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the four main schools. The others are the Nyingma, Kagyu and Satya schools, each of which have their own religious hierarchies and leaders. But in the 17th Century, the Dalai Lama also became the political head of the Tibetan government, and his religious leadership was acknowledged by all four schools.
Since that time, the holder of the Dalai Lama position has maintained both political and religious responsibilities. On the political front, the current Dalai Lama has been a tireless champion of Tibetan rights, and of freedom for Tibet from China, who forced him into exile in 1959. With him in his 70s, many Tibetans fear that the Chinese government will use his eventual death as an opportunity to weaken their struggle for independence, by rejecting the Tibetan choice for a successor, or appointing their own. By establishing a freely elected Tibetan government-in-exile, and divorcing the Dalai Lama role from governmental authority, the Chinese cannot use that strategy as effectively to refute the Tibetan's push for independence.
The current Dalai Lama is the fourteenth, and all have been considered rebirths in a long line of tulkus - beings who have chosen to be reborn in order to enlighten others. Traditionally, when a Dalai Lama dies, a regent is appointed until his official successor is found. The Lamas of the Gelug school, along with the regent and representatives of the Tibetan government, search for the reborn Dalai Lama based on seeings by the official Tibetan oracle, the Nechung oracle, and signs and dreams that often appear to Lamas involved in the search. Once found, a tulku child is 'tested' by being shown artifacts from his prior life to identify.
The entire process can take months or years - the current Dalai Lama was located when he was 2 years old. Once found, the Dalai Lama is instilled with the regent, and educated as a monk, until such time as he is old enough to assume the position of Dalai Lama. Many fear that if this traditional method is used this time, the Chinese will use the period it takes to locate and educate a new Dalai Lama to instill their own.
These concerns were heightened by what occurred to the Panchen Lama - the 2nd highest-ranking Lama in the Gelug school. In 1995, the Dalai Lama certified a young Tibetan boy as the Panchen Lama. Shortly thereafter, he and his family disappeared, presumably taken in to custody by Chinese authorities. The Chinese have alternated between denials he is in custody and assurances that he is safe but wishes for privacy. They have named their own Panchen Lama, who is not recognized by the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan people.
Based on all these concerns, the Dalai Lama has delicately suggested other possibilities in various interviews over the years. At one point, he suggested that the position of Dalai Lama may have outlived its usefulness, and that he might not reincarnate, which prompted consternation among many Tibetans. He later said that whether or not he should return should be left up to the Tibetan people, but that he would not reincarnate in the People’s Republic of China or in any other country that is not free.
Other options are reportedly being considered in order to provide a smooth transition. Some say the Dalai Lama may appoint a regent himself soon, and/or even take another birth while he is still alive - a feat only the most adept Lamas are considered capable of attaining - so that he can recognize and certify his own successor before his death. Another option reportedly being considered is for the Dalai Lama to offer clues to his future rebirth prior to his death, instead of through signs after he is gone.
By resigning the political aspect of his role, he may have taken the pressure off the spiritual role to some extent, increasing the chances that the Chinese will allow the usual succession process to unfold. In his spiritual role, the Dalai Lama functions as a head teacher and guide to all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but is not generally involved in determining teachings within each school, which function independently. He also certifies the reincarnations of leading Lamas within each school, and functions as an ambassador for the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world.
In any case, the current Dalai Lama enjoys the support of all four Tibetan Buddhist schools, and the admiration and respect of many Westerners. His grace and influence continue, and hopefully will for a long time to come.
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