Discussion on a Possible Election of the Next Dalai Lama

Jamyang Norbu’s article, The Jewel in the Ballot Box: Electing a New Dalai Lama (see article), brings up many good questions on the nature and problems of a possible election of a new Dalai Lama.

I thought it would be interesting to post these questions to get some opinions from readers:

  1. Should the system of selecting the Dalai Lama’s incarnation change?
  2. Is the announcement of a possible election of the next Dalai Lama a strategic move by the Dalai Lama in order to counter the Chinese government’s announcement of its intention to control the reincarnation process of Lamas?
  3. If there is an election, should it be: open to all Tibetans to vote, inclusive to a college of Lama’s (like the election manner of the Catholic Pope), or by the selection of the current Dalai Lama himself?
  4. “Would the candidates be restricted to the Gelukpa church, or could candidates from other sects apply. In that case could a Bonpo be allowed to join the race?” (Since the Dalai Lama is the traditional head of the Gelukpa)
  5. How can we have an open and forthright national discussion about the candidates if they are high lamas or holy people? “If you made a critical remark about one of the candidates then you would be hurting the religious sentiments of that candidate’s disciples or followers and they would definitely respond with energy if not violence.”
  6. Will an election overlook many wise, reclusive and saintly kinds of lamas who would not want to involve themselves in such an election?
  7. Does an election of the next Dalai Lama remove the sanctity of the reincarnation?
  8. Would an election promote sectarian clashes or divisiveness among Tibetans?

Feel free to answer any of these raised questions with any of your views and thoughts.

One thought on “Discussion on a Possible Election of the Next Dalai Lama

  1. Otto Kerner

    As far as I understand it (and I would be pleased to be corrected) the comments the Dalai Lama has made about his possible successor are quite vague, and so it is difficult to know what is intended by them. People reacting to these comments seem to act as if they know what was intended, but I don’t know what the basis for that is.

    In considering these matters, I think it is important to look at the difficult roles that are implied by the title of “Dalai Lama”. One might say that some or all of these roles should remain perpetually united in one person, but let us at least say so explicitly rather than merely assuming it. Here are the official roles of the Dalai Lama as far as I know them:

    1) The Dalai Lama is the reincarnation (i.e. tülku or yangsi) of the previous Dalai Lamas, going back to Gendün Drub.

    2) The Dalai Lama is the de facto head of the Gelug school. I do realize that the Ganden Tripa is called the official head of the Gelugs, but it seems to me that the Dalai Lama’s political power over the years combined with his enormous religious prestige has made this entirely a formality. For one thing, the Dalai Lamas have — unless I’m mistaken — been appointing the Ganden Tripas for a long time, which is certainly not a symmetrical relationship. At this point, if the Dalai Lama’s position as head of the Gelugs were made official, it would amount to only a minor change in styles.

    3) The Dalai Lama is the head of state of the Tibetan government in exile. Prior to 1951, the Dalai Lama had been the head of state of the Tibetan government in Lhasa (note that the Lhasa government at its height controlled maybe half of the Tibetan region — the rest was divided among independent states like Derge and various other political forms).

    It might also be useful to separate out the Dalai Lama’s formal political role as head of the government-in-exile from his de facto role as the most influential Tibetan, both in the eyes of the Tibetan exile populace and in the eyes of outside observers and politicians. We might call this 3a) official head-of-state; and 3b) most influential leader and ambassador. The government-in-exile will presumably always have a formal head (I believe that their constitution calls for a three-person committee to fill this role in the absence of a Dalai Lama) but that will not necessarily be the same person as its most influential leader or the one best-known abroad. There may be times when it doesn’t have such a leader at all.

    I believe that the Dalai Lama is also the abbot or in some other sense the owner of Drepung, but that is not very salient to this discussion. We can assume that this role will go along with either 1) or 2) above.

    The Dalai Lama’s religious position in regard to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism is vague. It seems that he now appoints the head of the Nyingma school, which is a position that was created by the exile government. I’d suggest we ignore this role for the moment, since it is too nebulous and controversial.

    Now, when we talk about the Dalai Lama’s successor, which of these three main roles is that person expected to succeed to? Many people would argue that all three should remain bound up together in one person. If nothing else, that is the simplest thing to do: don’t change anything. However, is the Dalai Lama really suggesting that he will retire from being a tülku and that his yangsi will be elected while he is still alive? Would that mean that no one else who is already a tülku would be eligible to be elected – or would they be eligible, but, if elected, they must give up their other tülku position? I’m no great scholar on Tibetan Buddhist traditions, but this strikes me as a very strange way of handling things. I know that a yangsi can sometimes be born a short time before the death of the previous one, but it had never occurred to me that he might be selected as an adult while the other is still alive and active.

    So, perhaps what we are talking about is someone to take up roles 2 (spiritual leader of the Gelugs) and/or 3 (head of state) while the current Dalai Lama continues as the yangsi of Gendün Drub and is succeeded in that role as normal by a newborn child. However, this would create an interesting situation: in the future, at some point, there would be a new, 15th Gendün Drub yangsi and that person would eventually become an adult. At this point, would he or she take back roles 2 and 3, which have been given to someone else? In the latter case, this would mean that we are really talking about a temporary placeholder during the period when a Dalai Lama is unavailable. That’s certainly a possibility, but it doesn’t seem to be what most people have in mind. The other possibilities are that the Gendün Drub yangsi line might continue and be separated from the Dalai Lama’s positions of authority indefinitely, or that there might simply be no new yangsi after the death of the 14th Dalai Lama.

    Now, in view of the above, let’s take a look at these eight questions.

    1. Should the system of selecting the Dalai Lama’s incarnation change?

    Unless there is some compelling religious reason for it to change, then I agree with Jamyang Norbu that it should not. Since we are talking about the incarnation (yangsi), I don’t know what kind of basic change could be made that would make sense. Is there any other system that has ever been used to select a tülku’s new incarnation in the past?

    2. Is the announcement of a possible election of the next Dalai Lama a strategic move by the Dalai Lama in order to counter the Chinese government’s announcement of its intention to control the reincarnation process of Lamas?

    I can’t know for sure, but, yes, I suppose it is. I agree with Eliot Sperling (http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?article=POLITICS+INCARNATE&id=19166) that it is very disappointing to see that the Dalai Lama and his government still don’t appear to have a coherent strategy in place on how to deal with the PRC’s inevitable attempts to coöpt the institution of the Dalai Lama in the future.

    3. If there is an election, should it be open to all Tibetans to vote, inclusive to a college of Lama’s like the election manner of the Catholic Pope, or by the selection of the current Dalai Lama himself?

    I don’t think a mass election is going to work very well, especially not for a religious office. For one thing, the vast majority of Tibetan people are in Tibet, where they are not free to participate in such an election. I would think selection by a college of lamas would work much better. However, even here a lot more specificity is required. Which lamas? The Vatican maintains a list of cardinals, amounting to several hundred people who are qualified to vote in an election for a Pope. If a college of lamas is to choose their next leader, then an equally specific list must be made.

    4. “Would the candidates be restricted to the Gelukpa church, or could candidates from other sects apply. In that case could a Bonpo be allowed to join the race?” (Since the Dalai Lama is the traditional head of the Gelukpa)

    At this point, it becomes useful to look at the different roles separately. If we are talking about holding an election for a person to be the head of the Gelugs, then only Gelugs should be candidates. If the election is for a head of state, then any Tibetan would be a reasonable candaite.

    5. How can we have an open and forthright national discussion about the candidates if they are high lamas or holy people?

    You very likely cannot. This is one of the reasons why a mass election for a religious leader is not unlikely to work well.

    6. Will an election overlook many wise, reclusive and saintly kinds of lamas who would not want to involve themselves in such an election?

    It very likely will. This is the other reason why a mass election would probably not work well. As Jamyang Norbu points out, an election would not only discourage wise and reclusive lamas from participating, it would also encourage many worldly lamas to aggressively campaign for the title.

    7. Does an election of the next Dalai Lama remove the sanctity of the reincarnation?

    On this, I have no opinion. What makes the Dalai Lama sacred?

    8. Would an election promote sectarian clashes or divisiveness among Tibetans?

    To some extent, yes. Depending on how the election is set up, it might not involve very serious sectarian clashes. The political history of Tibetans in exile does not bode well – there isn’t much tradition of multiparty democracy yet, so it’s entirely possible that such a major change would cause a lot of disruption.

    Basically, I think that the idea that radically revising the selection process for the Dalai Lama as a religious figure would be an effective response to the PRC’s machinations is seriously flawed. I worry that the confusion caused by the change (which the Chinese government, of course, would do their best – both publically and covertly – to magnify) would actually make it easier for the Chinese to gain some modicum of acceptance for their candidate – already, their argument in favour of the Panchen Dzüma is that he was chosen according to the traditional customs and practices. So, I generally agree with Jamyang Norbu’s suggestion that no major changes should be made to the selection process. I also agree that the best way to enable a smooth political transition would be to start implementing a vigorous liberal-democratic system and a modern political culture now, with the Dalai Lama as a very hands-off head of state; the comparison to the king of Thailand is very sensible.

    I would also like to comment on Jamyang Norbu’s statement that “the overall and final responsibility for the process [of finding the next Dalai Lama] must lie with the elected government.” Is it impossible for us to imagine moving toward a separation of church and state? Certainly, for the time being it might be necessary for the Dalai Lama to hold some sort of political role, but I don’t think it is too much to ask that religious leaders should be chosen by a religious process rather than a political one.

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