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The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation

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The astonishing story of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet reads like equal parts history, fantasy, and spy thriller, and extraordinary developments lie just around the corner.

Wheel of Life, by MarenYumi

A crisis has been brewing for years and is set to erupt when the 76-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, passes away. A struggle over succession will follow, in which monks allied to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in India will use traditional methods to locate and identify his reincarnation, whom they will enthrone as the Fifteenth Dalai Lama. The Chinese government will use its own methods to identify a different candidate for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama, and will attempt to force the captive Tibetan populace to accept their selection. The result will be a politico-religious schism.

Under the existing Tibetan system of succession, many important teachers and heads of state are believed to be tulkus (= Skt. nirmanakaya) , or reincarnating lamas, who have achieved a degree of yogic realization that allows them to partially determine their next rebirth. Motivated by compassion, these great meditators direct their consciousness at the time of death into the form in which they can most benefit others.

Although different incarnations are held to be manifestations of the same mental continuum, they are regarded as different persons, and their characters may differ substantially. Geshe Lam Rim describes reincarnation as akin to “a flame transferred from one lamp to a second; this being analogous to a migrator who in the passage of taking rebirth is neither annihilated nor unchanging.” (1)

For centuries, this system has been used in the Tibetan cultural sphere to control political and economic inheritance, with important positions passing from one incarnation to the next. While most Buddhist schools teach the doctrine of reincarnation, the Tibetan Buddhists are unique in employing this system of succession. Many important figures in Tibetan history have been tulkus, including the Dalai Lamas, the Panchen Lamas, and the Karmapas, leaders of the Karma Kagyu school.

The Dalai Lamas are the best known and most important of the thousands of Tibetan tulkus, having occupied a central position in Tibetan political and religious culture for centuries. Prior to the Chinese invasion, Tibetan culture was conceptually organized around interlocking religious and political symbols based on the Tantric mandala, a ritual circle-complex in Buddhist iconography and meditation, which depicts an elaborate circular mansion or temple with a deity or Buddha at its center. (2) In the tenth century CE, the Tibetans self-consciously recreated their civic and religious infrastructure on this model, which defines an organized space of interaction constructed around a central figure who exemplifies the ultimate end of all social life: the propagation and realization of Buddhist teachings of liberation. Since the seventeenth century the figure who has occupied the center of that ideology-space has been the Dalai Lama.

Kalachakra Mandala

Kalachakra Mandala

Since the Chinese invasion and subsequent Tibetan diapsora, the unifying role of the Dalai Lama as a historical reference point for national identity has been more important than ever. The Tibetans have been fortunate in the character and qualities of the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has proven to be a brilliant, tireless, and charismatic advocate for the Tibetan cause. His efforts have helped bring the Tibetan plight from obscurity to a familiar issue of international significance.

The Dalai Lama is the de facto head of the Gelukpa reformist church. which was founded in the fourteenth century by the great scholar-yogi Je Tsong Khapa. The first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup, was Je Tsong Khapa’s disciple. The Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, solidified the Gelukpa order’s political ties with the warrior-chiefs of Mongolia. The title “Dalai,” a Mongolian word meaning “ocean,” was bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso by Altan Khan, a decedent of Kubla Khan, and he was henceforth known as the Third Dalai Lama. His two predecessors were retroactively designated the First and the Second in the line.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the “Great Fifth” Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso won political control over Tibet with the aid of his Mongol patrons. After consolidating a ruling coalition of monastic authorities and powerful clans, the Fifth Dalai Lama established Gelukpa control over Tibet, creating a ruling ecclesiastical administration that remained in power until the Chinese invasion in 1949.

As with all recognized reincarnating lamas, the Dalai Lama’s succession is determined by visionary rites. Typically, before dying, a tulku leaves some indication in poem or prophesy of the area in which they will take rebirth. A few years after the lama’s death, a search committee travels to the prophesied region to look for young children. Promising candidates are tested in a traditional manner.

In his autobiography, the present Dalai Lama recalls his own identification, made by a search committee sent from Lhasa. He was born a mere peasant boy, and found living in a rude, mud-floored house in the province of Amdo:

[R]ather than reveal the purpose of their visit [to my parents], the group asked only to stay the night. The leader of the party, Kewtsang Rinpoché, then pretended to be the servant and spent much of the evening observing and playing with the youngest child in the house.

The child recognized him and called out ‘Sera Lama, Sera Lama.’ Sera was Kewtsang Rinpoché’s monastery. Next day they left – only to return a few days later as a formal deputation. This time they brought with them a number of things that belonged to my predecessor, together with several similar items that did not. In every case, the infant correctly identified those belonging to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama saying, ‘It’s mine. It’s mine.’ This more or less convinced the search party that they had found the new incarnation. However, there was another candidate to be seen before a final decision could be reached. But it was not long before the boy from Taktser was acknowledged to be the new Dalai Lama. I was that child. (3)

The identification of candidates has often been a matter of dispute. For example, there are currently two monks living in India who have both been identified by different factions as the Seventeenth Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu order. This is no trivial dispute, for the Karmapa not only occupies an important leadership position, he controls assets valued at many millions of dollars.

In February 2011, Indian police searched the home of one of the Karmapas, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, froze three-quarters of a million dollars in assets, and announced suspicion that he was a Chinese spy. Dorje’s identification has been vetted by the Dalai Lama, but was also approved and supported by the Chinese government, who regarded him as a sympathetic prominent figure in Tibetan culture for many years, before he made a sudden and surprising defection to India in 2000. According to Asia Times:

Former Indian intelligence official B Raman said the allegation that the Karmapa was a Chinese spy was aimed at dividing the Tibetan community in exile before the 75-year-old Dalai Lama passes away. “He was selected according to Tibetan tradition but the Chinese approved his selection. They hope they will be able to use him to influence the selection of the next Dalai Lama. I’m suspicious. I’ve always suspected it’s a Chinese intelligence operation. They think long term” he said. (4)

The Indian accusations shocked the Tibetan community and threatened to create a rift between the Government-in-Exile and their country of refuge. The charges have been widely greeted with disbelief by observers, and are emphatically denied by the Chinese government. India has subsequently back-pedaled on their accusations for now.

The Dalai Lama line itself has been a point of contention in the past. One prominent case involves the Fifth Dalai Lama, who, as noted above, unified Tibet under its modern borders and established the Gelukpa order as the dominant religious authority in the land. When he died in 1682, his regent Desi Sangye Gyatso kept his death a secret for an incredible 15 years, ruling in his stead, and claiming that the Great Fifth was in religious seclusion. K. Dhondup describes this astonishing intrigue:

On important occasions, the Dalai Lama’s ceremonial gown was placed on the throne in the audience hall and all officials followed the routine as though the Dalai Lama was physically present. However, when important Mongol devotees and princes arrived from Mongolia to pay their respects to the Dalai Lama, the [regent] Desi could not refuse them audience outright. At such critical times, an elderly monk named Tasrab from Namgyal Dratsang, who slightly resembled the Fifth Dalai Lama in physical appearance, was made to receive the guests in ceremonial robes, an eye-shade and a hat, most probably to conceal the fact that the monk-impostor lacked the baldness and piercing round eyes of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Placed in such extraordinary circumstances, it required the ruthless genius of one of the most intelligent Tibetans to keep such an important secret for so long. When sometimes the monk from Namgyal Dratsang, bored with his forced imprisonment and scared of his unusual role, tried to escape from the Potala [Palace, seat of the Dalai Lamas], Desi Sangay entreated, beat and most often bribed the monk to stay to fulfil [sic] his unusual role of acting as the Fifth Dalai Lama. In his frenzied determination to maintain the secret, Desi Sangay is said to have murdered both the medium of the Nechung oracle Tseang Palbar and the latter’s mother for getting wind of the secret during Desi’s frequent consultations with the oracle in the nerve-wracking suspense of running the Tibetan administrative show without the presence of the Dalai Lama. (5)

During the period of intrigue, Desi secretly organized a search for the next Dalai Lama, and when word finally got out that the Great Fifth had long since passed away, Desi’s candidate for successor, Tsangyang Gyatso, was waiting in the wings. However, the Sixth Dalai Lama did not take to his expected role, refusing to take monastic ordination and spending his days drinking wine and writing love poetry instead, like this:

Longing for the landlord’s daughter
Blossoming in youthful beauty
Is like pining for peaches
Ripening on high peach trees. (6)

Today, the Sixth Dalai Lama is regarded by many Tibetans as a Tantric master. Such figures often confound expectations with their unorthodox behavior. But in his own time, many doubted that the true Dalai Lama would eschew monasticism. Questions over his status became a battleground for political disputes, with various sides pursuing their respective interests in the guise of supporting or opposing the legitimacy of Tsangyang Gyatso. An alternate candidate for the role of Sixth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso, was installed in parallel, creating a circumstance not unlike the Great Papal Schism in the Middle Ages. Tsangyang Gyatso died under highly suspicious circumstances, most likely at Chinese hands.

These disputes carried over into the reign of the Seventh Dalai Lama, who is generally identified today as Kelsang Gyatso. This candidate was identified as the reincarnation of Tsangyang Gyatso by no less an authority than the Nechung oracle, the primary state oracle of the Tibetan government.

However, because of lingering uncertainties, Kelsang Gyatso had to fight to establish his own legitimacy while simultaneously resisting Chinese attempts to exploit instability to impose control over Tibet through its agents, particularly through the powerful office of the regent, which was formally occupied by the grand conspirator Desi. The Chinese capitalized on uncertainty while the Tibetan loyalists in turn leveraged the ideological power of the office of the Dalai Lama to assert independence. Eventually the Chinese candidate was rejected, which effectively served as a Tibetan mandate rejecting Chinese claims of authority over the region.


Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama, by Jan Michael Ihl

Nearly three centuries later, a similar drama is now unfolding before our eyes. When the present Dalai Lama dies, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and the Chinese government will both present candidates for the Fifteenth. Both sides have been preparing for the showdown for many years. The current Dalai Lama has publicly declared on several occasions that his reincarnation will not be born in any land under Chinese rule. The Chinese response has been characteristically heavy-handed.

Prior to the Chinese invasion, another line of tulkus, the Panchen Lamas, wielded considerable political authority, and were instrumental in identifying new Dalai Lamas. After the tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989, a boy named of Gendun Choekyi Nyima was named his successor, a decision that was confirmed by the present Dalai Lama. In 1995, the Chinese government declared this choice invalid and took the boy into custody. Despite considerable outcry from humanitarian groups and foreign governments, he has not been heard from since. The Chinese have proffered their own candidate, Gyancain Norbu, shortly thereafter. This identification is rejected by the vast majority of Tibetan Buddhists. (7)

It is widely believed that the Chinese government prefers to maintain a Panchen Lama under their own control in order to eventually designate their own candidate for the office of Dalai Lama.

In a strategem that would leave Kafka shaking his head in disbelief, the Chinese government followed by issuing State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5, which requires all tulkus in Tibet to register with the Chinese government, which claims final authority over reincarnation. According to the official Chinese state newspaper, Xinhua, this mandate “aids religious freedom.” (8)

The Dalai Lama has responded with his own statement, concluding with this sentiment:

[R]eincarnation is a phenomenon which should take place either through the voluntary choice of the concerned person or at least on the strength of his or her karma, merit and prayers. Therefore, the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized. It is a reality that no one else can force the person concerned, or manipulate him or her. It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Such brazen meddling contradicts their own political ideology and reveals their double standards. Should this situation continue in the future, it will be impossible for Tibetans and those who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to acknowledge or accept it.

When I am about ninety I will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. On that basis we will take a decision. If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognized, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. They should consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these concerned beings and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this. 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. (9)


The dense symbolic field of Tibetan Buddhism has served as a cultural language for articulating and delineating political and economic battles in Tibet for centuries. One often senses that parochial disputes are being expressed in symbolic form, and the subtext is often obvious. One illustration of this phenomenon is the recent controversy among Tibetan Buddhists over the propitiation of Dorje Shugden, otherwise known as Dolgyal. Dorje Shugden is either a demon or a Buddha, depending on who you ask. The Dalai Lama, who once maintained a practice of propitiating this figure, now considers Dorje Shugden to be a harmful spirit and has forbidden his propitiation in monasteries under his control. He arrived at this determination through spiritual introspection and consultation with oracles, and describes one striking episode in his deliberation as follows:

Later, on another occasion, we were performing a ritual of Hayagriva. It was not particularly aimed at Dolgyal. The aim was to destroy anything, be it human, non-human, a lama, a deity or a ghost. That harms the Dharma and the just cause of Tibet. Whatever it is, it should be eliminated. It can’t be helped. One night during the period when we were conducting this ritual, I dreamt that I was sitting on my bed. Beside my bed was a small boy, about seven or eight years old, whom I took to be Dolgyal. This boy was holding my right hand. When I looked again, I saw that where he held my hand the boy’s fingernails were changing into claws and he was extending them. I was annoyed, grabbed the child by the neck and strangled him. My visualisation of myself as Hayagriva and my sense of divine pride were very clear. While still maintaining this clear vision and divine pride, I took the child in my hands, rubbed it between my palms and swallowed it. It was a very clear dream. Then I awoke. And as I awoke I was still in the process of swallowing. (10)

The Dorje Shugden practice has a small but vocal following, and the Dalai Lama’s prohibition led to an ugly public dispute in which its advocates decried what they considered religious persecution. In 1997, the controversy took a shocking turn when supporters of the Shugden practice murdered an outspoken critic, Lobsang Gyatso, head of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharmasala, along with some of his students.

Although the practice under dispute involves the ritual propitiation of a supernatural being, those familiar with the events can readily perceive the underlying subtext. The lore surrounding Dorje Shugden describes him as a jealous protector of the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, to the point where he is said to have murdered Gelukpa monks who studied other traditions.

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has been a staunch ecumenical advocate of harmony among the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and this position has put him in conflict with orthodox members of his own clergy, who would prefer the Gelukpas to continue to politically dominate the other schools as they did in Tibet. Some of those factions are strongly associated with the small group propitiating Dorje Shugden, and it is difficult not to see the underlying struggle as really being about Gelukpa hegemony in the Government-in-Exile. This issue is described at length in the magisterial article by the scholar Georges Dreyfus (11), which I recommend to anyone interested in these matters.

The problems inherent in interpreting these political disputes are significant and complex. As the Dalai Lama pointed out in his statement above, it is odd to see the Chinese Government simultaneously participate in the reincarnation process of the Dalai Lama while rejecting belief in reincarnation as a primitive superstition. However, it is perhaps not less odd to see those who understand the political subtext of these disputes also affirm the literal content of the argument over reincarnation, even when such views fit poorly with their general outlook. For me this is particularly true for some westerners sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, who may participate in some of these debates in a surprisingly uncritical way, often accepting arguments about the status of Dorje Shugden or the validity of various tulkus at face value.

Some of the greatest minds in Tibetan history have themselves been critical of these disputes, including some who were centrally involved in them. So I would like to close with the possibly-controversial suggestion it might be better for western sympathizers of the Tibetan cause to withhold from acceding to the literal terms of these debates. The facts of the matter are not even clear for ardent proponents of the tradition, and as we have seen, the consequences of these disputes can be extremely serious.

I will end by returning to the the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, who is not only one of the single most important figures in the political history of Tibet, but a great scholar and religious figure as well. When the Great Fifth was identified, he was a boy from a well-positioned family of great prominence, living in a time when control of the country was hotly contested by rival sects. Gaining the alliance of the boy’s family would be considered a significant political victory by any sect.

Samten Karmay describes his selection:

The Fifth Dalai Lama retained bitter memories of his childhood during which the philosophical and religious precepts relative to the notion of reincarnation served political purposes. In his writings he would often recall with irony the political manipulations of his own school which involved the Mongols in all its affairs. Thus he wrote in his autobiography, the Dukula:

Since there was a large Mongol army in the country and the Tibetan leaders were forced to yield much of their land to them, it became customary to recognize the sons of Mongol leaders as reincarnations. It was said that I too was one (even though I was not a Mongol)!

As for his success at passing the traditional ‘tests,’ he is equally as straightforward:

The official Tsha-ba bka’-bcu of dGa’-ldan pho-brang showed me statues and rosaries (that belonged to the Fourth Dalai Lama and other people), but I was unable to distinguish between them! When he left the room I heard him tell the people outside that I had successfully passed the tests. Later, when he became my tutor, he would often admonish me and say: ‘You must work hard, since you were unable to recognize the objects.’ (12)

Update: In May, 2012, the Dalai Lama made a joking statement to the Globe and Mail about this issue: “It is quite strange – as non-believers, totally non-believers, atheists – showing interest about reincarnation. I jokingly tell them: In order to be involved in my reincarnation, firstly, they should accept Buddhism. Or religion. Or Buddhism. Then they should recognize Chairman Mao Zedong’s reincarnation. Deng Xiaopeng’s reincarnation. Then, they have reason to show some interest about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Otherwise, nonsense!” (via BoingBoing)


(1) Lam Rim. A Necklace of Good Fortune. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. 1997. pg. 7

(2) Davidon, Ronald. Tibetan Renaissance; Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. Columbia University Press. 2005.

(3) Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile; The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. HarperPrennial. 1991. pg. 12

(4) Sehgal Saransh. ‘Chinese spy’ allegations rock Tibetans. Asia Times Online. Feb 2, 2011. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(5) Dhondup K. Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. 1996. 12-13

(6) ibid., 47

(7) Gearing Julian. “Tibetan tale of two rival teenage lamas.” Asia Times Online. April 22, 2004. Retreived 11/12/2011.

(8) Xinhua. “Rule on living Buddhas aids religious freedom.” Xinua. Dec 27, 2007. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(9) Dalai Lama. “Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,” Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation. Sept. 24, 2011. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(10) Dalai Lama. “Concerning Dolgyal with Reference to the Views of Past Masters and other Related Matters.” October 1997. Retrieved 11/12/2011.

(11) Dreyfus George. “The Shugden Affair: Origins of a Controversy.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol., 21, no. 2 [1998]: 227-270.

(12) Karmay Samten G. “The Fifth Dalai Lama and his Reunification of Tibet.” from The Arrow and the Spindle; Studies in History, Myths, Rituals, and Beliefs in Tibet. Mandala Book Point. 507-8


Written by Mesocosm

November 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm

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