After the Dalai Lama

On Monday, the Dalai Lama was taken to hospital in his exile capital of Dharmasala in the hill country of India with arm pains that apparently stemmed from a pinched nerve. He was released a few hours later. That follows a hospitalization last October for gallstones, and another in August with abdominal pain.

The hospitalizations have raised growing concern that with the inevitable passing of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, 73, the very form of Tibetan Buddhism will change dramatically. The religious leader himself has speculated that the 15th Dalai Lama could even be a female, leading a democracy.

Speculation is growing that after 50 years in exile and with precious little to show for it in China itself in the way of freedom for Tibetans, the Dalai Lama may retire soon, a perplexing and frightening prospect for the 5 million Tibetans and 150,000-odd exiles who fled in the decade after the Chinese invaded. The Chinese themselves have cracked down heavily recently, partly in reaction to bloody riots by the Tibetans last year and partly because of the approach of the 50th anniversary of the takeover.

Given the religious leader's inability to move the Chinese to give more autonomy to the region, exiles in Dharmasala, their exile base in the hills of India, are more cautious in seeking to strengthen what they call their middle-way approach in which Tibet would become a self-governing democratic political polity founded on law within China.

"I have grown old and already taken semi-retirement," the Dalai Lama said in a recent interview. "It is better if I retire completely and get out of the way of the Tibetan movement."

But what happens after the Tibetan Diaspora's most iconic figure departs the scene? In Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation is not a life force that passes from body to body. It may lie dormant for an indeterminate period – perhaps years – before a complicated series of omens points to a reborn Dalai Lama. In the meantime, a remay reign. According to the faith, Tibetan religious leaders have been reborn again and again, for at least 750 years, when Kublai Khan, the Mongol warrior, recorded a visit to the isolated Buddhist kingdom. Certainly none of them has been a woman.

The Dalai Lama leads one of several sects, each considered to be a living Buddha, reincarnated in an endless series of new religious leaders. The Chinese have sought to end the practice, somewhat incongruously believing they can select their own reincarnated figures, an interesting belief for a nation that is officially atheist. In 1995, for example, after Tibetan leaders announced that the then-six year old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima had been named the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-highest ranking religious figure, Chinese authorities spirited him out of Tibet and named their own, Gyancain Norbu, in his place.

The Dalai Lama is probably China's most reviled opponent. He has been denounced repeatedly as a "splittist" for advocating autonomy for the Tibetan region, although he has expressed a willingness to work, within the Chinese system. It is almost certain if a Tibetan child is named the 15th Dalai Lama on Tenzin Gyatso's death, he will be removed from the region as well. Certainly Tibetans in exile widely believe the Chinese will choose their own "reincarnation" as they did with the Panchen Lama. Some say the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley, who belongs to the Black Hat School of Tibetan Buddhism, might lead the Tibetan government in exile. The most likely candidate for the regency is the 23-year-old Karmapa Lama, the third highest in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, who was born and raised in Tibet but escaped to India in 2000 in a dramatic trek that took him across Nepal and into India to Dharmasala.


The Dalai Lama himself says the course of the movement is to be decided by an elected government under Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche – already known as the prime minister without a country. Certainly, it seems far-fetched to believe any Tibetan spiritual leader will ever get the same degree of respect across the globe.

Despite his obvious global celebrity, the spiritual leader regards himself as a simple Buddhist monk who seeks peace and who continues to work to keep Tibetans on a non-violent path. Will he reincarnate himself as the 15th Spiritual Leader? Much of the answer lies with the Tibetan people themselves whether they wish to keep the Institution of a reincarnated god-king alive. Yet most Tibetans believe the reincarnation will take place.

Will the institution of the Dalai Lama end altogether after Tenzin Gyatso? "There are various ways of (having a successor)," he has told his followers. "The point is whether to continue with the institution of the Dalai Lama or not. After my death, Tibetan religious leaders can debate whether to have a Dalai Lama."

The possibility of a female incarnation of the Dalai Lama, or other reincarnating lama lineages, known collectively as tulku – a term used to refer to the corporeal existence of enlightened Buddhist masters in general – is a difficult one.

"Although there are female lamas - or living Buddhas," he told reporters last year, "men are predominant and it is rare for reincarnated lamas not to share the sex of their predecessors."

The comment followed his surprising remarks that he might choose his successor before his death, or even hold a referendum on whether he should be reborn at all. "If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, then it will continue," he said.

"All the Dalai Lamas, till now, have been male. Now, we want a female Dalai Lama. Women have to play a more important role to play in today's context." And then in his characteristic style, he joked: "The female Dalai Lama will be more attractive, so we will have more followers."

But then, is he a feminist? "Yes, I am a feminist and a humanist too. This has raised the possibility that the next Dalai Lama could actually be a female, which is a break in tradition, perhaps in keeping with the times."

Many worry that whatever is decided, Tibetans will lack a strong and united leadership after the Dalai Lama's absence. "If that happens we will become very sorrowful," says an elderly Tibetan woman. "We will become like blind people."

Other critics believe once the Dalai Lama is gone, the succession will be dictated by the rites and timetables of Tibetan Buddhism, and that his successor will be a boy born after his death, someone chosen by Buddhist monks who believe him to be the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, which means a much longer wait for Tibetans in exile and the possibility that decades may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to assume the leadership.

The exiled Tibetans have already started gearing up. In November last year, hundreds of individuals, political leaders and activists came together in a six-day meeting called by the Dalai Lama to discuss a course of action after the failure of eight rounds of talks with China over autonomy. and to look forward to their own future, without the guidance of the Dalai Lama.

The religious leader's political presence since he fled to India in March of 1959 has been remarkable, continuing to exhort his followers to follow nonviolence. Formation of the democratic government in exile though it is not accepted by any country still proves the speech of every Tibetan exile.

In his November press conference in Dharamsala, a day after the special meet ended, he said that ‘It is my moral responsibility until my death to work for the Tibetan cause, my body and flesh is all Tibetan. I remain committed to the Tibetan cause."

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at