Goodbye Dalai?

The Dalai Lama’s recent announcement that he would give up his ceremonial role as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile and retire next year in favor of a simpler life away from politics has sent a wave of concern through Tibetan exiles and supporters across the globe.

The 75-year-old head of Tibetan Buddhism, who his followers believe is the 14th in a line of reincarnated religious leaders going back hundreds of years, talked about his desire to retire from public life in a recent interview with an Indian news channel. He has already transferred most of his political powers to prime minister-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, whom he has addressed as his"boss."

“In order to utilize full democracy,” the Dalai Lama said, “I feel it is better if I am not involved and I am devoted to other fields, promotion of human values and peace and harmony. But firstly I have to discuss, to inform members of the Tibetan parliament.”

The declaration has again raised the question of who might lead the Tibetan movement and spread the message of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide. The Dalai Lamahimself has often suggested that he is a simple monk and that his successor could be democratically elected — and could even be a woman.

The revered figure, who is already semi-retired, said he would announce hisfull retirement at the next session of the exile parliament in March and would then scale back his responsibilities over the following six months, said Tenzin Taklha, Joint Secretary at the Dalai Lama’s private office based in Dharamsala. Taklha stressed that the Dalai Lama cannot renounce his spiritual duties but plans to retire from his ceremonial responsibilities.

Beijing has loudly and repeatedly asserted its intention to name the 15th Dalai Lama, as it did with the current Panchen Lama, the Tibetan religion’s second-highest religious leader. The government kidnapped the child chosen as the reincarnated spiritual leader by the Tibetan church and his family and has held them incognito ever since, substituting its own Panchen Lama. China claims it has the right to choose the Dalai Lama because it possesses the Golden Urn, an artifact used by Manchu emperors in the Qing dynasty in a ceremony to select the reborn religious leader.

Much of the speculation on who might lead focuses on the 17th Karmapa Lama, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who staged a dramatic escape from China in 1999 after being anointed by the Chinese government as Tibet’s first living Buddha. He joined the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, making world headlines and badly embarrassing Beijing. Although he was given refugee status by India in 2001, the Indian government closely monitors his activities and limits his travel.

“I think China will rejoice and they will try and feed all of Asia with different teachings, teachings that are strictly geared to their way of thinking,” said Judy Friedsam, an American Buddhist. “I think the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje would be the next best thing to follow the Dalai Lama to fill the future void among Tibetan exiles.”

The exiles’ concerns are natural “We knew this (retirement) would come one day and we will have to face it, it is unfortunate for us that we are still facing this even after 50 years of non-violent struggle,” said an elderly exile who gave his name as Tsering.

Many believe the Dalai Lama is seeking to prepare younger leaders to play a major role. Recent preliminary elections for the post of Kalon Tripa, or Tibetan Prime Minister-in-exile have included young,American-educated Tibetans, an indication of the Dalai Lama’s moves to prepare exiles for life after he is gone.

“He’s continuing a decades-long attempt to try to make his exile administration more democratic and less dependent on him,” said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York. “What’s interesting here is that he’s becoming more specific in terms of when this might happen and what this retirement might mean.”

The Chinese leadership in Beijing would obviously welcome the Dalai Lama’s retirement,eliminating a five-decade irritation. However, Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, told the official Chinese daily Global Times that the topic has often been used to draw attention, since in Tibetan Buddhism, a Dalai Lama cannot “retire.”

The spiritual leader has several times questioned Chinese concern over his successor. Recently speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit he said, “That is not a serious question for me. It looks like the Chinese government is seriously looking. I made it very clear in 1961 that whether the institution of Dalai Lama should continue or not should be debated.” He even said if a majority feels that the institution of the Dalai Lama is not relevant, then it will cease to exist.

The religious leader’s departure from the global scene could have a dramatic effect. The recent disclosures by WikiLeaks of US State Department diplomatic cables have revealed China’s attempts to limit the Dalai Lama’s movements by pressuring many countries. His retirement could be a relief to host nations concerned about their economic ties with Beijing.

Surely an exit from public life won’t be easy. The exiled parliament may well refuse to let him quit. His spiritual followers and exile alike are deeply concerned about a void that would diminish the importance of their struggle.

Summing up the reaction was the Tibetan prime ministerial candidate in next year’s election, Dolma Gyari: “We will humbly request him not to leave us,” she said.

Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India.