Dalai Lama with Marco Pannella. Wikimedia Commons.

The Dalai Lama’s likely reaction to the current media frenzy.

An interview with the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso by the Sunday edition of German paper Die Welt has caused quite a stir in the media and in Tibetan communities across the globe.

“We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries,” the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying in the interview. “The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

The German paper seems to have understood this statement to mean that the Dalai Lama wishes to discontinue the lineage, running the interview under a subtitle that includes the statement “the Dalai Lama does not want to have a successor.”

News sources like Agence France-Presse, whose version of the story has been reprinted in numerous other publications like Al Jazeera and Yahoo! News (and essentially reworded in the Huffington Post), have interpreted the Dalai Lama’s statement as a reversal of longstanding policy regarding the continuation of the Dalai Lama lineage.

These reports garnered so much attention that even China was impelled to reply. This morning, government officials called on the Dalai Lama to respect the historic practice of reincarnation in a press conference (no irony intended, we think): “China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism.”

The transcript of the Die Welt interview, however, paints a very different picture from that taken up by most media outlets. The Dalai Lama prefaces the aforementioned statement by saying “sometimes I make a joke…” and speaks alternately about his role as a politician and as a spiritual leader.

“The institution of the Dalai Lama was important mainly because of its political power,” he says earlier in the interview. “Politically . . . the centuries of having a Dalai Lama should be over.” This statement is nothing new, as Tenzin Gyatso relinquished his political power back in 2011.

The Dalai Lama institution led Tibet politically for nearly four centuries, from 1642 until just a few years ago. But it came to represent the de facto leadership of Tibetan Buddhism only recently, beginning when the current Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959.

Speaking of his role as a spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama tells Welt am Sonntag that “Tibetan Buddhism is not dependent on one individual. We have a very good organizational structure with highly trained monks and scholars.” Asked whether the Tibetans will require a Dalai Lama in the future, he responds modestly, “No, I don’t think so.”

Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Tibetan Studies program, thinks the meaning of this statement has been lost in translation.

“It is in line with the tradition whereby all lamas are expected to demonstrate diffidence about the question of their return as a kind of humility,” Barnett told Tricycle. “The convention is that they are only able to return if their followers pray intently for them to do so.”

Barnett also holds that there is a more significant issue that the Dalai Lama addresses here, which seems to escape both his German interlocutors and the American media. “He is clearly saying that his role as the leading figure in Tibetan Buddhism will not continue,” says Barnett.

The 14th Dalai Lama acquired this role due to the exigencies of exile. In the interview, he seems to say that the robust Tibetan monastic academies that have been established in India over the decades obviate the need for such an institution, and after the current Dalai Lama passes away, other Buddhist sects will likely run themselves with greater autonomy as they have in the past. Barnett points to the fact that although this has long been understood to be the case, the utterance takes on special importance because it constitutes a clear statement of intention.

Several statements of the Dalai Lama that appear later in the interview further contradict the interpretation that he intends to end the Dalai Lama lineage altogether. “I hope and pray that I may return to this world as long as sentient beings suffering remain,” he says.

He goes on to quote the first Dalai Lama: “‘I have no desire for any of these heavenly places. I want to be reborn, where I can be of use.’ This is my wish, too.”

The suggestion that the Dalai Lama line might be reaching its end seems to be the result of one big misunderstanding.

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