The Dalai Lama doesn’t plan to die anytime soon. The 85-year-old has said his dreams, considered reliable omens by many Tibetan Buddhists, suggest he will live to the ripe old age of 113.
Still, talk of the Dalai Lama’s death seems ever-present, especially since advisers curtailed his travel in 2018, citing exhaustion. His Holiness hasn’t held a public gathering outside India, his home in exile, since then.
One reason for the deathwatch is the Dalai Lama’s immense popularity. He’s the world’s best-known Buddhist, beloved for his earthy humor, spiritual wisdom and humility. (He’s been wearing black Hush Puppies for decades.) Surveys regularly show the Dalai Lama to be one of the most admired people in the world.
But the Dalai Lama, also known as Tenzin Gyatso, is more than a man. He’s also considered a manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, known as Chenrezig in Tibetan, an embodiment of a centuries-old sacred tradition, and a father figure to the Tibetan diaspora.
As an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, the Dalai Lama has delayed the attainment of nirvana, according to tradition, in order to stick around samsara and help the rest of us. And, like all bodhisattvas, the Dalai Lama is thought to have the power to decide when, where, and into whose consciousness he will be reborn.
That’s a problem for China, which wants to control the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, the better to exert political control over Tibet.
In December 2020, the US Congress passed a law threatening Chinese officials with sanctions should they interfere in the process.
“It is the policy of the United States to consider any effort by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to identify or install its own candidate as the future 15th Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism to be a serious human rights abuse.”
China quickly shot back, telling the US to say out of its “internal affairs.”
It can be difficult to keep track of the intricate history behind the recognition of Dalai Lamas, so I asked scholars and Tibetan activists for answers to some of the most common questions.
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What happens when the Dalai Lama dies?
Since the 13th century, Tibetan Buddhists have used a reincarnation-based system to replace its highest teachers, or lamas, when they die. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is 14th in a line of succession that dates to 1642.
According to tradition, when the Dalai Lama is on his deathbed, his disciples will gather round and beg him to remain in his body.
Some accomplished spiritual masters are believed to be able to meditate and maintain consciousness even after their physical body is dead, a state known as tukdam. Like Christian saints, the body remains undecayed, an outward sign of their inner realization.
The current Dalai Lama’s body will likely be embalmed and laid in Dharamsala, his headquarters in India, said Alexander Norman, author of the biography “The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life.”
Under normal circumstances, a Dalai Lama might leave a letter with hints about where to find his reincarnation. Regents, usually disciples of the Dalai Lama, would then consult oracles, divinations and peer into a sacred lake for revelations. Usually, lamas and other religious leaders would bring signs and omens to the regent, who would use the hints to direct search parties.
Once found, the reincarnated lama, known as a “tulku” and almost always a young boy, would be tested to see if he can identify objects belonging to his predecessor.
In the past, a regent has ruled Tibet until the young Dalai Lama is an adult, but some, like Reting Rinpoche, who led the search for the 14th Dalai Lama, are reluctant to give up their power. Reting died in prison.
Traditionally, Panchen Lamas play an important role in mentoring young Dalai Lamas. But the current Panchen Lama has been kidnapped by China, which keeps him under house arrest, while insisting their own puppet figure is the real Panchen Lama.
China has said the Panchen Lama “has been put under the protection of the government at the request of his parents.” The Communist Party’s actions offer a chilling preview of what could be in store for a future Dalai Lama.
How was the present Dalai Lama identified?
Several signs pointed to Lhamo Thundup, the Dalai Lama’s birth name, according to Tibetan tradition. One, the embalmed head of his predecessor reportedly turned toward the east, twice, where the future Dalai Lama lived with his parents in the Amdo province. Star-shaped fungi appearing on the northeast side of the 13th’s shrine gave further clues.
Reting Rinpoche dispatched three search parties to look for the boy, focusing on east Tibet. After locating a home that met the regent’s description, they found a 2-year-old boy who immediately grabbed their prayer beads, an auspicious sign. The boy was then tested by asking him for prayer beads and a cane belonging to his predecessor.
Why do Tibetan Buddhists use this system?
Monasteries in Tibet were powerful, with monks accruing influence through property, money and politics. But they were also celibate—hence, no heirs. For a time, the lama’s oldest nephew (assuming he had one) inherited his religious title and responsibilities.
The Tibetan Bon tradition, which predates Buddhism’s arrival, provided another solution to prevent conflicts: reincarnation. That way, the lamas are technically inheriting their own power, prestige and, in some ways, their own agenda.
“The very purpose of my reincarnation is to carry on the work begun in my previous life,” the Dalai Lama has said.
That’s the ideal, but in reality the tulku system is as vulnerable to corruption as any other human endeavor. Alexander Gardner, who runs Treasury of Lives, an online encyclopedia of Tibet and Central Asia, says it was “an open secret that aristocratic families and monastic factions placed their own contenders on the throne.”
Tibetan Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, have called it “feudal” and said it is ripe for reform, or even elimination.
“This man-made system will cease,” he has said. “There’s no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama (won’t) come along that disgraces himself or herself.”
When he’s about 90, the Dalai Lama will consult high lamas and the Tibetan public about whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue.
Why are Dalai Lamas such a big deal?
Since 1642, Dalai Lamas served as Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, though in 2011, the Dalai Lama relinquished his role as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
In many ways, though, he is still considered Tibet’s leader, a unifying symbol of the country’s fight to preserve its cultural institutions and a hugely popular ambassador for its branch of Buddhism.
In his biography of the Dalai Lama, Norman notes that one name for the office is “Precious Protector.”
“From the Tibetan point of view, the Dalai Lama is a second father. Every Tibetan has an intimate, personal connection with the Dalai Lama, even the most hard-bitten and secular-leaning,” he said.
The Dalai Lama is also the most influential member of the Gelug School, the most dominant of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Who’s in charge of finding the reborn Dalai Lama?
While many lamas are involved in the process, the Dalai Lama himself has final say about when, where, and in whom to reincarnate. This option is only available to the spiritually advanced.
Of course, the 14th lama won’t be around it and when the 15th is born, so it’s up to the other lamas to locate his reincarnation.
The reincarnation doesn’t have to happen right away: The 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933 and his successor was not recognized until 1939. And it doesn’t have to happen in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has said he wants his rebirth to occur in a “free country.”
So the next Dalai Lama could live among Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, or even, perhaps, the United States. Several Americans have been recognized as reincarnation of Tibetan masters.
The Dalai Lama has said he might be reincarnated as a woman, man, boy, or perhaps into several beings simultaneously, but, with his impish sense of humor, it’s hard to tell how serious the Dalai Lama is about these options. It may be that he’s tired of answering questions about his death and wants to make a little mischief.
Can the Dalai Lama choose a successor before he dies?
Yes, they are called “ma de tulku,” and the 14th has indicated that he is considering this step. According to Norman, an elderly lama can declare that a living person shares his awakened heart-mind, or bodhi. The older lama could then retire to a hermitage while the younger steps into his role and duties.
Norman said the Dalai Lama has been looking for young candidates who might fit into this role, much like a college keeps an eye out for top recruits.
But, wait, how does that work? Doesn’t a lama have to die to be reincarnated?
It’s helpful here to examine what Tibetan Buddhists mean by “reincarnation.” It’s not a body, soul or self that is reincarnated, but more like a flow of consciousness, with its accumulated karma, that passes from one body to the next.
What is China expected to do when the Dalai Lama dies?
China considers Tibet its territory and has worked to assert control, erasing Tibetan culture, policing monasteries, and “reeducating” monastics to not revere the Dalai Lama. Tenzin Lekshay, director of the Tibetan Policy Institute, said the territory’s monasteries have become museums.
The Communist Party of China also asserts the right to appoint Dalai Lamas successors, using the Orwellian rubric of “religious freedom.”
“Reincarnation of living Buddhas including the Dalai Lama must comply with Chinese laws and regulations and follow religious rituals and historical conventions,” a Chinese official reiterated last year.
How an avowed atheist government meddling in a centuries-old Buddhist tradition protects religious freedom is anyone’s guess, but it fits with China’s awful treatment of religious believers, including Uighyur Muslims, Christians, and others.
China’s threats are not idle, as evidenced by the communist country’s abduction of the Panchen Lama in the 1990s.
Has China ever appointed a Dalai Lama?
To say this question is highly contested would be putting it mildly, said Gardner, who runs the online encyclopedia of Tibet and Central Asia.
China says they appointed Dalai Lamas during the Qing Dynasty, after Tibet was invaded by Nepal in the late 18th century.
“The Qing, at times, were pretty much ruling Tibet,” Gardner said. “It comes down to whether or not, or to what degree, Tibet was part of the Chinese empire, and, therefore, whether the Chinese had authority to select and approve the Tibetan leadership.”
During this period, the Qing dynasty used the Golden Urn, more or less a lottery system, to confirm the identity of reincarnated lamas, according to Gardner. But China and Tibet disagree about whether the urn was used to select Dalai Lamas, or merely to confirm Tibet’s choice.
“It is historically accurate to say that starting in the 18th century, the Manchu Qing government claimed authority over the selection of the Dalai Lamas,” Gardner said, “and that at the same time the Tibetan government never fully accepted that authority but had little choice but to go along with it.”
Would Tibetans ever accept China’s choice of a Dalai Lama?
It’s unlikely. Lekshay, director of the Tibetan Policy Institute, scoffed at the suggestion. China’s interest in naming a new Dalai Lama is strictly political, he said. They want a figure they can control and use to “assimilate” Tibetans into China.
The Dalai Lama himself has issued a similar warning. “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,” he has said.