A week ago, Professor Robert Barnett wrote for the New York Review of Books, explaining some history to those curious why China is so sensitive to news of the 14th Dalai Lama’s planned retirement—news that recently upset many Tibetans. He traces the cause back to the Fifth Dalai Lama, the first to hold temporal power, bestowed, as is well known, by the Mongol Khan (who, I think, was a follower of the Sakya school, not the Gelugs.) In the Fifth Dalai Lama’s declining years, the new and ambitious Qing Dynasty claimed sovereignty over Tibet (and many other areas thousands of miles from their capital of Shenyang and later Beijing.)

The process for selecting a new Dalai Lama was long and arduous and the Fifth Dalai Lama was old, so he appointed as regent the youthful (26 years old, which F. Scott Fitzgerald, a notorious ageist, described as the acme of bachelorhood) and energetic Sangye Gyatso—a name reviled and censored in China even today, at least in political circles—to oversee the process of selecting the Sixth Dalai Lama (who turned out to be a bit of a character.) The regent successfully hoodwinked Beijing for long enough after the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama to get the Sixth onto the throne and the succession secure. He also oversaw the completion of the Potala Palace, begun by the Fifth Dalai Lama. (A palace of some sort had existed on the hill for long before that, but not the palace as we know it today.)

So this charming snippet of history, Barnett argues, explains China’s obsessive interest in the Dalai Lama’s recent announcement. What was the regent’s later life like, while the Sixth lived his playboy lifestyle, writing erotic poetry? The regent was very interested in medicine and science and was not above harboring a grudge or two…

Several points: This story demonstrates that there is a precedent of non-spiritual political authority in Tibet, and a succession system based on reincarnation is vulnerable to outside influence and interference. Read Professor Barnett’s whole article at the NYRB site here (and buy a book while you’re there too—they publish a huge variety of great books! Maybe Glenway Wescott’s Apartment in Athens?)

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