The Lede
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has come out with a succession plan
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has come out with a succession plan

Dalai Lama On Centre Stage

In an effort to preserve peace and Tibetan culture, the spiritual leader has spoken out about succession plans

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

Sixty years after his arrival in India, when he is about to celebrate his 84th birthday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet is on centre stage again as his mortality and reincarnation have become matters of international concern.

The future of the Tibetan refugees in India and abroad is also in focus. With his characteristic wisdom, vision and diplomatic skills, the Dalai Lama has begun to apply the healing touch to avoid any complication or conflict on account of these issues.

According to Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama is found, rather than chosen, as the next Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama.

The search for the reborn Dalai Lama is the responsibility of the high Lamas and the Tibetan government. It took four years to find the current Dalai Lama.

The present situation of the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan government in exile in India make the exercise complicated. Both India and China have major stakes in where the next Dalai Lama will be found and China has already stated that only someone born in Tibet and accepted by China can become the next Dalai Lama.

The issue is likely to add another point of contention between the two countries, particularly if the new Dalai Lama is found within Indian territory like Arunachal Pradesh or Dharamsala.

The search for the Dalai Lama begins when the high Lamas have a vision or dream. If the previous Dalai Lama was cremated, they watch the direction of the smoke to indicate the direction of rebirth.

They often meditate at Lhamo La-Tso, central Tibet's holy lake, and wait for a vision or indication of the direction in which to search. This relates to a belief that the female guardian spirit of the lake promised the first Dalai Lama that she would protect the reincarnation lineage.

When a boy is found by following the stipulated procedures, there are a series of tests to ensure that he is the reincarnation. There is a secret set of criteria with which the child is assessed.

In addition to this, the main test consists of presenting the boy with a number of items to see if he can select those which belonged to the previous Dalai Lama.

If only one boy has been found, the high Lamas confirm their findings with eminent religious and secular figures before reporting to the Central Government.

If more than one boy is found, a public lot is drawn by officials and monks. The boy and his family are taken to Lhasa, where the boy can study the Buddhist sutra to relearn knowledge accumulated in previous lives in preparation for spiritual leadership.

The whole process, which may last years, is likely to have major consequences.

Taking these into account, the Dalai Lama has raised doubts about the whole question of reincarnation. He has promised that he will leave detailed instructions on the succession issue.

He has said that the Buddha himself and the high Lamas of Nalanda were not reborn to assume any positions in Buddhism. By diminishing the importance of reincarnation, the Dalai Lama may have set the stage for a peaceful and immediate assumption of office by a selected successor for himself.

The other issue is the future of the Tibetan community, which has settled in India and abroad and grown over the last sixty years. The Dalai Lama had engaged in a long struggle to return to Tibet and secure its autonomy by peaceful means.

His representatives had held several rounds of discussions with the representatives of the Chinese government. But these have been suspended recently.

Though India does not formally recognise it, there is a Tibetan government in exile in India. Having realised that his dream to return to Tibet is no more practical, the Dalai Lama has said recently in an interview to ‘The Week’ that preserving the Tibetan culture and traditions is more important than seeking independence.

Independence will give the Tibetans happiness, but there is greater happiness in maintaining their culture, he has said. Here again, his purpose is to defuse the situation for his successor.

A privilege that the Indian Ambassador in Vienna enjoys is the opportunity of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama at least once in a three-year term as he is a regular visitor to Austria and he makes it a point to touch base with the Indian Ambassador whenever he is there.

He invited us to his ‘Kalachakra’ programme in Graz and he not only received us warmly, but also gave us a private audience for an hour. Years later, I met him again in Delhi for the release of my book, ‘Venkat Forever’, a collection of tributes to the former Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran, who was close to him.

I cherish those meetings as my encounters with divinity in human form. His demeanour, graciousness for even those who have sought to harm him, his simplicity, his open mind and his good humour make it clear that he is no ordinary human being.

The Dalai Lama has stated that he is nothing more than a Buddhist monk and his manners and conversation are those of a monk and not of a spiritual leader or a head of state.

He can oversimplify matters and laugh off important issues as though they do not matter. He does not try to give everything he says an aura of authenticity or moral authority.

He does not even seem obsessed with his political problems with China. He is sadder about the suffering of his people in Tibet than about the inconveniences of his people who have come to India.

He believes that a dialogue with the Chinese that he initiated will eventually bear fruit and the Tibetans will be able to preserve their distinct culture even if they are not able to return to Tibet.

In the meantime, he is grateful to India for the reception accorded to him and for the facilities afforded to the Tibetans. He has no bitterness even against the Chinese. They are also human beings, pursuing their own path to happiness and they deserve our compassion, he has said.

His address to those who were being initiated into ‘Kalachakra’ was very simple and pragmatic. He did not quote from the scriptures to make his points, but gave analogies from ordinary life in the west to illustrate his ideas.

No matter where we come from, we are all human beings. We all try to seek happiness and avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All of us want freedom and the right to determine our future.

Nothing could be simpler than that.

To a question as to what the meaning of mandala was, he surprised the whole audience by saying: “We monks like to make a mess of any place we see!” and laughed loudly at his own joke before explaining the meaning of the shapes and colours of the mandala.

Again, the explanation was simple. During meditation, it is important to have something to contemplate on. Mandalas are imaginary palaces with deities and inanimate objects.

They represent some aspects of wisdom and indicate some guiding principles. There were no further questions on such a complex concept, on which treatises have been written.

The position the Dalai Lama has taken recently on his reincarnation and liberation of Tibet is in anticipation of the problems that may arise in the future. As a man of peace and reconciliation, he does not want to leave a legacy of confrontation or conflict.

(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)

(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)