Signs and symbols concerning the Dalai Lama and his reincarnation

Two important statements in recent days have brought the focus once again to the issue of the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On Sept. 22, 2022, during a two-day dialogue with youth leaders from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and South America who had gathered in Dharamsala, India, His Holiness was requested to reflect on the topic of “belonging” after hearing stories from the youth leaders on the impact of war and conflict on their families. In his response, His Holiness expanded his thoughts on the oneness of humanity, from birth to death. He said that at the time of birth, we all experience mother’s affection and compassion, and so even at the time of death if one is “surrounded by people who really show you genuine warm feeling, the dying person will be much happier.” At this stage, he told them that he had spoken to Indian former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (during one of their meetings) concerning his wish when the time came for his own death. His Holiness told the gathering, “I will live for another 15 to 20 years, there is no question (on this). But at the time when I (am) dying, I prefer in India, you see, surrounded with people who really show you love, not artificial something. If I (am) dying surrounded with Chinese officials, too much artificial. So I much prefer dying (in) this country, free, democracy, open.” His Holiness continued by saying that when we are born there is no ceremony and when we die there is no need for ceremony but only to be “surrounded by trusted friends.”

On the face of it, this utterance by His Holiness does not directly refer to reincarnation, but the fact that he is talking about spending his last days outside of Chinese control has implications for a post-Dalai Lama period. Although it is a deeply personal thing, such a scenario would mean that His Holiness and his Gaden Phodrang “institution” (the closest word in English for the Tibetan term “Ladrang,” conventionally pronounced as “Labrang”) will have the freedom to decide on the procedures and implement them without any risk of interference from the Chinese government. Given the current tense situation in Tibet, I feel that His Holiness was intentionally using “trusted friends” in the above remarks to expand on his reason for preferring India to be the place where he would spend his last days. This will be critical when the time comes to begin the process of searching for the reincarnation.

Then on Sept. 26, 2022, the Central Tibetan Administration issued a statement explaining its position on the issue of His Holiness’ reincarnation. I think in order to emphasize the importance of the statement, it was issued in the name of the Kashag and not in the name of the Department of Information & International Relations, as routine public statements are done.

Concerned governments and others have been interested in understanding how the post-Dalai Lama scenario will roll out. Even His Holiness has been directly asked about this by some. By maintaining strategic ambiguity and depoliticizing the issue, I feel His Holiness is maintaining a balance between the deeply spiritual process of the reincarnation tradition and the public interest in the institution of the Dalai Lama.

In any case, the following are my takeaways from the Kashag’s statement.

From the statement, it is clear that internal discussions are already taking place among concerned people in Dharamsala on issues relating to the reincarnation of H.H. the Dalai Lama, even though there may not be any public visibility of the same. The statement even says that the Kashag is in the process of working on other timely issues that need to be addressed.

Secondly, just as His Holiness himself asserted in his 2011 statement on his reincarnation, the Tibetan leadership’s statement says that only His Holiness has sole legitimate authority over his reincarnation issue, including individuals he might entrust with the responsibility “and no other government or individual.” It even says that the Tibetan Administration will only be there to serve any role that it is called upon to play by His Holiness or the entrusted individual(s), whatever the case may be.

As for His Holiness’ statement about preferring India as the country that he would like to spend his last days in, there may be some who look for signs and symbolism or who even look for clues in his not-too-infrequent visits (prior to the coronavirus pandemic) to the Himalayan regions in India that border Tibet. Interestingly, for the first time since the pandemic, His Holiness made his travel outside of Dharamsala to Ladakh in July this year, spending 40 days there. During his remarks there, he repeatedly mentioned how he was very much touched by the devotion and reverence of the Ladakhi people. Soon thereafter, we also saw delegations from Sikkim (led by the state’s Ecclesiastical Minister) and Arunachal Pradesh (the delegation included Guru Rinpoche, the former abbot of the famed Tawang monastery), both places bordering Tibet with residents who look to Tibet as their spiritual source, visiting Dharamsala to request His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit their places.

A delegation from Arunachal Pradesh with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in September.

Students of Tibetan history will know that the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, wrote a poem (which is now even a famous classical song called “Nangma Amale”), which went something like, “White crane, lend me your wings. I won’t fly far, but just to Lithang and back.” Subsequently, the Seventh Dalai Lama was born in Lithang in Eastern Tibet. Interestingly, the Sixth Dalai Lama was born in Tawang in present-day Arunachal Pradesh.

Then, in his memoir, “My Land & My People,” the current Dalai Lama mentions that his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, had visited his hometown of Kumbum when he was fleeing to China after the British invasion of Tibet in 1904. While in Kumbum, he saw the current Dalai Lama’s house and remarked that “it was a beautiful place.” To further the symbolic connection, the 13th Dalai Lama had left behind a pair of his Tibetan boots called Jachen at the Karma Rolpai Dorje monastery in Kumbum where he stayed while there. Obviously, it all made sense when the present Dalai Lama was born in the same village subsequently.

While the present Dalai Lama has assured us that he will be here for some time, as and when the time comes for a post-Dalai Lama scenario, it is clear the spiritual process will be dominant. This means non-believers will not have any role in it. Just saying!

Click here to read the Kashag’s statement in Tibetan.

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Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering joined the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, DC in 1995 and is currently the head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. He worked as a journalist with Indian Express in New Delhi, and as an official of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, before joining ICT.
He is a member of the Task Force set up by the Central Tibetan Administration to work on issues relating to the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. He was also a member of the team led by the envoys of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the discussions that they had with the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2010.
He has contributed articles on Tibet and related issues to Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Swiss and American journals. He has also testified in Congress on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet and spoken at Universities and Think Tanks.