Sunday, February 1, 2009

Can You Choose Your Reincarnated Successor?

Published: January 31, 2009

The search for the present Dalai Lama commenced in earnest in 1935 when the embalmed head of his deceased predecessor is said to have wheeled around and pointed toward northeastern Tibet.

Then, the story goes, a giant, star-shaped fungus grew overnight on the east side of the tomb. An auspicious cloud bank formed and a regent saw a vision of letters floating in a mystical lake, one of which — Ah — he took to refer to the northeast province of Amdo.

High lamas set off at a gallop and found a 2-year-old boy in a distant village. This child, they determined after a series of tests, was the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

There is little linear about lama succession in Tibet. And now, as the 14th Dalai Lama journeys into his 74th year, the question of how to pick his successor has come to preoccupy both him and his followers, as Tibet stands at an ever more precarious political pass.

Late last year, the Chinese government again rejected the Dalai Lama’s proposal for a rapprochement that would yield greater autonomy for Tibet. In recent days, Chinese troops have raided thousands of homes and detained at least 81 activists ahead of the 50th anniversary in March of the failed uprising that forced the Dalai Lama into exile in India. China seems inclined to tighten its grip and wait out the aging leader, insisting, a bit improbably for a government that is officially atheist, that it has the legal right to designate the Dalai Lama’s next reincarnation.

When Tibetan representatives met last autumn at their Parliament in Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas, their worries about the future echoed down the corridors. A few argued for a militant line, insisting on independence. A majority heeded the Dalai Lama’s counsel to find a pacifist middle way. But the unanswered question remains: How much longer will Tibetans be able to rely on their charismatic and learned spiritual leader, whose persona is so entwined with the destiny of Tibet?

The Dalai Lama has openly speculated about his next life, his reincarnation, musing that he might upend historical and cultural practice and choose his reincarnation before his death, the better to safeguard his exiled people.

But doubts creep in.


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