No Dalai Lama before Tenzin Gyatso, the current head of Tibetan Buddhism, has had to worry about managerial issues such as retirement and transition. Dalai Lamas are, by tradition, tenured for life, and their successors —their reincarnations—are found by other monks with the help of an oracle.
Then again, no Dalai Lama before Tenzin Gyatso has had to take on, in addition to his spiritual responsibilities, the onus of a freedom movement and the leadership of a government-in-exile. It is a measure of how complex Tibetan Buddhism has become in the last half-century that the Dalai Lama has to give up some parts of his public persona and retain others.
If the Dalai Lama retires next year as the head of the government-in-exile, as he has now indicated, that political position will be difficult to fill with somebody of similar stature, enjoying a similarly unanimous level of support. And stature, always important in politics, is even more crucial here, if the Tibetan cause is to remain cohesive in the face of the forbidding opposition that China poses.
That political vacuum need not immediately spark a spiritual vacuum. The Dalai Lama himself has mentioned, more than once, the necessity for splitting political leadership from spiritual leadership, and his religious role, in any case, is not one he can give up easily.
But his move to subtract himself from the political sphere has been read, by many Tibet observers, as preparation for the day when he will no longer be around to provide religious leadership either. And that day, considering that the Dalai Lama is now 75 years old, cannot be far.
When it comes, the spiritual vacuum will be even harder to fill. China demonstrated its willingness to manipulate the monks’ order of succession when it replaced the Dalai Lama’s choice for the 11th Panchen Lama with its own candidate. If the next Dalai Lama is also a monk carefully groomed and protected by China, the Tibetan cause will be severely damaged.
Yet the Dalai Lama has dithered over this question of succession. In an interview to Der Spiegel, he said: “Everything is possible: a conclave, like in the Catholic church, a woman as my successor, no Dalai Lama anymore, or perhaps even two.” This vagueness works against the Tibetans’ best interests. While he is still around, he must use the force of his personality to put a viable succession plan into place.
It may even be his final act of leadership, but it will also be his most important one.
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