Tenzin Gyatso, the “holder of the ocean of Dharma,” IVth Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, the embodiment of Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion, leader of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, Nobel Prize winner and possibly the most widely known and admired person on earth (except in China), has said that he will be the last Dalai Lama.
Such a decision can only be the result of much contemplation over a long period of time. For westerners, for most Buddhists the world over, it may appear that this decision is made primarily to prevent Tibetan Buddhism from being subsumed or split by the Government of China, to preserve whatever remains of the independence of traditional Tibetan spiritual and monastic culture from becoming an appendage of the Chinese State. Yet the price of terminating the lineage may be high, as a stateless people will have to grapple with the loss of their most important institution providing a cultural glue between the past and the future.
At one time, monastic culture in Tibet was the State. Throughout the troubled history of the succession of Dalai Lamas, centuries of shifting relations with Mongols and multiple Chinese dynasties, Tibet managed to retain a tenuous (even debatable) independence from China based on the spiritual accomplishments of its multiple lineages…until 1950. Now, after the systematic destruction wreaked by the Cultural Revolution and the limited restoration of monastic culture since, China has declared that they will name the next Dalai Lama by drawing lots.
This may appear to be a radical shift in their relations with the Gelugpa in particular, but it isn’t really. Their interference with the succession of the lineage, and the Gelugpa tolerance of it, goes back to the 16th century. But in declaring their intention, they would presume to subjugate the spiritual hierarchy of Tibet to the interests of secular political control. This is surely a major consideration for whatever decision His Holiness makes.
I’m not about to claim historical authority, but there are a few points to make about China’s relationship with Tibet. In the west, we tend to regard the relationship between China and Tibet as a black and white issue. China invaded Tibet in 1950, effectively ending Tibetan independence. That’s just about the limit of popular knowledge. Yet China’s relationship with Tibet goes back at least as far as 640 CE, when a daughter of the Chinese Tang Emperor married the Tibetan Emperor, Songsten Gampo.
A stone outside the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is inscribed with the language of the treaty of 821 between a later Tibetan Emperor, Trisung Detsen Ralpachen, and the Tang Emperor Mu-Zong:
‘Both Tibet and China shall keep the country and frontiers of which they now are in possession. The whole region to the east of that being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly the country of Great Tibet, from either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory.’
So began a long and complicated relationship for the next 1300 years.
Since the beginning of the Yarlung Dynasty of Tibet (7th C), the language and culture of Tibet was infused with Chinese influence, including literature, astrology and medicine. During the Mongol period of China (13th-14th C), emperors sent caravans of gold westward to the Lamas of Tibet in support of their message and their monasteries. As political power shifted in China away from the Mongols, the clarity of Tibetan independence from China muddied, even as internal political influence was an ongoing topic of jealousy and conflict between monastic systems and schools.
It was the Mongols who bestowed the title of Dalai Lama upon a succession of abbotts of Drepung Monastery. Later, it was the Great Fifth Dalai Lama who invited the Chinese armies to subdue their Red Hat enemies. Thus, the Gelugpa lineage of Panchen Lamas and Dalai Lamas and the political influence of the Yellow Hats was secured by a foreign army, a favor unlikely to be forgotten by any subsequent ruler.
Ongoing rivalry between the Mongol and Chinese royalty was played out in Tibet well into the 18th C. During this time, several Dalai Lamas met suspiciously early deaths, opening the way for the Chinese to maintain control and resist further Mongol influence. The Gelugpas maintained spiritual and political primacy, but were also isolated from the outside world in exchange for peace and domestic tranquility at the behest of their Chinese patrons and occupiers.
In the late 19th century, Russia and Britain were battling for control of Central Asia. In 1904 the British sent thousands of troops to Tibet. Hundreds, if not thousands of civilians were killed. Shortly afterwards the British took control. In 1906 Britain and China entered into an agreement: the Chinese agreed to pay Britain two million rupees for Tibet (!). In exchange, London recognized China’s right to annex the country, which they said had always belonged to them anyway. To this day, the conventional reason China invaded Tibet is its belief that it rightfully belongs to the mainland.
In 1912, the XIIIth Dalai Lama made his return to the country after years in exile. During this period, China was in chaos as the Qing dynasty had collapsed. The few Chinese troops that were stationed in Tibet where easily defeated. The Dalai Lama proclaimed independence which lasted until 1949.
In 1949, under Mao Zedong, China launched its invasion of Tibet. In October, 1950, the Chinese Army took over the country, starting at Chamdo. A year later the Dalai Lama through his representatives, signed a treaty with the Chinese. In it they recognized the authority of China over their country. When looking at the reasons why China invaded Tibet, the importance of this agreement (the 17 Point Treaty) cannot be overlooked. While the Chinese say it verifies their claim, the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile have long claimed it was a treaty signed under threat of force (and without the Dalai Lama’s review) and is therefore invalid.
Under Chinese rule and with the steady infusion of Chinese into the territory of Tibet, the local population has been subjected to economic, social and racial inequities. According to the exile community, over half a million Tibetans have died due to starvation, disease and imprisonment since the Chinese occupation. They also point out that the entire country is being inexorably assimilated into mainland China, turning it into a home for its own people. With the development of a transportation infrastructure, massive and rapid urban development and the gradual marginalization of traditional Tibetan culture, the time will come when Tibet and its culture will disappear as it is subsumed into the Chinese culture.
Of course, the PRC disputes these claims. Beijing says that from 1912 to 1949, the economic situation in the country had deteriorated. What the Chinese Army did was to liberate the people from suffering, inept leadership and a feudal economy controlled by the monastics. With help from the mainland, the say, the economic and individual status of the people has improved. The government also releases statistics saying GDP figures have risen tremendously since the occupation. They also point out that workers there are paid highly (although many jobs are not available to those for whom Chinese is not the primary language) and infrastructure has improved. The Chinese also claim they have embarked on a mission to preserve historical sites.
The decision the Dalai Lama has to make is whether to remain passive in the face of probable assimilation of the Buddhist hierarchy into the influence of the State or whether to stand for the independence of monasticism from the state. Regardless, monastic communities within greater China have had to reconsider and redefine their economies according to Chinese political restrictions, avoiding the economic structures for which the Land of Snows was originally invaded in 1950.
What effect would the disappearance of the Dalai Lama have on dharma in the West? Will Western Mahayana Buddhism gradually dissect out the cultural associations with Tibet while preserving the essence of the teachings unencumbered by 1200 years of tradition, including the bad habits, sectarianism and faulty thinking of the very people who have brought it to us?
When the Dalai Lama says he will be the last, does he mean the last Tibetan Dalai Lama? What if the Dalai Lama were to reincarnate (and be recognized) outside of Tibet? Could he assume the traditional responsibilities as head of the Gelugpas? What if he were to reincarnate as a non-Tibetan? Or as a woman? What of Tibetans bereft of leadership? How will the Tibetan people, both in exile and in Tibet, already in profound pain, react to a selection of the next Dalai Lama by the government of China? For that matter, would they follow a non-Tibetan, or a woman? Would such a loss incite mass suicidal rebellion or deepen existing hopelessness?
What if he does not reincarnate at all? What happens to the drama of discovery and selection that has endured the centuries and sustained an unbroken lineage? The only clarity among all of this uncertainty is that we will still live in a world on the brink, a world just as much in need of Tenzin Gyatso’s religion of kindness, with him or without him. We will still be in need of the blessings of Chenrezig, the further proliferation and flowering of global efforts devoted to collective awakening. To whatever degree His Holiness has inspired devotion, generosity, compassion, the application of the principles of dharma, his loss will undoubtedly inspire an even deeper commitment if not also a greater sense of urgency.