The Last Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama

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 Gekugpa 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 high (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 in the country.

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 even 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.





the Path is like walking backwards
on a tightrope between knowing and guessing

where you are going may come as
premonition or by sensing beyond the senses

yet grasping for where one has been
is to lose one’s sense of place

clouds arise and disappear
obstacles may appear as demons that are no other

than energies of purification noticed from a silent perch
structures of design whisper their secrets

to many deaf ears listening from the lower registers
of superstition to the higher octaves of reality

where shall I build my listening post
cloaked in the chimera of “mine”

where non-action assembles the scattered pieces
sources of the shifting image of now


what was once a portal to clear intent
moistened by tears of surrender

shed under imagined guidance
hard-won by chain linking the signs to mark the way

by neglect becomes a bleak and darkened barred
window opening to implacable gloom

there is no substitute for breathing life and light
into a hardened maze of practice than gratitude


for every state in which one dwells or seeks to occupy
an equal and opposite condition awaits
life is audited in real time by a neutral accountant

without a source yet possessing inconceivable omniscience
that is in truth not different from your own
were it to be unleashed in an explosive surprise

take a moment to consider there is no place
and no time like the present to digest the vajra truth
that there is no time and no place where you do not dwell

Essence Nature


Most people would probably agree that the biggest human questions are why are we here and where do we come from. We generally do not believe anyone who claims to have received a phone call from God. And even if such a claim turned out to be true, that would take all the fun out of the inquiry, wouldn’t it?  Plenty of people have plenty to say about this, but no one has the ultimate credibility.

Anyone may glimpse the truth–if only for a fleeting moment, a flash, a single dramatic image, or a rare case of true spontaneous awakening.  To articulate the detail and nuance of what is revealed is something else.

For example, I’m not so sure I believe in reincarnation, the cyclic return to this realm of cause and effect under circumstances determined by karma. Karma is regarded as an individual thing. “My” karma is specifically mine, unique to “my” mind stream—as if something about “me” is substantial, ongoing — apart from this identity I have spent a life creating as if it truly is “mine.”

Each of us is unique and temporary. Whatever is unique about us is itself part of a much larger and far more complex murmuration of inconceivable magnitude. We are but a single bird in a vast flock of numberless creatures. Each of us a part of the journey of the whole, a fine thread of a vast dynamic finding its way back and forth in and out of time, woven with threads of fellow beings and with the whole itself.

But there is nothing eternal about this version of “me” I have adopted. It is all a temporary suit allowing me to present the idea (of me) as if it has enduring reality. I would grant that it does, in a way, within our limited system of rules, if the universe of physics were the only universe. I am created by someone…or something. I am the author. But ultimately, I am a flawed and insubstantial interpretation of ultimate truth precisely because of my inescapable conditioned nature. At the conclusion of my allotted period of expression, I will dissolve into the reservoir of images that await their own evolutionary moment of greater expression.

I’m not sure there’s much choice involved. It’s nice to tell ourselves that we “chose” this body or this identity for this life to learn something. It is temporarily satisfying. And it may even be close to the truth. But I do not fully subscribe to this idea. A non-dual view suggests there is no such thing as a separate consciousness that drives that choice. Again, we seem to be temporary expressions of a consciousness that is in constant flux, moving into and out of these brief material manifestations and weaving ourselves into networks of similarly transitional expressions, aka other beings.

From the non-dual view, how can we define karma as strictly individual? So much is spoken about relative and absolute truth. The same distinction might be made about karma—as if there is a relative karma of our everyday transactions, the everyday activity of mind, the  unconscious habits of attention that we adopt to manipulate the outer or inner world, including our interpretations of the world and the actions we take in regard to all those related events.

We understand the meaning of karma to be “action”—which initiates and sustains the cycle of cause and effect, what we know as samsara. All of samsara, every bit of it, is karmically generated. Karma is the seed within every action of every being, including our attachment to our mental delusions, in the sense that they initiate the harvest of effects that arise in our lives.


Given the vast field in which we act, including the familial, tribal, the collective social context, the political and the global, to focus on individual karma is to overlook the true nature of our presence. To fully appreciate the nature of our predicament, we have to place ourselves within a multi-layered reality that is itself only a relative version of the journey we are all on, which is itself a relative version of the timeless condition of no condition, the ceaseless condition of arising and non-arising.

We operate not only in helplessness and confusion. There is also bewilderment, a primal search for our eternal nature beyond the laws of physics, mixed with an awareness of our physical nature hopelessly anchored in the laws of physics. Sure, there is a karmic component of all our transactions; there is also a karmic component to our interpretations of events. This is the karma of our karma, predisposing the interpretation of the activity we are observing. We can never have an objective view. There is no such thing.

Adopting tools of interpretation can either facilitate awakening or inhibit it. We are boxed in by our own box. Our habits of mind operate regardless of our intent or our self-reinforcing assurances. Our view is always inescapably relative. No doubt we do have karmic encounters for some mutual purpose. If we differentiated karma, we might say relative karma applies to the individual, while absolute karma is a aggregate condition of the whole, the entire fabric of samsara we share.

Our lives–what we experience as the separate nature of our journey–are brief holographic representations of the whole truth, the entire timeless web of existence, the knowing that fuels us and which so frequently stumps and confuses us. At that moment of entering the realm of physics, the universe of sensation, we lose awareness of the whole. We enter the realm of forgetting, helplessness and bewilderment. There is no going back. There is no recovery. There is no absolute solace. Whatever true perspective, equanimity or peace we may achieve comes only with great diligence…and is itself impermanent.

Our ultimate nature, the timeless and absolute view, always present, is pure, fearless, compassionate awareness. These words alone, being frail derivatives of non-conceptual reality, fall hopelessly short of conveying unconditioned nature. They convey what appears to have distinct attributes such as purity or compassion or fearlessness. But these terms are redundant. They describe a single facet of a condition having no attributes, that is indivisible and cannot be described in terms appearing to differentiate one quality from another.

There is no purity without awareness. There is no awareness without compassion. Compassion does not exist apart from fearlessness. Anything detracting from the purity of open awareness is obscuration. Fear is a characteristic of our embodied condition, the dualism of confusion and bewilderment inherent to the universe of sensation.

If this is the truth of our ultimate nature, then every moment we are ensnared in the mental universe, conceptualizing and imagining these qualities to be separate attributes of truth, we are failing to notice the dynamic nature, the unity, the immeasurable spontaneous, ever-renewing beauty of moment-to-moment presence.

Surrender II

In recent conversation with a poet/yogini friend, I offered to advance her book of poetry via a connection I had in McLeod Ganj. The advantages seemed too serendipitous to pass up. She was appreciative, but expressed reservations, wanting to finalize her publishing deal first. She also made references to other more mysterious factors to be assessed before proceeding in the way I suggested. She had referred to herself as a shaman in previous communication. Now she was sounding like one. I was drawn into her view, which was entirely about fully opening awareness, not to obscure conceptualization, but to the unseen, the non-conceptual un-evaluated forces that impinge on important decisions and activities in everyday life–if we take the time to notice. A shamanic view.

Not only that, I was being drawn into such awareness in that moment, suddenly immersing in the flow of my own life. But I had no doubt it was the energetics of the moment, the exchange we were having that drove my attention in that way. I was having a burning reflection of my personal default state, my primary orientation to material existence, to causes and conditions, to the imaginary nurture of dualism, a force-based mechanical self-assessment and decision-making process about nearly everything I do.

This came as a shock, and with considerable emotion, as if I was suddenly permitting myself to see clearly and to let go, releasing into a more expansive view of everything. The sense of boundaries, physical boundaries, psychic boundaries, the limits of my separate identity all relaxed. The sense of my own influence in the world and in my very own life, my agency, also relaxed. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, my need to exercise that agency relaxed. I sensed the fear at the root of that need melting away. It was a welcome feeling. I was not surrendering agency; I was redefining it. I was no longer the sole agent, the sole cause and director of my separate life, but the effect of energies far beyond my comprehension or influence.

About a month ago I had an experience I called “dissolution.” It was a temporary disappearance of the normal boundary between the perceiver and the perceived. I experienced a dissolution of whatever we imagine separates phenomena from each other.  Everything appeared as a single seamless image in which all phenomena including myself, arise and return to a single source-less source, in no-place in no-time. My friend read what I had written and recognized it as territory of common interest.

Returning to and continuing to reside in that no-place and no-time requires more conscious deliberation lest the experience recede and become inaccessible. It’s barely accessible even now. Trying too hard becomes mere contrivance, as if one can set the stage and wait for the actors before the drama has been written. Dissolution, allowing all  contrivance to fall away, becomes the new challenge. Yet transcending the contradiction of learning how to “not do” is possible, even if only for brief moments.

In those moments, the presence of death, the inevitable end of everything, arises into awareness, where it has always belonged, where it has never truly left. Fear subsides, striving dissolves, apprehension and anxiety about the past or future disappear. The sense of oneself as simultaneously insignificant abides, being a mere instrument of reality, as well as being an unusually powerful voice of truth.

Exploring these pathways, I re-inhabit a body-mind relaxation-response I associate with surrender. Infusion with this dose of reality becomes a form of surrender, though not in the conventional sense of erasing myself, or giving up something, autonomy; more like redefining the self I imagined, having an opportunity to revise hidden assumptions about autonomy.

The dissolution of duality, the separation of living and dying, arising and disappearing, is not a matter of doing. Neither is the state of non-meditation–entirely different from not meditating–a matter of doing. It is a matter of un-doing, walking backward through the layers of mental construction of everyday mind, the obscuration of reality, to the fundamental nature of mind–a placid pond on which thoughts arise from nothing and skip like stones into exhaustion. The observer disappears. Surrender cannot be true, and remains a limited self-delusional contrivance, if the subject-object structure of perception is preserved.

The most common buddhist inference about surrender implies subsuming oneself to a greater influence, abjectly deferring one’s will to a larger purpose; namely, the intelligence, the practice, the clear seeing of a teacher. One is admonished to regard the teacher as an emissary of the dharma, a voice of all teachers; not merely as just another ego, but even as a Buddha himself. A karmic partnership is expressed in the one who reveals our own self-cherishing to us, holds a mirror to our flawed thinking, doubt and twisted perception.

Yet we also have to ask, “Who is surrendering? And surrendering to what?” There is no doubt that grasping and contrivance may be revealed in relationship, but it is equally flawed to regard the Other as any more real than oneself, with all of the same flaws, feelings and constant tripping over one’s own garments. Subsuming one’s ego to another’s guidance without noticing the empty essence and primordial purity of the entire transaction will not be of ultimate benefit. Light is not other than the sun, but the sun itself in different form. The vast expanse is not other than the vast expanse in every possible form, appearing as Other. Surrender into a relationship that is not dedicated to the dissolution of boundaries, to the promise and evocation of the seamless image, not merely to the destruction of the witness, but to the shamanic inclusion of everything as witness, that is the promise of true surrender.


McLeod Ganj

I went to the railway station in Amritsar for my 8:20 train a week ago and discovered all trains had been cancelled-not only for that day but for four days. I had no choice but to take a taxi east to Pathankot and then north from there to Dharamsala and McLeodganj further up the mountain.
It was 85 degrees at 8am and the AC was not working. There was no way I was going to travel 4 hours in a car with no AC. So I told the driver he had to go back. He fiddles with the fuses, goes to an auto shop (an unmarked doorway behind a closed storefront), but can’t get the AC to work. Forty five minutes later, I tell him he can get another taxi to meet us. Soon his brother shows up.
Pathankot is about 120 km from Amritsar, and there was another taxi already there to meet me and take me to the mountains. All of this amounted to an unexpected expense of about 6000 rupees ($90), plus the train ticket I had already paid for.
There was also no internet in Punjab for three days because–a local guru with a global following of 60 million was convicted in an Indian court, in a trial lasting ten years, of two rapes committed 15 years ago. His followers hit the streets in mob actions that killed 38 people. The government response was to cut off internet, all train travel, some of cable TV and even schools in multiple western Indian states for three days.

The main square of McLeod Ganj, the confluence of seven roads. This is early morning. By 10am and well into the night, it is jammed with taxis, cars, buses and people 

But yes, I arrived in McLeod Ganj just fine. This is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. It’s cooler, more colorful, cleaner, with safe food (a Big Deal!) a large Tibetan population, monks and more spoken English. The Dalai Lama is teaching for three days starting Tuesday here at (the main temple) Tsuglakhang, so there’s an extra contingent of global visitors. Lots of backpackers, a few grizzled hippies, western tourists and western monks from everywhere.
McLeod Ganj has the feel of an Alpine village, with the center of town full of boutique-y shops, street vendors, restaurants and cafes selling clothing, a wide range of jewelry items, religious objects, textiles, thangkas, coffee, fancy pastry and international foods. A  Little Lhasa. I’ve seen it all before, but it’s still interesting to browse. The rest of it is narrow, rough roads tucked between layers and layers of structures stacked far up the hillsides one upon the other.

Looking down this stairway from street level, I thought I’d stumbled into an Escher drawing. Five walkways going different directions.

I came here for teachings that were scheduled for Buddhist communities of Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.  The venue is quite modest, really. Very simple compared to everything I’ve seen in Nepal and Tibet: a small inner shrine surrounded by large, multi-level, covered patios with a capacity of several thousand.

Every square foot of this space and large spaces upstairs will be filled with those attending.

Inside the temple, the walls are lined with paintings of Tsongkhapa, of course, being the founder of the Gelug school. There are no large statues, only a couple of enclosed shrines and the teaching throne.
Each morning, the Dalai Lama enters from a residence behind the teaching venue, walking a corridor between seating areas, accompanied by his considerable retinue of security officials and high lamas, all of this to the strains of the Tibetan national anthem.

Large monitors are strategically placed to permit wider viewing. Seating areas are roped off for international groups from Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Romania, Russia and more. Thousands of Tibetans are attending. Ninety percent are sitting on the concrete floor. I sit in a designated area with several hundred chairs.


Each day, the teaching is opened with a different international group reciting the Heart Sutra in their native language. Simultaneous translation of everything is occurring in 7-8 languages. The material for the teaching is Buddhapalita’s interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamikakarika), a text written 500 years after Buddha which has been a primary basis of buddhist instruction for 2000 years.


Afternoon recap of the morning teaching.

Teaching on the Buddhapalita is new, but the Dalai Lama’s fluency with Nagarjuna’s highly sophisticated, meticulous and sometimes impenetrable logic is so impressive. He has taught it many times, I’m sure. The ease with which he conveys the material makes it seem, ironically, both fundamental and very advanced at the same time-which, of course, it is.BAF17D2B-80CA-4D86-BFBE-782531463532

Meanwhile, up here in the clouds, moments of clear weather are few and brief. Best to take note when they arrive.






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Ganden & Norbulakhang


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Chimph’u and Samye: Expect the Unexpected


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The Pinnacle: Shongsep Nunnery and Gangri Tokar


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