Succession worries unsettle Tibetans
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - Living in exile for nearly half a century, the 14th Dalai
Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is now 73. Tibetans in exile are becoming increasingly
concerned with the issue of his succession and their future after the passage
of the spiritual leader.
Hospitalized recently, living in semi-retirement from the Tibetan movement to
let the elected Tibetan government control daily affairs, the health and future
of the Dalai Lama is fodder for speculation. Many, especially those from older
generations, are afraid that once the Dalai Lama passes away the Tibetan
movement will lose steam and gradually fade from the international spotlight.
The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile here since fleeing Tibet
after a failed armed rebellion against Chinese rule in March 1959, says he
feels attached to the northern India state where he lives. "I have spent most
of my life in this hill station. Now I feel like a citizen of Himachal
Pradesh," the Dalai Lama said.
The spiritual leader of Tibetans in exile and at home who also leads the
Tibetan government in exile is highly respected internationally. A Nobel Peace
Laureate, the Dalai Lama was also listed as one of the 50 most powerful people
in the world by Newsweek. During his recent tour of Europe, the Dalai Lama was
presented with honorary citizenship in Rome and granted the German Media Prize.
The Dalai Lama's fame, charm and high-profile international activities have
helped make the Tibetan movement known to the world and win wide international
support. Many Tibetans in exile also believe that it is the Dalai Lama who
spiritually sustains their dream of returning to their homeland one day.
Therefore, many Tibetans in exile are worried that without him, the Tibet
movement may gradually become forgotten by the world as his successor, if there
is one, might not be able to make the same strides.
Older generations believe that following tradition, the Dalai Lama's successor
must be a boy, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. So it will take time for
the next Dalai Lama to take up leadership and engage in international
activities. But this is a topic too sacred for older Tibetans to talk about,
and they are afraid of making any comment when asked.
Tibetan elders in exile simply believe that “His Holiness will make the right
decision on choosing his successor which will benefit the future of Tibetans in
exile and in Tibet".
But some young Tibetans in exile, who seek "full Tibet independence" and
increasingly see the Dalai Lama's "middle way" as a constraint on their radical
thinking and action, may feel freer to pursue their goal through more drastic
means once the Dalai Lama passes away. These young radical Tibetans in exile,
represented by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), have become increasingly
discontent with the Dalai Lama's approach to seeking autonomy instead of
independence for the Himalayan region, though spiritually they still hold the
Dalai Lama in esteem.
Although the Chinese government has labeled the Dalai Lama a traitor intent on
fomenting violent unrest in Tibet with the ambition of achieving independence,
the Dalai Lama has not given up his middle-way approach and has made every
attempt to hold a dialogue. Although he has admitted that his faith in the
Chinese government is becoming thinner and thinner.
Compared with other active Tibetan organizations in exile, TYC has a clearcut
goal - rangzen (full independence) - on its agenda. Thus it states that
while its members will feel sad about the passage of the Dalai Lama, they will
continue to fight for their freedom.
"No doubt, no one will be able to replace the Dalai Lama and we Tibetans won't
be able to repay him. But we are struggling for an independent nation and our
struggle will continue," said TYC president Twesang Rigzin.
Therefore some analysts are increasingly concerned that once their spiritual
leader is gone, the Tibetan movement, now united under the Dalai Lama, is very
likely to split, given the differing views on how to achieve its goals.
Many have questions on how the Tibetan movement will proceed. Some have deep
worries that the current Tibetan religious and government structure will change
after his holiness passes. Others say the Tibetan movement will lose its
direction and steam, as there will be growing frustration among exiles with the
loss of a leader to guide them and to help them gain international support.
This is despite some of the Dalai Lama's staunch followers who believe that
international support for the Tibetan movement is growing even though the Dalai
Lama has already taken up semi-retirement to secure the future for the Tibetan
movement by allowing the democratically-elected government in exile to play a
more active role in deciding the course of the Tibetan movement.
Tibetans in exile are also concerned with who will become the next Dalai Lama
and how the successor will be chosen. The Dalai Lama himself has not avoided
talking about the issue of his succession in recent years. He seems to leave
the question open. He once said whether Tibetans need the next Dalai Lama is an
issue to be "democratically" decided by them.
On another occasion he did not rule out the possibility of his successor being
female if Tibetans agreed on the issue, though according to Tibetan tradition a
Dalai Lama must be male. And recently, the Dalai Lama described himself as "a
simple Buddhist monk - no more, no less" and spoke of his "retirement", though
according to Tibetan tradition the Dalai Lama is a lifetime god-king.
"If people feel that the institution of the Dalai Lama is still necessary, then
this will continue," he said. "There are various ways of [choosing a
successor]. The point is whether to continue with the institution of the Dalai
Lama or not. After my death, Tibetan religious leaders can debate whether to
have a Dalai Lama or not."
But Tibetans in exile widely believe that when their spiritual leader is gone
the Chinese government will step in to choose its own reincarnation, as it did
in case of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second highest-ranking religious figure.
In 1995, the Chinese government forced Tibetan monks to appoint Gyancain Norbu
rather than the Dalai Lama's chosen candidate - Gedhun Choekyi Nyima - in an
attempt to further exert its authority over Tibet. And Tibetans in exile claim
the Dalai Lama's designated candidate for the Panchen Lama is the youngest
political prisoner in the world, held by the Chinese government.
Most Tibetans believe Beijing is not sincere in its desire to talk with the
aging Dalai Lama on the Tibet issue, saying China is just buying time, which is
not on the Dalai Lama's side as he is 73. Analysts believe that even if Beijing
does not intervene in the Dalai Lama's reincarnation (which is very unlikely),
once the Tibetan god-king is gone his successor will be a small boy and decades
may pass before the new Dalai Lama is ready to assume religious and political
leadership, making a much longer wait for Tibetans in exile. And during that
long wait, anything can happen.
Yet it may be too early to depict any true image of a post-Dalai Lama era. As
long as the Dalai Lama lives, he will continue to do his very best to try and
lead his people back to their homeland. As the spiritual leader said, "It is my
moral responsibility until my death to work for the Tibetan cause. My body and
flesh is all Tibetan. I remain committed to the Tibetan cause."
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at [email protected]