Monday, December 13, 2010

Goodbye Dalai?

Tibet’s Dalai Lama gives his clearest sign yet of departure from political life

The Dalai Lama’s recent announcement that he would give up his ceremonialrole as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile and retire next year in favorof a simpler life away from politics, has sent a wave of concern through Tibetanexiles and supporters across the globe.

The 75-year-old head of Tibetan Buddhism, who his followers believe is the14th in a line of reincarnated religious leaders, talked about hisdesire to retire from public life in a recent interview with an Indian newschannel. He has already transferred most of his political powers to primeminister-in-exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, whom he has addressed as his"boss."

“In order to utilize full democracy,” the Dalai Lama said, “I feel it isbetter if I am not involved and I am devoted to other fields, promotion ofhuman values and peace and harmony. But firstly I have to discuss, to inform membersof the Tibetan parliament.”

The declaration has again raised the question of who might lead the Tibetanmovement and spread the message of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide. The Dalai Lamahimself has often suggested that he is a simple monk and that his successorcould be democratically elected — and could even be a woman.

The revered figure, who is already semi-retired, said he would announce hisfull retirement at the next session of the exile parliament in March and wouldthen scale back his responsibilities over the following six months, said TenzinTaklha, Joint Secretary at the Dalai Lama’s private office based inDharamsala. Taklha stressed thatthe Dalai Lama cannot renounce his spiritual duties but plans to retire fromhis ceremonial responsibilities.

Beijing has loudly and repeatedly asserted its intention to name the 15thDalai Lama, as it did with the current Panchen Lama, the Tibetan religion’ssecond-highest religious leader. The government kidnapped the child chosen asthe reincarnated spiritual leader by the Tibetan church and his family and hasheld them incognito ever since, substituting its own Panchen Lama. China claims it has the right to choosethe Dalai Lama because it possesses the Golden Urn, an artifact used by Manchuemperors in the Qing dynasty in a ceremony to select the reborn religiousleader.

Much of the speculation on who might lead focuses on the 17th Karmapa Lama,Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who staged a dramatic escape from China in 1999 afterbeing anointed by the Chinese government as Tibet’s first living Buddha. He joinedthe Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, making world headlines and badly embarrassingBeijing. Although he was given refugee status by India in 2001, the Indiangovernment closely monitors his activities and limits his travel.

“I think China will rejoice and they will try and feed all of Asia withdifferent teachings, teachings that are strictly geared to their way ofthinking,” said Judy Friedsam, anAmerican Buddhist. “I think the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje would be thenext best thing to follow the Dalai Lama to fill the future void among Tibetanexiles,” she said.

The exiles’ concerns are natural “We knew this (retirement) would come oneday and we will have to face it, it is unfortunate for us that we are stillfacing this even after 50 years of non-violent struggle,” said an elderly exilewho gave his name as Tsering.

Many believe the Dalai Lama is seeking to prepare younger leaders to play amajor role. Recent preliminary elections for the post of Kalon Tripa, or Tibetan Prime-Minister-in- exile have included young,American-educated Tibetans, an indication of the Dalai Lama’s moves to prepareexiles for life after he is gone.

“He’s continuing a decades-long attempt to try to make his exileadministration more democratic and less dependent on him,” said Robbie Barnett,a Tibet scholar at Columbia University. “What’s interesting here is thathe’s becoming more specific in terms of when this might happen and what thisretirement might mean.”

The Chinese leadership in Beijing would obviously welcome the Dalai Lama’s retirement,eliminating a five-decade irritation. However, Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia Studies at theShanghai Institute for International Studies, told the official Chinese daily GlobalTimes that the topic has often been used to draw attention, since inTibetan Buddhism, a Dalai Lama cannot “retire.”

The spiritual leader has several times questioned Chinese concern over hissuccessor. Recently speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit he said, “Thatis not a serious question for me. It looks like the Chinese government isseriously looking. I made it very clear in 1961 that whether the institution ofDalai Lama should continue or not should be debated.” He even said if amajority feels that the institution of the Dalai Lama is not relevant, then itwill cease to exist.

The religious leader’s departure from the global scene could have a dramaticeffect. The recent disclosures by WikiLeaks of US State Department diplomaticcables have revealed China’s attempts to limit the Dalai Lama’s movements bypressuring many countries. His retirement could be a relief to host nations concernedabout economic ties with Beijing.

Surely an exit from public life won’t be easy for the Dalai Lama. The exiled parliament may well refuseto let him quit. His spiritualfollowers and exile alike are deeply concerned about a void that would diminishthe importance of their struggle.

Summing up the reaction was the Tibetan Prime Ministerial candidate in nextyear’s election, Dolma Gyari: “We will humbly request him not to leave us,” shesaid.
By Saransh Sehgal writer basedin Dharamsala, India. Asia Sentinel

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