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Dalai Lama turns 75: question over his succession remains

The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama turns 75 on Tuesday. As the Nobel Laureate gets older, concerns are mounting over his succession.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The present Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso fled Tibet in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He has since been living in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. Many Tibetans revere him as a living god and therefore the issue of his succession is sensitive as well as complicated.

"Traditionally the Dalai Lama has been both a monk and also the head of the state in Tibet," explains Paul Williams, an expert at the University of Bristol. "In addition, the Dalai Lama is someone who is considered by the Tibetans to be spiritually so advanced that when he dies it is possible for him to control his reincarnation. Of course, Tibetans and other Buddhists believe in reincarnation. So when we talk about the successor to the Dalai Lama, do we mean the person who will be considered to be the reincarnation of the current Dalai Lama or do we mean by the successor to the Dalai Lama who will be considered to be politically the head of the Tibetan government in exile?"

Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile

Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile

Political responsibilities

The current Dalai Lama has however in recent years clearly separated his political responsibility from his spiritual work. "As far as his political responsibilities are concerned, His Holiness says he is in semi-retirement," says Thubten Samphel, the spokesperson of the Tibetan government in exile. "He has passed on much of his political responsibilities to the elected leadership. The spiritual responsibilities of His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be a carried on by his successor."

Yet it remains unclear how the Tibetans in exile will actually choose his successor. Thubten Samphel says the elected political leadership will oversee the succession process. The spiritual leader himself has indicated in the past that his successor could be appointed before his death or even democratically elected. Thubten Samphel explains the provision is there, but the final decision is in the hands of the Dalai Lama only:

"There is a legacy in Tibetan history to recognize and incarnate the Dalai Lama before his predecessor passes away. This tradition is there. But at this moment I cannot say whether this will be carried forward by His Holiness. It is for His Holiness to decide."

The Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama in Lhasa

The Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama in Lhasa

Chinese interference

The succession issue has become pricklier ever since the Dalai Lama anointed a six year old child as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism in 1995. The child soon disappeared and Beijing chose its own Panchen Lama. Observers say that the communist and largely atheist Chinese leadership is likely to actively interfere and manipulate things again after the Dalai Lama dies and will install its own leader.

"The Chinese could say we have discovered the correct, the real reincarnation. He is here in Tibet with us and we are going to train him, bring him up and when he is older we will announce to everyone that this is the Dalai Lama and he should be the head of Tibet of course under Chinese control," says Paul Williams.

The heat can already be felt as a senior Chinese leader last week said that all the reincarnations of Tibetan spiritual leaders must be approved by the central government in Beijing.

Author: Disha Uppal
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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