Why the Dalai Lama's reincarnation is up for debate

The Dalai Lama is important, so important that he might decide not to come back after his next death.

  • Tibetan monks from all over the world are scheduled to visit India to discuss the issues related to the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
  • Some, including the Dalai Lama himself, have questioned if the institution should be continued.
  • The final decision will have far reaching effects, since China is unlikely to let the monks have the last word on the matter.

The world's most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, is 83 years old. Questions about his next reincarnation are uncomfortably pressing. However, a planned meeting of Tibetan Monks in India, initially slated for this week, may change the future of the position and Tibetan Buddhism forever by agreeing to not have him come back at all.

Why would they do a thing like that?

The Dalai Lama is not only the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism but also historically the leader of the Tibetan state. Given the precarious situation in Tibet, most observers maintain it was invaded by China in 1950 and remains under brutal military occupation, the question of who comes next and how that is determined is extremely important for the Tibetan people, the Chinese government, and Tibetan Buddhists all over the world.

The stage has been set for a legitimacy crisis following the death of the current Dalai Lama by the Chinese government, who really don't like the Dalai Lama and have gone to great lengths to reduce his influence. Two years ago, they blockaded Mongolia after they allowed him to visit. His image is banned in Tibet, and they have called him a "wolf in monk's clothing" to leave no doubt as to how they feel about him.

The most serious problem was created in 1995 when the second holiest Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama, was identified by the Dalai Lama and then arrested by the Chinese government, who declared their own Panchen Lama to replace the six-year-old prisoner. Since the Panchen Lama helps to pick the next Dalai Lama, to control one is to nearly assure control of the other.

In any case, China has already declared its right to pick the next Dalai Lama and requires all high-ranking Lamas to have a permit to reincarnate and will undoubtedly choose their own Lama while announcing the one the Tibetans choose is a pretender who didn't fill out the paperwork. This isn't without precedent, as the Qing Dynasty often intervened in the process of finding the next Dalai Lama during the 1700s.

Given the importance of the Dalai Lama to the Tibetan people and the Tibetan Government in Exile, it is understandable why they might want to take steps to assure that the next one isn't a puppet and is chosen in a way that is theologically satisfying.

How can the Tibetans do that? How does any of this work?

The Dalai Lama you know, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th Dalai Lama. He is part of a line of spiritual leaders going back 700 years. Each Dalai Lama is maintained to be the living incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, a Buddhist saint of compassion, who continuously returns to Earth to live a life of service to the Tibetan people. As an enlightened soul, they are not required to reincarnate but chooses to in order to help reduce human suffering. Such beings are called Bodhisattvas and are highly respected in many branches of Buddhism.

The basic details on how the next Dalai Lama is found are well known. After his death, high ranking monks, clergymen, and the Panchen Lama gather for a series of rituals and meditation. These events often take place at holy locations in Tibet. Using the information on where to look they collect from these practices and clues given to them by the sacred sites, they set out to find the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

When they think they've found him, the holy men subject the child to a series of tests, including having him try to identify which personal items placed in front of him were owned by his previous incarnation, to determine if they got it right. If they did, the new Dalai Lama is enthroned shortly afterward.

As the reincarnation of a Bodhisattva, the Dalai Lama is assumed to have some control over the details of their reincarnations. He could also choose to not select rebirth as a child but to incarnate in an already living person. Tenzin Gyatso has also said he might come back as a woman and has assured he would probably be born in India the next time around; if there is a next time.

What would they do instead?

One thing the monks will consider is if they should alter some of the ritual involved in finding the next Dalai Lama, since getting unrestricted access to the holy sites in Tibet is unlikely. They could just decide to change the rituals so that they don't need the Panchen Lama or specific locations in Tibet to find the next reincarnation successfully.

They are also open to more radical options, however. One proposal that has been making the rounds is that the system of reincarnation should be replaced with one of nomination. The Dalai Lama himself endorsed the idea in an interview with Nikkei. Saying "one elder, truly popular and respected, can be chosen as Dalai Lama. I think sooner or later, we should start that kind of practice."

He has also suggested that he might not come back at all as the institution is getting old. He once told the BBC:

There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won't come next, who will disgrace himself or herself....That would be very sad. So, much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.

If he decides to come back, the Dalai Lama will have plenty of issues to deal with right out of the gate. The question of how and if he should be the one to deal with them must be settled now. While few of the ideas above are pleasant ones, they may be the only things that can maintain the spiritual independence of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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