The Jewel in the Ballot Box: Electing a New Dalai Lama

A Tibetan weighs in on His Holiness' idea of a non-reincarnated predecessor.

Jamyang NorbuIn 1949 the Governor-General of Kham, Lhalu, arranged to speak to the Dalai Lama’s tutor, Trichang Rimpoche, at Lhasa over the radio. Robert Ford, the Tibetan government radio operator at Chamdo, wrote in his book, Captured In Tibet, that he wondered what the protocol would be for this somewhat unique situation. Lhalu seems to have solved the problem by first prostrating before the transmitter/receiver and then placing a khatag around it before picking up the microphone.

Should a Tibetan voter prostrate before the ballot box before casting his vote for the next Dalai Lama? This odd question popped up in my mind when I read of His Holiness’s recent announcement about the possibility of His future reincarnation being elected by the Tibetan public. At first, I thought that this was one of those off-the-cuff statements that the Dalai Lama is well known for, and which have been known to cause mild bouts of panic in the ranks of the Kashag in Dharamshala. But some days after that His Holiness went on to elaborate on his proposal, stating that there were multiple ways in which the incarnation of the Dalai Lama could be selected, including picking a successor himself or having him elected in the manner of the Catholic Pope by a college of lamas. In His latest statement, he did not discount the possibility of a woman being chosen as the next Dalai Lama. But his most radical proposal has definitely been the one for holding a referendum in Tibetan society on whether he should be reborn at all. And, whether or not the institution of the Dalai Lamas should come to an end.

It was clear that, at least on one level, this was His Holiness’s way of countering the Chinese government’s announcement about its intention of controlling the reincarnation process of Tibetan lamas. As a tactical move it was certainly effective in that it received a lot of publicity and discussion in the international media and demonstrated that the Dalai Lama was not going to sit back and let China have its way on this issue. Most of the articles and opinion pieces were positive and sympathetic, and there was some approval of the Dalai Lama’s democratizing the incarnation process and Tibetan society itself.

Even in the traditional selection process of the Dalai Lamas, there were features that might be described as democratic, in the loose, non-technical sense of the term. Dalai Lamas have emerged from a diverse variety of areas and social classes. The first was from the most humble of backgrounds, and a number of subsequent incarnations were of peasant and nomadic stock. We are all aware of the solid rural credentials of the present incumbent. One cannot escape the “Log cabin to White House” comparison, with a humble household becoming the first family in the Tibetan Buddhist world. The accompanying power and wealth would sometimes go to the head of the “Great Father”, the head of the household, in unfortunate ways, as happened in at least two cases in Tibetan history. Even if the institution did throw up a few problems like this, there was a common belief nationwide that at least the selection process was free of trickery or deception, and that every Tibetan household, or at least one with a pregnant woman at that moment, had a genuine chance of winning this greatest of national lotteries, as it were.

Now of course with the Dalai Lama’s proposals for a new and even more democratic way to select the Dalai Lama, one might speculate that perhaps the many drawbacks, big and small, that the old process entailed would be resolved, even if only in part. While the old system did have its share of difficulties, one that we discussed earlier as well as another, and perhaps the most glaring, being the interregnum between one Dalai Lama and the next, which was filled by a regent. Generally chosen from the ranks of the highest lamas in the Gelukpa church, the regents unfortunately had a tendency to give in to corruption and abuse of power.

His Holiness’s well publicized and sweeping proposals to change the fundamental basis of the Dalai Lama institution has definitely sparked discussion in the Tibetan world and I received quite a few e-mails and telephone calls soliciting my thoughts on the matter. So I sat down and tried to work out the consequences that His Holinesses various proposals might entail.

I quickly realized that the idea of electing the Dalai Lama, though certainly intriguing, raises considerable problems. Of course it would be ridiculous to select a number of child candidates and ask people to vote for one of them. I am sure His Holiness was not exactly thinking of that when he talked of elections. How could the public be reasonably expected to determine the spiritual qualities of a child candidate? In that case would the system then limit itself to adult candidates who could at least tell us about their spiritual qualifications for the job? Of course the candidates would probably all have to be lamas, or at least monks to qualify, which immediately takes away from the democratic nature of the process. Then the tricky questions come up, would the candidates be restricted to the Gelukpa church, or could candidates from other sects apply. In that case could a Bonpo be allowed to join the race?

There is also the real predicament that when the candidates are high lamas or holy people, how could we have an open and forthright national discussion about them? If you made a critical remark about one of the candidates then you would be hurting the religious sentiments of that candidate’s disciples or followers and they would definitely respond with energy if not violence. The fact of your criticism being honest, accurate or even well meaning would make no difference whatsoever. In the Tibetan Buddhist system the teacher-disciple relationship requires that the disciple should be absolutely non-critical and unquestioningly loyal. Of course, if the candidates themselves started to criticize each other and responded with any degree of passion we could expect conflicts between various groups of followers that could perhaps escalate into sectarian clashes. Lastly, we should consider the sort of person who would offer himself up as a candidate. One could safely assume that the wise, reclusive and saintly kind of lama would definitely not want to involve himself in such an election. Unfortunately, I can easily think up a list of all too worldly lamas who would fight tooth and nail to be the next Dalai Lama.

Among all of His Holiness’s proposals, the one I found most troubling was his idea of holding a referendum on whether the institution of the Dalai Lamas itself should come to an end. I am personally convinced that the Dalai Lama system should not only continue, but that the manner in which the incarnation is selected remains unchanged. I feel it is absolutely vital that we be able to convey the impression, the conviction that the institution is permanent and inviolate. I could think of a number of reasons: historical, psychological, even sentimental, why we should do this, but the most important reason right now would be that the Dalai Lama is the living symbol of a free and independent Tibet, not just for the world, but most of all for those Tibetans struggling to survive, day after day, year after year, under the unrelenting and pitiless tyranny of Communist China.

We know what everyone in Tibet wants — from the humble peasant in Ngari, the solitary nomad in the Changtang to so many others in Kham, Amdo and U Tsang — is an opportunity to see His Holiness and receive his blessings. It must be understood that this desire to see His Holiness is not merely a religious aspiration, divorced from people’s sense of themselves as Tibetans. Feelings of identity, uniqueness and nationalism are often expressed in different ways, not necessarily aggressively or politically. The more potent and emotive are often indirect and symbolic. The Dalai Lama may see himself as a “simple Buddhist monk” or a teacher to the world, but for his people he is the living symbol of their long hoped for freedom from Chinese rule. In the last couple of years with Beijing cracking down on even those Tibetans it employs as officials, a genuine groundswell of devotion to the Dalai Lama and the hope of a free Tibet have become remarkably manifest all over Tibet.

But no matter how important we Tibetans may regard the institution of the Dalai Lamas, and would like nothing better than to see it continue unchanged, His Holiness himself has, on a number of occasions, made it clear that he would like to retire. Constitutionally this might create a problem since Dalai Lamas are not appointed or elected, so the question of retiring should not really arise. The Dalai Lama’s position is not even like that of a king, who does not become one until his coronation. Rather, the Dalai Lama’s is a lifetime job. He is born a Dalai Lama, and it is assumed that he is one even if the search party hasn’t yet made it to his village and found him. Even in his minority when he does not have the authority to skip a calligraphy lesson, he is still the Dalai Lama. Being the Dalai Lama does not seem to require that he have actual political powers.

And this is where I can begin to make out a single overall solution to these numerous problems that Tibetan society now faces: of His Holiness wishing to retire, of searching for a new Dalai Lama, of maintaining the tradition as the people in Tibet would want it, of countering Chinese efforts to control the reincarnation process, and of maintaining unity in exile society till the next Dalai Lama returns to his people.

At the beginning of this month the people of Thailand celebrated the eightieth birthday of their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, with large-scale public festivities but also with heart-felt reverence. Theirs is something like the relationship Tibetans have with the Dalai Lama. The Thai people prostrate themselves on the ground in the King’s presence. Yet there is genuine affection too, and it goes both ways. Thais talk of their love for him as though he were a cherished member of the family. In his speeches to the nation he likes to joke and tease them. And like the Dalai Lama, the King is as much a spiritual leader as a worldly one.

During his six decades on the throne, Thailand has undergone changes as wrenching as in any other country. There have been other changes as well.

This king has reigned through 17 military coups and 26 prime ministers. Amid this whirlwind, he has remained a reassuring anchor, a man who embodies Thailand's history but who has also come to embody integrity and detachment from the squalid realities of day-to-day politics and business. He has lived the role of the virtuous chakravartin monarch so well that almost the entire population believes in it and takes comfort from it. And it gives him a unique moral authority. When he speaks, people listen. They may, and often do fail to act on his advice. But he has been able to use that authority to settle a number of political crises.

Constitutionally the Thai monarchy is almost powerless. It is not political power but the only occasional use of the King’s traditional and moral authority that has allowed the country to make it way through a succession of unstable military and civilian governments. Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun describes King Bhumibol's authority as “reserve power” that, because it has been used judiciously and sparingly, has been decisive in maintaining the country's stability.

The Dalai Lama should not retire and should remain head of state, but he should modify his role to that of a constitutional one like the King of Thailand’s. In this way His Holiness need not be burdened with the routine problems of government or with the unpleasant squabbles and strife of political life, but still retain a constitutional role to advise perhaps even arbitrate, in the case of a major national crisis.

Political power should rest entirely with the Tibetan people, as His Holiness has repeatedly said was his intention. The system we have now can in no way be regarded as a genuine democracy. The closest thing I can think of is Nepal’s former “panchayat” democracy. You can also quite safely compare it to those “managed” or “guided” democracies that you find in Russia, Zimbabwe, and other places in the third world. Of course, one could argue that our system is an improvement over the “people’s” democracies we have in North Korea or China, but that should not even be a consideration.

In order for His Holiness’s democratic vision to be realized, we cannot just wait for an independent Tibet in which to have a representative and liberal democracy. It is absolutely vital that our present exile government be chosen through a multi-party election system. It must be added that this should be done on a one person, one vote basis, since the present election system we have allows, in essence, for members of the clergy, to have two votes.

The democratic process not only creates a viable way to maintain the institution of the Dalai Lama in an acceptably traditional way, but also provides solutions for other crucial problems we will certainly face when His Holiness is not with us, such as: keeping up the hope of Tibetans inside Tibet, preventing social disunity in exile and averting a breakdown of the government system.

To the oppressed people of Tibet, democracy represents not only a goal of eventual freedom from Chinese tyranny but also the best hope for a truly just and equitable government of their own choice. As such, the promise of a true democratic Tibet will be an effective repudiation of repeated Chinese propaganda claims that Tibetan independence would mean a reversion to theocratic feudalism. Just a week or so after His Holiness’s announced his desire to democratize his selection process, Beijing issued an official statement (on December 11th) accusing the Dalai Lama of wanting to restore feudalism to his exiled homeland of Tibet. Hence the early and effective implementation of a genuine democratic process in our exile-society becomes a clear proof to the Tibetan people of the Dalai Lama’s absolute sincerity in his commitment to democracy for Tibet.

Right now the government-in-exile, especially within the working ranks, is tremendously demoralized. Officials are leaving in large numbers to emigrate to the West, and few people of ability appear to want to join. Samdong Rimpoche the prime minister has on occasion bemoaned the materialism of those Tibetans leaving for the USA and not working for the government. Rimpoche is not entirely incorrect in his accusations. Yes, many Tibetans want a better life in USA or Europe for themselves and their family, but that is perfectly understandable. Yet there are many others who want to stay and contribute, to leave their mark on Tibetan politics or accomplish something meaningful in society or government. The real tragedy is that there is no place for such people in present day Tibetan political culture of pious defeatism and vicious sycophancy. Furthermore both the Kashag and the Assembly are marginalized in terms of real political power and have no meaningful role in formulation of national policy.

There has always been a standard practice in Tibetan society of criticizing, even putting down the Tibetan government and its officials while lavishly praising the Dalai Lama. Foreign supporters and friends often use this as a convenient justification for dealing directly with His Holiness and ignoring the administration. This has also resulted over the years in the creation, by Tibetan politicians and the like, of various independent organisations (like the International Campaign for Tibet and others) that draw their considerable funding and political influence from their close association with His Holiness, but are not accountable to the government-in-exile or the Tibetan public. There was the case some years ago when a Tibetan administrator in such an organisation even refused to serve as Kalon when he was offered the appointment.

Gradually the government has become marginalized and even Beijing has managed to add to this with its so-called "negotiation" that has created the impression that the Tibet issue is nothing but a personal matter of the Dalai Lamas return. When His Holiness recently received the Congressional Gold Medal a number of the important American speakers at the event appeared to be entirely under this impression and fervently called on Chinese leaders to allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. One speaker even appealed to Beijing to allow the Dalai Lama to return to China!

While on the matter of the Gold Medal ceremony at Washington DC, it was observed that some front-row seats at the function were reserved for heads of Dharma centres in the West, such as Sogyal Rimpoche and Nyarakhentul Rimpoche. The Tibetans involved in the organizing had not even bothered to issue an invitation to the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, who I understand was finally instructed by Parliament to attend, and just managed to do so at the last minute.

If the Tibetan Parliament and Kashag continually become sidelined and trivialized, then the government-in-exile will almost certainly collapse when His Holiness is not with us. The only way for it to survive and even gain legitimacy and authority is if Tibetan people all over the world feel they have a direct stake in its formation and operation, and also feel that their participation in the process is necessary, meaningful, and will bring about genuine results. Such an outcome can only be realized through a multi-party based democracy. Such a system, because of the role of a standing legitimate opposition, will also produce accountability and when required, change. No other system will be able to keep the Tibetans united when His Holiness is not with us.

When we flip the situation around, it also becomes apparent that only a strong functioning government can reasonably ensure that a genuine incarnation of the Dalai Lama is selected and properly installed as Tibets constitutional head of state. Of course, the State Oracle and important lamas will certainly participate in the selection process, but the overall and final responsibility for the process must lie with the elected government. The disastrous history of lama regents, such as Demo Rimpoche after the 12th Dalai Lama and Reting and Taktra after the 13th, have clearly demonstrated that there is not another way.

We must also bear in mind that the Chinese have made it clear that they will be putting up their own candidate. It is possible that, to make mischief, the Chinese might even bribe and encourage unscrupulous lamas in the exile community or some dharma centre to put up their own candidate. In such uncertain and troubled circumstances it is vital that we have a strong and unquestionably genuine democratic government that can unite all Tibetans to face and overcome such attacks on their religion and sacred institutions and ensure that the 15th Dalai Lama returns safely to his own people.

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