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?