Tibet and the Institution of Dalai Lama

-P. Stobdan, Research Fellow, IDSA

 Theological and Historical Background

For many centuries, Indian Buddhism served as a cultural model for the entirety of Central Asia. Since the 7th-8th centuries, several Indian Buddhist saints, such as Padma Sambhava, Shanti-Rakshita, Virupa, Dharmapala, Atisha and many others had systematically introduced the Indian tradition of Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet. As a result, four major schools of Buddhism emerged in Tibet, which,were associated with one or two Indian Buddhist masters. For example, the Nying-mia or Old Sect was the formation of Padma Sambhava and Shanti-Rakshita; the Sa-kya, also known as the White Sect (derived from the colour of the hats worn during the ceremonial rites) is associated with Virupa and Dharmapala; the Kar-gyu known as the Red Sect with Naropa and Maitriyogi; the Kadam with Atisha.1 Atisha was perhaps the last Indian master to visit Tibet in 1042 and remained there until his death in 1055.

Two hundred years after Atisha’s death, a remarkable Tibetan personality named Tsongkhapa (1357-1417) sought to bring in reforms while synthesising the existing four schools of Buddhism. The reforms initiated by Tsongkhapa were based on the Kadam or the thoughts of Atisha which were essentially centred around the transformation of traditionally Tantric based practices into a more purffied and dialectic based philosophy of Buddhism. He founded a new sect, known as Gelugpa (those who follow the path of perfect virtue) which came to be known as the Yellow Sect, and established his monastery Gaden (place of joy) in 1409. Within his own life-time and a century later, the Gelugpa Order became the largest and dominant religion in Central Asia. It became the first trans-sectarian and trans-national movement. Even today, the same Gelugpa school continues to serve as the living religion from Kham in the east to Ladakh in the west, from Buriyat Mongol of Russia in the north to Nepal in the south. The movement was so strong that it was able to change not only the cultural history of Central Asia, but also the political history of future Tibet.

Among other things Gelugpa sought to bring changes in the methods of leadership succession. It strongly opposed the hereditary rule by the lay nobility and their transition of power. Instead, the Gelugpa Order evolved the concept of reincarnation (tulku) as the system to establish leadership succession. The rightful reincarnation was considered to be a manifestation of the Budhisattva Avalokiteslhvara, (in Tibetan Phags-pa Chenrezig). It was also considered that the Budhisattva Avalokiteshvara would be the supreme patron deity of Tibet. According to the Tibetan Buddhism, the first thirty-seven incarnations of the hierarch had taken place in India. It was along this revolutionary change of the 14th century in Tibet that the origin of the Dalai Lama and his lineage is associated, which continues to be passed on even today.

 1st-4th Dalai Lama

The historical line of the Dalai Lama begins with Gedun Trupa (1391-1474) who was a principal disciple of the great reformer Tsongkhapa. He initially joined the Narthang monastery in Tsang, where he received ordination. Later he went to Central Tibet and received more education and attained solitary meditation in remote caves among hermits. Finally, he achieved enlightenment and became the most respected Lama in Tibet. He was the author of several important books. The important ones included his commentary on Vinaya, Abhidharma, Madhiyamzika and others. Gedun Trupa was later considered as the fifty first manifestation of the Avalokiteslhvara.

One year later, his incarnation was born as the son of Nying-ma Lama, called Kunga Gyaltsen. He was soon admitted to the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, where he received on ordination the name of Gedun Gyatso (1475-1542). After a few years, he was transferred to Drepung monastery in Central Tibet where he attained the degree of utmost repute. He was also known as the "Dripung Lama." Like the first Lama, Gedun Gyatso also practised solitary meditation retreat, and wrote a number of important books.

Tsongkhapa’s disciple Gedun Trupa’s third incarnation was born as the son of Namgyal Rakspa, an official in charge of a district. He was placed in Drepung monastery, where he received profound knowledge under the influence of the greatest teacher, Sonam Rakspa, who was the fifteenth Regent of Tsongkhapa.2 On his ordination, he received the name of Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588). In 1576, upon hearing the fame of Sonam Gyatso, Altan Khan, leader of the Turned Mongols, invited him to his court. Gyatso performed several miracles and bestowed precepts on the Mongol Khan. The Khan was highly impressed by the Tibetan Lama and immediately decided to embrace Buddhism. The Khan also ordered his Shamanists subjects to take refuge under the Buddha Dharma. On embracing Buddhism, Altan Khan conferred on Sonam Gyatso the title of "Dalai" (meaning Ocean in Mongolian) and called him the Dalai Lama. The title signifies "universal, great, wide expanse like ocean, or ocean-like wisdom." Thus, for the first time, the Tibetan hierarch or the reincarnation of Tsongkhapa’s disciple Gedun Trupa began to be known as the Dalai Lama.

Thus, the titles of the first and second Dalai Lamas were posthumously conferred on the previous two incarnated Lamas, Gedun Trupa and Gedun Gyatso respectively.

With the conferment of the title Dalai Lama, the Mongol Khan became the official patron of the Tibetan religious hierarch. Thus, a relationship of "Priest and Patron," (Tibetan Cho-yon), was formed as the basis for their future relations. The title of Dalai Lama to Sonam Gyatso was also recognised by the Chinese Emperor.

The fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617), was born in Altan Khan’s own family, as his great grandson. The fourth Dalai Lama took more interest in monastic organisations than in spiritual attainments. However, his birth in the family of the Mongolian Khan not only consolidated the Mongol-Tibetan ties, but also assured the Gelugpa sect of continuing Mongol patronage along the concept of Cho-yon.

It must be mentioned here that earlier too, the Cho-yon, the priest pattron relationship, was practised during the period of the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongol Emperors then patronised the Tibetan Lama Sakya Pandita and his lineage of the Sakya sect. The relationship continued until the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in China in 1368. During the subsequent period of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Cho-yon relationship became less significant and Tibet began to be ruled by the lay ruler Changchub Gyaltsan (1356-1364). With the declining power of the Mongol Emperors, the secular Tibetan ruler also marginalised the Sakya lineage and established a new unified Tibet along the historical lines of the Tibetan Imperial Age. Tibet remained outside the control of Ming China; neither did they seek any relationship with the Tibetan Lamas in a stronger way (except for patronising a few Lamas of the Karmapa sect). The Ming prefered to patronise the Confusion tradition rather than Buddhism.

Thus, the roles of the first to fourth Dalai Lamas were purely confined to religion fulfilling the spiritual needs of the Emperors, who in turn protected and propagated the status of Lamas. However, the Lamas of the Sakya sect continued to enjoy a greater role in Tibetan politics, until their dominance was challenged by another Mongol Emperor, Gushi Khan.

5th Dalai Lama

The fifth Dalai Lama was known for his most forceful personality among all the Dalai Lamas. Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso was born in 1617 and was ordained at Drepung monastery. At the time the fifth Dalai Lama came to power, various Tibetan religious sectarian groups had started to fight for religious and regional struggles. For a brief period the Karmapa sect from Tsang had gained control over Lhasa.3 The fifth Dalai Lama quickly gained control over Lhasa. The fifth Dalai Lama sought the help of his patron, the Qoshot Mongol Prince, to intervene in Tibet in his favour. As the fourth Dalai Lama was a Mongol prince, Gushi Khan had no difficulty in supporting the fifth Dalai Lama. Gushi Khan first visited Tibet as a pilgrim and then three years later, i.e. in 1640, he entered Tibet with his troops and defeated all the powerful and rival Tibetan Armies and religious sects. After taking control of all Tibet, Gushi Khan presented the whole of Tibet to the fifth Dalai Lama and made him both spiritual and secular ruler of Tibet. In return, the Dalai Lama gave Gushi.Khan the title of Chokyi-Gyalpo (king-according to-the-faith). The Cho-yon relationship was once again applied to the governance of Tibet, this time with much more political authority for the Dalai Lama.

Ngawang Gyatso was extraordinarily learned in both spiritual and temporal matters and established a unique form of Tibetan government, known as Gadan Phodranig. He began the construction of the Potala palace in 1645. He became the undisputed leader of Tibet and enjoyed full spiritual and temporal power from Tachienlu in east Tibet to the Ladakh border in the west. The control of temporal administration by the fifth Dalai Lama marked the institutionalisation of the Dalai Lama. Not only the Mongol Khans and Manchu Emperors but also the rulers of Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh, Sikkim and other neighbouring countries acknowledged the supremacy of the Dalai Lama. The recognition of the fifth Dalai Lama by the Manchu Emperor particularly gave importance to the consolidation of the institution of the Dalai Lama.

In 1642, two years before the Manchus were to come to power, the fifth Dalai Lama along with Gushi Khan sent a mission to Mukden, and declared the Manchu Emperor to be the reincarnation of the Budhisattvas of Manjushri (Buddha of Wisdom).

After the Manchus came into power in 1644, the fifth Dalai Lama was invited by Emperor Shunzhi (1644-1661) to his court in 1652, where he was awarded with the appointment of priest, which was confirmed with a patent and a golden seal on which he was styled "Vajradhra Dalai Lama" (Dalai Lama, the holder of thunderbolt). Although the Dalai Lama was exempted from the traditional kowtow that symbolised the political subservience, he was, however, required to kneel before the Emperor, when they met for the first time. The event marked the beginning of both the institutionalisation of the Dalai Lama and his relationship with the Manchu rulers that changed the later course of Tibetan history. The significance of this relationship is crucial to China’s current claim over Tibet. The nature and scope of the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Manchu Emperor are well documented and interpreted in the historical and political records of Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan sources.

6th Dalai Lama

Before the fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682, he left a Regent, Sangye Gyatso to run the affairs of Tibet. The Regent proved to be a very successful ruler, and was able to rebuild a strong united Tibet. However, Sangye Gyatso concealed the Dalai Lama’s death from the Manchus and Mongols for about fifteen years and the search for the sixth Dalai Lama was made secretly. In 1688, the Regent found Tsangyang Gyatso, as the sixth Dalai Lama. He was enthroned in Potala in 1697. He was ordained by the second Panchen Lama. However, the sixth Dalai Lama remained indifferent towards spiritual practice and showed preference for a materialistic life. The Regent slowly got disappointed with the behaviour of the Dalai Lama and started to dislike him. Once again, the Mongols were invited by various Tibetan factions to sort out the internal religious disputes. The Regent, Sangye Gyatso enjoyed the support of the Dzungar Mongol rulers such as Galdan and Tsewang Rabtan. Other Mongols of the Qoshot tribe opposed the Regent’s style of functioning. Lhazang Khan, the grandson of Gushi Khan, strongly opposed the Regent’s conduct of religious affairs. Later, Lhazang Khan managed to kill the Regent and took control of Lhasa. However, Lhazang Khan too started to criticise the loose behaviour of the sixth Dalai Lama. He decided to dispose of the Dalai Lama and later sent him into exile to Mongolia.4 He died on the way, near Kokonoor.

After his death, Lhazang Khan declared his own protege, Ngawang Yeshe Gyatso, as the true and real sixth Dalai Lama, arguing that Tsangyang Gyatso was not the true spirit of the previous Dalai Lama. The Manchu Emperor sent a team to Lhasa to investigate into the matter. Acting on the behest of Lhazang Khan and the Panchen Lama, the Manchu Emperor decided to support the new boy as the real sixth Dalai Lama. However, the people in general did not accept the imposed boy as the true reincarnation, in spite of the earlier sixth Dalai Lama’s improper behaviour. The popular argument was that the previous one was chosen through the proper method and was more authentic. Instead, the people accepted the news that the reincarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama was born in Kham in 1708.

7th Dalai Lama

The seventh Dalai Lama, Kalsang Gyatso (1708-1757) was born in Lithang, eastern Tibet. This was the time when the Dzungar Mongols tried to regain control over Lhasa. The Dzungars defeated the Qoshot Mongols of Lhazang Khan in is 1717 with tacit support from the Tibetan Lamas. The Dzungars promised the Tibetans that they would bring the true seventh Dalai Lama from Kumbum to Lhasa. However, the Dzungar Tibetan alliance did not last very long. By 1720, Tibetan troops under the leadership of Polhanas had regained control in Lhasa, and he sought support from the Manchu Emperor to bring the Dalai Lama to Lhasa. The imperial troops lost no time in supporting the Tibetan leader’s request and quickly came forward to play the role of patron and protect the position of the Dalai Lama. The Manchus saw this as the right opportunity to regain their influence which had been lost while midshandling the affairs of the sixth Dalai Lama. Other considerations of the Manchus also centred around the elimination of the Dzungars’ influence in Tibet.

In 1720, the seventh Dalai Lama was enthroned in the Potala.5 Emperor Kang Shi recognised the seventh Dalai Lama, and considered his authority to have been firmly re-established, and solemnised the event in an inscription on a stone pillar in Lhasa. As the boy was still young, he did not enjoy full temporal power. A provisional government desai replacing the Regent was set up in Lhasa, to restore the functioning of the administrative mechanism, headed by secular chieftains, Kaslhaq, under the active guidance of the Manchu court. With this, the Manchus consolidated their position and established a permanent position of their own by stationing two Ambans, with two military garrisons also posted in Lasa. Until the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, Manchu Amtbans and garrisons remained posted in Lhasa.

Out of several Tibetan contenders for power, the Manchus continued to favour Polhanas for the administrative authority, while allowing the Dalai Lama to function only in the religious affairs. It was only after Polhanas’ death that the seventh Dalai Lama could take keen interest in politics. Later, the seventh Dalai Lama managed to abolish the secular government and took full control over Tibet. The Manchu Emperor recognised the Dalai’s authority along the lines of their patronage to the fifth Dalai Lama.

The seventh Dalai Lama administered his authority through his; Kashaq, the Council of Ministers; but the Manchu Ambans enjoyed superiority over him, in accordance with the role of being his patron. The seventh Dalai Lama was a scholarly Lama and was deeply involved in spiritual pursuits. However, his period was marked by intense internal fighting, although he made concerted efforts to end the constant internecine wars among the Tibetan nobility. Many powerful political figures during this time overshadowed the Dalai Lama’s personality. He died in 1757 at the age of fifty.

8th Dalai Lama

The eighth Dalai Lama, Jampel Gyatso, was found in Tsang region in 1757, and was brought to Lhasa in 1762. In 1781, he assumed temporal power in Lhasa. It was during his period that Tibet, for the first time, came in contact with the political dynamics of South Asia. The first Gorkha invasioin of Tibet took place in 1788. During the invasion, the Gorkhas of Nepal captured Shigatse, as a result of which the Panchen Lama had to shift from Shigatse to Lhasa. The Gorkhas were, however, defeated by a (combined Chinese-Tibetan Army in 1804. Like the seventh, the eighth Dalai 1ama too remained involved more in spiritual matters and took little or no interest in political affairs. He was dependent on his Regents regarding governance and external relations. He too died young, at the age of forty-six, in 1804.

After the defeat of the Gorkhas and prior to his death, the Manchu Ambans were instructed to carry out a number of reforms, including a fresh mechanism of selecting the important Lamas such as the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas.

On the pretext of curbing the practice of corruption and nepotism, Emperor Ch’ien. Lung sent in 1793 a golden urn, Jin Pin Che Qian, to be used for drawing of lots in the selection of the Dalai Lama.6 The new selection procedure became most controversial as well as detrimental to Tibet’s political relationship with China. Although the golden urn method was to be applied only in disputed cases, the Ambans insisted that it become an official procedure with due acknowledgement from the imperial authorities. However, there is general agreement that the selection of the Dalai Lamas was carried out strictly according to religious procedures such as in the case of the ninth, thirteenth and fourteenth Dalai Lamas the golden urn method was not used.

Nevertheless, the golden urn procedure had a direct bearing on the political autonomy of Tibet. Beijing has cited this particular selection procedure as its sovereignty over Tibet. In early 1996, Beijing authority rejected the reincarnation of the eleventh Panchen Lama, chosen by the present Dalai Lama and insisted that the Tibetan Lamas select his reincarnation by drawing of lots from the golden urn.

9th-12th Dalai Lamas

A dispute arose in 1807 over the selection of candidates for the ninth reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. There were two candidates this time. However, the Selection Committee went according to the ecclesiastical approach and ignored the golden urn draw. Lungtok Gyatso (1806-1815) was finally chosen as the true reincarnation of the eighth Dalai Lama. He was enthroned as the ninth Dalai Lama in 1808 in the Potala. The representatives from Mongoha, Nepal, China, Bhutan and Sikkiin witnessed the enthronement ceremony. The ninth Dalai Lama however, died in 1815, at the age of ten.

The dispute for the tenth reincarnation again arose due to multiple candidates. The Regent and the ecclesiastical officials shortlisted three boys, out of whom one from Lithang was found most promising to be the tenth Dalai Lama. However, the Manchu Ambans pressurised the officials on drawing lots from the golden urn to avoid any possible dispute, as well as to respect the decree of Emperor Ch’ien-Lung. Although two other candidates later withdrew their claim, the Ambans insisted that the golden urn be used for the sake of practice. Finally, the Regent had to make a public announcement that candidate Lithang had been selected by the golden draw, and was the true tenth Dalai Lama, although" the draw was not made. Thus, Tsultrim Gyatso, named by the Panchen Lama, became the tenth Dalai Lama, and was enthroned in Potala in 1822. Like his previous incarnation, the tenth Dalai Lama did not live long and died in 1837 at the age of twenty-one.

The selection for the eleventh reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was done by the drawing of lots. A boy from Gather in Kham was chosen as the eleventh Dalai Lama. He was named as Khendup Gyatso by the Panchen Lama in 1841. However, less than a year after his enthronement in 1855. he died at the age of seventeen.

The search for the reincarnation of the twelfth Dalai Lama was conducted by the Regent Rating, who found a child born at Olga in southern Tibet the most qualified candidate among the three shortlisted potential boys. The Lamas of all the three important monasteries in Tibet, as well as the people in general appealed to the Regent that his chosen boy from Olga must be declared as the twelfth Dalai Lama immediately without going through the golden draw. But the Regent, supposedly in conjunction with the Ambans, was determined to have the final selection through the golden urn. In fact, other Tibetan officials warned the Regent that they would not be responsible for any consequences if the lottery draw did not go in favour of the religiously authenticated boy. The golden urn ceremony was conducted in 1858, and fortunately, it was the same selected boy whose name came up first.

The twelfth Dalai Lama was named as Trinley Gyatso and was enthroned in 1873 at the age of seventeen. However, he too could not remain as Tibet’s temporal head for long. Two years after of his assumption of power, he, died in 1875, at the age of nineteen due to illness. Two of his close masters were later accused for Trinley Gyatso’s death.

A Dalai Lama assume a full authority only after he reaches maturity. But between 1804 and 1895, almost for one century, the successive Dalai Lamas (the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth) died at an early age. It has been generally argued that the Chinese Ambans had a hand in these premature deaths, for they could enjoy greater manoeuvrability on Regents than on the Dalai Lama.

13th-14th Dalai Lamas

The selection of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso (1876-1933), was made through various celestial methods. A reflection of the future Dalai Lama’s birth place was seen in the sacred lake at Lhamoi Latso at Chkhorgyal.7 Subsequently, the place was found at Thakpo Langdun and a ten-year-old boy was selected as the possible reincarnation. When the child completed two years, he was made to undergo the usual tests. He qualified in a number of religious tests as well as identified the articles of the twelfth Daial Lama. Thereafter, the Regent and the Khashaq officials informed Emperor Guang Xu about the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s authenticity and sought his official approval. Since there was only one candidate, there was no need to go through the golden draw. The boy was declared as the true thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1877, and a year later he was named as Thupten Gyatso by the Panchen Lama.

The period of the thirteenth Dalai Lama was marked by great moments of change in Asian history. The Chinese Empire was on a decline, and the British and Russian Empires were expanding beyond their frontiers. Tibet found itself as a pawn in the "Great Game" played by external powers. Not only the Armies of the foreign powers but also the explorers, surveyors and travellers from Europe posed a threat to Tibet’s isolation. Thus, exclusive domination over Tibet by the Mongols and the Chinese was broken with the rapidly advancing move by the Russian and British Empires. The history of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, the Great Game, etc have been well written about and analysed. However, this was a most important and crucial period of Tibetan history, that shaped the future course of Tibet as a nation. Both the British and Russian factors became important with regards to Tibetan affairs. The most important event was the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907, wherein the two imperial powers officially recognised China’s suzerain status in Tibet, and thereby neutralised the Great Game in the contested country. However, it was the first time that British India gained considerable footing in the Tibetan plateau, and started to act as a moderator in the Sino-Tibetan relations. After the fall of the Manchu Emperor in 1911, the Dalai Lama attempted to establish the independence of his country, but British India did not find it in its interest that Tibet should be an independent state for a variety of reasons, which will be explained later.

The thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, and the new incarnation, Stanzin Gyatso, was discovered in Amdo. He was born in 1935, and was enthroned in 1940. On November 17, 1950, the fourteenth Dalai Lama assumed the spiritual and temporal powers incumbent on his high office. He signed a 17-point agreement with the Chinese on May 23, 1951, for a peaceful liberation of Tibet. Contrary to the provisions of that agreement, China sent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops to liberate Tibet through military means. The Dalai Lama with the consent of his Kashag, repudiated the agreement in March 1959. Following the Tibetan uprising that year, the Dalai Lama along with 80,000 Tibetan people fled the country.

On July 6, 1996, the fourteenth Dalai Lama turned sixty. He is yet to achieve his cherished goal and faces momentous decisions.

Political Conclusions

These brief historical profiles of the Dalai Lamas reflect the unique features of the Tibetan political hierarch- a product of dynamic tension between religion and geopolitics in the Inner Asian frontiers.

1. The origin and ascendancy of the Dalai Lama was the culmination of a long process of adjustment between the Buddhist clergy and the lay nobility. The doctrine of reincarnation adopted by the Gelugpa Order as a method of leadership succession in the early 15th century fundamentally altered the traditional dynastic rule of secular nobility.

2. The doctrine of reincarnation was the most ingenious form of religious and political control ever devised. For the Tibetans, it was a revolution which vividly eternalised a leader by adopting ecclesiastical means. The concept became the fundamental basis for the foundation of a theocracy. Firstly, by tracing the chosen child’s birth to a person who had just passed away, the mechanism ensured the prevention of any kind of dissension. Secondly, right from the early age, the chosen boy was brought up and indoctrinated under the exclusive norms of Lamaism and its ideology.

3. The proclamation of the Dalai Lama as the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion made him indispensable, both spiritually and temporally. This devotion of a leader manifesting the Buddha himself was systematically universalised- a device that continues to find acceptance not only in the Tibetan world but also in the outside world.

4. As a result of the polarisation along sectarian ideologies among the Tibetans, the Gelugpa Order or the institution of Dalai Lama could not be sustained without help and support from the external powers. The Mongols were the first to extend patronage to the Tibetan hierarch in the 16th century. This was the beginning of the re-establishment of a sui generis relationship known in Tibetan as Cho-yon (Priest-Patron) between the Dalai Lama and the Mongol rulers. In fact, a relationship along this concept also existed earlier between the Yuan Emperors and the Tibetan Sakya Lamas. The Cho here meant the Priest or the object of worship, and Yon the Patron or the worshipper. The relationship bound the two by protecting the former and his faith from the enemies of the Buddha Dharma, and in turn, the Lama ensured the spiritual well-being of the patron and his subjects. Although the Cho-yon was interpreted purely as a religious function, the relationship between the two had far reaching political attributions and implications for the future history of Tibet.

5. A commitment to the Cho-yon relationship, first between the Dalai Lama and the Mongol Emperors, and later with the Manchu rulers, reflected underlying political objectives of each of the concerned parties. From the Tibetan point of view, external patronage was important to overcome the internal struggle for the religious status quo of the Gelugpa Order, which had aspired to become a trans-sectarian, as well as a trans-national religious movement. In fact, within a century of its inception, the Gelugpa Order got widely spread out all over Central Asia. However, this could not have been achieved without the imperial patronage.

6. From the perspective of the Mongolian Khans, the introduction and propagation of Tibetan Buddhism was an essential step to counter the Chinese cultural and political hegemony. The Mongol emperors of the Yuan Dynasty had also made the Tibetan Buddhism of the Sakya sect and not the Chinese Buddhism their state religion. For the Mongols, the acceptance of Buddhism meant cultural advancement from their traditional bo religion, based on worshipping of spirits and animals. Buddhism gradually enabled the Mongols to put themselves culturally on par with the Chinese. For the, Mongols, it was also a process of disarmament - a gradual move towards acceptance of "peace" and "truth" by giving up their barbaric culture.

7. Like the Mongols, the Manchus too recognised and patronised the supremacy of Tibetan Buddhism instead of Chinese Buddhism or Confucian tradition. Since the Manchu rulers were non-Chinese, the propagation of Tibetan Buddhism served as an antidote to Chinese nationalism. However, beyond the religious significance, the priest-patron relationship was important for the Manchus in view of the perennial security threat posed by the Mongol warlords. While fostering the Gelugpa Order, the Manchus aimed at mollifying the Mongols diplomatically. Besides, it was strategically important for Beijing to tame the. fierce Tibetan and Mongolian nomadic warriers. Nothing except the powerful Ahimsa teachings of Buddha could have acted as a force of moderation to civilise the people of the Inner Asian frontiers. While patronising the Tibetan hierarch, the rulers in Beijing sought to secure considerable influence in the outlying areas of the Tibetan plateau, considered by the Chinese as the "background" to China, to prevent invasion from outside.

8. The Tibetan clerical elite viewed their interest only in the narrow terms of protecting the religious status quo from opposing sectarian interest groups with the help of a strong ally. Thus, the religious centrism strongly undermined the broader aspects of Tibetan nationalism and political sovereignty.

9. This brief overview of the Dalai Lama’s history, shows clearly in many ways that the nature of the Tibetan conduct of the relationship was the behaviour of a pre-modem landlocked state.

The Future of the Dalai Lama

Since the early 1960s, Stanzin Gyatso, the present Dalai Lama has been saying different things about the future of the Dalai Lama. In 1963, the Dalai Lama promulgated a draft Constitution making him the head figure of the future Tibetan state. However, in 1969, he declared that the dynastic rule of the Dalai Lama may or may not continue. At one point of time he expressed the view that he would "most probably" be the last Dalai Lama.’ While articulating his view, the fourteenth Dalai Lama explained that the office of Dalai Lama was instituted at a time when it proved to be "beneficial to a nation." On another occasion, he expressed the view that his institution can either continue or disappear, depending on the wishes of the Tibetan people. On various occasions he has reiterated his views regarding the future of the Dalai Lama, and instead talked about democratisation of the Tibetan polity. He had further declared that once Tibet gains independence, he would relinquish the political responsibility and devote himself to the cause of Buddhism.

It is difficult to ascertain whether his decision to terminate the 500 year old lineage of the Dalai Lama is a theological or practical step on the part of the present Dalai Lama to alter the future history of Tibet in accordance with the changing circumstances. However, his decision and the fate of the future Dalai Lama will be detrimental and crucial to Tibetan political status in the decades to come. There are, however, several explanations for the Dalai Lama’s decision on his future lineage.

1. It may be possible that he is strictly going by the theological consideration to end his lineage. The Tibetan ecclesiastical cosmic order defines the role and place of the Dalai Lama in a particular era. At times the decision on such matters is also dependent upon the prophesies of his official oracle, the Nechung. Theoretically too, being the reincarnation of the past 13 Lamas, he has the right to end the divine line at "his will".

2. It has been argued by some observers that his decision might possibly have been prompted by the constant Chinese allegation of equating the Dalai Lama’s "reactionary clique" with the past practice of "serfdom" in Tibet.9 The Dalai Lama seemed to have accepted such allegations, when he admitted on several occasions that the social and political system of Tibet was feudal and old fashioned.10 Besides, he has not even ruled out the possibility of a future Tibet state following a Socialist or Communist path. Academically, his advocacy of a radical transformation of the Tibetan society and polity has been well received by people in general, who might admit that the Dalai Lama by saying so has answered the absurd allegations made by the Chinese. However, others may criticise his statements as being premature which may have an adverse affect on the Tibetan cause.

3. The present Dalai Lama’s early exposure to modernity and change might have been another reason for his liberal thinking. More particularly, after his exile in India, the Dalai Lama has become more modern-minded. He has talked about accepting the rational explanations of science and rejecting the scriptural. Following the scientific logic, he explained that if the scientists cannot experimentally prove the theory of reincarnation "we will have to abandon that concept." By accepting rational logic, he has contradicted his own existence as the Dalai Lama.

4. Such a decision is also perhaps the outcome of the realisation on his part that the problem of Tibet is inextricably linked to the Dalai Lama, and as long as this relationship is not broken, the problem of Tibet will remain unresolved. Thus. there is a need for deinstitutionalising the Dalai Lama to make the Tibetan problem a.plain geopolitical case of Tibetan nationalist struggle.

5. The Dalai Lama’s ambiguous statement on the future of the Tibetan hierarch may also be a reflection on the flaws of the Tibetan struggle. Despite worldwide support for his campaign, nothing has moved in the last three and a half decades, and there is little hope that things will take a different turn in the near future. There is no doubt that the Dalai Lama has been the single source of unity among the Tibetans and also led the movement quite successfully so far. However, he is increasingly getting disenchanted about the growing dissension and disunity among his people in exile along regional, sectarian and ideological lines. Although not surrendered to pessimism as yet, he is deeply and painfully aware of Tibetan internal inherent weaknesses.

6. Yet another view-point, although shared by very few Tibetans, is that the Dalai Lama possesses no divine power that he is like any ordinary individual, quite shrewd and selfish. By declaring an end to the lineage, he is only trying to wash his hands off the Tibet problem. His critics argue that in any case the objective conditions in future Tibet will not allow a return to the "old order."11

7. On several occasions, the Dalai Lama has expressed the view of changing the existing method of the Dalai Lama’s selection. He is quite serious about this notwithstanding the appeals against it from his clerical elite lie. He has particularly talked about adopting two possible options:12

(a) To choose a Lama most qualified as his next successor. In this case, he himself will choose the successor before he passes away, like the method followed in the tradition of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

(b) A successor to be chosen by the most eminent Buddhist Lamas after his death, along the procedure adopted for the selection of the Pope.

8. Both options presented by the Dalai Lama would be neither practical nor acceptable to the clergy as well as people in general. These are the very same procedures followed for the selection of the "Regent," Gyaltsab, a temporary successor selected for the gestation period between two Dalai Lamas. This system of Regency has been one of the most inherent weaknesses of the Dalai Lama institution. The selection of the Dalai Lama by nomination rather than reincarnation will challenge the very foundation of the Tibetan theocratic model, on which the entire paradigm of Lamaism has been structured and perpetuated for centuries. In the first place, the change will be vehemently resisted by the Gelugpa’s chain of hierarchy, because it would mean the end of their dominance in the Tibetan Buddhism and the weakening of their power. Secondly, a non-reincarnated Dalai Lama will be unacceptable to other sects of Tibetan Buddhism and will only help revive the old type sectarian infighting for religious supremacy.

9. The institution of Dalai Lama is too deeply rooted in the Tibetan history and ethos to be done way with so easily. The Dalai Lama represents the spirit of the Tibetan nation and the identity of the Tibetan people. The rich history of Tibet is associated more with the institution of the Dalai Lama than the geo political entity of Tibet as a state. Thus, any attempt at demolishing such an old institution will amount to writing off Tibet as a nation. This would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Even if he decides to go ahead with the new selection method, it is not going to be an easy process. In Tibet’s own vicinity, in ‘Mongolia, the Marxists have failed in their relentless fight against Buddhism and Lamaism. Not only are the Mongols today trying to reintroduce their religion but are also trying to reclaim the over 70-year-old Tibetan who is the reincarnation of the eighth Jebtsundamba, the Mongolian theocratic ruler (a lineage tracing to Indian Buddhist master Taranatha of Bengal), whose institution was terminated after the Communist Revolution in 1921. Presently, the ninth Jebtsundamba is living in India, and may perhaps be invited to stay in Mongolia in the years to come. His return to Mongolia will be a significant point in our diplomacy in the Inner Asian politics. Similarly, China’s anti-Confucius campaign is another case in point. It is also a fact that notwithstanding ihe Chinese slander campaign to undermine his importance, the world community has recognised the Dalai Lama and his stature as most powerful and unique, much greater in national terms than the Pope’s.

10. The Dalai Lama’s decision of terminating his lineage or changing the method of its selection will be seriously challenged by the Chinese authorities. Because of the complex historical reasons, as they have cited in the recent past, Beijing is going to question any one’s right to end the lineage of the Tibetan leader. In the recent incidents of selecting the successor of both the Karmapa and the Panchen Lama, the Chinese have shown not only their willingness to perpetuate the Lama institutions, but also asserted their rights in the selections of such high Tibetan Lamas. While undermining the authority of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese went ahead to find their own choice for the Panchen, by reverting to the golden urn device of the imperial times. Therefore, irrespective of what the present Dalai Lama may decide to do with his future, the Chinese are going to find the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama according their choice and method, of course, in connivance with the Buddhist clerical elite inside Tibet. The post-Mao leadership in China has painfully realised the importance of traditional Tibetan institutions for their control over Tibet. The history of Tibet abundantly provides instances of the Tibetan clerical elite’ vulnerability to play into the hands of the Chinese masters.

11. On the other hand, the articulate Tibetans may also pose the question as to whether the present Dalai Lama has the right to end the succession of Dalai Lamas. They may argue that being a national institution, the decision to abolish or continue it should be made through a consensus of the people. Such a group of Tibetans may accuse the Dalai Lama of renouncing his responsibility at a time when the Tibetan struggle has reached a critical stage. Not only they will see the need of his leadership during the final course of the Tibetan struggle, but also in the post-independence period, to consolidate the nationalist forces. They may further advocate a limited role for the Dalai Lama, only symbolising the continuity of Tibet’s history and culture on the pattern of the Queen’s position in Britain or the Emperor’s role in modern Japan.


1. Glenn H. Mullin, "Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama office," Tibetan Review, March 1985.

2. George Roerich, "The Dalai Lamas of Tibet," Stepping Stones, vol. 1, no. 8, February 1951.

3. A. Tom Crunfeld, Tihe Making of Modern Tibet (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987) p. 39.

4. Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History (New York. Potala Publications, 1984) p. 132.

5. Ibid., p. 140.

6. Dorje Tseten, "The Dalai Lamas in History," Tibetan Review, September, 1985, pp. 17-19.

7. Shakabpa, n. 4, p. 192.

8. Tibetan Review, March 1976.

9. Tibetan Review March 1978.

10. Pierre Antoine Donnet, Tibet: Surviual in Question Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 50

11. Tibetan Review March 1976.

12. Donnet. n. 10, p. 47.