Will a Dalai Lama succed another Dalai Lama?

Talking about his rebirth in 1996, the Dalai Lama quoted one of his favourite prayers: “So long as space remains and suffering of sentient beings is there, I will remain in order to serve.” Then he contradicted himself. “Regarding the institution of the Dalai Lama, whether that institution should remain or not is not my business. The people of Tibet, they have the right. If they want to keep it, it will remain. If it’s not relevant for them, it will cease,” said Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal head of all Tibetans.

In recent years, the Dalai Lama has often spoken about his next reincarnation. At times, in conflicting terms. In 2008, when asked if he would be the last Dalai Lama, the monk told Germany’s “Der Spiegel”: “Everything is possible: a conclave, like in the Catholic church, a woman as my successor, no Dalai Lama anymore, or perhaps even two, since the Communist party has, astonishingly enough, given itself the right to be responsible for reincarnations.”

Thursday’s announcement by the Dalai Lama seems to have settled the political part of his institution but the future of his spiritual role remains open to speculation. After Tenzin Gyatso is gone, there are four possibilities:

* No Dalai Lama

* Two Dalai Lamas: one in Tibet, another somewhere in exile

* A woman Dalai Lama appointed by him

* A leader of another Tibetan Buddhist lineage inheriting his spiritual role

Beijing is at least partly responsible for this confusion. In 2007, China enacted a law that asserted the Chinese government was the final authority in the process that recognizes a reincarnated lama. In February, Hao Peng, a Chinese Communist Party official told a group of foreign journalists that rebirths of “all Tibetan spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama, must be approved by the Chinese central government.”

An official of the Tibetan government in exile explains the community’s nervousness about it all. “China has plans to select a 15th Dalai Lama. That’s why it’s important for the Dalai Lama to put clear guidelines about his next reincarnation and designate people who will be responsible for finding the next one”.

Will there be another Dalai Lama? According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, the Dalai Lama is the embodiment of Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva of compassion, who stays on earth to help people. In this tradition, reincarnated lamas control their rebirth. When high lamas such as the Dalai are involved, the identification of the next reincarnation is a complicated procedure. China claims the authority to choose the Dalai Lama because it possesses the Golden Urn, a relic that was used by the Manchu emperors to anoint Tibetan lamas in their efforts to exert control over Tibet. In 1995, China used the urn ceremony to appoint the 11th Panchen Lama, rejecting the boy identified by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama.

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