March 31, 2011

Dalai Lama Stepping Down as Political Leader: Progress, Fear, Skillful Means, and Sadness

Below is an excerpt from a very interesting article on the Dalai Lama's recent decision to abdicate his role as the political leader of the Tibetan people and the ongoing aftermath of the decision. In stepping down, the Dalai Lama isn't just ending his political career, but is also ending a system of governance that has been in place in Tibet since 1642, as well as barring future Dalai Lamas from taking up the preeminent political position. While many people, particularly Tibetans, are resistant to this change and do not want to see their beloved leader step down, there are also many that see this decision as crucial for the future of Tibetan culture in exile.

As the scholar Jeff Watt explains,
"The Dalai Lama's move is both progressive and also preemptive. When the Dalai Lama is no longer with us, the Chinese government will likely name a Dalai Lama of their choosing and claim he is the historical leader of Tibet. It is of critical importance that the Tibetan Government in exile enter the 21st century and become more democratic. Currently they are essentially under a benevolent dictatorship. From a Western point of view the Dalai Lama functions as a ruling king."

The Untouchables of Dharamsala

By Tenzin Tsundue via, Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 13, Dated 02 Apr 2011

Young Tibetans have grappled for years with the radical idea of a Tibet without the Dalai Lama. Now, as His Holiness steps down, Tenzin Tsundue traces their difficult moment of change

My Gandhian guru, Rajiv Voraji, once told me a tale of a small kingdom ruled by a brute who’d break his subjects’ backs with heavy taxes while he made merry. The poor farmers, unable to revolt, left for a jungle. When the king’s rations finished, he realised his mistake and journeyed to the jungle, knelt down and begged them to return, saying, “I am not your king but your servant.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has done the opposite: he’s decided to abdicate his political powers to an elected leadership, committing the 400-year old institution of the Dalai Lama to history. At a time when street revolutions are afoot and despots are fighting to retain their last bastions, the Dalai Lama and his people are engaged in a polite pingpong exchange. He wants his people to choose their own leadership while they — unable to rise above their emotions — are pleading with him to continue.

As a child, my first image of the Dalai Lama was on a postage stamp. He was holding a child, so we were envious and our parents said we were the unfortunate ones. For Tibetans, he is the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva who vowed to be with us until we all achieve nirvana. So when he’s making fundamental changes — terminating the Ganden Phodrang government that’s existed since 1642 — it’s a deeply emotional moment and the change is unlikely to be easy.

This revolutionary change is a continuation of the previous Dalai Lama’s reforms of the early 20th century, which were also resisted by the aristocrats and clergy. The Dalai Lama recently told the media that as a teen, he witnessed how his officials scolded people away instead of hearing them — he already felt the need for change. And in exile, aged 28 and guided by Indian leaders like Nehru and Sardar Patel, he introduced democracy in 1963. After carefully nurturing this democratic culture, today as he is retiring, a system of elected leadership is already in place.

But our 43-member Parliament’s rejection of his retirement is not just an emotional gesture; it reveals a complex relationship at play. I sat through the two-day deliberations. Every member knew it was the Dalai Lama’s final decision and was bound to be returned to them — perhaps with a good scolding. And yet Parliament voted he should remain. It made me ask: Why do politicians lack confidence in carrying out the Dalai Lama’s wishes, and fear their easy acceptance will be misconstrued as over-enthusiasm?

Read the whole piece here.

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dog's picture

Those who echo this latter day sentiment of not mixing Buddhism with politics simultaneously show a liking for current soical mores alongside a lack of knoweldge of Buddhist scripture. Lord Buddha gave frequent advice on how to mange kingdoms to his kshatriya disciples See Digha Nikaya II, 74-75; III, 58-79 or the early Mahayana text Ariya satyaka Parivarta 196 (It was easy to locate these as examples of Buddhist principles being applied in a politcal context)
Wisdom Moon above is a devout follower of Kelsang Gyatso who, by relying on the ignorance of his disciples has popularised such sentiments as those expressed in the above post; indeed Kelsang Gyatso has popualrised a number of incorrect misconceptions based on the ignorance of his audience, particularly in matters of Tibetan politcal history.
I. for one, would relish the prospect of a Buddha n the White House. I suspect others may feel the same.
What I would not favour is inexperienced practitioners without proper insight into the outcomes of their actions forcibly implementing their will on others, in the belief that this was all for the greater good

"the TGIE is probably the only Theocratic government left in the world" Says Wisdom Moon. 1) Theocracies are run by people who believe in God ('Theos')

I see Tsem Tulku also gets yet another mention here,once again courtesy of his publicity liaison, Sharon Saw (though she neglects to metion her official title)
That would be the same Tsem Tulku who was a disciple of Song and Gangchen, both devout Shugdenites, the same Tsem 'Tulku'who has publicly praised Kelsang Gyatso but now, in the light of publicity over his allegiances, denies it and swears allegiance to the Dalai Lama. No politics there then I guess? Kelsang Gyatso is certainly right about one thing though-the Tulku system is severely open to abuse

Anreal's picture

How about the various renowned lamas start incarnating in the West? I think that would be wonderful. No worries. Only the further expansion of what is truly becoming an international religion of epic proportions.

Wisdom Moon's picture

I think - wonderful! May many great beings manifest in the West for spreading the Dharma and may they never involve themselves in worldly politics until samsara ends :-)

Dolgyal's picture

You're forgetting independent renegade despots like K. Gyatso who runs a dodgy real estate pyramid scheme based on unpaid labour, tax evasion and welfare fraud, but we won't go there, either.

Dolgyal's picture

"Worldy power"– that is a rather melodramatic way to characterize the running of 90 schools for children in Tibetan settlements which is the main activity of the modest TGIE. The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, a performing arts institute (TIPA), Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute (CTMI), are these weapons of oppression?...not really. Is your local school trustee or hospital administrator a tyrant wielding power or simply fulfillng their civic and social duty?
And what are the numbers of people we are talking about: about the same as the total population of Carslisle and Ulverston, in Cumbria–the second least densely populated county in England with only 73 people per square kilometre. By contrast, Tibetans in India are spread from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh and down to Karnataka and so on a much larger area.

Don't be silly, Wisdom Moon.

Wisdom Moon's picture

It's documented fact that the TGIE has been involved in rather more nefarious and overtly political activities than simply running schools, but we won't got there. Suffice to say, most people recognise religion and politics to be an incendiary mixture to be avoided, such that the TGIE is probably the only Theocratic government left in the world. Hopefully if the Dalai Lama really is standing down from his political role, that will change for the better.

Dolgyal's picture

In view of events like this story below, one really should not withdraw from "politics" but rather be engaged and concerned. To do otherwise is callous and irresponsible.

Labrang monk succumbs to torture injuries
Phayul[Tuesday, April 05, 2011 14:50]

Dharamsala, April 5 - A Tibetan monk of Labrang Tashikhyil monastery succumbed to his injuries sustained due to beatings and torture in prison Sunday, according to the official website of the Tibetan government in exile.
37-year-old Jamyang Jinpa was among a group of monks who spoke openly against the Chinese government to a visiting foreign journalists' group on a Chinese government monitored tour of Tibet on 9 April 2008 in the aftermath of bloody protests in Lhasa in March 2008.
All the monks from that group except Jamyang went into hiding. Jamyang was later arrested after Chinese police barged into his room and severely beat him.
Jamyang was tortured "to the point of death" during ten days of interrogation before being handed over to his family, the website further said.
"It is a matter of great concern that reports about deaths of Tibetans due to torture under the Chinese government's repression continue to come out from Tibet," said the website.
myang studied at TCV school at Suja near here in 1993 for three years before returning to his native place in Tibet to pursue his religious studies at the Labrang Tashikhyil monastery.
A candle light vigil to pay respects to Jamyang is being organized here later today by 5 Tibetan NGOs based here.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Wasn't one of Shakyamuni's (the first historically documented buddha, the founder of Buddhism, etc.) first decisions, as he set forth upon his spiritual quest, the renunciation of his inheritance to the throne?

Wisdom Moon's picture

Good point, the pursuit of a religious life and holding worldly power don't really sit together

Dolgyal's picture

Dear Sharon : You are surely aware that the People's Republic of China has passed regulations ensuring all tulkus will be loyal to the Communist Party of China. (Articles 36-40 of the TAR Implementing Measures for the "Regulation on Religious Affairs" (TAR 2006 Measures), issued on September 19, 2006, by the TAR People’s Congress Standing Committee)
The PRC have recognized not only their own Panchen Lama, but many others–potentially up to 2000 reincarnations in Tibet by their own estimation. The goal is clear: to instal their own 15th Dalai Lama by way of the supposedly traditional method of Golden Urn lottery. I wonder what your teacher thinks of this situation of politics destroying Buddhism and systematically undermining Tibetan culture?

You can read more about this in Chinese at State Administration for Religious Affairs of PRC:

Here is an English translation of the Chinese regulations:

Sharon Saw's picture

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's abdication is changing the political landscape of Tibet, or rather, the Tibetan Government in Exile. Since 1959, the Dalai Lama has become the internationally recognised icon synonymous with Tibet and the Tibetan fight for independence. Now that he is stepping down as the political leader, he may become even more admired as he can now be purely spiritual. His Holiness has made such an impact on so many people's lives, including my spiritual guide, H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche.

It's practical to have the political succession plan in place to ensure a smooth transition. However, for me, the big question is who will be His Holiness' spiritual successor? Will he reincarnate back and where? And who would identify him? Of course, he could appoint his spiritual successor while he is still alive. It's It's a potential conundrum.

May His Holiness live long and continue to turn the wheel of Dharma!