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Dalai Lama's Conundrum and a Solution

The Dalai Lama has a problem. He’s getting along in years and must begin the preparations for his eventual reincarnation. The Chinese know this. They are waiting. As soon as the child who is identified as the 15th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is known, they will swoop in and kidnap him.

There’s no secret about this. They already pulled off this child snatching thing back in 1995 when the 6 year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was identified as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama (the Lama just below the Dalai in Tibetan Buddhism). The Chinese claimed that Gedhun was not the true Panchen Lama (they had nominated one Gyaincain Norbu as their candidate) and they spirited him away for “his own safety.” He has been in captivity since then and the folks who know where he is being kept aren’t talking.

In 2011 the Dalai Lama, anticipating a similar move by Beijing, began deliberations about whether he should reincarnate. Westerners generally don’t “get” Tibetan Buddhism. It’s quite complex with many rituals and regulations and, as is typical of sophisticated philosophies and religions that have been around for extended time, there is much debate and deliberation about tradition and text, their meanings and interpretations. In an extended public statement Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, outlined the nature of reincarnation, examined tradition and text and concluded that “… the person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.”

He announced that around the time of his 90th birthday he “will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.”

Clearly, this will be a significant moment, not only in Tibetan Buddhism but for Buddhists everywhere and for millions of non-Buddhists who have come to view the Dalai Lama as a significant figure in international affairs, the United Nations and, intriguingly, among cognitive neuroscientists whose research he strongly supports.

While Tibetan Buddhism is Tibetan, while the Lamas have all been Tibetans, nothing I have seen requires that the Dalai Lama be Tibetan. In fact, as Gyatso notes, the individual has “sole legitimate authority of where and how he or she takes rebirth.”

The solution to the problem, then, is obvious. Reincarnate somewhere other than Tibet, somewhere outside the reach of Chinese authorities. They can get away with a swift kidnapping in Lhasa but they’re not going to be able to pull one off in Toronto or Portland.

Do the usual leg work. Identify a young boy from a Buddhist background who has displayed the chops to fill the role. Make appropriate proclamations and raise the child with the requisite education in a Buddhist monastery. As he grows he can, as the 15th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, slowly assume the same role that the current one has, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists in exile.

Not only would this save the position of the Dalai Lama, it would piss off the Chinese and that, in and of itself, may be enough. Their behavior with regard to Tibet and Buddhism has been disgraceful.

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