What's the future of the Dalai Lama? New York Times magazine poses the right questions


The Dalai Lama was the topic of a New York Times magazine profile recently, and unlike the laudatory sort of write-ups one usually sees about this 80-year-old religious icon, this one calls his leadership into question.

Not only his leadership, but his legacy is questioned this time around.

We've written about how he decided four years ago to give up his political role as head of the world's exiled Tibetan community. The Buddhist leader will be dying sooner or later, the article says, and maybe sooner.

So what will happen then to Tibetan Buddhism and the cause of free Tibet?

So you get paragraphs like this:

The economic potency of China has made the Dalai Lama a political liability for an increasing number of world leaders, who now shy away from him for fear of inviting China’s wrath. Even Pope Francis, the boldest pontiff in decades, report­edly declined a meeting in Rome last December. When the Dalai Lama dies, it is not at all clear what will happen to the six million Tibetans in China. The Chinese Communist Party, though officially atheistic, will take charge of finding an incarnation of the present Dalai Lama. Indoctrinated and controlled by the Communist Party, the next leader of the Tibetan community could help Beijing cement its hegemony over Tibet. And then there is the 150,000-strong community of Tibetan exiles, which, increasingly politically fractious, is held together mainly by the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue, who has disagreed with the Dalai Lama’s tactics, told me that his absence will create a vacuum for Tibetans. The Dalai Lama’s younger brother, Tenzin Choegyal, was more emphatic: ‘‘We are finished once His Holiness is gone.’’

I had forgotten the dust-up about the pope not meeting with the Buddhist leader, but a year has passed since then and they have yet to meet. 

The article continues on, recounting how 140 Buddhist monks and nuns have publicly set themselves on fire to protest the suppression of Tibet by China. And what does the Dalai Lama do in response?

As if in response to these multiple crises in his homeland, the Dalai Lama has embarked on some improbable intellectual journeys. In 2011, he renounced his role as the temporal leader of the Tibetan people and declared that he would focus on his spiritual and cultural commitments. Today, the man who in old photos of Tibet can be seen enacting religious rites wearing a conical yellow hat — in front of thangkas, or scrolls, swarming with scowling monsters and copulating deities — speaks of going ‘‘beyond religion’’ and embracing ‘‘secular ethics’’: principles of selflessness and compassion rooted in the fundamental Buddhist notion of interconnectedness.
Increasingly, the Dalai Lama addresses himself to a nondenominational audience and seems perversely determined to undermine the authority of his own tradition. He has intimated that the next Dalai Lama could be female. He has asserted that certain Buddhist scriptures disproved by science should be abandoned. He has suggested — frequently, during the months that I saw him — that the institution of the Dalai Lama has outlived its purpose. Having embarked in the age of the selfie on a project of self-abnegation, he is now flirting with ever-more-radical ideas. One morning at his Dharamsala residence in May this year, he told me that he may one day travel to China, but not as the Dalai Lama.

As much as this leader would like to shuck off his political obligations, the world won’t let him, the article notes. There is simply no one to take his place.

Still, as a political negotiator, the article states, he has failed. But who wouldn’t? Was the Dalai Lama supposed to be a modern-day Gandhi, bringing China to its knees somehow? Rather, it’s China that is setting the conditions. The Dalai Lama very much wants to return to Tibet before he dies. By the time you’ve finished this piece, you’ll be convinced that will never happen.

One thing the writer -- who is an Indian intellectual and author who’s had access to the Buddhist spiritual leader for years -- brings out is the ordinariness of the man. He lists a number of things the Dalai Lama will do to confound people and keep them from putting him on a pedestal.

I have covered two of the DL’s appearances in the Washington, DC area. The one included an esoteric discourse on Buddhism that defied translation. But the other had quite a bit of barnyard humor, which was tough to square with a world-famous monk. I never knew if the latter was part of an earthiness that comes with being from that part of the world, or something else. The author of this piece likewise captures the oddity of the Dalai Lama, who will sometimes make weird jokes or pronouncements in public settings that make little or no sense or seem odd at best.

Couple that with examples throughout the piece about how the Dalai Lama and his cause are losing traction throughout the West, and one concludes that by waiting out the Dalai Lama, the Chinese may win this battle.  

The piece has way more to say about politics than religion, although it does have flashes of insight like the following:

The ‘‘world picture,’’ as he saw it, was bleak. People all over the world were killing in the name of their religions. Even Buddhists in Burma were tormenting Rohingya Muslims. This was why he had turned away from organized religion, engaged with quantum physics and started to emphasize the secular values of compassion. It was no longer feasible, he said, to construct an ethical existence on the basis of traditional religion in multicultural societies.

When asked if he means to reincarnate once he dies, the Dalai Lama answers that he does not. Our GetReligion colleague Ira Rifkin covered this pronouncement earlier this year. The institution of the Dalai Lama, the author of the magazine article points out, has reached the end of its usefulness.

So what will happen with Tibet? In one sense, the article leaves you hanging. In another sense, it’s clear that the Dalai Lama has already checked out.

There are a few journalistic burps in this piece, one being that the Buddha was born in Nepal, not India as the article says. And as one commentator pointed out, Tibetan Buddhism believes its leaders must reincarnate until everyone is ready for full enlightenment. So how can this Dalai Lama say he will not reincarnate?

Otherwise, it raises the right questions about a man who, along with Pope Francis, is one of the world’s top spiritual leaders.

Shutterstock photos by Nadezda Murmakova and Phaendin.

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