The Uncertain Path

Can the Tibetan struggle outlive the Dalai Lama?

Tibetan activists participate in a candlelight vigil outside the Dalai Lama's palace in Dharamshala, in March 2008, following a Chinese crackdown on protests in Lhasa. MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP / Getty Images
30 September, 2021

TENZIN GYATSO, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, was flown from his home in Dharamshala to a private hospital in Delhi on 10 April 2019. He was 83 years old and suffering from what appeared to be a chest infection. He was discharged from hospital two days later. The following month, over seven thousand people gathered outside his residence to offer prayers for his long life. Addressing the gathering, Gyatso tried to assuage their fears.

“Once I had a dream that I was swimming, even though I can’t swim, and Palden Lhamo”—a female deity worshipped by Tibetan Buddhists—“was riding on my back,” he said. “She remarked, ‘There’s no doubt you’ll live until you’re 110 years old.’ Other people too have dreamt that I may live till I’m 113.”

Imagine that these dreams come true. The year is 2048; it has been almost ninety years since Gyatso escaped to India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet. He has presumably worked with the religious leadership in the Tibetan community to plan for the future. Perhaps he has appointed his successor already—through a procedure called ma-dhey tulku, or emanation before death, he has directly transferred his religious authority into the body of the next Dalai Lama, foregoing the lengthy process of identifying the next incarnation. Perhaps his successor is a young boy from India, or perhaps it is a young girl from Nepal. Perhaps he has decided that there will be no successor, or perhaps he has not yet designated a successor, leaving the task to other senior lamas, who will almost certainly have to contend with a rival candidate propped up by the Chinese.

Or tragedy could strike tomorrow. Tibetan Buddhism places a strong emphasis on death—thinking about it, talking about it, contemplating its certainty. No matter how much mental preparation is done, Gyatso’s death will have grave implications, not just for the Tibetan diaspora. The fourteenth Dalai Lama is not only a spiritual leader; in exile from the roof of the world, he sits at the centre of a maelstrom of geopolitics, with some of the most powerful states in the world—China, India and the United States—looking to stake their claim on the future. His presence has papered over fissures within the Tibetan community-in-exile over the past six decades and, despite his efforts to put in place structures of governance that can outlive him, whoever succeeds him will face a unique challenge.