As Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, celebrates his eightieth birthday this week, there is again speculation in the world’s press about the future of Tibet—and, more precisely, the future of the Tibetan government in exile. A portion of that speculation naturally concerns the future of the role itself. Will there be a 15th Dalai Lama?
As one commentator noted, when the Chinese government, which claims Tibet as its own and opposes the Dalai Lama, ramps up its opposition to the current Dalai Lama, his influence only grows stronger. Indeed, his holiness is the central, encompassing presence of Tibet in exile.
Tibetan history has always been fraught, no less so over the course of the 20th century and extending into the 21st. Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, was born in 1876 and suffered exile various times before issuing a declaration of independence in 1912. No other state recognized Tibetan independence, however. Consequently the status of Tibet was still in flux when he died in 1933.
The current Dalai Lama was formally enthroned in November 1950 at the age of fifteen. Tibet at the time was engaged in a prolonged struggle with the People’s Republic of China, which then forced on Tibet an “agreement” for “liberation,” by which Tibet became essentially a Chinese province. Subsequently, in the wake of a revolt in Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he formed a government in exile that continues today.
Some years ago I wrote a brief history of Tibetan governance titled “Patrimonialist Rulership in Tibet: Four Historical Periods,” which appears in a collection edited by William H. Swatos, Jr., Time, Place, and Circumstance: Neo-Weberian Studies in Comparative Religious History, published by Greenwood Press in 1990.
I find it interesting to note that a number of today’s commentators are saying much the same thing that I posited some twenty-five years ago:
The Chinese may well choose to preserve (in appearance at least) Tibet’s traditional political-religious system by doing what the Tibetans themselves did in their dealings with the Mongols in the late sixteenth century. That is, when the exiled Dalai Lama dies, the Chinese may arrange for the discovery of his reincarnation among those more favorable to their rule.
Meanwhile, the current Dalai Lama continues to work for an autonomous Tibet and to foster peace. Tenzin Gyatso received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, a recognition that has been upheld by his continuing efforts on the world stage. Some years ago, when he visited Indiana University, where his brother was a professor for many years, I was able to attend a lecture he gave. My enduring impression is of a man devoted to peace.