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14th Tibetan Religious Conference Affirms Dalai Lama’s Authority Over Reincarnation

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Kyabgon Drikung Chesang Rinpoche, left, and Gaden Tri Rinpoche, right, at the 14th Tibetan Religious Conference. From tibet.net
Kyabgon Drikung Chesang Rinpoche, left, and Gaden Tri Rinpoche, right, at the 14th Tibetan Religious Conference. From tibet.net

Senior leaders representing all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism convened in Dharamsala in northern India on Wednesday for the 14th Tibetan Religious Conference. Among the key issues tabled for discussion is the increasingly contentious issue of the lineage of the Dalai Lama, and one of the objective for this year’s forum is to draw up a plan of action on the matter. The Tibetan Religious Conference is held every three years.

In addition the continuation of the Dalai Lama lineage, the three-day gathering, running from 27–29 November at the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA; also known as the Tibetan government-in-exile), will examine issues related to harmony between different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the preservation of the Vajrayana spiritual tradition and its rich culture, and the topic of exile as an avenue of change and growth for the Tibetan people. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is expected to preside over the final session of the 14th Tibetan Religious Conference tomorrow.

The conclave is being attended by some 120 female and male monastics and the heads and representatives of different schools in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, including Sakya Trizin Rinpoche, Gaden Tri Rinpoche, Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, Kyabje Menri Trizin Rinpoche, Taklung Matrul Rinpoche (representing Taklung Shabdrung Rinpoche), Namdroling Tulku Choedhar Rinpoche, Khenpo Ngedhon Tenzin (representing the Gyalwang Drukchen), and Jonang Gyaltsab Rinpoche. Representatives and lamas from elsewhere in the Himalayan region—rinpoches from major Buddhist institutes in exile—were also in attendance, as were the heads and representatives of major Tibetan nunneries.

The issue of who will succeed the Dalai Lama, who turned 84 on 6 July,* has gained increasing weight as a point of political dispute in recent years in light of His Holiness’ age and reported health issues. As the head of the Gelug school of Vajrayana Buddhism and the principal international figurehead for Tibetan Buddhism, the spiritual leadership of the Dalai Lama continues to wield significant influence among ethnic Tibetans in China and overseas. The next Dalai Lama would be the 15th incarnation over an unbroken lineage that has lasted some 500 years.

The issue of the the 500-year-old lineage of the Dalai Lama has become increasingly contentious in recent years. From inews.co.uk
The issue of the the 500-year-old lineage of the Dalai Lama has become increasingly contentious in recent years. From inews.co.uk

“The relationship between successive Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan people has been akin to that between head and neck, or, as it were, between the body and its shadow, and therefore never ever separable,” The CTA said in a statement in its website dated 27 November. “Hence, it is only to be expected that the tradition of the continuance of the lineage of the Dalai Lamas through successive reincarnations based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition should remain for the sake of the Tibetan people.” (Central Tibetan Administration)

In a special resolution, the delegates at the conference on Wednesday issued a formal statement on the matter of the Dalai Lama lineage in the “Dharamsala Declaration,” composed of the following resolutions:

The Karmic bond between the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan people have been inseparable and the present status of the Tibetan people being extremely critical, all Tibetans genuinely wish for the continuation of the Institution and Reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in the future. We therefore strongly supplicate to His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama for the same.

The authority of decision concerning the way and the manner in which the next reincarnation of the XIV Dalai Lama should appear solely rests with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama himself. No government or otherwise will have such authority. If the Government of the People’s Republic of China for political ends chooses a candidate for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people will not recognize and respect that candidate.

Regarding the method of recognizing the future reincarnations of the Dalai Lama, the same unique Tibetan traditional method, which has been continuously used until now, will be followed. This method conforms to be basic philosophy and tenets of the Buddhadharma and originated in Tibet over 800 years ago. (Central Tibetan Administration)

Sakya Trizin Ratna Vajra Rinpoche speaks at the inaugural ceremony of the 14th Tibetan Religious Conference. From tibet.net
Sakya Trizin Ratna Vajra Rinpoche speaks at the inaugural ceremony of the 14th Tibetan Religious Conference. From tibet.net

“It is a question of credibility, legitimacy. China could appoint one. But the appointee will have zero credibility. Fake is always fake,” said CTA president Lobsang Sangay on Wednesday. “It is now up to His Holiness to decide when, where, and whether.” (The Japan Times)

The Dalai Lama has at various times commented on the eventuality of his next incarnation, suggesting that the next Dalai Lama may for the first time be born outside of Tibet, possibly incarnated as a woman, and even that the 500-year-old lineage could end with him. Most recently, during a meeting with students in Dharamsala last month, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate suggested that the long-standing institution of reincarnate lamas itself may be coming to an end. 

“Institutions need to be owned by the people, not by an individual. Like my own institution, the Dalai Lama’s office, I feel like it is linked to a feudal system,” the Dalai Lama explained. “The system should end, or at least change with the changing times. There have been cases of individual lamas who use reincarnation [to get their way] but never pay attention to study and wisdom.” **

In 2007, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs decreed that all Buddhist reincarnations born within China must obtain the approval of the government to be regarded as valid. Reincarnation applications must be approved by four different governmental bodies—the religious affairs department of the provincial government, the provincial government itself, the State Administration for Religious Affairs, and the State Council.

Senior Buddhist leaders from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism attended the summit. From tibet.net
Senior Buddhist leaders from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism attended the summit. From tibet.net

Notably absent from the high-profile gathering was His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the traditional spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu school, who was represented at the conference by Kyabje Tsurphu Gorshe Gyaltsab Rinpoche. Media reports indicate that the Karmapa was denied a visa by the Indian authorities that would have enable him to attend the summit. 

Since leaving India in May 2017, the Karmapa has taken citizenship and a passport of the Commonwealth of Dominica in the Caribbean, and has reportedly been living between the US and Europe. The Karmapa has held talks with representatives of the Indian government regarding uncertainties over his residency status in the country and related restrictions. He is currently believed to be in Germany.

Dalai Lama Marks 84th Birthday with Call for a More Compassionate, Harmonious Society (Buddhistdoor Global)

** Dalai Lama Hints at a Possible End to the Reincarnate Lama System (Buddhistdoor Global)

See more

14th Tibetan Religious Conference commences today (Phayul.com)
14th Tibetan Religious Conference affirms the Dalai Lama’s sole authority in his reincarnation, illegitimizes China’s meddling in religious affairs (Central Tibetan Administration)
Visa denial leads to Karmapa’s absence at Tibetan Religious Conference (Tibet Sun)
Tibetans say the Dalai Lama should choose his successor (The Japan Times)

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