Religion Today

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why the Dalai Lama is not a Pope

Perhaps the two best known religious leaders in the world are the Pope and the Dalai Lama. The Pope is the leader of the world’s Catholics, while the Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and has been Buddhism’s most recognizable public figure for decades. Given their high profiles, we often think of these two leaders as similar. Both lead their respective religions. Both claim to lead a country—even though the Dalai Lama is exiled from Tibet and the pope heads a nation of only a couple square miles.

The Dalai Lama is not a pope, however. This becomes most apparent in the matter of succession. As we saw with the passing of Pope John Paul II and the elevation of Pope Benedict XVI, this is fairly straightforward in Catholicism. When a pope dies, the Cardinals elect a new one. This process may take a week or two, or even a month, but fairly quickly a new pope is elected and the mourning for the previous pope becomes joy over the new one. He takes up the reigns of leadership and the business of the church continues. The momentum of papal leadership pauses only momentarily.

By contrast, the Dalai Lama succeeds himself. This is because Tibetan Buddhists believe that each lama is a bodhisattva. This means that they have achieved enlightenment, but instead of going into nirvana, their compassion for others causes them to return to this world to help. Following the death of the current Dali Lama, the 14th incarnation, he will be reborn as a baby and will have to grow up—remembering and learning about himself, his past lives, and Buddhism. He will even have to be found and identified. Thus there will be little carry over in momentum from one Dalai Lama to the next. When this Lama dies, Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism will lose an influential advocate.

The impact of the Dalai Lama’s passing, which may not be for a couple of decades since he is only 70, will affect Buddhists differently from non-Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism will change little in-and-of-itself while the next Dalai Lama grows up. The machinery of the religion will continue to function, members will worship and meditate, and other lamas will continue their leadership.

But for non-Buddhists, the Dalai Lama’s primary importance lies in being the political leader in Tibet, in exile since the Chinese occupation of that country in 1959. When he passes away, there will be some sort of caretaker government, but it will lack an activist to carry the message of national freedom for Tibet as the Dalai Lama has done. Who knows what will happen, but of course the worry is that the issue of Tibetan freedom on the international stage will fade away in face of continuing Chinese occupation.

The Chinese government has just complicated the question of the Dalai Lama’s succession by issuing a law that requires all lamas to reincarnate in China. In other words, it is now illegal for a Tibetan lama to be born outside the country—which the current Dalai Lama has said he will do. Despite the absurdity of trying to control a supernatural event, this rule signals China’s intent to interfere in the next Dalai Lama’s life in order to reduce his influence and the trouble he can cause for China’s control of Tibet.

This situation will result in two Dalai Lamas, one in China (and controlled by them) and one outside. The one in China will have direct access to the Tibetan people, while the one outside will have none, even if he is recognized by all as the legitimate incarnation. Thus the Chinese move should be seen giving the government a puppet Dalai Lama who will have the ability to propagandize Tibetans on China’s behalf, at the least, and could even be set up to govern them. Surprisingly, China’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but this new law certainly seems to contravene that promise.


  • A good post. I;m glad I read it.

    A good blog, too. Thanks,


    By Blogger Educator-To-Be, at 9/17/2007  

  • There's another concern beside the joke of China's making it illegal for the Dalai Lama to reincarnate outside China. Clearly that's unenforceable, but HH XIV Dalai Lama says he'll have to incarnate in the west this time for safety's sake.

    Why? About ten years ago, the Chinese government arrested and is holding incommunicado the Panchen Lama, an incarnation of the leader of one of three main practice lineages in Tibetan Buddhism. They replaced the Panchen Lama with a boy they picked to carry the message of the Chinese government's version of Tibetan Buddhism, not the real discipline. China has tried to manipulate the religion with force, so why not require the Dalai Lama to reincarnate in China so they can kidnap him, too?

    By Anonymous Bob, at 9/19/2007  

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