The Politics of Reincarnation

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against China's occupation of Tibet and the fleeing of the Dalai Lama to India. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, then only 23 years old, fled through the Himalayas and has lived in exile since. He is revered as a deity by Tibetans and respected worldwide for his peaceful and nonviolent message.

Chinese media are framing the anniversary as "Serf Liberation Day" comfortable in knowing that the world stood by last year when demonstrations within Tibet around last March 10 were brutally suppressed.

Now at a time he that himself has called "the darkest period in Tibetan history," the Dalai Lama is forced to confront the issue of his succession. The Beijing government has already indicated that it will attempt to designate his successor rather than wait for a young boy to be found by Tibetan elders and groomed for the role.

Pico Iyer has known the Dalai Lama since he himself was a young child. He traveled with him extensively and his latest book about the Dalai Lama, The Open Road, comes out in paperback today.

Q: Pico you wrote recently that the Dalai Lama is considering a "radical" approach regarding his successor. What would this be?

PI: I think His Holiness has always been a realist before anything else and really what we are seeing and hearing is that the events of the last year have shocked him even more than they've shocked the rest of us. He's been used to cruelty and oppression and obstructionism from the Beijing government for the last 60 years but he never expected quite the degree of ruthlessness that he's seen since the demonstrations last March and the way in which China has dropped this black curtain so that the whole of the world can't know what's happening in Tibet. What he has been saying, is that he's done everything possible in terms of opening the door, [from] extending the hand of freedom, [to] making concessions, and bringing logic to the situation, and none of that has moved China at all. I think he's almost given way to a little bit of exasperation and said "there's nothing more I can do but let's hope that China comes to its senses soon."

So how is he opening a new chapter in Tibetan history?

As a realist and as a pragmatist His Holiness knows that he is 73 years old and he knows that Tibet needs to enter a new generation of leadership ...and he's wise enough to see that the best way to prepare the Tibetans for the time when he is no longer around is to try and force them to take more responsibility while he is around. In all the time I've talked to him-which is 34 years now- the one thing he hasn't managed to do as much as he would like is to get the Tibetan community to think for itself. He realizes in the next 50 years there may not be a Dalai Lama so really they have to train themselves in acting as a regular democratic society and not waiting to hear the word of the Dalai Lama. So whenever I hear him say "we have to accept reality" "or "my policy has failed, " what he is really doing is just trying to... goad Tibetans to bring out the best and the strongest part of themselves.

He also told you recently that his trust in Chinese leadership is really "thin." How do you interpret that?

I think that is a direct result of what he saw last March, which is--first: the absolute brutality with which the Tibetan cries for freedom were suppressed, then the absoluteness with which China refused to let anyone see what was going on. The other thing that really shook him was that at the time of those demonstrations there was such pressure all around the world, including from world leaders, for China to open up. The Olympic Games were on the way and for the first time ever, the Beijing leadership actually referred publicly to their discussions with his envoys. So it seemed last April and May that there was a moment when at last they might break through the blocks in their head. Yet in spite of all that, by the middle of the summer, the Chinese were being more intransient than ever before, having not listened to any aspect of the Tibetan side. And as soon as the Olympics were over, they more or less canceled their talks with Tibetans. Even a year ago he was always going out of his way to stress his common ground with Chinese leadership but this last year he's realized that it's pointless to keep doing that because China is giving nothing in return.

So what is going to happen to the institution of the Dalai Lama?

When I last saw him he said many times-especially when talking to Chinese audiences- that the institution of the Dalai Lama has served a great function for 350 years but now history has changed and we need a different institution. Since 1969 when he was only 34 years old he's been saying that the Dalai Lama institution is only worth continuing if it's really useful to Tibetans. And these days, with the Tibetan exile population separated from the majority of Tibetans in Tibet, it may be that a different kind of leadership would be more helpful. I think-because he's been addressing this question to himself for more than 40 years-he's worked out way to smooth the succession issue and to bring Tibet into a new generation but far he has kept his cards close to his chest. The first question he always asks himself is what is most useful and what is kindest for the six million Tibetans in Tibet so he will come up with a form of leadership either by the name of the 15th Dalai Lama --or by some different name--that he thinks will best serve their needs and interests.

When will we know more about what his plan is?

Of course throughout his public life he's been constrained because he can't function the way our president or any other head of state does because whatever he says is being watched by China in this complicated chess game. So as soon as he says something China is going to do something in order to obstruct it. I'm assuming he's come up with some idea to communicate to his people that "this is the new leader, he carries the authority of the Dalai Lama, so please listen to him because he speaks with my spirit but don't listen to him too much because ultimately I want Tibet to be a democracy and I want you to be self sufficient rulers of yourselves."

Better to have someone designated in a modern manner rather than leave it to traditional reincarnation?

Yes, that's my suspicion, because the process of finding a little boy, then waiting for maybe 15 years for him to come of age--Tibet doesn't have the luxury of time now. Also they need someone who can take over leadership as soon as the 14th Dalai Lama passes on and I think one reason that the current Dalai Lama has not stressed the incarnation system is [that] to keep open the idea of a reincarnation system is to keep open this very difficult future in which the Chinese will probably present one candidate of their own and the Tibetans will find another and there will be a little bit of an impasse. So anyone that this Dalai Lama [himself] designates as the next leader, there is nothing the Chinese could do to dethrone that person, as it were.

You can hear this interview and other stories about March 10 on