Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The Jewel in the Ballot Box: Electing a New Dalai Lama

December 20, 2007

Received by email

Tuesday, December 18, 2007
by Jamyang Norbu

In 1949 the Governor-General of Kham, Lhalu, arranged to speak to the
Dalai Lama’s tutor, Trichang Rimpoche, at Lhasa over the radio. Robert
Ford, the Tibetan government radio operator at Chamdo, wrote in his
book, Captured In Tibet, that he wondered what the protocol would be for
this somewhat unique situation. Lhalu seems to have solved the problem
by first prostrating before the transmitter/receiver and then placing a
khatag around it before picking up the microphone.

Should a Tibetan voter prostrate before the ballot box before casting
his vote for the next Dalai Lama? This odd question popped up in my mind
when I read of His Holiness’s recent announcement about the possibility
of His future reincarnation being elected by the Tibetan public. At
first, I thought that this was one of those off-the-cuff statements that
the Dalai Lama is well known for, and which have been known to cause
mild bouts of panic in the ranks of the Kashag in Dharamshala. But some
days after that His Holiness went on to elaborate on his proposal,
stating that there were multiple ways in which the incarnation of the
Dalai Lama could be selected, including picking a successor himself or
having him elected in the manner of the Catholic Pope by a college of
lamas. In His latest statement, he did not discount the possibility of a
woman being chosen as the next Dalai Lama. But his most radical proposal
has definitely been the one for holding a referendum in Tibetan society
on whether he should be reborn at all. And, whether or not the
institution of the Dalai Lamas should come to an end.

It was clear that, at least on one level, this was His Holiness’s way of
countering the Chinese government’s announcement about its intention of
controlling the reincarnation process of Tibetan lamas. As a tactical
move it was certainly effective in that it received a lot of publicity
and discussion in the international media and demonstrated that the
Dalai Lama was not going to sit back and let China have its way on this
issue. Most of the articles and opinion pieces were positive and
sympathetic, and there was some approval of the Dalai Lama’s
democratizing the incarnation process and Tibetan society itself.

Even in the traditional selection process of the Dalai Lamas, there were
features that might be described as democratic, in the loose,
non-technical sense of the term. Dalai Lamas have emerged from a diverse
variety of areas and social classes. The first was from the most humble
of backgrounds, and a number of subsequent incarnations were of peasant
and nomadic stock. We are all aware of the solid rural credentials of
the present incumbent. One cannot escape the “Log cabin to White House”
comparison, with a humble household becoming the first family in the
Tibetan Buddhist world. The accompanying power and wealth would
sometimes go to the head of the “Great Father”, the head of the
household, in unfortunate ways, as happened in at least two cases in
Tibetan history. Even if the institution did throw up a few problems
like this, there was a common belief nationwide that at least the
selection process was free of trickery or deception, and that every
Tibetan household, or at least one with a pregnant woman at that moment,
had a genuine chance of winning this greatest of national lotteries, as
it were.

Now of course with the Dalai Lama’s proposals for a new and even more
democratic way to select the Dalai Lama, one might speculate that
perhaps the many drawbacks, big and small, that the old process entailed
would be resolved, even if only in part. While the old system did have
its share of difficulties, one that we discussed earlier as well as
another, and perhaps the most glaring, being the interregnum between one
Dalai Lama and the next, which was filled by a regent. Generally chosen
from the ranks of the highest lamas in the Gelukpa church, the regents
unfortunately had a tendency to give in to corruption and abuse of power.

His Holiness’s well publicized and sweeping proposals to change the
fundamental basis of the Dalai Lama institution has definitely sparked
discussion in the Tibetan world and I received quite a few e-mails and
telephone calls soliciting my thoughts on the matter. So I sat down and
tried to work out the consequences that His Holinesses various proposals
might entail.

I quickly realized that the idea of electing the Dalai Lama, though
certainly intriguing, raises considerable problems. Of course it would
be ridiculous to select a number of child candidates and ask people to
vote for one of them. I am sure His Holiness was not exactly thinking of
that when he talked of elections. How could the public be reasonably
expected to determine the spiritual qualities of a child candidate? In
that case would the system then limit itself to adult candidates who
could at least tell us about their spiritual qualifications for the job?
Of course the candidates would probably all have to be lamas, or at
least monks to qualify, which immediately takes away from the democratic
nature of the process. Then the tricky questions come up, would the
candidates be restricted to the Gelukpa church, or could candidates from
other sects apply. In that case could a Bonpo be allowed to join the race?

There is also the real predicament that when the candidates are high
lamas or holy people, how could we have an open and forthright national
discussion about them? If you made a critical remark about one of the
candidates then you would be hurting the religious sentiments of that
candidate’s disciples or followers and they would definitely respond
with energy if not violence. The fact of your criticism being honest,
accurate or even well meaning would make no difference whatsoever. In
the Tibetan Buddhist system the teacher-disciple relationship requires
that the disciple should be absolutely non-critical and unquestioningly
loyal. Of course, if the candidates themselves started to criticize each
other and responded with any degree of passion we could expect conflicts
between various groups of followers that could perhaps escalate into
sectarian clashes. Lastly, we should consider the sort of person who
would offer himself up as a candidate. One could safely assume that the
wise, reclusive and saintly kind of lama would definitely not want to
involve himself in such an election. Unfortunately, I can easily think
up a list of all too worldly lamas who would fight tooth and nail to be
the next Dalai Lama.

Among all of His Holiness’s proposals, the one I found most troubling
was his idea of holding a referendum on whether the institution of the
Dalai Lamas itself should come to an end. I am personally convinced that
the Dalai Lama system should not only continue, but that the manner in
which the incarnation is selected remains unchanged. I feel it is
absolutely vital that we be able to convey the impression, the
conviction that the institution is permanent and inviolate. I could
think of a number of reasons: historical, psychological, even
sentimental, why we should do this, but the most important reason right
now would be that the Dalai Lama is the living symbol of a free and
independent Tibet, not just for the world, but most of all for those
Tibetans struggling to survive, day after day, year after year, under
the unrelenting and pitiless tyranny of Communist China.

We know what everyone in Tibet wants — from the humble peasant in Ngari,
the solitary nomad in the Changtang to so many others in Kham, Amdo and
U Tsang — is an opportunity to see His Holiness and receive his
blessings. It must be understood that this desire to see His Holiness is
not merely a religious aspiration, divorced from people’s sense of
themselves as Tibetans. Feelings of identity, uniqueness and nationalism
are often expressed in different ways, not necessarily aggressively or
politically. The more potent and emotive are often indirect and
symbolic. The Dalai Lama may see himself as a “simple Buddhist monk” or
a teacher to the world, but for his people he is the living symbol of
their long hoped for freedom from Chinese rule. In the last couple of
years with Beijing cracking down on even those Tibetans it employs as
officials, a genuine groundswell of devotion to the Dalai Lama and the
hope of a free Tibet have become remarkably manifest all over Tibet.

But no matter how important we Tibetans may regard the institution of
the Dalai Lamas, and would like nothing better than to see it continue
unchanged, His Holiness himself has, on a number of occasions, made it
clear that he would like to retire. Constitutionally this might create a
problem since Dalai Lamas are not appointed or elected, so the question
of retiring should not really arise. The Dalai Lama’s position is not
even like that of a king, who does not become one until his coronation.
Rather, the Dalai Lama’s is a lifetime job. He is born a Dalai Lama, and
it is assumed that he is one even if the search party hasn’t yet made it
to his village and found him. Even in his minority when he does not have
the authority to skip a calligraphy lesson, he is still the Dalai Lama.
Being the Dalai Lama does not seem to require that he have actual
political powers.

And this is where I can begin to make out a single overall solution to
these numerous problems that Tibetan society now faces: of His Holiness
wishing to retire, of searching for a new Dalai Lama, of maintaining the
tradition as the people in Tibet would want it, of countering Chinese
efforts to control the reincarnation process, and of maintaining unity
in exile society till the next Dalai Lama returns to his people.

At the beginning of this month the people of Thailand celebrated the
eightieth birthday of their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, with large-scale
public festivities but also with heart-felt reverence. Theirs is
something like the relationship Tibetans have with the Dalai Lama. The
Thai people prostrate themselves on the ground in the King’s presence.
Yet there is genuine affection too, and it goes both ways. Thais talk of
their love for him as though he were a cherished member of the family.
In his speeches to the nation he likes to joke and tease them. And like
the Dalai Lama, the King is as much a spiritual leader as a worldly one.

During his six decades on the throne, Thailand has undergone changes as
wrenching as in any other country. There have been other changes as well.

This king has reigned through 17 military coups and 26 prime ministers.
Amid this whirlwind, he has remained a reassuring anchor, a man who
embodies Thailand's history but who has also come to embody integrity
and detachment from the squalid realities of day-to-day politics and
business. He has lived the role of the virtuous chakravartin monarch so
well that almost the entire population believes in it and takes comfort
from it. And it gives him a unique moral authority. When he speaks,
people listen. They may, and often do fail to act on his advice. But he
has been able to use that authority to settle a number of political crises.

Constitutionally the Thai monarchy is almost powerless. It is not
political power but the only occasional use of the King’s traditional
and moral authority that has allowed the country to make it way through
a succession of unstable military and civilian governments. Former Prime
Minister Anand Panyarachun describes King Bhumibol's authority as
“reserve power” that, because it has been used judiciously and
sparingly, has been decisive in maintaining the country's stability.

The Dalai Lama should not retire and should remain head of state, but he
should modify his role to that of a constitutional one like the King of
Thailand’s. In this way His Holiness need not be burdened with the
routine problems of government or with the unpleasant squabbles and
strife of political life, but still retain a constitutional role to
advise perhaps even arbitrate, in the case of a major national crisis.

Political power should rest entirely with the Tibetan people, as His
Holiness has repeatedly said was his intention. The system we have now
can in no way be regarded as a genuine democracy. The closest thing I
can think of is Nepal’s former “panchayat” democracy. You can also quite
safely compare it to those “managed” or “guided” democracies that you
find in Russia, Zimbabwe, and other places in the third world. Of
course, one could argue that our system is an improvement over the
“people’s” democracies we have in North Korea or China, but that should
not even be a consideration.

In order for His Holiness’s democratic vision to be realized, we cannot
just wait for an independent Tibet in which to have a representative and
liberal democracy. It is absolutely vital that our present exile
government be chosen through a multi-party election system. It must be
added that this should be done on a one person, one vote basis, since
the present election system we have allows, in essence, for members of
the clergy, to have two votes.

The democratic process not only creates a viable way to maintain the
institution of the Dalai Lama in an acceptably traditional way, but also
provides solutions for other crucial problems we will certainly face
when His Holiness is not with us, such as: keeping up the hope of
Tibetans inside Tibet, preventing social disunity in exile and averting
a breakdown of the government system.

To the oppressed people of Tibet, democracy represents not only a goal
of eventual freedom from Chinese tyranny but also the best hope for a
truly just and equitable government of their own choice. As such, the
promise of a true democratic Tibet will be an effective repudiation of
repeated Chinese propaganda claims that Tibetan independence would mean
a reversion to theocratic feudalism. Just a week or so after His
Holiness’s announced his desire to democratize his selection process,
Beijing issued an official statement (on December 11th) accusing the
Dalai Lama of wanting to restore feudalism to his exiled homeland of
Tibet. Hence the early and effective implementation of a genuine
democratic process in our exile-society becomes a clear proof to the
Tibetan people of the Dalai Lama’s absolute sincerity in his commitment
to democracy for Tibet.

Right now the government-in-exile, especially within the working ranks,
is tremendously demoralized. Officials are leaving in large numbers to
emigrate to the West, and few people of ability appear to want to join.
Samdong Rimpoche the prime minister has on occasion bemoaned the
materialism of those Tibetans leaving for the USA and not working for
the government. Rimpoche is not entirely incorrect in his accusations.
Yes, many Tibetans want a better life in USA or Europe for themselves
and their family, but that is perfectly understandable. Yet there are
many others who want to stay and contribute, to leave their mark on
Tibetan politics or accomplish something meaningful in society or
government. The real tragedy is that there is no place for such people
in present day Tibetan political culture of pious defeatism and vicious
sycophancy. Furthermore both the Kashag and the Assembly are
marginalized in terms of real political power and have no meaningful
role in formulation of national policy.

There has always been a standard practice in Tibetan society of
criticizing, even putting down the Tibetan government and its officials
while lavishly praising the Dalai Lama. Foreign supporters and friends
often use this as a convenient justification for dealing directly with
His Holiness and ignoring the administration. This has also resulted
over the years in the creation, by Tibetan politicians and the like, of
various independent organisations (like the International Campaign for
Tibet and others) that draw their considerable funding and political
influence from their close association with His Holiness, but are not
accountable to the government-in-exile or the Tibetan public. There was
the case some years ago when a Tibetan administrator in such an
organisation even refused to serve as Kalon when he was offered the

Gradually the government has become marginalized and even Beijing has
managed to add to this with its so-called “negotiation” that has created
the impression that the Tibet issue is nothing but a personal matter of
the Dalai Lama’s return. When His Holiness recently received the
Congressional Gold Medal a number of the important American speakers at
the event appeared to be entirely under this impression and fervently
called on Chinese leaders to allow the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet.
One speaker even appealed to Beijing to allow the Dalai Lama to return
to China!

While on the matter of the Gold Medal ceremony at Washington DC, it was
observed that some front-row seats at the function were reserved for
heads of Dharma centres in the West, such as Sogyal Rimpoche and
Nyarakhentul Rimpoche. The Tibetans involved in the organizing had not
even bothered to issue an invitation to the Speaker of the Tibetan
Parliament-in-exile, who I understand was finally instructed by
Parliament to attend, and just managed to do so at the last minute.

If the Tibetan Parliament and Kashag continually become sidelined and
trivialized, then the government-in-exile will almost certainly collapse
when His Holiness is not with us. The only way for it to survive and
even gain legitimacy and authority is if Tibetan people all over the
world feel they have a direct stake in its formation and operation, and
also feel that their participation in the process is necessary,
meaningful, and will bring about genuine results. Such an outcome can
only be realized through a multi-party based democracy. Such a system,
because of the role of a standing legitimate opposition, will also
produce accountability and when required, change. No other system will
be able to keep the Tibetans united when His Holiness is not with us.

When we flip the situation around, it also becomes apparent that only a
strong functioning government can reasonably ensure that a genuine
incarnation of the Dalai Lama is selected and properly installed as
Tibet’s constitutional head of state. Of course, the State Oracle and
important lamas will certainly participate in the selection process, but
the overall and final responsibility for the process must lie with the
elected government. The disastrous history of lama regents, such as Demo
Rimpoche after the 12th Dalai Lama and Reting and Taktra after the 13th,
have clearly demonstrated that there is not another way.

We must also bear in mind that the Chinese have made it clear that they
will be putting up their own candidate. It is possible that, to make
mischief, the Chinese might even bribe and encourage unscrupulous lamas
in the exile community or some dharma centre to put up their own
candidate. In such uncertain and troubled circumstances it is vital that
we have a strong and unquestionably genuine democratic government that
can unite all Tibetans to face and overcome such attacks on their
religion and sacred institutions and ensure that the 15th Dalai Lama
returns safely to his own people.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank