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On August 20, BBC News reported that China was going to try to pick the next Dalai Lama – or at least choose one by deciding whether the one chosen is valid. This week, BBC News is reporting that the Dalai Lama will try to choose his own successor, now realizing the Chinese government will try to interfere with the typical process. So what’s the problem? Let’s take a step back.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is kind of the equivalent of the pope in Catholicism; he is a successor in the line of the Buddha, as the pope is a successor in the line of Christ and his disciples, except that he is also considered a reincarnation of the Buddha himself. He is a spiritual head – but everyone knows he holds some political influence and has held much political power in the past. And like the group of cardinals who deliberate in Catholicism, a group of monks typically chooses a successor in Tibetan Buddhism. This group uses dreams and signs to guide them. (In a well-known story about the current Dalai Lama, he was identified as the reincarnated, living Buddha as a young child because he was able to recognize items that had once belonged to the former Dalai Lama.)

The problem begins when we look at the political environment in China and Tibet. China, of course, exiled the Dalai Lama to Tibet and has been trying to gain control of the Tibetan leader and religion ever since. Clearly, they don’t want the Dalai Lama to influence Tibetan Buddhists in a quest for independence from China. And while Tibetan Buddhists may keep their religion, China always has the final say. So what was their first step? Disregarding the Dalai Lama’s selection of his second-in-line, the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama chose a 6-year-old Chinese boy in 1995, but the boy has had to remain in seclusion in Tibet, more than likely to escape persecution from the Chinese government. Once the boy was quietly settled in Tibet, China chose its own Panchen Lama, one they could undoubtedly control.

Step two? Well if you’ve already tried to overstep the selection process and choose your own vice-lama, might as well move right onto the Dalai Lama himself. So, to keep China from attempting to pick its own Dalai Lama and disregard the monks, the Dalai Lama may decide to pick his own successor! That’s like the pope choosing the next pope! It would be a complete change from the typical system and would likely set the standard for future selection processes. Plus, does anyone think it’s weird that the Dalai Lama would be able to determine who he will be reincarnated as?

Want to delve deeper? Check out what the Dalai Lama has to say about his own recognition as the Buddha and what he sees for the future.

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