In the 1950's The People's Republic of China implemented a policy of military and cultural aggression toward traditional Tibetan culture. This resulted in the exile of the Dalai Lama, the accepted leader of the Tibetan people, in 1959. Since then China has expressed nothing but antagonism for the Dalai Lama.
China's intent is to commit "cultural genocide" against the Tibetan people - essentially to erase established cultural norms and to integrate Tibet into greater communist Chinese culture. The 14th Dalai Lama has always spoken carefully but firmly about these facts and pleaded for international attention to his country's and his culture's plight.
Of course, China is a global leader with the world's fastest growing economy and a big military player. Compared to the traditionally peaceful people of Tibet, China has immense power and control. The so-called "free Tibet" movement may be "right" but it does not have the political might to prove it. So China's oppression continues and this ultimately culminates with the Dalai Lama himself.
China and the Dalai Lama both understand that the future of Tibetan culture rests with who controls the next Dalai Lama. By controlling the position itself, China's intent to "own" Tibetan culture will be ensured. Conversely, as long as the Dalai Lama remains outside the physical control of China, then Tibet has a meaningful culture unfettered by Chinese aims and ambitions and will remain as it is today - a culture in exile but a culture that is nevertheless independent.
Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is a figurehead reincarnated according to custom inside Tibet. But, since China now controls Tibet and controls all the Buddhist monasteries within Tibet, a reincarnated Dalai Lama means a Chinese controlled Dalai Lama. The political and cultural implications of this are obvious - it would be a blow to the Free Tibet movement.
For these reasons the Dalai Lama has made the reincarnation of the 15th Dalai Lama a matter of public discourse throughout the 21st century. A decade ago he suggested the next Dalai Lama could be a woman. He has always been forced toward the fact that, after his death, there could be two Dalai Lama's - one appointed in by traditions of the Tibetan people and another selected by China in order to attempt to control the cultural position. This would obviously be an almost unprecedented historical occurrence.
So, recently the Dalai Lama's perceptive on his reincarnation has evolved and he has suggested that he might not reincarnate at all - which is also an unprecedented thing. China, desiring to leverage the reincarnation (communist China does not actually recognize reincarnation, this is strictly a political matter for them), is adamantly opposed to this.
So we have seen a great deal of maneuvering on both sides in recent months. Who will control this ritual of reincarnation? China says, since it controls Tibet, it will control who will be the next Dalai Lama. China has aggressively responded to the suggestion that this is the last Dalai Lama but attacking His Holiness' influence and relevance. China accuses the Dalai Lama of "profaning" Buddhism with his suggestion that he can control his own reincarnation.
I find this situation fascinating and absurd. The Dalai Lama, seeing the political and cultural stakes, might opt out of continuing to be the leader of his people altogether, thereby robbing China of its potential to control the position of leadership. The Chinese government, officially atheistic and tangibly antagonistic toward Tibetan culture, is openly discussing the concept of reincarnation on the public stage.
Clearly, what we have here is the politicization of a religious perspective. Unfortunately, it is the Dalai Lama who is in the bind here. China will see that the 15th Dalai Lama is ritualistically selected through a Buddhism monastery system it controls, or at least regulates. The political stakes are too high and the potential to place a tighter grip on Tibetan culture is too great for China to do otherwise.
The Dalai Lama, on the other hand, has the choice to reincarnate and create a situation where there are two simultaneous Dalai Lama's each make claims to authority - or to cease his reincarnation and cede to China the ability to recognize a "fake" Dalai Lama. Either way, we are going to have a fake Dalai Lama sometime in the next few decades. The question is will the "real" Dalai Lama decide to contend with this situation by creating a duality of validity claims.
I have no idea which result would be best for the Tibetan people. I can only sit back and witness this rather unique world event unfold and trust that the wisdom of His Holiness will direct him to take the best course. He is already the most unique of all world leaders. Not for his compassion and understanding, nor due to his charisma and belief system. He is unique because he is leading a nation and a culture and a people without a homeland.
Tibetan culture is a distinct and living force in the world. It is respected by people all over the planet. And yet there is no physical turf for it anymore. China has disrupted the geographic origins of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is a leader without a geography, a national leader without a country. If you consider that for a moment, maybe that fact in and of itself is showing humanity the way...to a mental space where it is possible to, in the words of John Lennon, "imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for..."
Perhaps the Dalai Lama's most profound teaching is that geography has little spiritual value in the seat of the heart. This is a highly relevant insight. Imagine what could happen if these values held by such a significant leader were applied to the peoples of the Middle East or Africa or the Ukraine or even America. It would strike a great blow for peace because the wars for our lands would dissolve in favor of the mutual understanding of the heart. Yeah, humanity is a long way from that day, if it ever comes. But for the Dalai Lama it is the only path that makes any sense at all even to the point of embracing the cessation of his own being and his own line of power.
Note: I have blogged about the Dalai Lama before. I met His Holiness back in the late 1980's and have followed his life with interest ever since.
Late Note: A few days after this post China announced that all Tibetan monks and nuns will be "tested for patriotism" and that monasteries will be required to meet certain national standards. This is obviously a move to allow the monastery system to continue under tighter central controls.