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The soul of Tibet

There’s a big tussle over a soul right now. Not any old soul, but that of the Dalai Lama, the spectacles-wearing, perpetually smiling guy garbed in an instantly recognisable orange cloak. He is now 80. He seems hale and hearty, but at the age of 80 one is inevitably on borrowed time. When he dies, who will replace him?

That’s not just a spiritual question. For the Chinese communist authorities it’s a deeply political one. The Dalai Lama is the head of state and spiritual leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in Dharamshala, India. Of course, he is not recognised by Beijing.

When a Dalai Lama expires, senior monks search for his fresh incarnation, who usually turns out – surprise surprise – to be a boy. But the current, 14th Dalai Lama is a bit of a moderniser, a bit of a thinker, well-educated and worldly. He was born Llamo Thondup in 1935 and was chosen as the Dalai Lama at the age of two, when he was renamed Tenzin Gyatso. The title ‘Dalai Lama’ means ‘Ocean Teacher’, implying a teacher whose depth of understanding and spirituality is as deep as the ocean.

Daringly, Gyatso has suggested that he might be reincarnated as a woman. Women can certainly be ordained in Buddhism, although it’s a pretty tall order to think that the senior monks who will choose the successor might suddenly decide it’s a woman. Gyatso has also suggested he might be reincarnated while he’s still alive, a piece of metaphysical juggling that defies all understanding, but which at least has the merit of clarifying the absurdity of reincarnation – it’s a political, not spiritual act. He has even floated the idea that the Tibetan public should decide if he is to be reincarnated at all. He has said: “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself…much better that a centuries-old tradition should cease at the time of a quite popular Dalai Lama.”

The political tension between Beijing and those Tibetans wanting independence is building up. The chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People’s Congress – Beijing’s stoolpigeon in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital – is Padma Choling. He said this week that the reincarnation process isn’t up to the Dalai Lama. It’s Beijing’s job. For the current bearer of that soul to suggest anything else is “blasphemy against Tibetan Buddhism.” Somewhat peculiar that atheist China should worry itself about blasphemy, but whatever…Naturally, he dislikes the Dalai Lama and has accused him of wanting to reintroduce serfdom.

Leaving aside the politics of the handover from the 14th Dalai Lama to the 15th, it would be interesting to be one of the monks who gets to choose the successor. What kind of interview would you stage with a two-year old? How would you know if you are making the right choice? ‘Does that gurgling sound spiritual enough to you? No? But he’s the spitting image of number 14….’