Understanding the Dalai Lama’s Retirement Statement

(This was first posted on the blog of the International Campaign for Tibet)

November 30, 2010

The recent media statements by the Dalai Lama about his desire to announce complete retirement has create a buzz among Tibet watchers at all levels. I have no doubt that the Chinese government, primarily, and all concerned governments are studying the implication of such a development. China is already testing the waters by having “scholars” comment  on the statement. The Chinese seem to be closely following the development, as they should be, and have publicly outlined the chronology of the Dalai Lama’s statements relating to his retirement.

At the onset, when the Dalai Lama talks about “retirement” it should not be taken in the way a conventional politician or international figure retires from public life. The Dalai Lama’s latest statement has to be understood in the context of his description of the historical responsibility of the institution and how it has changed in recent years. As he explains it, historically, the Dalai Lamas have been both the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. While the temporal leadership was limited to the Tibetan people, the spiritual authority expands to almost all followers of Tibetan Buddhism who regard him as the manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. His spiritual followers have traditionally been the Tibetans, the Buddhists along the Himalayan region, as well as the Buddhists in Mongolia and the Russian republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva (as I write this the Dalai Lama is giving teachings to several hundred Buddhists from these places in the  Russian Federation who have gathered in Dharamsala). In the post 1959 period there are several thousand followers of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world who also revere him as a spiritual leader.

In 2001, following the establishment of the system of the directly elected positions of the Kalon Tripa, the Chairman of the Tibetan Cabinet and the de facto head of the Central Tibetan Administration, much of the political authority has been delegated to it. The Dalai Lama has said that since then he has more or less ceased being the temporal leader.

Therefore, his latest statement, to me, is a step towards making this transformation in the age-old responsibilities of the institution of the Dalai Lama more formal. His Holiness has talked about wanting to discuss this matter with the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, which is the highest decision making authority in the Tibetan administration system in exile. The parliament is scheduled to have its next session in March 2011.

Even if the Dalai Lama decides on his retirement, he has said he will continue to be active in the public domain, primarily to continue his work towards the promotion of human values and religious harmony.

On the broader issue of the Dalai Lama commanding the loyalty and trust of the Tibetan people, particularly those in Tibet, I do not foresee any changes in the future. The Dalai Lama will continue to be regarded by the Tibetan people as their free spokesman, irrespective of the changes that take place in his political role in exile. His role as the moral authority on the Tibetan issue will not diminish. As one Chinese Government scholar has understood it, the Dalai Lama, in a sense, cannot retire. He will continue to be a force to reckon with.

Having said that, there will be an impact in the Tibetan political movement in exile. First of all, this will be a challenge that the new Kalon Tripa will have to face in 2011 i.e. if the Dalai Lama’s discussions with the Tibetan Parliament ends up with his making that formal decision of retirement. The individual will have to assume more responsibility, be more decisive and not to be seen pushing issues back into the Dalai Lama’s hands. Also the Tibetan administrative system in exile, including the various offices connected with the Dalai Lama, will have to undergo the necessary repositioning under such a development.

The Tibetan people in exile will also have to undergo a paradigm shift in their thinking and adapt to this new reality. The Dalai Lama has been making efforts to shake off the Tibetan people’s over dependence on him and this is one more step towards that objective. Then there have also been some individuals who have said that the absence of the Dalai Lama from the governmental system would not altogether be a bad thing for the Tibetan struggle. The Dalai Lama’s statement will now be a challenge to these individuals to rise to the occasion and play a responsible role in preparing Tibetan society for such a development. This will be the time for these people to walk the talk.

Internationally, governments should now find it easier to have a simple, transparent and clear position towards the Dalai Lama than in the past.  To date, several governments have tried to overcome the perception of being seen as dealing with Dalai Lama the political leader by formally regarding him as a spiritual leader only. Now that the Dalai Lama is thinking of divesting himself of any semblance of a formal political position, unless politics kick in governments should find it easier to have a formal relationship with him as an eminent religious leader.

Above all, the statement will have implication on how the Chinese leadership perceives the Dalai Lama. His voluntary relinquishing of all formal political authority will be a challenge to any political agenda they may have about the institution. They will be caught in a Catch 22 situation. They may not be wanting the Dalai Lama to have any political influence over the Tibetan people but his announcement will also be something that they may not be desiring.

The Dalai Lama’s statement about his complete retirement thus has more than meets the eye, and we will wait to see how things develop in the coming months.

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