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Faith & Spirituality

What Will Be The Ramifications Of The Dalai Lama's Political Resignation?

Dalai Lama speaking at an event, New York City, 2009.
Dalai Lama speaking at an event, New York City, 2009.
What Will Be The Ramifications Of The Dalai Lama's Political Resignation?
Known in religious communities as "His Holiness," The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has decided to resign his position as political leader of Tibet. What will the ramifications be for the global Buddhist community and Tibetan people who currently reside in Dharamsala, India? And how will this impact the relations between the Chinese government and Tibet?

Known in religious communities as "His Holiness," The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has decided to resign his position as political leader of Tibet. What will the ramifications be for the global Buddhist community and Tibetan people who currently reside in Dharamsala, India? And how will this impact the relations between the Chinese government and Tibet?


Sthaneswar Timalsina, Associate Professor at San Diego State University, Expert on Religion in India.


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. For several years now, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists has said that the Tibetan government in exile should be run by a secular leadership. But it was still a shock to many when earlier this month, are the Dalai Lama resigned from his role as political leader of the Tibetan people. The move has caused some to worry about the status of the refugee government. For more than 50 years issue the territory of Tibet has been claimed and occupied by the Chinese government. The Tibetan government in exile, including the Dalai Lama, have established headquarters in Dharamsala, India. Others, however, see the move as a positive one in the refugees' continued efforts to find a political solution to the Chinese take over of their country. I'd like to introduce my guest, Dr. Sthaneswar Timalsina, professor of religion in India at San Diego State University. And Doctor Timalsina, welcome to These Days. Thanks for being here.

TIMALSINA: Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

CAVANAUGH: Can you explain what the Dalai Lama's roles historically have been, politically and spiritually in Tibet?

TIMALSINA: Essentially, the role of lamas is to lead spiritually to their people, and after Kublai Khan gave the title, it's a Dalai Lama, are the first lama, then after it was also as a political head and a spiritual leader. So for the Tibetans now in exile, and also in Tibet, they have seen for the last 350 years for the time in memory, in a sense, as Dalai Lama representing the both. So for them, it is shocking and particularly for the people in Tibet, since they cannot participate in the electoral process to represent their leader, so far this Dalai Lama had been decided by the reincarnation.



TIMALSINA: So this has created, of course, uproar, and also given hope in a different sense, if we look differently. For many people who see that the -- this move made by Dalai Lama is a very calculated and a good move in the long run.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take you back just a minute to the concept of what is a lama?

TIMALSINA: A lama is like a guru in Sanskrit. If we go to the history, the first lama we can say is a lama Padma Sambhava of 8th Century who went to Tibet and established this Buddhist order in Tibet. They practice Buddhism, particularly Tantric Buddhism, and within Tibet there are four major sects of the Nyingma school, Gelug school, Kagyu school, and Sakya. And Dalai Lama actually represents Gelug, the yellow hat order founded by Tsongkhapa.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And remind us, if you would, doctor Timalsina, about how the Dalai Lama is selected. I think that most of us are familiar with the idea that reincarnation play ace role in this selection. But tell us a lot bit more about that.

TIMALSINA: Before the demise, Dalai Lama himself gives an indication of what exactly would be the symptoms of himself reincarnating. And there's a particular place in Tibet, the birthplace of Dalai Lamas, and from there we have been getting Dalai Lamas for the 14 generations. And when a boy is selected, based on his ability to recognize the tools, the items Dalai Lama had used before, his personal belongings, and also his ability to comprehend challenging texts at a very early aim. So these are considered symptoms, because essentially a Dalai Lama is reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, who is compassion in the body.

CAVANAUGH: Compassion in the body. Yes.


CAVANAUGH: I wonder is there any kind of way of comparing the Dalai Lama's political role as opposed to his spiritual role? Has that ever been thought of as separate before the Dalai Lama just announced this month that he is relink wishing his political role?

TIMALSINA: Actually his holiness, Dalai Lama, has expressed several times, hinted that he wants to relink wish this political power, political role. And if we dig deep into the history of Buddhism itself, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, relinquished his political power in his journey for the spiritual quest that eventually gave him enlightenment. So actually it's ironic that after Buddhism went outside of India to China, the myth the Chinese created was Buddha was an emperor, not an ascetic. So then after, the Buddha viewed in the far east is like a political leader rather than a spiritual leader. But in its own origins there was a clear separation of the state and the church, if you will. And Buddha himself, the Siddhartha, gave up his political ambitions to become the Buddha. So I do not see that there is any inherent contradiction from within Buddhism from the Dalai Lama to renounce from his political leadership role.

CAVANAUGH: I understand your point. It has that precedent all the way back at the start. I want it tell our audience, I'm spooking with doctor Sthaneshwar Timalsina, professor of religion in India at San Diego state university. So how -- do we know who therefore will assume the political role the Dalai Lama once had for the government in exile?

TIMALSINA: We didn't know that yet. The parliament has appointed one small committee headed by three people to decide on the very process of to resolve the current crisis. Because for many Tibetans, for Dalai Lama to relink wish his power and just like for a human being to relink wish him being -- continuing to be a human being. It's just like because it comes not through election, it comes by birth. So for some, it's a big brain storming, but none the less, they have already started the process. And the charter of Tibetans in exile, the government you may call it, the constitution of the Tibetan people, needs to be revised. So without a revision of whether there can be actually an election to represent Dalai Lama has the head of the state, we cannot say for sure what exactly it will be like or who will be there. Of it is premature even for us to predict.

CAVANAUGH: However, with a secular leadership for the Tibetan government in exile, do you think that this is -- will influence the long-term efforts of the Tibetan people to either free their nation from Chinese rule or come to some sort of negotiated settlement with China?

TIMALSINA: The biggest problem for six million Tibetans in Tibet and some hundred and 30000 Tibetans in exile is not the political one. The foremost problem is their right to practice their religion, which has not been given by the Chinese authority. Sometimes it was to the extreme like the current governor of Tibet appointed by the Chinese, Padma Choling, said no, Dalai Lama cannot give his political power to others. He has to reincarnate, a dumbfounding statement by a communist government that Dalai Lama has to reincarnate, whether they can accept that theology of reincarnation itself or not.

CAVANAUGH: That's rather odd, yes.

TIMALSINA: Yeah. So for a short time, of course, there will be a power vacuum, but his holiness has seen this as a very good opportunity. He's at the age of 75, and he has time to let the leadership grow in his guidance and have the shift, the transition of power without a real confusion. And he must have been very aware also of the fact of what happened to Panchen Lama, for example, like the Chinese appointing their one Panchen lama and actually making any effort to destroy the whole institution.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, let me just remind listeners of that, and that is the second holiest monk in Tibetan Buddhism also reincarnates, the Panchen Lama, and there was one that was anointed, basically, and there were two that were appointed. One that is now in some sort of house arrest in Tibet. And I was wondering, does Chinese rule threaten the naming of a new Dalai Lama?

TIMALSINA: The problem is as long as Chinese continue to interfere in Tibetans, not even in autonomy of Tibet, which is not the case that his holiness is pursuing for, but had some autonomy, at least the freedom for the people in Tibet to practice their religion. Of so this -- even these fundamental rights had been denied for the people in Tibet. And without the leadership with a clear vision, and without people willing to accept that leadership as well, there can be a bigger confusion. And people in there may go to both directions. And the bad direction could be as his holiness, Dalai Lama, is also a Nobel Laureate for peace. And people in Tibet have been acting peacefully, and the negative thing is what happens if the peaceful movement somehow is derailed?

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. I understand.

TIMALSINA: So there's a bigger threat. And even in this peaceful movement, maybe about 1000 lamas have been killed or persecuted by the Chinese government. So there's a -- there is a bigger perspective in there.

CAVANAUGH: My final question to you in the last empty that we have, I know that there were elections, parliamentary reactions conducted this month. When will we know the results of those elections?

TIMALSINA: This is a little hard in that it takes a long time than it should. I am not even sure when the announcement will be made. There are some fellas, like one Harvard law fellow, Lobsang Sangey, is competing in the election, and he may be one of the frontrunners. And maybe it's too early to predict the election since the election has been gone, and they are collecting the ballots. But it takes months, which is actually now, the politics has been more interesting after the resignation of Dalai Lama.

CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there. I want to thank you so much doctor Timalsina. Thank you for speaking with us.

TIMALSINA: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment please go on-line, Days.