Spotlight On Tibet: The Politics of Reincarnation PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Christal Smith   

Pico Iyer's father was a longtime friend and colleague of the Dalai Lama and Iyer, himself, has been close to the Dalai Lama since childhood. They have traveled together extensively and his latest book, The Open Road, about the Dalai Lama, has just been released in paperback. Over the past year, with the Summer Olympics being held in Bejing and the fiftieth anniversary of China’s invasion of Tibet, turmoil inside his homeland has been on the Dalai Lama’s mind. The Tibet Connection recently spoke to Iyer about the Dalai Lama’s reactions.

Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer

PI: I think His Holiness has always been a realist before anything else and really what we are seeing and hearing is that the events of the last year have shocked him even more than they’ve shocked the rest of us. He’s been used to cruelty and oppression and obstructionism from the Beijing government for the last sixty years, but he never expected quite the degree of ruthlessness that he’s seen since the demonstrations last March and the way in which China has dropped this black curtain so that the whole of the world can’t know what’s happening in Tibet. What he has been saying, is that he’s done everything possible in terms of opening the door, [from] extending the hand of freedom, [to] making concessions, and bringing logic to the situation, and none of that has moved China at all. I think he’s almost given way to a little bit of exasperation and said “there’s nothing more I can do but let’s hope that China comes to its senses soon.”

CS: So what is going to happen to the institution of the Dalai Lama?

PI: When I last saw him he said many times – especially when talking to Chinese audiences – that the institution of the Dalai Lama has served a great function for 350 years but now history has changed and we need a different institution. Since 1969, when he was only thirty-four years old, he’s been saying that the Dalai Lama institution is only worth continuing if it’s really useful to Tibetans. And these days, with the Tibetan exile population separated from the majority of Tibetans in Tibet, it may be that a different kind of leadership would be more helpful. I think – because he’s been addressing this question to himself for more than forty years – he’s worked out a way to smooth the succession issue and to bring Tibet into a new generation far he has kept his cards close to his chest. The first question he always asks himself is what is most useful and what is kindest for the six million Tibetans in Tibet, so he will come up with a form of leadership either by the name of the 15th Dalai Lama – or by some different name – that he thinks will best serve their needs and interests.

CS: Better to have someone designated in a modern manner rather than leave it to traditional reincarnation?

PI: Yes, that’s my suspicion, because the process of finding a little boy, then waiting for maybe fifteen years for him to come of age – Tibet doesn’t have the luxury of time now. Also they need someone who can take over leadership as soon as the 14th Dalai Lama passes on and I think one reason that the current Dalai Lama has not stressed the incarnation system is [that] to keep open the idea of a reincarnation system is to keep open this very difficult future in which the Chinese will probably present one candidate of their own and the Tibetans will find another and there will be a little bit of an impasse. (So anyone that this Dalai Lama [himself] designates as the next leader, there is nothing the Chinese could do to dethrone that person.)

You can hear this interview and other stories about March 10 on

Christal Smith is the senior producer of the radio show and website The Tibet Connection. For more information, broadcast times and updates, visit:

Pico Iyer will be talking to Professor Robert Thurman about Why the Dalai Lama Matters (the title of Thurman's most recent book) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Wednesday, April 15, 7:30 P.M. (805) 893 - 3535.

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