How the search for the next Dalai Lama is drawing interference from China and what it means for the future of Tibet


A solemn-faced young child sits on a wooden chair with his legs crossed. He wears a hat
More than 87 years after he was born into this life, the question of who will replace the 14th Dalai Lama is more urgent than ever.(Wikimedia Commons: Unknown author, public domain)

Death. It is unpredictable yet inevitable.

Even if you are a great runner, you cannot escape it.

You cannot stop it with wealth, recitation of mantras or even medicines. Therefore, it is wise to prepare for death while you are living.

These are some of the Dalai Lama’s many teachings on death. 

While these words have brought comfort to many people about their place in the world, what will happen at the end of the current Dalai Lama’s life on earth is still unclear.

As the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism celebrates his 87th birthday, the issue of who his successor will be is becoming more urgent and more political than ever.

The Dalai Lama in his trademark orange and maroon robes puts his hands together in prayer at a table in front of colourful walls
The Dalai Lama marked his 87th birthday on July 6 in Dharamshala, India.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

The Dalai Lama has floated many options for who will take over his soul when he leaves his human form — someone he chooses while he’s still alive, someone born in a ‘free country’, perhaps even a woman. 

Tibetans say the lack of clarity on what will happen next is a tactic to confuse China, as it seeks to gain political power by taking ownership of the spiritual lineage. 

Those closest to the situation are now calling for the international community to publicly support their choice for a successor over China’s.

Amid global concerns about the Communist Party’s growing influence, they say the future of their community — and the world — depends on it. 

The chosen one

For 600 years, Tibetans have been using ancient rituals and mysticism to find the human form of the Dalai Lama. 

It’s believed the Dalai Lama is the human manifestation of a being who has attained nirvana — released from the cycle of life, death, and suffering — but is continuing to live on Earth for the compassion of other beings. 

As one Dalai Lama’s human form leaves this world, the soul is reborn in another body, according to Tibetan Buddhist belief. 

The current Dalai Lama, the 14th, is among the oldest in the lineage. Many of his predecessors didn’t even live to see their 30th birthday.

“He’s in human form, so there has to be degeneration of his body, which is a natural thing, which every one of us accepts,” Tibet’s political leader Penpa Tsering says. 

When the previous Dalai Lama died, in 1933, a search party of Tibetan disciples used signs from his body to find his successor.

A head tilt and an unusual fungus on the shrine containing his corpse pointed them to the north-eastern Tibetan district of Dokham, an area spanning several provinces in present-day central China. 

The disciples also checked a lake traditionally used to see visions of the location of the next Dalai Lama.

A deep blue lake is seen at the base of a mountain
Lhamo La-tso is considered the most sacred lake in Tibet. Monks have been visiting the site for visions to assist in discovering reincarnations of the Dalai Lama for centuries.(Flickr: HYLA 2009 via Creative Commons 2.0)

“They sent out search teams, until they found a building that looked like what they had seen in the lake,” explains Robbie Barnett, a Tibet researcher at the University of London. 

In the small hillside village of Taktser, they found a child who took an instant shine to one of the previous Dalai Lama’s close advisers and seemed to recognise his old walking stick.

That boy was a two-year-old named Lhamo Dhondup, who could pass every test offered to him and identify items belonging to his predecessor, reportedly shouting: “It’s mine!”

Before he could travel to the Potala Palace in Lhasa — where Dalai Lamas have lived for centuries — the monastery had to pay a local Chinese Muslim warlord a ransom of 300,000 silver dollars.

After an arduous mountain trek, he finally arrived in Lhasa. The four-year-old boy’s hair was cut, his clothes swapped out for maroon monks’ robes, and he was ordained with a new name: Tenzin Gyatso. 

Under the tutelage of senior lamas, Tenzin learned logic, fine art, Sanskrit, medicine and philosophy, and led long ceremonies for his disciples. 

An expansive palace set on a hilltop is seen at sunset
Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, was the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas from 1649 to 1959.(Wikimedia Commons: Coolmanjackey via Creative Commons 3.0)

“When one dies, you’ve got to find the next one, then you’ve got to educate him and train him and wait for that child to grow up,” Professor Barnett says. 

“There will be disputes, always, over whether you’ve found the right child or whether somebody has interfered with the process and so on.”

And, just as his own journey across the Himalayas did, the process to find the Dalai Lama’s replacement is already attracting attention from China.

An ever-present China

Finding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is steeped in ancient tradition, but that looks likely to change this time around.

The Chinese government has made it clear that it wants final approval of all reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama, and insisted they will be found within China’s borders. 

“The 14th Dalai Lama himself was found and recognised following rituals and conventions, and his succession was approved by the then central government,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said in 2018.

“Therefore, the reincarnation must comply with Chinese laws and regulations, follow rituals and historic conventions.” 

It’s an ironic move for a strictly atheist government that does not allow its officials to practise religion, but experts say that having control over the next Dalai Lama would give China major power.

It is a tension that harks back to the 14th Dalai Lama’s own path to become spiritual leader.

By the time Tenzin Gyatso reached his early 20s, he had already led six million Tibetans through years of threats of all-out war with China.

A young Dalai Lama, in dark rimmed glasses and robes
The Dalai Lama, then aged 21, pictured in New Delhi in 1956.(Wikimedia Commons: Kinsey Bros via public domain)

In 1950, Chinese troops invaded Tibet and formally incorporated the region, saying it had always been a part of China.

Nine years later, a Chinese general offered a supposed olive branch and invited the Dalai Lama to a dance troupe performance, but there was a crucial catch: He had to go alone, without bodyguards or soldiers. 

The Dalai Lama’s key spiritual adviser is known as the state oracle, a deity who communicates through a human monk. 

They deliberated for a week over whether it was safe to attend the performance — could he be missing an opportunity to liaise with China directly over the future of Tibet? 

However, the Dalai Lama was receiving reports of atrocities against his people and the oracle advised him to escape into exile, drawing him a map to cross the border into India. 

A group of men stand by as the Dalai Lama, in a scarf, glasses and hat, rides past
The Dalai Lama and some of his followers on the journey from TIbet across the border into India, in 1959.(Supplied: Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

On March 17, 1959, just before 10pm, the Dalai Lama dressed up as a Tibetan soldier and began a two-week trek over the mountains to exile in Dharamshala.

Travelling only at night to avoid Chinese sentry guards, the group endured the harsh climate and treacherous peaks.

Until he appeared in India, there were fears the Dalai Lama may have been killed.

India’s prime minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a policy of not interfering with the domestic politics of other countries, and had discouraged the Dalai Lama from provoking China. 

However, when His Holiness and his group of soldiers crossed the border, the Indian leader commanded that they should be allowed in, to set up a new home nestled at the base of the Himalayas. 

Tibetans in exile

Since then, the Dalai Lama and many of his followers have lived in exile in Dharamshala. For decades, the community has gathered here to hear their leader’s speeches and mark important milestones.

A row of monks in their trademark red and orange robes line up, a person with no legs sits nearby
Several thousand Tibetans live in the area around Dharamshala today.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

At this year’s birthday celebrations, thousands of monks, Tibetan school children and a handful of foreign tourists pack into his temple. 

Three pictures of the Dalai Lama — as a child, a young adult, and more recently in his old age — are blown up on a banner that looms large over the audience. 

Several cakes are spread across a table. Students cut slices for the hungry crowd after singing choruses of Happy Birthday to His Holiness. 

Tibetan students sing their national anthem, a tune that remains illegal in their homeland controlled by China. 

Two flags, one with a yellow sun in the centre and blue and red panels, the other with stripes of red, white, orange
The Tibetan and Buddhist flags flying high.(ABC News: Som Patidar)
A row of people scoop servings of food out of large pots. Many are wearing surgical masks
Followers shared food and cake.(ABC News: Som Patidar)
A group of people in traditional Tibetan dress play stringed instruments together
The Tibetan community sang songs, played music and performed dances.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

This generation has only heard stories from their parents, or grandparents, about what Tibet is like. 

“We were told that, eventually, we are going to go back to this country that my grandparents and parents had left behind, so it became a darling story for all of us,” Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue says. 

“It was later in school that I understood the political situation. We understood, at a very early age, that our country had been occupied by China and [that] we are refugees. We are living in India at India’s sympathy.” 

A man in a black shirt and red bandana leans against the open door of a house. Green foliage climbs the outside
Tenzin Tsudue’s parents were among those who followed the Dalai Lama from Tibet to India.(ABC News: Som Patidar)
A messy room with book cases stacked full against walls, papers strewn across a desk, and walls filled with art
He now lives in Dharamshala with the community in exile.(ABC News: Som Patidar)
Posters, drawings and Tibetan peace flags adorn a wall.
The activist says the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama does not only affect Tibetans, but also the rest of the world.(ABC News: Som Patidar)
A man in a black shirt and red bandana gestures as he speaks in front of a messy bookshelf
He says he will work “every single day” until Tibet is free again.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

Tenzin Tsundue’s parents were among the thousands of refugees who followed the Dalai Lama when he fled to India after rejecting China’s ownership over his homeland. 

More than 100,000 Tibetans now live in India, but they — as well as the Dalai Lama — are only recognised as “stateless”, not refugees, with no citizenship nor passport in any country.

“My mother had seen how people are leaving the pastoral homes, their farmlands and escaping, and she had heard stories of nearby villages, which had been plundered by Chinese invading forces,” Tenzin says.

“Those who resisted were executed in public squares … some of my grandparents, family, they got up and left behind Tibet.” 

Every Tibetan has a story like this. 

Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari is a member of the democratic Tibetan parliament-in-exile, an administration set up by the Dalai Lama in 1963 so he could shed the political authority attached to his role. 

A woman in close-up looks into the camera with serious expression on her face. Her floral collar and pearl earrings are visible
Tibetan MP in exile Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari says she is proud to belong to a family that has been challenging the status quo.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

“My late father, he was a political prisoner, he was imprisoned for 20 years, six months, 11 days, because of his voice against the Chinese Communist Party,” she says. 

“My late mother, my late grandmother, were former political prisoners … so I belong to a family who has been challenging the Chinese Communist Party regime for generations.

“I know that, if given a chance, I would take the same step.” 

In the more-than 70 years since China invaded Tibet, there have reportedly been thousands of Tibetans taken as political prisoners, such as Namgyal’s family was. 

There are currently at least 273 Tibetan political prisoners in China, most of them accused of resisting Chinese rule.  

Finding the next Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama has been intrinsically linked with the fight for Tibet’s future. For years, he joined his fellow countrymen and women in calling for an independent country. 

However, in 1988, he publicly deserted that goal and called for an autonomous state within China instead, a policy he calls the “Middle Way”. 

He has consistently said that the fight should remain non-violent: Even peaceful marches and hunger strikes are a step too far for His Holiness, who says people should avoid confrontation at all costs. 

“We have to follow … the Middle Way approach and, based on that policy, we follow non-violence, as it means a negotiated and mutually beneficial lasting solution for the conflict,” prime minister-in-exile Penpa Tsering says.

“Therefore, we have to reach out to the Chinese government.” 

A man in white band-collared shirt trimmed with gold sits in an ornate room in front of a model palace
Penpa Tsering is the Sikyong or political leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, the democratic parliament in exile.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

This stance is divisive within the Tibetan community, with many wanting more for their homeland.

“Until Tibet is free again, I will work every single day and my focus is only about the independence of Tibet,” Tenzin Tsundue says. 

It is with this delicate balance in mind that many believe the Dalai Lama has made a choice to change the age-old custom surrounding his reincarnation. 

Over the past decade, he given a number of conflicting clues about his successor that some say are designed to keep China guessing about what happens next.

The Dalai Lama's face is lit up with a wide grin, as he hands a piece of paper to a person and shakes their hand
The Dalai Lama has said his reincarnation could be a woman, or two people, or someone he chooses before his death.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

In a speech in 2011, he said he would make a decision on whether the Dalai Lama would continue as an institution when he turns 90, after consulting with high lamas and the Tibetan people. 

He has also said he could choose his successor while he’s still alive. 

In 2019, the Dalai Lama stirred controversy by saying his reincarnation could be a woman, adding that, if they were female, she would have to be attractive. 

And, in a more direct rebuttal to China, the Dalai Lama has also asserted his reincarnation would be found in a free country, which observers interpreted as referring to India, rather than Chinese-controlled Tibet. 

“It is all up to His Holiness, because he is the one who’s going to be reincarnated … we cannot decide for him,” Penpa Tsering says. 

“Our friends in the West ask us the same question: Why don’t you have a process at hand right now?

“I tell them that whatever His Holiness is doing now is very smart, because China cannot handle unpredictable things.” 

Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari says the future of her community relies on what happens after the current Dalai Lama dies and, as uncomfortable the topic is, it needs to be discussed now. 

A young boy in maroon robes with a surgical mask around his chin looks into camera, kids behind him look away
While it may be taboo, those within the community say they need to talk about finding the next Dalai Lama.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

“We’re choosing not to discuss [what happens when the Dalai Lama dies], but that’s a reality that we can’t escape,” she says.

“We wish, we pray, we hope that he lives to 113, but we also know that the post-Dalai Lama situation is one we’ll have to deal with.”

Venerable Geshe Lhakdor — a senior monk, Tibetan scholar and close confidant of the Dalai Lama — says that, while the spiritual leader will ultimately decide what happens, arrangements are being made for his death. 

“Some preparations already have been made, we [have] had several meetings on how to carry this forward,” he says. 

“According to the existing tradition and the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama then, of course, we should follow the traditional ways of recognising His Holiness’s reincarnation after he passes away. 

“We’ve made some preparation, but the big announcement has not been made right now.” 

The fight for Tibet’s future

While all Tibetans who spoke to the ABC agreed that it’s up to the Dalai Lama to decide what happens next, they acknowledged China’s interference remains a threat. 

“It is a matter of concern but that does not necessarily mean that worrying over it will solve the problem,” Penpa Tsering says. 

“[Indian Buddhist monk] Shantideva said: ‘If the problem can be solved, why worry? If the problem cannot be solved, worrying will do you no good.’ So, we follow that concept. 

“It’s a concern that we have to address. We have to also look at a post-Dalai Lama scenario. It’s our responsibility, but it’s too early to talk about all this.” 

Two monks in traditional maroon and orange vibes walk down a street past stalls and other people
Tibetans agree it is up to the Dalai Lama to decide what happens next.(ABC News: Som Patidar)
Four young boys in maroon robes, three wearing surgical masks, pose for the camera while sitting together outside
Traditionally, the Dalai Lama’s soul is reborn in another body.(ABC News: Som Patidar)
A boy in maroon robes, wearing a surgical mask on his chin, sits on the ground next to a tree
But a question mark remains over whose body that will be.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

Others in the community argue that the Tibetan people should capitalise on the global shift against China’s growing power. 

After decades of building trade relations with the Chinese government, Australia, India, the US and Japan are now strengthening the Quad, a partnership to reduce reliance on China.

“The world finally sees the People’s Republic of China as a threat to the freedom … of democracies around the world,” Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari says.

“It’s a perfect time for us to let them know, and remind them, we’ve been doing that for the past 60 years. 

“We’ve suffered under their regime for generations, and we don’t want the entire international community to be a victim.”

The prime-minister-in-exile is calling on countries such as Australia to endorse the Tibetan people’s choice of the next Dalai Lama, over China’s. 

“We’ll be approaching governments to take up … legislation regarding the recognition of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama,” he says. 

“The more countries adopt that, [then] that will also give some kind of international leverage for the Tibetans.” 

Although India has given asylum to the Tibetan community for decades, its governments have been reluctant to show too much support, in fear of isolating China, its biggest trading partner. 

That changed in 2020, when Chinese and Indian troops engaged in skirmishes in Ladakh, along their contested border. 

A pristine blue lake with bare, jagged hills behind on a cloudy day.
The fighting around Ladakh’s Pangong Tso lake resulted in the first conflict deaths between the two armies in 45 years.(Reuters: Mukesh Gupta)

After those clashes, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Dalai Lama to wish him a happy birthday. China criticised the move last month, saying India was using Tibet to “interfere in China’s internal affairs”. 

“It is a consistent policy of the government of India to treat His Holiness Dalai Lama as an honoured guest in India, and as a respected religious leader who enjoys a large following in India,” India’s External Affairs Ministry’s spokesperson said in response. 

For the first time since tensions in Ladakh reignited, the Dalai Lama is spending a month in the region.

“Sooner or later, you have to solve this through talk, through peaceful means. Use of military force is outdated,” His Holiness said.

Although his visit to Ladakh is believed to be irritating Beijing, the Dalai Lama says the Chinese people are not objecting.

“Now, more and more Chinese are showing interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Some of their scholars are realising that Tibetan Buddhism is very scientific. Things are changing,”  he said.

How will the West face China?

As Australia navigates the tricky balance of its own relationship with China, how it responds to the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation will be pivotal. 

“When we talk about the reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the question does not [only] come to Tibetans,” activist Tenzin Tsundue says. 

“The question is [also] about how the West will face China.

“Will the West continue to ignore these serious issues and continue to be entrapped by China’s rising economic power? Or will the West allow China to take over and create a China order to the rest of the world? 

“It is for the Western countries to decide.” 

Researchers say the issue of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation could actually provide a chance to alleviate tensions between China and the rest of the world.

“There’s always a possibility of negotiation … this is a classic issue that could be an opening for other possibilities to say, ‘Let’s negotiate a deal before the Dalai Lama dies’,” Professor Barnett says. 

“This is an opportunity for us to find a way to work with this very new, important player in the world scene [China], and to make it possible for them to negotiate without losing face [while] avoiding the major tensions that are coming down the road.”

Towards the end of his 87th birthday celebration, the Dalai Lama relaxed into his chair — a sign those close to him say indicates he’s lost interest. 

His staff took off his microphone and hurried to his sides to lift him. He now needs two people holding him on either side get up from his seat or to walk.  

The Dalai Lama in his trademark orange and maroon robes is supported by several minders propping him up
The Dalai Lama has said he expects to live to 113 — only time will tell.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

The room of monks quickly stood up as a mark of respect, but the Dalai Lama decided he had one more statement left to make and told everyone to sit back down.

“You have followed my leadership without any hesitation. This is primarily the strength of the ordinary people,” he said. 

“So I want to take this opportunity to thank the general public. 

“I am sure that I will live for another one or two decades, and I am confident that I can promote the principles of compassion and tolerance in the world.”

Credits

Additional photography courtesy of the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Reuters, Creative Commons via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

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