The Next Dalai Lama

by Jason Lee Steorts

Observers of the Sino-Tibetan situation may wish to read this analysis, by Columbia University professor Robert Barnett, of the Dalai Lama’s recent statement about his succession. The statement leaves open the possibility that the office of the Dalai Lama will cease to exist with the death of its current occupant. As Professor Barnett explains, the statement also relinquishes the Dalai Lama’s political control of the Tibetan people, widens the range of options by which a successor may be chosen, and signals an effort to bridge sectarian divides between Tibetan Buddhist schools.

On a political level, all this is clearly designed to prevent the Chinese government’s manipulating the succession, if there is to be one.

More deeply, perhaps the Dalai Lama is both protecting and improving the tradition in which the truth as he understands it finds its most perfect historically accidental expression, even as it goes on getting refined into an expression recognizable by all as the property of none.

The story of the Tibetans since the Chinese invasion makes me think of more than one other story about a people’s being driven to a new land and scattered to the four winds.

And I recall this:

Student: When you led all those people out of Tibet, did you just guess which way to go?
Trungpa Rinpoche: No, I didn’t quite guess.
S: But when you got lost, did you guess which way to go?
TR: Well, you have a sense of direction and you have a feeling that India is that way. When you have lost your way, you stop for five minutes and sit. After that, you have much clearer vision and you know where to go. You only lose your way if you are distracted. So, if your mind is clear, you know where India is. Then there is little problem. There are trails that go in that direction, and you just follow them. . . .

Student: On your trip, did you ever run out of food?
Trungpa Rinpoche: Well, we did — absolutely. Did you read about it in the book? Have you read Born in Tibet? You should read it. It’s some story. [Laughter.] We did run out of food. In the last month or so, we didn’t have much to eat. We had to cook our own leather bags. When we got to the lower elevations, we found bamboo and litchis and banana trees. But we passed right by the banana trees; we didn’t know they were edible. Nobody had ever seen banana trees before. . . .

Student: Did any people die on your trip?
Trungpa Rinpoche: Three people died. They were too old to walk. Because our schedule was very tight, we had to walk from morning to evening. Their legs began to hurt and they just collapsed. . . .

Student: How tall were the eight biggest men — the ones who used to lie down and make a path for the others through the snow?
Trungpa Rinpoche: Well, they were not particularly big. They were tough, that’s all.
S: Are they still alive?
TR: Yes — although we started with three hundred people, and a lot of them were captured. Only twenty-nine of us escaped. . . .

Student: Since you were meditating on your trip, you don’t feel very rebellious or angry at the Chinese, do you?
Trungpa Rinpoche: Well, not particularly. What happened with the Chinese was like a rainstorm: you can’t get angry at it. It was a timely situation. If the Chinese weren’t in Tibet, I wouldn’t be here. . . .

Student: What caused the war between the Chinese and the Buddhists?
Trungpa Rinpoche: Well, the communists don’t like meditation practice. They think it is a waste of time. They think that people should be working all the time. Meditation produces too much personal strength. The communists want to develop group strength, not personal strength. They do not believe in the basic goodness of the individual; they believe in the basic goodness of the group. That is why it is called communism; that’s it in a nutshell.

— Chögyam Trungpa, “Practice and Basic Goodness: A Talk for Children,” collected in The Heart of the Buddha

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