A new era for Tibet as Dalai Lama steps down
The holiest monk of Tibetan Buddhism is retiring from politics after decades of service to his people. Now Tibet’s exiles face an uncertain future.
Tibetans in Northern India and China are worried about their future. Why? After more than 60 years as the political and religious leader of his people, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has announced his retirement from politics.
To understand how much this matters, you have to understand the story of Tibet. The name belongs to a vast region in the Himalayas, known for its beautiful but rugged landscape of dry plateaus and jagged peaks. High above sea level, and ringed with steep mountain ranges, it is naturally isolated from the fertile lands of India and China far below.
The traditional rulers of this lonely land have been the Dalai Lamas, a line of revered Buddhist monks who have been spiritual and political leaders for more than 400 years. Tibetans believe that when one Dalai Lama dies, his spirit is born again in a new body. This child then becomes the next Dalai Lama, preserving an unbroken spiritual succession.
So, in the 1930s, a two-year-old boy from a remote farming village in the mountains was named the new leader of Tibet. He left his family, his friends, even his old name, to live the quiet life of a Buddhist monk.
At least – that was the plan. But, in 1950, an army from the newly established People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet.
In 1951, the Tibetan government surrendered, acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over the region.
In 1959, Tibetans took to the streets demanding an end to Chinese rule. But the uprising was crushed. The Dalai Lama, not yet 25 years old, fled to India to form a Tibetan government in exile.
Since then, he has been an inspirational leader for Tibetans, both those who fled and those who remain under Chinese rule in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. To the Chinese, he is a troublemaker, even a terrorist. To his own people, and to many in the West, he is a hero, campaigning non-violently for Tibetan freedom.
The way ahead
Now, the Tibetans have lost their political figurehead, someone who was hugely respected by politicians and leaders around the world.
Without his leadership, the Tibetan government will struggle to achieve the same high profile. And no one knows what will happen when he dies and a successor must be found. China says it must approve any new appointment. The Dalai Lama’s followers reply that the new Dalai must be independent of Chinese rule. It’s possible that there may even be two rival Dalai Lamas, both claiming to be the true heir to the last.
- Do you think religious figures can ever make good political leaders?
- Does national independence matter? Why / why not?
- Imagine being chosen aged two to become your country's religious and political leader. Write a letter to your family describing your new life and how you feel.
- Do some research into the history and geography of Tibet. Write a report on the Tibetan independence movement. What do you think will happen to the region in the future?
Some People Say...
“Religion and politics shouldn’t mix.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What’s all this about spirits being ‘born again’?
- The idea is called ‘reincarnation,’ and it’s quite a common belief in world religions. Hindus and Buddhists believe that when people die they come back in a new body.
- So when this Dalai Lama dies, his soul will find a new body to take his place?
- That’s the principle, yes. But a new Dalai Lama might not have the same authority as the old one. The current Dalai Lama has said that it’s time for his people to change to a more democratic form of government, where leaders are elected rather than reincarnated.
- So what will the new Dalai Lama do?
- He could devote himself to spiritual pursuits. Without the distractions of politics, the Dalai Lama would be free to concentrate on the simpler pleasures of monastic life. That might be a good thing.