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How to Choose a Dalai Lama,

Throughout Tibetan history the Dalai Lama has ruled as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, a tradition dating back to the early 15th century when the first Dalai Lama (Gendren Drup) was awarded the title.  Originally the Dalai Lama was merely a religious teacher, however after the ascension of the 5th Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso) the Dalai Lama also took the powers of Tibet’s political leadership.  

The office of Dalai Lama is perhaps the most unique of all heads of state.  Kings, queens, and emperors often inherit their titles. Presidents, prime ministers, and Popes are elected.  Dictators often take their power by force.  However the appointment of the Dalai Lama is radically different to that of all other world leaders.  According to Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the bodhisattva (Buddhist saint) Avalokiteśvara.  Thus, the lineage of Dalai Lamas all claim to be reincarnations of an ancient Buddhist saint.  

Choosing a new Dalai Lama is a difficult and often long process that makes democratic elections seems simple by comparison.  When the old Dalai Lama dies, a team of monks is formed with the mission of finding the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.  First, the team will consult the nechung, the state oracle who will give clues as to the identity of the next Dalai Lama.  Such clues could include physical descriptions, hair color, birth marks, and other identifying features.  Often the monks will also meditate for visions that will help them on their quest.  When ready, the monks will then scour Tibet, inspecting every child and investigating every claim and rumor.  

When a child supposed to be the Dalai Lama is found, a test is then performed.  First the child will be presented several items, many of which are just random ordinary items, however a few will be items from the Dalai Lama’s past life.  If the child consistently picks past life items, then he is ushered into the next phase.  In the final part of the test, many of the Dalai Lama’s former servants, friends, and colleagues will meet the child.  The must recognize the Dalai Lama, and attest that the child is indeed the Dalai Lama.  Once recognized, the child will be whisked away to Lhasa, where he will begin his formal religious and spiritual training.  Overall, the process of finding and choosing a new Dalai Lama take around 3-5 years.

In 1950 the Chinese Army under Mao Tse-Tung invaded and conquered Tibet.  Under the harsh rule of communism, the Tibetans have suffered greatly as the Chinese dismantled many of their social and religious institutions.  In 1959, the current Dalai Lama (14th Dalai Lama Tensin Gyatso) was forced into exile.  Today the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile make their home in India.  The succession of the next Dalai Lama is in question, as the Dalai Lama believes Tibetan Buddhism needs modernized.  Over the years he has suggested a number of reforms, such as a democratically elected Dalai Lama, one chosen from outside of Tibet, and one chosen as a woman.  The Dalai Lama has even suggested that he may not even reincarnate into the next Dalai Lama at all, effectively eliminating the position.  As off now, the future of the next Dalai Lama is still hotly debated by Tibetan religious and political leaders. 

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