The Concept of Reincarnation in Tibetan Heritage: The life and Legacy of the 14th Dalai Lama

Speech by 


The doctrine of re-incarnation is intrinsic to the Tibetan system of Buddhism. There has been a long history of choosing recognized re-incarnations or Tulkus for the position of ecclesiastic hierarchy in Tibet. The successive reincarnations of the Dalai Lama after the 5th have held the position of temporal and religious head of Tibetans till now. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th in line. In the due course of time and with the global scenario in flux, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama as an institution has become circumspect. Hence this paper seeks to examine and interrogate with the paradoxes concerning tradition and modernity implicit in the concept of reincarnation in Tibetan culture and heritage with reference to the core Mahayana ideals and the legacy of the 14th Dalai Lama.

Keywords: Reincarnation, Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, Rebirth

Since the 13th century all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism have relied on the concept of reincarnation[1] as a prime method of succession for high Lamas[2] . This has conventionally involved a series of rituals: signs left by the predecessor, consultations with oracles and verification tests in order to identify a child as the recently deceased lama’s reincarnation. Given the centrality of reincarnation to Tibetan leadership and thus the legitimacy of Tibetan polity, it has long been a political as well as religious practice.

This practice came about after centuries of influence of Indian Buddhism that had great influence as a cultural model over the entire Central Asia. Since 7th-8th centuries many Indian Buddhist masters such as Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, Virupa, Dharmapala, Atisha systematically introduced Mahayana tradition of Buddhism[3] in Tibet.

Consequently, four major traditions: Nying-ma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Kadam associated with lineages coming down from one or two Indian Buddhist Masters were formed and in the 14th century a great prolific Tibetan personality, Tsongkhapa (1357-1417) went into the monastic reforms of the era, brought about a renaissance synthesizing the existing four Tibetan Buddhist Tradition[4] , effects of which reverberate even through present day architecture of Buddhism in Tibet, after 600 years of establishment of Ganden Monastic University. Tsongkhapa’s reforms were based on the thoughts of Atisha’s Kadampa school which sought to transform the traditional Tantric based practices more dialectic and purely based on Buddhist Philosophy. He formed a new tradition called Gelugpa (the followers of the perfect virtuous path) which became popularly known as Yellow hat tradition that had a monastery built in the name of Gaden (Place of Joy) in 1409. The Gelugpa tradition later became the more dominant tradition in Central Asia with major repercussions on the political history of Tibet and significantly influenced the cultural history of Central Asia[5]. Subsequently, Gelugpa brought about changes in the system of leadership succession from a hereditary based succession to a reincarnation. Thus the origin of the institution of Dalai Lama[6] was the zenith of a long process of adaptation between the Lay Nobility and the Buddhist Clergy.

The system of reincarnation adopted as a process of leadership succession by the Gelugpa tradition in the beginning of 15th century replaced the basic hegemony of the nobility. The rightful reincarnation or Tulku[7] began to be accepted as a manifestation of the Avalokiteshvara, the Boddhisattva of Compassion (Phags-pa Chenrezig in Tibetan). It was in Tibet, along this revolutionary transformation of the 14th century, the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and the origin of its institution is associated and its relevance has continued till date. [8]

In the institution of Dalai Lama [9], the religious and political power coalesce in a characteristically Tibetan way. Thus the historical line which begins with Gedun Drupa [10], disciple of great reformer Tshongkhapa continues till the 14th Dalai Lama today. It establishes a Tibetan Buddhist theological continuum of several centuries where Buddhist values and political policies are deeply intertwined to the extent that Tibetan political philosophy is termed chos srid gnyis Idan or religion and politics combined. The Dalai Lama as both a spiritual and temporal head of Tibet is emblematic of the intermeshing of Buddhist values and political policies.

Between the 17th century and 1959, the Dalai Lamas were both the religious and political leaders of Tibet and headed the Lhasa based Tibetan government. This intertwining of political and spiritual legitimacy formed the central part of Tibetan politics with the government being constituted of a diarchy of equivalent ecclesiastical and secular offices at the level of administration. [11]

Looking at this significant enmeshment of Buddhist values and the debate over Tibetan leadership crisis in the wake of Dalai Lama’s reincarnation statement and China’s response, Fiona McConnell has challenged conventional trans-positional mappings of secular modernity and religious modernism onto Chinese and Tibetan leadership respectively and called for more critical engagements with Buddhist philosophical concepts like reincarnation, compassion, altruism, middle path and non-violence. By exploring questions of legitimate leadership in the specific case of Tibetan Buddhism, McConnell has argued that a focus on central Buddhist philosophical tenets have the potential to open up productive new lines of enquiry in ‘religious geopolitics’ which have often been overlooked by the West.

Averring with McConell, one can also argue that while opening up questions around political leadership and religious succession, contesting sources of political legitimacy, the conceptual boundaries of the secular and religious, the traditional and the modern need to be blurred. That the debate over reincarnation carries not only political but spiritual and geopolitical connotation. In exile both religion and the figure of the Dalai Lama continue to be central unifying elements for Tibetan nationalism and play key role in a number of aspects of exile politics.

This includes Buddhist values being enshrined at the core of the 1963 Draft Constitution for Future Tibet[12] , Buddhist prioritisation of cooperation over competition underpinning exile democracy (Ardley 2003; McConnell 2009) and the central role of Dalai Lama in uniting and leading the community. Traditional religious values like the Middle Way[13] approach also inform the ‘foreign policy’ of Tibetan government in exile that illustrates the Buddhist principle of seeking a path of moderation and reconciliation than confrontation.

Therefore it is important to talk about the relevance of Buddhist moral values and ethics and also to place the contemporary context of reincarnation into a historical framework connected with Tibetan Buddhist theology. As mentioned earlier, the lineage of the Dalai Lama’s successor has been recognized in Tibetan tradition with Gedun Drub being recognised as the reincarnation of 2nd Dalai Lama Gedun Gyatso and with the establishment of the Gaden Phodrang Labrang (Trust) in the 15th century. Sonam Gyatso was third in the line to be given the Dalai Lama’s title and Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the fifth Dalai Lama in 1642, formed the Gaden Phodrang Government[14] and became the spiritual and temporal head of Tibet.

A sequence of veritable reincarnations in the lineage has been recognized as the Dalai Lama for more than over six centuries now since Gedun Drub’s advent[15]. Dalai Lama’s declaration in his own word, “I have now voluntarily brought this to an end, proud and satisfied that we can pursue the kind of democratic system of government flourishing elsewhere in the world. In fact, as far back as 1969, I made clear that concerned people should decide whether the Dalai Lama’s reincarnations should continue in the future. However, in the absence of clear guidelines, should the concerned public express a strong wish for the Dalai Lamas to continue, there is an obvious risk of vested political interests misusing the reincarnation system to fulfil their own political agenda. Therefore, while I remain physically and mentally fit, it seems important to me that we draw up clear guidelines to recognise the next Dalai Lama, so that there is no room for doubt or deception.” [16] To comprehend the declaration, it is important to understand the recognition of Tulku system[17] and the significant concepts behind it.

Further, it is also essential to acknowledge the reality of previous and after births, in order to understand the concept of reincarnation or the phenomenon of Tulkus or any sentient beings who are born again in this present life continuing from their past lives and born after death. Except the Carvakas, an adherents of philosophy based on materialist movement, the concept of continuous rebirth is acknowledged by most of the schools of Philosophy in ancient Indian spiritual Traditions. Although a few modern thinkers on the premise of it being noumenon –that one cannot see them deny rebirth or past and future lives, though many do not jump into such clear cut conclusions based on this.

Even though most of the religious traditions agree on the process of rebirth, they do differ on the views of what it is that takes rebirth or transferred, how it is born again, and how it continues through the transitional time and space between two lives. In some religious traditions the potential of future life is accepted while the prospect of past lives is rejected. Buddhists believe that once one achieve liberation from this vicious cycle of existence by conquering one’s karma and destructive emotions [18], one will be free from being reborn again and again-hence, there is a closure to this cycle of existence being reborn through accumulative karma and destructive emotions.

However, majority of the Buddhist schools of philosophy do not adhere to the believe that the mind stream comes to an end therefore so long as you are a practicing Buddhist, it is necessary to accept past and future rebirth[19] . Rebirth is a direct experience for those who can recollect their past lives but most ordinary being could not recollect their past lives as it transit through a series of rebirth, death and intermediate state are somewhat esoteric in nature, it needs evidential logic[20] to conform past and future live.

Many different logical arguments and the Buddha’s word and its subsequent commentaries are found to authenticate the existence of before and after lives.[21] The two ways in which rebirth [22] is taken after death are; 1) Rebirth which happens as a result of the effect of destructive emotions and Karma and, 2) Rebirth which takes place by the power of prayers and compassion. These later superior beings are the Bodhisattvas, who after achieving the path of seeing, are reborn through the power of their prayers for benefitting others and compassion for sentient beings. The Tibetan system of authenticating reincarnations is based on a method of examining on the memory of past lives.

Besides, the basic Mahayana concept of Boddhisattva renouncing the Nirvana and reincarnating for the sake of awakening of all beings was retained, followed with procedural variation from precedent set by Karmapas in 13th century A.D. the Tibetans Buddhist traditions have adopted the concept of reincarnating hierarchs, lineage of bodhisattva of Compassion, Avaloketesvara.[23] Before the establishment of Buddhism, the theory of before lives and after lives were evident in Tibet even during the indigenous Bon tradition in Tibet. The introduction of Buddhism in Tibet conforms the Tibetans’ believe in the theory of past and future lives.

Since that time onwards, there have been many reincarnated spiritual lamas who endorsed the Dharma, and the Buddhist tradition based on teacher student relationship, flourished in all parts of Tibet. It is evident from the many available authentic indigenous Tibetan texts and scriptures like Mani Kabum [24] and the Books of Kadampa [25] Disciples, which were reckoned by the glorious, unparalleled Indian master Atisha Dipankara in Tibet in the 11th century, tell stories of the manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion, the Arya Avalokitesvara.[26]

Nevertheless, the existing tradition of official acknowledgement of the reincarnations of Buddhist masters started in the beginning of the 13th century with the formal confirmation of Karmapa Pagshi as the manifestation of Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa by his adherents following with his prediction. Eventually, the lineage had sixteen Karmapa incarnations followed by the seventeenth present Karmapa over nine centuries. Likewise, in the 15th century, the formal recognition of Kunga Sangmo as manifestation of Khandro Choekyi Dronme is followed by over ten incarnations successively of Samding Dorje Phagmo. [27]

Gradually, this system of recognizing reincarnation of the Tibetan Buddhist masters spread over other Tibetan Buddhist traditions; Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Bodong, Jonang and Gelug as well as Bon tradition in Tibet. Among the Tulkus recognized as reincarnation in Tibet consists of monastic practitioners as well as both Male and Female lay tantric practitioners. The sole purpose of reincarnating in next birth is to fulfill and carry on the predecessor’s unaccomplished activities for the Dharma and beings.

Though it is important to take into account the historical context and the theological manifestation of the concept of reincarnation, we cannot ignore the political reality behind the concept.

The traditional concept of reincarnation [28] entails a system that calls for finding signs of divinity in a child who is chosen to be the rightful successor of the previous Lama. Though the 14th Dalai Lama in his statement [29] regarding reincarnation he emphasized it as a process rooted in Buddhist traditions, it also demonstrates the agency of the Tibetan spiritual leader to employ these religious rituals in response to contemporary conditions. His statements implies that for the first time in six centuries, the successor of the Dalai Lama could be an emanation (sprul-ba) rather than a reincarnation. [30]

The concept of emanation tends to shift the temporal and special parameters of succession and resolves the problematic interim period between a regent and a Dalai Lama. As the 14th Dalai Lama voluntarily relinquished a 400year old tradition of power, his role has significantly changed from being a temporal and religious authority to a spiritual authority. This decision raises issues that address the relationship between ‘secular modernity’ and ‘religious tradition’ and the questions of where legitimacy lies and how it is constituted. [31]

However, the 14th Dalai Lama has for long time being engaged in modernizing the theocratic system by separating the monastery and state at highest level of government and generating awareness around the world about the Tibetan Culture and Buddhism. Moreover, the 14th Dalai Lama has always strived for disseminating the core values of Buddhism in Tibetan tradition through his books, conferences, discussing cultivation of wisdom and Compassion in public talks and leadership across the globe. His consistent effort in promoting the traditional Buddhist precepts of Compassion, Altruism, Peace and Ahimsa etc. The 14th Dalai Lama has had a greater impact on world peace for which he was also awarded the Noble Peace Prize in the year 1989. [32]

Infact, sociologist like Weinstein and Sorokin make a strong case for the importance of altruistic behavior in order for humanity to overcome its current problems. Writing in Sorokin’s tradition, Weinstein argues that we may not survive as a civilization without the development of more altruistic behavior. This gives immense importance on the necessity of Altruistic behavior globally, the core essence of Buddhist behavior. Kathryn G. Schuyler proposes that future sociological research in the area of altruistic behavior should address the Tibetan Buddhist contribution.

According to her, a Tibetan Buddhist way of life integrates an altruistic orientation with the complexity of life and the society. Tibetan Buddhist scholars have been articulating a concept of boddhicitta for roughly 1,200 years and training the practitioners systematically. This legacy has been carried on by the 14th Dalai Lama who has served as a major catalyst for interest in altruism and compassion. Altruistic mind or boddhicitta wishes to awaken all beings from the suffering and lead to enlightenment. When this feeling of boddhicitta does not have primacy, leadership grows ineffective and no worldly intelligence can compensate for its absence.

Buddhist teachings show us that if the leaders attempt to generate societal transformation, they should focus more on taming their emotions, attachment and fears, to get a positive and effective impact of their effort. It also proposes a simple contemplative awareness as the source of highest wisdom, higher than all mundane wisdom. It is in from this wisdom that compassion, love for all, and a sense of universal responsibility are born, and vice-versa. An inclusive viewpoint is connected with the feeling of wellness.

There is growing evidence that in some Buddhist practitioners, the very act of concern for others’ wellbeing creates a state of wellbeing within oneself. This is reflected in the life of the 14th Dalai Lama who has faced extreme hardship and political turmoil during his reign. But as he points out that he is still essentially happy despite such adverse circumstances. From a Buddhist viewpoint, talking about compassion cannot be much different from talking about wisdom; it’s seldom that these words are used separate and independent. Compassion is “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” as per the Oxford dictionary entry. Sanskrit and Pali word is Karuna.

Though Compassion and Karuna very much describe the very same thing, it is important to realize that the Buddhists’ use of word ‘compassion’ is much larger, universal and intrinsic, so that it does not arise from, say, misfortunes of others, or it does not arise for ‘specific’ others, for that matter, instead, it goes on to form an integral part of an attained nature, and its expression, that is, to be compassionate, is no more restricted to people or beings who suffer, instead, the expression encompasses the entire universe, animate and inanimate.

In words of Nagarjuna ‘Great compassion penetrates into the marrow of bones’. The 14th Dalai Lama has been a great proponent of compassion as a virtue – “My religion is kindness”, in his own words[33] . Wisdom and Compassion, the Buddhist philosophy of middle path, merely sets a seeker en-route to be able to accept and appreciate the two jewels it has on offer.

This is probably why Buddhists have very often talked at length on these virtues, only trying to describe the profound experiences of being compassionate, for it is all the more difficult to understand for the one who hasn’t developed the understanding, or haven’t had a direct experience. The 14th Dalai Lama says further, “According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive — it’s not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving-kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is loving-kindness). ” [34]

It would be interesting to note that, in Buddhists view, deciphering most of the profound philosophical logic would be of no use, until it leads to developing and experiencing compassion, for compassion (and thus wisdom) is more fundamental. From the 14th Dalai Lama’s lectures on Meaning of life– “In Buddhism, the vehicles, or modes of practice, are generally divided into Great vehicle and the hearer vehicle. The Great Vehicle is primarily concerned with the altruistic compassion of helping other, and the Hearer Vehicle is primarily concerned with the non-harming of others.

Thus the root of all of the Buddhist teachings is compassion. The excellent doctrine of Buddha has its root in compassion, and the Buddha who teaches these doctrines is even said to be born from compassion.” [35] Buddhist logic and the encyclopedia of interpretations and commentaries are merely a means to the end; a path paved towards the highest ethics, namely wisdom and compassion; the jewels which cannot be attributed to a particular religion or tradition. Contemporary Buddhism, along with contribution from western thinkers, seems to see this argument.

A genuine Buddhist practitioner would never be interested in labelling any act Buddhist, let alone one of compassion. In the Buddhist teachings, compassion is universal. Even Mother Theresa has said, “Religion has nothing to do with compassion.” And yet there is a very special flavour that the Buddhist teachings can bring to the understanding and experience of compassion, no matter what one’s religious affiliations may be. It is said that the Buddha Shakyamuni himself did not suddenly achieve enlightenment from the efforts of one lifetime; rather it was the merit accumulated from a thousand lifetimes of selfless acts that created the ground for his ultimate enlightenment. [36]


In the context of the 14th Dalai Lama, instead of looking at reincarnation through a narrow lenses as a phenomenon which only means a transfer of religious legitimacy and power, it could be seen as a metaphor for renewal of Tibetan Buddhist principles of compassion and altruistic behavior. Buddhist values and ethics do not lose their relevance with age rather they become more and more enlightening as the world grows more complex every day. Tibetan Buddhist view and experience would shed a light on a critical understanding of the impact of altruism within society.

Such an understanding would lead to both individual development and societal change. A study of systematic methods enshrined in Buddhist philosophy by applied social scientist can prove to be a rare source of panacea for humanity.

The 14th Dalai Lama is making every effort to bring materialistic science and inner science of Buddhism together along with his endeavour in preserving the Buddhist culture and restoring belief of the Tibetan people. He has been a political and spiritual head or figure who has always worked harder on bringing democratic reforms in the Tibetan exile polity. Besides being a spiritual and temporal figure for the Tibetans, he can also be the traditional wise man, a personality who incarnates Buddhist spirituality and ethical values as symbolic of World Peace which a society needs to guide it into the times of flux and degeneration of Core Humane Values and Moral Ethics.



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