A thousand eyes to see the suffering of the world. A thousand ears to hear the suffering of the world. A thousand arms and hands to bring relief to the suffering of the world. This is part of the vow, which the Bodhisattva or Saint of Compassion, Avalokitesvaha, or in Tibetan, Chenzrerig, has uttered. In other versions he has four arms, and the vow is slightly different, but the meaning is the same. The representation of the four immeasurables. Immeasurable loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.(1) His Holiness the Dalai Lama is, according to himself, and Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the embodiment of this most holy of bodhisattva. Sometimes, so Tibetans say, the Primordial Buddha, Adi Buddha, or Vajradhara, is sending a vicar to incarnate as Dalai Lama.
Some Tibetans, and Buddhists world wide, are asking themselves the question whether the contemporary Dalai Lama is such a “vicarius” rather than the real Chenzerig incarnate, but this question is somehow missing the most important point of a necessary debate. The point that the office of “Dalai Lama” was established as a position of “Vice Roy” of a relatively autonomous part of the Chinese Empire. The question Buddhists and in particular those Buddhists who are following one of the Tibetan Lineages ought to reflect on is, whether the vows of a Bodhisattva and the vows of the monks are at all consolable with the position of Vice Roy, King, or Political Leader.
According to Buddhism, all suffering arises from attachment, from clinging, while liberation is facilitated by equanimity. Can a King reside in equanimity when he has a kingdom to govern, or when he attempts to liberate his fallen Kingdom ? Can he teach equanimity while campaigning for the “liberation” of his kingdom ?
It is up to every Buddhist to choose freely if one wishes to embark on a path of liberation solely, that of the Arahant, if one wishes to embark on the path of the Bodhisattva and to incarnate after enlightenment, out of compassion to help others along their path, if one wishes to live a life as monk or nun, chooses the path of a good housekeeper, or simply wishes to live his or her life along own guidelines. Buddhism does not preach many morals about which path one ought to choose. At least not officially.
What Buddhism is quite explicit about however, is the fact that breeches and abuse of ones vows, and especially the vows of a Bodhisattva, have the most serious consequences. It is based on these thoughts, and based on the fact that it is impossible to both keep the vows of a monk, the vows of a bodhisattva, and the vows of a Vice Roy or King of Tibet, that both the Dalai Lama, as well as the Tibetan Theocracy would be wise to reconsider which roles they want to play. That of spiritual guides, and bodhisattva incarnate, or that of mundane rulers and politicians.
Another, more mundane question is, if it is possible to fulfill those two offices at the same time. The track record of the Dalai Lama seems to indicate that no is the correct answer. It may have been politically understandable that the “king” of Tibet aligned himself with a Divine Japanese Emperor and Hitler Germany against atheist China, but was it a decision of a wise Buddhist ? One may say he was a child, but his advisers were monks, and “aristocratic monks” too. Was fleeing Tibet the decision of an enlightened Buddhist being, with thousand eyes, ears, hands, to see, hear, and help the suffering ? Or was it the decision of a not even adult, a child caught in the role of Vice Roy over Tibet, advised by theocrats and aristocrats who feared for their positions in the light of social change in China. A China, that was the “inventor” of the position of Dalai Lama, to exercise political control over a remote region of the empire ?
One may say, that the Dalai Lama, provided he had had the chance, would have ended the serfdom and slavery of the Tibetan people. That he would have ended the backwardness and despotism. It is much more likely however, that the social awakening of the people of China and the USSR would have spilled over into Tibet, and that he sooner or later would have been confronted with a Tibetan Revolution against slavery, serfdom and despotism.
In a way one can rightfully argue, that had China not interfered, the people of Tibet would have ended the theocratic rule, and that it is unlikely that the “title” of a Dalai Lama would have survived the Tibetan revolution.
The Dalai Lama, as a figure of religious and spiritual teaching and guidance has grown dear to Tibetans and Buddhists from other regions that follow the Tibetan Schools of Buddhism alike. The problem is, that it will not be able to survive as a credible office unless it undergoes change. The first change would be to recognize that the office was established as a vice king in a relatively autonomous region of the old Chinese Empire. It was an office that was established out of political necessity. With that as a basis, a constructive reform process within Tibetan Lineages of Buddhism would become possible.
One of the reforms that could be suggested is to rid the Dalai Lama from political office. It is not suitable for a monk, and does not aid his own development nor that of Buddhists who seek help and counsel from a monk, that he is distracted by thoughts about what government and intelligence agency he will be cooperating with next year. The same can be said about other monks within the Tibetan theocracy. Terrible things have happened in 1959, but it is time to move on, and to make a decision between a worldly life as a politician, or a life as a monk.
For the sake of the people of Tibet, including monks and nuns, one may consider this. A China that does not constantly have to assess how Western Intelligence Services operate via monastic orders and ancient aristocratic circles, will be a China that is much more likely to embrace Tibetan autonomy and tradition as part of the diversity that makes China such a wonderful and culturally rich nation. The China of today is no longer the China of the Cultural Revolution, and neither is it the China of Emperors who had Dalai Lamas as vice rulers in a remote region called Tibet. Todays China is a rapidly developing modern nation that embraces it´s cultural diversity, and would be able to do so even more without the threat of this diversity being abused to saw division.
Finally, reform is warranted for the sake of integrity in Buddhist teachings. There is absolutely nothing in Buddhism that endorses that a monk can be a king or politician, and his excellency the Dalai Lama, i presume, is deeply aware of this dilemma.
Dr. Christof Lehmann
1) Chenrezig / Avalokitesvaha, The Embodiment of Compassion.http://www.dharma-haven.org/tibetan/chen-re-zig.htm#Chenrezig