Some of the comments to a recent post show what I believe are misconceptions about the religious politics of the Dalai Lama’s putative reincarnations. One commenter writes:
Since the next reincarnation of Dalai Lama supposed to be “discovered” by the current Penchan Lama, how can a democratically reincarnated Dalai Lama have any religious legitimacy?
It is a popular misconception, encouraged not only by the Chinese government but also at times by the government-in-exile, that the Panchen Lama is supposed to find the next Dalai Lama. This is quite an overstatement. In fact, traditionally, each of the reincarnated lamas has his own gang of cronies, known in Tibetan as a labrang (Tibetan: བླ་བྲང་). The Panchen Lama had his own labrang. This gang of cronies almost always has the primary responsibility for finding the new reincarnation of their master. They will typically do so in consultation with other prominent lamas, which is the kernel of truth that leads to this misconception: when searching for a new Dalai Lama, the cronies would normally ask the Panchen Lama for his input. However, this certainly never meant that the Panchen Lama had the final choice in the matter or that they would be unable to proceed with the search if the Panchen Lama is unavailable.
Another commenter writes:
The prestige, power, and institution of the DL was created by the Chinese Central gov’t in Beijing some 3-4 centuries ago. Why is the DL fake if the Chinese central gov’t in Beijing want to change/reform it in any way?
I wonder if someone can provide a reputable historical source which supports this claim, because, to the best of my knowledge, it is incorrect. The Dalai Lamas have been somewhat prestigious since the 15th century, when the first one founded Tashilhünpo Monastery (Tibetan: བཀྲ་ཤིས་ལྷུན་པོ་; Chinese: 扎什伦布寺). The second and third became the most prominent persons at Drepung Monastery (Tibetan: འབྲས་སྤུངས་, Chinese: 哲蚌寺) near Lhasa. The third increased his prestige by making an alliance with a Mongol warlord who gave him the title “Dalai Lama”. In the 1640s, the 5th Dalai Lama established himself as the ruler of Tibet by winning the civil war against the King of Tsang. He had a lot of help from his Mongol buddies but no help from the Chinese empire, which was, after all, busy with the fall of the Ming and the rise of the Qing at that time.
After the Dalai Lama was in power in Tibet and the Qing were in power in Beijing, the Dalai Lama and the emperor forged a close alliance in which the Dalai Lama recognised the emperor as his overlord and the emperor recognised the Dalai Lama’s spiritual primacy. Later, in the 18th century, the Dalai Lama’s position was weaker and the emperor was able to make some political inroads, eventually involving himself in the selection process for the top lamas (although, as I said above, the main responsibility always remained with the gang of cronies).
So, if someone wants to say that the Dalai Lamas and the Chinese emperors had an important, mutually beneficial alliance for a long time, and that the emperor eventually became involved in selecting the new Dalai Lamas, I would certainly agree with that. But the claim that, “The prestige, power, and institution of the DL was created by the Chinese Central gov’t in Beijing” is just not so. Moreover, since the government in Beijing is a very different thing now than it was in the past – in particular, it has been quite secular – I don’t think that the emperor’s previous involvement in religious affairs has anything to do with what should be done today.