Dalai Lama suggests ending Tibetan reincarnation system

The Dalai Lama said that the Tibetan Buddhist system of recognizing reincarnate Buddhist teachers “may have had its day.”

Sam Littlefair
28 October 2019
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Photo by Christopher Michel.

On Friday the Dalai Lama said it may be time for the tradition of recognizing reincarnate lamas to come to an end. The Dalai Lama made the statement in a meeting with students in Northern India.

According to a statement from the Office of the Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama suggested that “the custom of recognizing reincarnate lamas may have had its day.” The Dalai Lama says that the reincarnation system has never existed in India, and there are no recognized reincarnations of great Indian Buddhist masters like Nagarjuna, or the Buddha himself.

The Dalai Lama said that the system of recognizing reincarnate lamas — called tulkus — is connected with Tibetan feudal society, and questioned the existence of such a tradition in a democratic society.

The Tribune India and Asian News International reported that the Dalai Lama said, “I feel it’s time that we revert to the Indian system of Buddhism.”

“Institutions need to be owned by the people, not by an individual,” said the Dalai Lama according to a report from The Times of India. “Like my own institution, the Dalai Lama’s office. I feel it is linked to a feudal system. In 1969, in one of my official statements, I had mentioned that it should continue… But now I feel, not necessarily. It should go… The system should end, or at least change with the changing times. There have been cases of individual lamas who use reincarnation… but never pay attention to study and wisdom.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, the 700-year-old tradition of recognizing reincarnate lamas is the most common system of sustaining spiritual lineages. In recent years, the government of China has secured political influence by gaining control of reincarnation lineages.

See also: The Dalai Lama on Reincarnation

The Dalai Lama raised the subject in response to a question about his successor. Previously, the Dalai Lama has said he may have no successor, or else his successor may be selected by the Tibetan people. China, which sees the Dalai Lama as a dangerous detractor, has said that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate and his successor will have to be approved by the state.

The Dalai Lama alone does not have the authority to make such a change to Tibetan Buddhism. As a senior leader in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and the former head of state of Tibet, he wields tremendous influence in Tibetan Buddhism. However, the Dalai Lama does not have authority over the other three major schools of Tibetan Buddhism — Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma — which all have their own reincarnation lineages.

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair is the former editor of LionsRoar.com. He has also written for The Coast, Mindful, and Atlantic Books Today. Find him on Twitter, @samlfair, and Facebook, @samlfair.