By Daniel Scharpenburg
I wish I could say I met the Dalai Lama.
Although I’ve met a lot of Buddhist teachers over the years, I didn’t meet the Dalai Lama, but I went to see him.
He gave teachings at the University of Arkansas in the spring of 2011. At just over 200 miles away, it was the closest he has ever come to my home— Kansas City. So I took a little roadtrip to a college town I had never been to.
I can’t say I met him though.
I, along with a thousand other people, saw him give a teaching. It was more like a concert than a meet and greet, if that analogy makes sense.
It was a great experience. He is a great spiritual teacher and I really felt something from being in his presence. I practice the Zen style of Buddhism, not the Tibetan style. But seeing him was really special and a life changing experience.
I wanted to put something personal here before I go and approach a very heavy and complicated topic.
The Dalai Lama has been in the news recently. I’m going to touch on who the Dalai Lama is and his story a little bit, but going into great detail is beyond the scope of this article, so I hope you know a little about him already.
In 2011, the same year that I saw him, the Dalai Lama stepped down from his political duties. He was a political leader as well as a religious one—and now he’s just a religious one.
The exiled Tibetan people elected a Prime Minister. The Dalai Lama has always said that he wanted a free Tibet to be a democratic Tibet.
Last year there was another big story: The Dalai Lama suggested that he shouldn’t reincarnate after his death—that he should be the last one.
You see, Tibetan Buddhists believe that a famous Lama reincarnates after death and then the child is found and taught to carry on the teachings in the role of his former life.
The current Dalai Lama is the 14th. He was found as a small boy and declared to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. This sounds confusing as hell to us. Tracking down someone’s reincarnation so they can keep teaching is completely foreign to western culture, but the Tibetans have been doing it for centuries.
The Chinese government has had a bad relationship with the Dalai Lama since they started occupying Tibet, and now there is a new development.
The Chinese government—which doesn’t officially endorse Buddhism or any other religion—has declared that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate; that he doesn’t have the right or the power not to.
To us in the West this seems very strange for a government to take this kind of action. Putting aside the strangeness of the reincarnation aspect, imagine if the United States tried to meddle in the election of the next Pope. Such a thing would make no sense and we really have no context for it.
From their official statement:
“He was chosen following a strict system dictated by religious rules and historical tradition and also with the approval of the central government. Can he decide when to stop reincarnating? That is impossible. What he wants is to distort reality. It’s impossible in my view. Tibetan Buddhism follows tradition. If he goes ahead with this there will be division.”
Now, why does the Chinese government care?
Well, their religion is the only thing that has held the exiled Tibetan people together. They had their homeland invaded, had to flee in the 1950s and they’ve been able to keep their culture alive only thanks to the Dalai Lama and their religion.
The Panchen Lama is another teacher like the Dalai Lama that is said to reincarnate. When he died in 1995, the Chinese government declared that they were qualified to name the next Panchen Lama and named their own.
So, it’s thought by some that the Dalai Lama’s claim that he may not reincarnate might be to prevent any attempts by the Chinese government to name their own Dalai Lama. He’s 79 years old, so who knows how much time he has left.
When I saw the Dalai Lama in 2011 he said, “Some people say I am a god-king. That is nonsense. Some people say I am a demon. That is also nonsense.”
I’ve read a lot of the Dalai Lama’s books and in them he seems consistently humble and down to earth. It made me wonder.
What if the Dalai Lama thinks reincarnation is a metaphor? Does it have to be literally true to have meaning?
Editor: Dana Gornall