Is the Dalai Lama Retiring?

To understand the Dalai Lama's statement yesterday about devolving his political authority to a democratically elected leader, one must keep in mind what the Tibetan leader calls his three commitments. First, as a human being, the Dalai Lama is committed to the promotion of basic human values of compassion and tolerance; secondly, as a Buddhist leader, he works to promote understanding among the major religious traditions; and, thirdly, as the holder of the title "Dalai Lama" which is traditionally the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans, he is committed to resolving the Tibet issue with China. The Dalai Lama's statement today points to the latter of the three because, as he said today in his exiled home of Dharamsala, India, "No system of governance can ensure stability and progress if it depends solely on one person without the support and participation of the people in the political process. One man rule is both anachronistic and undesirable."

The Dalai Lama's commitments as a spiritual leader to promote basic human values and to interfaith dialogue remain steadfast. And, just as it has been for centuries, the Dalai Lama will continue to lead his traditional following of Tibetan Buddhists from Tibet and across the Himalayan region, the devoted from Mongolia, and the Russian republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva, and the ever growing numbers of followers of Tibetan Buddhism from the West and Asia, including Chinese.

The Dalai Lama's retirement statements must be understood in the context of the 400-year-old institution of the Dalai Lamas and how this particular Dalai Lama, the 14th in succession, has radically transformed his political role in just the last two decades. With an aim to empower his exiled compatriots and democratize the Tibetan government in exile, this Dalai Lama has slowly divested himself of political duties over the last twenty years. In 2001 the process of political divesture was completed, at least on paper, when Tibetans in exile elected their first Prime Minister. Still, the Dalai Lama has continued to be active in the political sphere, traveling the world over to meet with presidents and prime ministers. On March 20, 2011, Tibetans in exile will go to the polls to elect their second Tibetan prime minister in exile (formally known as Kalon Tripa, Chairman of the Cabinet). The Dalai Lama wants this to be the point when all of his political and legislative duties are turn over. As the Dalai Lama said today, "We have made great efforts to strengthen our democratic institutions to serve the long-term interests of the six million Tibetans, not out of a wish to copy others, but because democracy is the most representative system of governance."

The Tibetan writer, Bhuchung K. Tsering, wrote recently, "The Tibetan people in exile will also have to undergo a paradigm shift in their thinking and adapt to this new reality. The Dalai Lama has been making efforts to shake off the Tibetan people's over dependence on him and this is one more step towards that objective. Then there have also been some individuals who have said that the absence of the Dalai Lama from the governmental system would not altogether be a bad thing for the Tibetan struggle. The Dalai Lama's statement will now be a challenge to these individuals to rise to the occasion and play a responsible role in preparing Tibetan society for such a development. This will be the time for these people to walk the talk."

The Dalai Lama believes his political retirement is in the long-term interest for the Tibetans, inside and outside Tibet. "My intention to devolve political authority derives neither from a wish to shirk responsibility nor because I am disheartened. On the contrary, I wish to devolve authority solely for the benefit of the Tibetan people in the long run. It is extremely important that we ensure the continuity of our exile Tibetan administration and our struggle until the issue of Tibet has been successfully resolved."

Still, the Tibet issue is nowhere close to being resolved with obstinate leaders in Beijing, and Tibetans themselves continue to rely on the Dalai Lama as their spokesman. The Dalai Lama remains the face of Tibetans' struggle for freedom. It must be admitted that, even if prominent and capable Tibetans in are ready "to walk the talk," it will take a long time for them to attain the needed stature as to date the only Tibetan leader any world leader would be familiar with is this Dalai Lama. Though the Dalai Lama is ready to settle into extended meditation retreats, something he has put on hold since the early 1970s when he first began traveling to the West, politics and his people will not allow it. The Dalai Lama must continue to bear the responsibility of his people's will for freedom.