Dalai Lama alone will have final say on reincarnation: CTA chief Penpa Tsering
Against the backdrop of China’s repeated efforts to portray a role for itself in the selection of the next Dalai Lama, the Sikyong or head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Penpa Tsering, has said the Tibetan spiritual leader alone will have the final say on his reincarnation.
In an interview, Tsering said the current impasse in the Tibetan Parliament provides a “lot of space for the Chinese government to create trouble” within the Tibetan community.
Tsering also spoke about the CTA’s plans to integrate Tibetan settlements in India to make them administratively more manageable.
Q. As the Sikyong or head of the Central Tibetan Administration, what are the three big issues you would identify as a primary concern for the Tibetan community? How would you tackle them?
A. We are going through a huge social and demographic change because of which we’ll have to do quite a lot of restructuring in the years to come, particularly to do with the integration of settlements and integration of schools, because we are scattered in more than 45 different communities, compact and scattered in India.
So in the long run, when more people move out of the settlements, then it becomes expedient on us to integrate the settlements into more compact, larger communities so that it becomes administratively more manageable for us. [And] at the same time, be able to preserve our language, culture, religion and way of life for what it was meant to be when we first came into exile in 1959 and the vision of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, and the successive Indian leadership that has given us so much support and help, that has reduced a lot of our existential problems. Those are the major challenges that we have to meet today.
Q. You had your election quite a while ago and there’s a kind of impasse in the Tibetan Parliament. How are you planning to tackle that?
A. It’s not really a refusal to take oath [by some members]. They’ve taken oath but not on the basis of the charter. Our democracy is quite a mix of presidential [and] parliamentary [systems] because the election of the Sikyong is more presidential in nature and the Parliament is more parliamentary in nature. So it’s a mix of two systems of democracy, where the delineation of the division of power between the three pillars of democracy is quite distinct and...one organ of democracy overreaching on the other, here in terms of the executive or the Kashag overreaching on the legislative and the judiciary is not mandated in the charter. Therefore, it’s not legally provided for the cabinet to interfere or intervene. But I did suggest that if all the 45 people who were elected...to the Parliament come to us and give us the mandate, then we promise to be fair.
Other than that, there is no clarity in terms of how to resolve this, other than the role of the election commission. And the charter also doesn’t specify as to what happens if some members do not take oath of office as per the laws.
So, it is up to the members to decide whether this impasse should continue for the larger interests of the cause and the people, or this should be elongated for a longer time. So, as I always say even in our personal lives, we face a lot of challenges and as Buddhists, we believe in impermanence. So, it’s a matter of time [and] it should be resolved.
Q. I asked this question because there are some concerns that if this state of affairs continues, there could be problems going forward into the next financial year. You would have problems with your budget and governance.
A. I firmly believe that it should be settled before that, but then it’s up to the members as I said before...The problem is there because there is a solution, the solution should come before the time limit that you have mentioned
Q. Which is about March-April, I guess.
A. Yeah, we follow the same financial year as India does.
Q. I also asked this question because there are some who feel that this state of affairs continuing provides opportunities to others to interfere and let the problem go on for longer.
A. Definitely. It gives a lot of space for the Chinese government to create trouble within the [Tibetan] community, and it also affects the image of the Tibetan movement as such. And also, the very fact that we have been practicing democracy over the last 50 years, that also gets effected. But whenever you have a problem, there are also opportunities. This creates more awareness within the public about the laws and the system and all that.
So I believe now people are more aware of what is happening within the community and I think the elected leaders should be aware of where it’s heading to. And the fact that democracy also involves a lot of accountability and responsibility to the people and answerability also to the people.
So that way, it helps the public to understand the system better and eventually, I hope this will have a longer impact on the public when they make the decision as to who they should elect as members of parliament.
Q. We are in very interesting times as far as the India-China relationship is concerned, and that obviously has an impact on the Tibetan administration and the larger Tibetan committee. How far has the standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) impacted your administration or the Tibetan community at large?
A. There is a lot of interest within the community, from the government of India, from the US government and also the changing dynamics in Europe. So, the continuing impasse also affects the functioning in terms of our outreach to the international community, including India. But we have not backtracked on this. The administration is going ahead. We have been having a series of meetings with top officials and concerned leadership in different countries.
Q. Does that include China? Have there been any new fresh contacts with them?
A. Unofficially yes, there are some feelers, but we have to check the credibility of these channels of communications that are opening up.
Q. The other thing that everybody has been debating is the way the Chinese have been aggressively saying they are going to decide the next Dalai Lama. It’s an issue that has come up repeatedly. How do you look at that aggressive Chinese posturing on this issue?
A. That obviously involves politicisation of the whole reincarnation issue because if the Chinese government is really serious about the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama, then they should be giving more attention to the living 14th Dalai Lama than the future 15th Dalai Lama. And as a communist regime which does not believe in religion or life after death, this is purely a spiritual matter.
When you talk about reincarnation, it’s the person who’s going to be reincarnated who decides where or how he or she should be born. So, in the case of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, he is a spiritual leader. We are talking about his reincarnation, so it’s completely up to his holiness to decide where he will be born, not the Chinese government.
Q. Given the fact that the Dalai Lama is at an advanced age, has the CTA started preparations for this issue?
A. In terms of the process of selection of a reincarnation, I personally believe that the Central Tibetan Administration should not have any role in that. This is a purely spiritual and a religious process. So it’s up to the religious leader, particularly his holiness the Dalai Lama, to decide, not the administration, but once his reincarnation is recognised, then the role of the CTA comes into being.
Q. The other issue is the return to India of another Tibetan spiritual leader, the Karmapa. Recently, we saw senior officials from Sikkim giving indications that they would like him to come back.
A. Definitely, devotees of Karmapa Rinpoche are very concerned and I’m sure Karmapa Rinpoche also would like to return. But at the same time, there has to be mutual understanding between the government of India and Karmapa Rinpoche himself. We are talking about how to smoothen things out and look at ways where there could be a mutual consensus on how he should return and how he will be treated in India.
So, those concerns are being discussed and the Indian government is also very keen that he returns.
Q. Has there been progress in this regard?
A. It has only been three months since I took over. Whenever I get the opportunity to go to Europe next time, I think there will be confabulations on this matter, including a personal meeting with the Karmapa Rinpoche. I will be playing the role of messenger if it helps.
Q. There has been some concern over the younger members of the Tibetan community moving out of India to the West, particularly the US. Is there a concern that maybe you’re losing some of the brightest from among the community?
A. On any given issue, there are good sides, bad sides to it. So we can’t make a judgment on what is completely white or what is completely black, because there are advantages of people moving out, in the sense that they have more economic opportunities. And because of that, they’re able to support their families here or inside Tibet.
So, in terms of economic benefits, those are there, and also political benefits in terms of Tibetans being resettled in 25-30 different countries and becoming nationals of those countries...and [understanding] the system.
So, there are a lot of opportunities to optimise the potential that the younger generation of Tibetans, who reside in other countries, provide to lobby for Tibet in their respective nations. But on the other side, the Tibetans who are resettled there are not in compact communities, even if they are in one city. But fortunately, because of the leadership of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, we have Tibetan associations everywhere.
So, irrespective of whether they are dispersed in different regions, they still come together for major events and political activities that concern the cause of Tibet. Here also in India, we have challenges as well as opportunities. We talked about integration, which will be long-term and a difficult task to convince Tibetans to integrate...but at the same time, we can work towards creating opportunities and windows for people to look at things from a different perspective and see how best it can be managed.
Q. There was a significant uptick in the US administration’s outreach towards the Tibetan administration during the term of president Donald Trump. Do you see that continuing?
A. Definitely, it’s all because of the benevolence of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, and the respect that the leadership and the people of America have towards him. So, that trend will continue because it’s not just the administration or the White House or the state department, but also within the Congress, which is bipartisan, bicameral in nature. Perhaps, Tibet is one of the very few issues where the two parties [Democrats and Republicans] can come together. I have had personal experience, having served there. So that will continue, definitely.
Q. Have you had good cooperation with the Indian side in countering the Covid-19 pandemic, especially issues such as vaccination and medical treatment?
A. Definitely, it’s mainly because of the support and help of the Indian government that we have been able to vaccinate a lot of people, comparable to many developed countries, because we have completed more than 92% of vaccination for the first shot and more than 50% of the second shot.
The support from the government has been immense, but at the same time, irrespective of the differences – the issues of differences are few – the issues that we can come together [on] are many. And one of these issues is Covid. So, many monasteries, many institutions, non-governmental organisations and individuals contributed in a combined effort To make the, uh, uh, to handle the Covid situation in a manner that any society would have liked to see. I’m very proud that everybody was very involved in this and very appreciative of the cooperative effort with which they did the job.