As someone who spent a little time chasing Buddha around Asia, in my own backyard, and within my heart and mind, I found Michael Powell’s piece in today’s New York Times to be a powerful reminder about how traditions can get lost on the paths they create.
The search for the present Dalai Lama commenced in earnest in 1935 when the embalmed head of his deceased predecessor is said to have wheeled around and pointed toward northeastern Tibet.
Then, the story goes, a giant, star-shaped fungus grew overnight on the east side of the tomb. An auspicious cloud bank formed and a regent saw a vision of letters floating in a mystical lake, one of which — Ah — he took to refer to the northeast province of Amdo.
I don’t see anything wrong with this legend. If nothing else, it’s interesting. However, giving legends too much weight sets traditions up for valid criticism ranging from contemporary practitioners who scoff at any mythological and magical attachments that cloud the teaching, to more hardcore rationalists who see this type of mythology as reason to discount the tradition altogether.
The Dalai Lama has openly speculated about his next life, his reincarnation, musing that he might upend historical and cultural practice and choose his reincarnation before his death, the better to safeguard his exiled people.
Fine. Maybe he can somehow manage his reincarnation in such a way that he can come back as someone with the skills necessary to lead his people, but such talk doesn’t help the cause very much.
Can even so highly evolved a Buddhist as the Dalai Lama select his reincarnation? Will upending the old way of searching for the Dalai Lama’s incarnation, in which priests search for omens, portents and meteorological signs, undermine the legitimacy of his successor?
I’d have to say that the “old way” not only can undermine the legitimacy of a successor, it can undermine the legitimacy of a tradition and dilute its appeal and relevance for those it most needs to care for its lineage.
The Dalai Lama, [Robert Thurman] says, might declare that a younger lama is the reincarnation of his own long-dead regent. Then the Dalai Lama could die and reincarnate as a new baby, which would be identified after the usual study of portents and signs. “Maybe the one he names as the reincarnation of the regent would transfer the Dalai Lama title back to him when his next reincarnation comes of age,” Mr. Thurman said.
To all of my Dharma brothers and sisters, please excuse what may appear as blasphemy, but this story is one that’s been oft-repeated throughout history. I mean no disrespect to the Dalai Lama, to his tradition, nor to any of his followers. But the way this story is unfolding begs the question: is this process more of a physical undfolding of the Truth beyond name and form, or is it lots of egoic clinging dressed in the robes of mythology?