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The geopolitics of Buddhist reincarnation: contested futures of Tibetan leadership



In attending to a religion and a region often overlooked in critical geopolitics, this paper examines the intersections between issues of legitimacy, agency and authority, and the case of Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist values and political policies are deeply intertwined in the Tibetan case, to the extent that the political philosophy of Tibet – both prior to 1959 and in exile – is chos srid gnyis ldan, or ‘religion and politics combined’. Central to this conflation has been the figure of the Dalai Lama who, since 1642, has been the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. However, in March 2011, the current and 14th Dalai Lama declared his retirement from political life and devolution of political power to the directly elected exile Prime Minister (Kalon Tripa). Six months later, His Holiness issued a statement on the future of his own successor, declaring that he has the ‘sole legitimate authority’ over the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama. Within days the Chinese Government responded by declaring that ‘the title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government and is illegal otherwise’. In historically contextualising and critically analysing these recent events, this paper challenges conventional transpositional mappings of secular modernity and religious traditionalism onto the Chinese and Tibetan leadership respectively. It concludes by making the case for a more sustained critical geopolitical engagement with Buddhist communities, leaders and politics.

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