In the New York Review of Books, Tibet scholar Robert Barnett writes about the Dalai Lama’s recent announcement that he was retiring from his political position as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and explains why, from an historical perspective, the move makes the Chinese government nervous:
For this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama of Tibet has issued a decree announcing that a younger, largely unknown man is to take over as the political leader of the Tibetan people. It happened before—in 1679. To explain why this detail of history matters to the Chinese government requires a little background.
Until the Chinese army took over his country in 1950, leading him to flee into exile nine years later, the current Dalai Lama, who is the fourteenth of his line, held political authority over Tibet. Historically, Dalai Lamas were not always recognized as having that power: the first four Dalai Lamas only had spiritual status as leading Buddhist teachers of their time. It was the Fifth Dalai Lama who was first given the authority to rule Tibet, following its invasion by a Mongol warlord who was a ferocious supporter of the Dalai Lama’s sect and so placed him on the throne, when he was twenty-five years old. That was in the Water-Horse year of the 11th Cycle, or 1642. The Fifth seems to have been extraordinarily capable, because under his rule, backed up by the Mongols’ army, Tibet expanded into a vast and unified state covering most of the Tibetan plateau, with an organized bureaucracy, tax, and census system.
Potala Palace, built by the Fifth Dalai Lama and his regent Sangye Gyatso in the late seventeenth century, Lhasa, Tibet
But it is the events at the end of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s reign that seem to be of particular concern to Chinese analysts at the moment. After 43 years of rule, the Fifth announced that he had appointed a young Tibetan as the Sde-ba or head of the government, a position similar to that of regent. He had appointed such officials before, but now he was near the end of his life and was returning to a contemplative existence as a meditator and a scholar (he wrote at least thirty works in his lifetime, including some on the art of government). In 1679, he issued a decree announcing the appointment of the official, called Sangye Gyatso, who later became one of Tibet’s most famous writers.
Because of its exceptional importance, the Fifth signed the decree not just with his name or seal, but with the full imprint of both his hands, dipped in gold and stamped upon the document. The decree was made into a scroll, 12 feet long, calligraphed on yellow silk with a painting of a curling dragon holding a wish-fulfilling jewel in its claws underneath the text, protector deities and snow-lions at its foot, and a portrait of the Dalai Lama at its head. It is one of the marks of Tibet’s national tragedy that this scroll, a pinnacle of Tibetan decorative art and political history, is no longer in Tibet: it is in exile too, in New York, having been carried out by a Tibetan family when they fled from Tibet fifty years ago.