Leading through sacrifice and strength

Photo of the Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama [Flickr:christopher]

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. The New York Times reports that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, is threatening not to reincarnate after he dies.

In response, the Communist Chinese government is saying, “Oh, yes you will.”

Most of us in the West don’t believe in reincarnation, so on the surface it sounds absurd. Can a man – even one as exalted as the Dalai Lama – control what happens to him after he dies? Can a government – an atheistic one at that – dictate how he exerts that control?

If it sounds absurd to us, it’s deadly serious to the people who are directly involved. And while I don’t believe in reincarnation, I do believe in genuine, sacrificial leadership.

Not only is the Dalai Lama deeply sensitive to the suffering his people have endured under Chinese rule, he’s also a shrewd leader. He anticipates that after his death the government will try to manipulate the centuries-old line process for picking a new Dalai Lama – a process that involves anointing a young boy as the reincarnated leader..So he devises a plan to short-circuit that process: there simply won’t be a reincarnated leader. Then the Tibetan Buddhist community will be free to select a new leader – not a new Dalai Lama, but a new spiritual head – in whatever way it sees fit.

The Dalai Lama hasn’t set foot in Tibet since he was forced into exile in 1959. Yet people there revere him. Why? This latest turn of events offers some clues.

  • He puts his people’s welfare ahead of his own. willing to sacrifice his legacy – to become the last Dalai Lama – to preserve the people’s freedom to choose a religious leader.
  • He stands up to power – and in so doing, he shows his people that it’s OK for them to stand up to power.
  • He shows his people that their faith and culture are worth preserving even in the face of a power that could obliterate both.

If I could address the leaders of the Chinese government (not that they’d ever listen to me) I’d tell them they’re in way, way over their heads. Not just because they’re messing in matters of religion, but also because they’re challenging a leader who has earned his people’s allegiance not through force but through sacrifice and strength.

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