At 74 years old, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has resided in India with the Tibetan government in exile for 50 years, though his busy travel schedule takes him all over the world. He has suffered two bouts of exhaustion in recent years, and concerns have arisen about the future of the Tibetan cause when he is gone.
At a press conference in the Italian capital Wednesday, His Holiness acknowledged that while his death will present a setback for Tibetans, he has faith in the next generation of his followers.
"At the time of my death of course there will be a setback. There's no doubt," His Holiness mentioned at a news conference following the convention. “But,” he continued, “a very healthy, cultivated new generation is rising with the potential to lead the cause.”
Traditionally, His Holiness the Dalai Lama's successor is a boy born after his death, chosen by a group of Buddhist monks led by the Panchen Lama, who believe the child to be his reincarnation. This means that decades may pass after His Holiness dies before the 15th Dalai Lama is ready to assume a leadership role and emerge as the public voice of Tibetans.
Chinese government leaders have labeled His Holiness a "splittist," contending that he seeks a separate Tibetan nation which, they claim, would undermine the “One-China” concept. They have openly referred to Tibetan Buddhism as a pagan cult, and in 1995 kidnapped the current Panchen Lama, then six years old, and have been keeping him in captivity along with his parents. Many believe this to be a direct attempt to disrupt the lineage of the Dalai Lama; with the Panchen Lama in custody, it will prove exceptionally difficult to find the Dalai Lama’s next incarnation.
The Chinese government, which is officially atheist, requires all Tibetan spiritual leaders to receive approval from Beijing. Fears that China will appoint a new Dalai Lama after His Holiness’ death have led Tibetan leaders to contemplate ideas that break with the centuries-old system of choosing a child believed to be the reincarnation of the deceased spiritual leader. To this end, His Holiness has said that his successor could be appointed before his death, or chosen through democratic elections. He has also mentioned the possibility of the next Dalai Lama being born in exile, or even the West. Some speculate that Tibetan Buddhist leaders may do away with Dalai Lamas altogether.
Chinese officials and envoys of the Dalai Lama have recently held eight rounds of talks over the future of Tibet, before breaking them off earlier this year. On his recent trip to China, U.S. President Barak Obama expressed his desire to see the talks resume as soon as possible.