Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Politics of "Compassion" of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: Between "Religion" and "Secularism"

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Politics of "Compassion" of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: Between "Religion" and "Secularism"

Article excerpt


One of the most important events in Tibetan history was the retirement of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama from politics in 2011. This marked the end of his political authority, which the successive Dalai Lamas had held since the Fifth Dalai Lama (seventeenth century). In remarks he made at the time of his retirement during a public address in Dharamsala on March 19, 2011, he said, "In my letter (4) to the Tibetan Parliament, I suggested that the title of Ganden Phodrang (5) Shung will have to be changed. Ganden Phodrang will remain but it will not take any political responsibilities as we are now a democratic establishment" (6) (Collected 20).

To understand the significance of this historical event, it is useful to understand the Tibetan concept of chos srid zung 'brel. Samdhong Rinpoche, former prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, points out that this concept characterizes the unique Tibetan political system. He translates this term as "the union of dharma and polity."

Definitions of chos srid zung 'brel

The term chos srid zung 'brel can be divided to three parts: "chos," "srid," and "zung 'brel." Although "chos" can be translated as "religion" in English, this translation is not sufficient. The appropriate English word for chos depends on the context; therefore, several definitions of chos are examined below. "Srid" can be translated as "polity," and "zung 'brel" as "union," "combination," "together," and so forth. Chos srid zung 'brel is not an original concept of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. According to Samdhong Rinpoche:

Since the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet through royal patronage and initiative, the unique and the famous expression "chos srid zung 'brel," meaning the union of Dharma and Polity became the popular expression for describing the culture of state policy. Consequently a large share of state power and revenue was utilized for maintenance and promotion of universal heritage and welfare of monks, monasteries, temples, religious institutions, etc. Many Westerners misconstrued the ancient Tibet and state with theocratic form which is not true since Buddhism is an atheist religion. (Tibet 34)

Chos srid zung 'brel can be understood as a concept that characterizes and directs the nature of the Tibetan polity. However, this concept has several definitions, as follows.

The Tibetologist Dung dkar blo bzang 'phrin las says, "It is not the proper meaning of chos srid zung 'brel that someone belonging to a certain religious sect (chos lugs) takes the reins of government (chab srid), but one person takes the reins of government (srid) and a religious sect (chos) as the top leader ('go gtso) of both" (3-4).

The Tibetologist Hor gtsang 'jigs med points out that chos srid zung 'brel has three definitions (26). First, after the period in which the king (rgyal po) of the state (yul khams) and the top leader of a religious sect (chos bdag) are separate, one person attains both the position of the king and of the top leader of the religious sect. Such a system (lam lugs) is the first definition. The second definition is the political system based on the essence of a particular religion (chos lugs). The third definition appears in Article Three (7) of the Charter of the Tibetans-in-Exile 1991: "The future Tibetan polity shall uphold the principle of non-violence and shall endeavour to promote the freedom of the individual and the welfare of the society through the dual system of government based on a Federal Democratic Republic" (1).

Among these three definitions, the first one is similar to that expressed by Dung dkar blo bzang 'phrin las. The second seems to be one that Dung dkar blo bzang 'phrin las rejects, namely that someone who belongs to a certain religious sect takes the reins of government. According to Hor gtsang 'jigs med, this definition appears in the Constitution of Tibet (bod kyi rtsa khrims) that was enacted in 1963. …

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