The Last Dalai Lama?

The film title is meant to be jarring, but there’s a very real possibility that the 14th Dalai Lama will be the last.

If you’re not a Tibetan Buddhist, chances are you haven’t given that much thought to the Dalai Lama but you’ve seen the “Free Tibet” stickers and you might be familiar with China’s destructive influence on Tibetan culture since Tibet was “incorporated” into the People’s Republic in 1951.

HH (His Holiness) the Dalai Lama is a celebrity well known for speaking engagements with throngs of people in attendance. If anyone wants to add spiritual juice to an endeavor invoking The Dalai Lama is an effective way to do that without being too specific about a particular set of beliefs or dogma. He’s there with the non-judgmental good vibes.

“…there’s a very real possibility that the 14th Dalai Lama will be the last.”

I’ve had several friends tell me of someone they know who has who met with him.  HH is a calm presence in our lives, seemingly well liked by everyone. With his gentle demeanor and accepting smile, who could really object to the Dalai Lama? With the possible exception, probably, of Xi Jinping, who undoubtedly considers HH a gigantic pain in the ass.  But, how much does an American of average perception really know about HH, Tibet, Buddhism, and the conflict between Tibet and China? Well, fear not, Mickey Lemle will guide us with his thoughtful documentary The Last Dalai Lama?

Lemle spends the bulk of the documentary on the works of HH, some biography, and history since 1951. He doesn’t dive deep regarding the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism but based on what we see in this film HH considers himself to be a person just like everyone else. He’s not a divine vessel, or a deity incarnate. He’s a man with Dharma to fulfill.  He was never meant to be a political leader, but when China started threatening the Tibetan way of life, he took the role on out of a sense of moral responsibility. He approaches human frailty with humor and compassion, insisting that he too is subject to the same storms of emotions as anyone, but manages them through meditation and practice of his faith. His belief in reincarnation is the only metaphysical aspect of Buddhism discussed, the rest is presented as being practical approaches to the human condition.

“… the Chinese government would also install their own Dalai Lama, in which case there could be two.”

The last half hour of the doc takes on the clash between Tibetan leadership and China. The notion that Tibetans look to HH for leadership has galled the Chinese government for nearly 70 years and they insist they have a say in the selection of the next Dalai Lama. That’s an absurd position to take.

According to HH, reincarnation is a voluntary act he can choose to do or not, and he’s stated for the record that if he does reincarnate it will not be inside the borders of China.  More likely somewhere near Dharamshala, a city in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh that is currently home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Temple Complex there is a spiritual center for Tibetan Buddhism, while the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives houses thousands of manuscripts.  If HH were to reincarnate it’s most likely the Chinese government would also install their own Dalai Lama, in which case there could be two. That’s a lot of Dalai Lama. HH is 82 years of age and in relatively good health, so it could be some time before the world knows whether he is the last or not.

Lemle’s exceptional film frames the life of the Dalai Lama, his Buddhist spiritual journey, and the future of Tibet in terms of the political situation in China and explains how this might play out.

The Last Dalai Lama? (2016) Written and directed by Mickey Lemle. Starring His Holiness The Dalai Lama, George W. Bush, Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Tenzin Choegyal.

7 out of 10

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