This is not the first time HHDL has spoken about this, but it has received a fair bit of media attention following on from a talk he gave recently to university students in India, so perhaps a “shout-out” is appropriate here.
From his own site:
“In seeking to balance preserving tradition and modern development, His Holiness suggested that the custom of recognising reincarnate lamas may have had its day. He remarked that no such custom existed in India. There is no reincarnation of the Buddha or Nagarjuna. He wondered what place this institution has in a democratic society.”
JUST IN CASE any readers are confused (as I’ve seen one or two people be), His Holiness is not proposing some change to fundamental ideas, in which there would be a “new” Buddhism without teachings on rebirth. He does not want us to ditch “reincarnation”, but DOES want us to ditch the now extraordinarily top-heavy system in which people (young boys, as a rule) are recognised as the “tulkus” or “yangsis” of departed lamas.
The system may well have worked, up to a point at least, in old Tibet, but it was always highly political, and as much as anything was a means of trading power and influence. When young tulkus were brought up in a system of strict discipline (probably stricter than any of us would be happy to see nowadays) to play a part in an acutely hierarchical social system in which politics and religion were inseparably entangled, the system might be said to have “worked”. The point is arguable, but it cannot be dismissed.
Nowadays, however, with the number of tulkus having exploded over the last two or three decades, where their training is often weak, the temptations of “the world” are strong, and the number of people willing to spoil them is large – it is an invitation to pride, failure and abuse.
It would not, of course, be possible for anybody, HHDL included, to snap their fingers and dissolve the statuses of the good and bad tulkus that we have now. But the system is showing acute signs of failure, old Tibetan society is never returning, and the argument for winding the whole tulku system down is compelling.