The Incumbent & the Incoming KalonTripa: The End & the Beginning of An Era

By Nawang Phuntsog
Now that the incumbent Kalon Tripa’s tenure is coming to an end, Tibetans all over the world are in a frenzy to elect the next one - the one who will usher a new era in Tibetan politics for better or worse.  Changing of guards is invariably coterminous with an element of nervousness and uncertainty, and this election is no exception.  One silver–lining of the current electoral context is that it has generated greater awareness and participation of the general public- or so it seems.  A number of Kalon Tripa candidate websites have come and gone providing helpful personal information.  But less discernible is the policy orientations of the candidates.  Are we to assume that the incoming Kalon Tripa will follow the policy framework of the incumbent?  If not, should we expect a marked departure?  Let us hope that the future public forum will shed more light on policy directions as well.
However, this short write-up has two purposes.  First, it will highlight certain salient achievements of the incumbent Kalon and then comment on a recent controversy that has stirred a good deal of criticisms directed at Kalon’s talk at a Tibetan gathering in New York on May 2010.  As we envisage the next Kalon, it is important to reflect on the accomplishments of the incumbent. There is an overwhelming agreement that Kalon Tripa Professor Samdhong Rinpoche has rendered a truly self-less, and dedicated leadership with unprecedented and unparalleled integrity.  He has transformed the financial uncertainty of the establishment from the perpetual deficit to that of a surplus. As a practicing Buddhist monk who has had no training or formal education in public finance, this achievement is an extraordinary feat in itself and represents his ability to envision the future when one is solely focused on the general welfare.
He is the first one to initiate an educational reform designed to embellish the content and the process of schooling with a stronger dosage of Tibetan cultural traditions.  The driving force behind the school restructuring is to ensure that Tibetan children are socialized and enculturated in a way that they all grow up to be Tibetans in body, mind, and speech.  Ample observational and anecdotal evidences suggest that these newly-established schools are producing the expected outcomes.
Undoubtedly, one of his most noteworthy contributions is the governance structure that he instituted for the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE) to ensure transparency, integrity, and austerity of all its branches.  Changing an existing institutional culture is an uphill battle but he persisted and has so ably transformed the TGIE culture. As the primary architect, his contribution to the drafting of the Charter document is equally to be applauded.  He has also forged a closer relationship with the local, the regional, and the national Indian leaders – an aspect that had been ignored for a long time prior to his tenure at the helm in Dharamsala.  By all means, there are far more accomplishments to be counted for but these are some that easily comes to one’s attention. The history will definitely accord him a distinctive stature worthy of all the causes he served so tirelessly and passionately for many decades.
One of the most scathing criticisms of his tenure is directed to a speech he delivered in May 2010 New York.  It is important to keep in mind that this speech was a part of his responses to questions posed by Tibetans who attended the meeting at that time.  I did listen to this talk a couple of times to make sure that I understood the intent of the message.  The message cannot be de-contextualized from the person as the apple will not fall too far away from the tree – so goes the saying.  It is thus equally, if not more, important to keep in mind that the Kalon is first and foremost an erudite Buddhist scholar and a practicing monk with an unshakeable faith in the tenets of Buddhism and in the institution of the Dalai Lama.
With the above context in the foreground, I would like to offer my commentary so that the intent of his message is not lost in the conundrum of its hyperbolic misinterpretations.  The message must be viewed within the historically significant spiritual relationship that exists between Tibetans and the institution of Dalai Lama for hundreds of years. Like an invisible umbilical cord this sacred bond connects spiritually, culturally, and politically the Tibetans in and outside of Tibet at this time.  The Chinese Government’s herculean efforts to severe this centuries-old link has failed and is destined to falter so long as we do not falter in our faith in the institution of the Dalai Lama specially at a time when external forces are fostering dissensions to create disharmony in our communities. The PRC has made all out efforts in the past to discredit His Holiness as the Tibetan leader but has failed as it could not wedge a rift in the sacred spiritual bond that has withstood the test of times.  The minute this spiritual synapse is weakened, the political strength is equally compromised with dire consequences that could be far worse than the one’s resulting from the PRC’s action.  Kalon Tripa was thus warning us that this sacrosanct relationship should not be undermined at all costs even within the context of seeking independence or improving the democratization process.  Although the economic ascendency of the Chinese Government prowess has witnessed a concomitant escalation in its brutal power to suppress and obstruct discordant voices, this newly-acquired might will not be able to weaken the spiritual bond between Tibetans and His Holiness.
All over the world His Holiness is recognized as the unquestionable leader of Tibetans and this will be the case as long as we all accord Him the reverence and obeisance as the spiritual and the temporal leader.  The spiritual aspect of the leadership is so unique and sacred that its importance must not be allowed to diminish as the democracy ideals gain grounds in our society.  This is what makes us different from the PRC and other governments in the world.  There is a secret hidden from the plain sight: the spiritual leadership provides strength, sustenance, and integrity to the democratic process.

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