Travel Advent Dec. 11: When Will the Next Dalai Lama Get Their First iPhone?

I’ve been reading the autobiography of the Dalai Lama these past weeks, and my mind has been filled with a litany of thoughts. Perhaps it’s in bad taste to discuss the next Dalai Lama already, but since his Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama himself has discussed it publicly (as it will likely prove incredibly controversial), why not talk about it here?

Without delving into the whole conundrum of where the next Dalai Lama will be reincarnated; and if he’s born in Tibet, how the officially atheist Chinese government will handle the reincarnation — let’s just talk about a best-case scenario where the reincarnated 15th Dalai Lama has been chosen and is safely in the care of his tutors.

For us raised in Western cultures, the concept of being reincarnated and born with a destiny and already well-established soul is still a bit foreign. I can get behind the process of reincarnation, but it’s one thing to be the reincarnated soul of your uncle versus the reincarnated soul of a spiritual leader. I find it hard to imagine how a child would be able to take such a reality, and how unfair it must feel at the time to be stuck inside this gigantic white palace in the Tibetan plains learning holy scriptures while everyone else your age runs about outside herder yaks and being young. I was struck by how much of a shock this all must feel, to have a destiny and an entire congregation of people you’ve never met somehow claiming to know you — and on top of that having access to the items of your past life.

There was a humorous scene of this early in the book, where the young Dalai Lama is rummaging through the possessions of his predecessor. In it, he finds some of the most technologically advanced devices in Tibet at the time, such as film reels and some of the only automobiles in the country. This must have been such a shock for the young Dalai Lama, having the access to these technologies that no one else in the country had access to. He must have felt powerful, as displayed in a scene where he took one of the cars out for a joy ride and ended up getting in an accident.

In the same vein, the 14th Dalai Lama was also a bit lucky that there were few tangible examples of his former self available to him. He probably only had stories and several photos of his predecessor and was thus allowed to create his persona and follow his destiny rather than base himself on the representations of his past life. The 15th Dalai Lama will have quite a different upbringing. The 14th Dalai Lama has devoted much of his life to raising awareness about the freedom of Tibet and has had the chance to meet the highest echelons of society around the world. The 15th Dalai Lama will come into a world where he, at a young age, will have Lady Gaga and Obama and countless other celebrities visiting and banging down his doorstep. He’ll be born, and he’ll already be one of the most important people in the world.

The 15th Dalai Lama will no doubt want to be a child, and just like his predecessor, he’ll have a thirst to explore and tinker with new technologies. Which got me thinking: when will the 15th Dalai Lama get his first iPhone? It’s sometimes a shock for us Westerners to go to Asia and see serene saffron-robed monks walking around then suddenly taking out a cellphone for a call. But we forget that these monks have families and friends outside of their monastic lives. The next Dalai Lama will be very much the same. What will his tutors do when he rummages through his predecessor’s items, finding computers and iPads and all sorts of pieces of technology. He’ll have this thing called YouTube, where he can watch thousands of videos of his predecessor.

This is certainly not a bad thing, as the 14th Dalai Lama is a wonderful teacher, and I’m sure the 15th Dalai Lama will be in the best of care to complete his spiritual training. But I wonder how his upbringing with technology, with the ability to access his former persona and hear his former voice, will affect how he grows up and forms his own identity. Will he be so influenced by the access to his former self that he essentially becomes a copy of his former self? Or will he be able to take the good of the teachings from his former self, and be able to create his own identity beyond that. If the wisdom of his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is any indicator, I’m sure his successor will be just as caring and inspirational as he is. What do you think?

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