A commentary by the Director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom, Thomas Schirrmacher, on the most recent pronouncement by the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama has decided that he does not wish to have a successor. In his view, the “institution of the Dalai Lama” is no longer necessary. Together with his having dispensed with all political offices and claims to leadership two years ago, this is an act with far-reaching implications for the relationship between religions and states around the world. Since there are discussions about what the Dalai Lama actually said, I can point you here to link to Die Welt. As long as the Dalai Lama himself does not say anything different, this has to be viewed as his present view of things.

Thomas Schirrmacher in conversation with Kelsang Gyaltsen, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama to Europe (Photo © Markus Scherf / IGFM)

Thomas Schirrmacher in conversation with Kelsang Gyaltsen, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama to Europe (Photo © Markus Scherf / IGFM)

In order to state it very generally: While in some countries and religions there are religious leaders fortifying their positions and misusing religion for political claims (one need only think about the Hindutva movement in India, the developments in Iraq or in Russia and Ukraine), there are other religious leaders who are recognizably decreasing their activity in this sphere, such as is now the case with the Dalai Lama.

Two years ago, the Dalai Lama gave up all political offices and claims to being a representative of Tibetans and of exiled Tibetans. Instead, exiled Tibetans chose the legal scholar Lobsang Sangay as the Prime Minister-in-exile. That was a joyful day as far as religious freedom and the separation of church and state are concerned. What is decisive about this is the following: The Dalai Lama no longer derives any political claim to leadership from his religious claims. In a 2012 paper entitled “Declaration of the Dalai Lama on the Question of his Reincarnation,” the Dalai Lama presented how his successor will be able to be found. This was invalidated by his new declaration, even if he obviously cannot determine what his adherents do after his death. Whether it had to do with a pharaoh, a Roman emperor, a Chinese emperor, or a Medieval pope: Millennia ago and centuries ago it was almost self-evident that political and religious power went hand in hand and that political power was rooted in to God or by equality with God. This era should actually be over, and thus it is gratifying when the last remaining survivors with this notion voluntarily give up this view.

Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis made and continue to make it increasingly clear that the Catholic Church, in its essence and in its calling, is not a state. The Vatican has long since been guarded by the Italian police, and in the UN or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), it only votes as a member state when it comes to questions of human rights and religious freedom. When it comes to political questions, it basically does not vote. Indeed, there are still some exceptions. The Japanese Emperor still sees himself as the son of a goddess. However, he has no political influence, and religious freedom in Japan is very extensive. (See the segment “The Tenno as the highest Shinto Priest”.)

The sole significant exception remains the Islamic world. Indeed, Islam’s strict monotheism excludes a state head from being God or of divine origin, but the separation between religious leadership and the state is often not safeguarded. And anyway, Iran is the only country in the world where political leadership is appointed and controlled by religious leaders. In technical language that is called hierocracy (rule by priests or ecclesiastics). Via Hamas, Hezbollah, and other movements, Iran is seeking to export this idea. On the other hand, in many Islamic countries it is the political leadership which uses, propagates, and bosses Islam around. And then there are countries such as Pakistan or Afghanistan, where one no longer knows who is actually pulling the strings and who rules whom: are the religious leaders ruling the political leaders or are the political leaders ruling the religious leaders?

In any event, the Islamic world could learn from the Dalai Lama that religious authority and political power do not belong in the same hands and that more good is done when religious leaders themselves limit their political power than when they expand their claims.

The End of the divine Emperor 

In an article I wrote 24 years ago, “China im Umbruch” [“China undergoing Upheavel”; Ethos 8/1991: 32-37; it later appeared in a similar form in Lesson 60.12. in my work Ethik (Ethics)] I wrote the following: “When one takes a look at the tremendously large constructions of the divine emperors in the Imperial Palace in Peking, the capital of China, and sees the many thousands of Chinese and foreign tourists who meander astonishingly through the individual areas, one recognizes again just how ephemeral all human power is, even if man declares himself to be God and his rule is for that reason held to be eternal. What was one once held to be the center of the universe (to be precise, the center of the universe was the center of the Altar of Heaven in the Temple of Heaven e [‘Tianan’], south of the Imperial Palace) is now entered by everyone irreverently, touched, and marveled at as if it were from a fairytale book. What would have once cost an individual his life is meaningless today.

Whether it was the Egyptian pharaohs, the Roman emperors, or the Chinese emperors: All of them wanted to be the supreme ruler and the highest priest in one and justified this by holding themselves to be descendants of the gods, or incarnations of God, or had in some other way a part of the nature of God. That meant the deification of the state. All over the world, they left the most extraordinary structures which were meant to demonstrate this divine priestly kingship: pyramids, victory arches, palaces, temples, and mausoleums. And yet all these stately structures which are marveled at by tourists demonstrate at the same time that they were neither priests of the true God nor had divine character.

The number of priestly divine kings all over the world has dropped over the course of the millennia, and their number has rapidly dropped since the emergence of Christianity.

When the Japanese Emperor Akihito, the high priest of Shintoism, ascended the throne, many Japanese Christians expressed their concern that the development could quickly turn against Christians and against the constitutional state. Are their concerns justified, although in practice nothing at all has changed? Absolutely. For hundreds of years, the Japanese emperor justified his rule by uniting himself with a goddess when he was enthroned and at the same time by being the high priest of the state religion. He was the “Tenno” (divine emperor), the gods’ representative on earth who made laws but who was not subject to law. When the Americans defeated Japan in 1945, the Japanese Emperor was only allowed to remain because he swore to forgo the office of Tenno and to no longer claim any religious authority. This was the precondition for enabling the new constitution to contain more human rights and more equity. The Emperor at the time held to this for 45 years, up to the time of his death. And yet, to the shock of many, his son allowed himself to be enthroned as a god in 1990. Expensive and extensive ceremonies followed the ancient ritual, in the center of which is a nighttime unification with the sun goddess Ameratasu, through whom an emperor allegedly first achieves his divine essence. The first act of office of the new Emperor was to present a sacrifice for this goddess. Now there is the threat that obedience towards the state and towards the religion of the ruler will be placed on an equal plane, something which cost many Christians their lives in the early church in their conflict with the state. Despite this, many representatives of democratic countries naively participated in the enthronement.

In spite of these examples, one can see that the time of divine priestly kings has passed, and the few people who still claim such a position for themselves fortunately no longer possess any true power.


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