RFA Tibetan service presenter Lobsang Rabgyal hosts a landmark women's program in December 2000, in which she debates the possibility of a female incarnation of the Dalai Lama, or other reincarnating lama lineages, known collectively as tulku:
Lobsang: When brief thought is given to women’s rights, we might not see much relationship between women’s rights and the practise of tulku . If we rethink, however, there are many connections, because one of the reasons for Tibet’s unique culture is Buddhism. Since Buddhism is very important in our culture and society, tulku , or lamas...leaders of religious practitioners and those holding high positions have a lot of respect, power, and strong public support.
And if we believe, in our culture, that tulku in our society are always male, then gradually, at some point we will get the feeling that a woman cannot become a tulku . But there is nothing to say this in law. There were women tulku in the history of Tibet. There were a few famous ones. If we count the number of women tulku and compare with men tulku , there is no comparison. There are far more men. Because of all these factors, the thought breeds in the public mind that women are basically much weaker in religious practice and religious texts.
if we believe, in our culture, that tulku in our society are always male, then gradually, at some point we will get the feeling that a woman cannot become a tulku . But there is nothing to say this in law.
Caller: Yes, Yes. In our religious sects in Tibet, the highest lama is His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. In reality, if we ask, can a woman become Dalai Lama, it looks like our society will consider that as some problem in society or as a bad sign. But now His Holiness has come into exile and many foreign reporters have directly contacted His Holiness and a few reporters have asked His Holiness whether the next incarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be born as a woman. His Holiness has replied saying why could it not happen. What do you think about this?
Lobsang: Yes, Yes. His Holiness has said exactly that. Foreigners straightforwardly ask these questions. It looks like His Holiness has said something like this: it is possible, His Holiness can be in woman’s form. When I was young, I had asked this question of a lama. One lama had said there might not be a reason for His Holiness the Dalai Lama compulsorily as man in law. In the history of Tibet, lamas, tulku and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the fact that the majority of the most important ones are born as men is due to the fact that women don't have many rights in society. If a lama were to be born as a woman, automatically there would not be respect for that woman lama among the public. This would create a problem.
This is the fault of ideology in society. That is why all the lamas are born in male form. That lama said if there were a change in social ideology, there would be a possibility of change in the reincarnation process. This issue is somewhat odd.
Caller: Yes, generally, tulku has become sort of a custom. Earlier when Tibet did not have contact with the world, it was done inside Tibet and not in other areas. Nowadays, the Tibetan community and Buddhism are widespread in the world. Many foreign children are exploring. The practice of finding tulku too is changing alongside changes in society and popular attitudes. So in times to come, greater equality for women, including women tulku , may happen.
Lobsang: That is true. Nowadays, there are many reincarnations among foreigners. I feel the most important to think is that these days, many tulkus are born as non-Tibetan. About 100 percent of the foreign tulku are male. Whether it is outside or inside, Tibetan or non-Tibetan, in both cases, the majority of the tulkus are male...This issue is funny, because if a child--a son--is born into a family and if the child is intelligent and extraordinarily frank from a young age, everybody will gradually begin to think and sometimes they express the probability that he may be a lama or tulku . If a girl is born, equally intelligent and equally frank, there will hardly be anyone to think or express the probability that she may be a lama or tulku .
Caller: If this girl is not recognized as a tulku , what is the problem faced by this small girl in life? If a son is born, he has much more hope of becoming a tulku than a girl does. What problems do you think this girl will face?
Lobsang: If the boy is recognized as a lama and the girl is left behind, there is no harm directly to the girl herself personally. There is an opportunity for the boy to get better education, wealth, power in society and may have a better life. These days in exile, in some Tibetan areas, education opportunities are increasing for both boys and girls. That is why, for both boys and girls, if they can work hard, there is more hope of leading a better life.
The problem is this: generally, in our society, if there is fondness for boys, these boys occupy all the high positions in our society. In our Tibetan society, since Buddhism is important, lama and tulkus become important. That is why, when we gather all the important people and see, there is hardly a woman among them. So, gradually, the perception develops in our society that women are basically without any in-depth capability. This is very dangerous for women, because if we look at the education of women, given the same opportunities for both girls and boys, girls perform equally well as, or sometimes better than, boys.
Original reporting in Tibetan by Lobsang Rabgyal. RFA Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.