Why Good Looks Matter

dalai lama

Veikko Anttonen is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at the University of Turku, Finland. He was elected Vice-President of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) for the period 2015-2020 at the conference in Erfurt last August.
He was the Professor and Chair of Comparative Religion at the University of Turku between 1997-2015.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, stated in an interview that a successor to his post can be a woman if she is good looking, otherwise she would not be of much use. The statement is overtly sexist, and as expected, has met severe criticism. But what else the interview statement implies! The Tibetan institution of finding “a reincarnated” Dalai Lama, the supreme religious leader representing continuous genealogy of Buddhas, is a religio-cultural construct. It is obvious that there are specific culture-dependent criteria which become operative as integral elements in official Tibetan Buddhist theology in the search for a “right” successor. From the point of view of the study of religion, we do not only need to understand how a politically correct choice is being made, but also to theorize the overall religio-cultural construct called reincarnation. According to my category-theoretical approach to the issue of sacrality, there are specific criteria, such as perception of an anomaly and category-boundary that become operative in classifying and attributing sacredness as property of a thing and an appropriate member in the class of “sacred things”.

Over the history, things have acquired their sacred status in diverse ways in different cultures and category systems. The Dalai Lama’s remark was not a slip of the tongue, but a comment indicative of sacred-making characteristics among Tibetan Buddhist monks. Qua scholars of religion, we need to ask what cultural, ethnic-territorial, socio-economic and person-specific characteristics are implied in setting apart an appropriate candidate for the post of Dalai Lama. Since good looks seem to matter in the case of a female candidate, it needs to be explained how culture- and theology-dependent notions of sacrality are appropriated in order to meet requirements regarding the expectations of a candidate’s political role, his/her media and public appeal, etc. I am not hereby implying any kind of sui generis theories of the sacred รก la Eliade, but a methodological strategy that can be operationalized in order to explain the institution of finding a new, reincarnated religio-political leader for Buddhist monks after the passing of Dalai Lama.

The statement by the Dalai Lama is therefore revealing since it clearly expresses that there is a system of classification according to which certain traits of personality and appearance are perceived as elemental in the re-embodiment of a dead monk.