BEIJING — As the world's most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama is a monk juggling two jobs. One is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, and the other is the political head of his government in exile.
He was chosen to serve these dual callings through an arcane process based on signs that he was reincarnated from a long line of Dalai Lamas who were considered embodiments of the Buddha of Compassion, the holder of the White Lotus.
So when the 14th Dalai Lama threatened last week to resign in response to the violence in Tibet, he seemed to throw into question the ancient process that gave him power.
Whether he can quit and what that would mean remain unclear.
The only known case of a Dalai Lama who didn't want to be one was the sixth incarnation, a man who supposedly preferred romantic poetry and courtesans over scriptures and chastity.
Staff members of the current Dalai Lama were quick to explain that the 72-year-old monk had no plans to abandon his people at a time of crisis. The revered god-king was merely expressing his commitment to peace, they said, and saying that if his people continued to commit violence he would have no choice but to relinquish his secular duties.
"He would resign as the political leader and head of state, but not as the Dalai Lama. He will always be the Dalai Lama," said Tenzin Taklha, a top aide.
That would suggest breaking from Tibetan Buddhism's centuries-old tradition of church and state as one and, more important, would open the possibility that a Dalai Lama could choose his own successor.
"These institutions are made by people; the rules can change from time to time," said Lee Feigon, author of the book "Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows." "If he were to resign in frustration, it will create worldwide sympathy for him. If he could choose his own successor, he would be around to help train him and give him legitimacy. Even the threat of doing it should give the Chinese government pause."
The government in Beijing, which is officially atheist, has the final say in the appointments of high lamas and their reincarnations, a source of Tibetans' simmering resentment of Chinese rule.
A 6-year-old boy recognized by the Dalai Lama to be the second-highest priest in Tibetan Buddhism vanished in 1995, and another child handpicked by Beijing was appointed in his place.
The Chinese government could install its own puppet after the death of the Dalai Lama, whom it blames for masterminding this month's uprising, Tibetans' largest and most sustained anti-China protests in decades, and for promoting "splittism." The exiled Tibetan leader has long contended that he advocates greater autonomy for Tibet, not independence.
If the Dalai Lama could designate his own successor, however, it would be difficult for a competing Chinese candidate to win much legitimacy, observers say.
"The whole world knows the Chinese communist government doesn't believe in religion. How can these atheists be expected to select a Tibetan lama?" said Tsering Tashi, the London representative of the Tibetan government in exile.
The current Dalai Lama was chosen at age 2 by a team of high lamas because he identified items that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. Since fleeing to India in 1959 after a failed Tibetan uprising, he has embraced Western democratic values and built the government in exile, with an elected parliament and prime minister.
The Nobel laureate, who always seems open to new ideas, has even suggested injecting an element of democracy into the tradition of reincarnation.
"The Dalai Lama has said before, 'If the people decide there will be a reincarnation of me in the form of the 15th Dalai Lama, then there will be a 15th Dalai Lama. If the majority does not want a reincarnation of me, then there will not be a 15th Dalai Lama,' " said Tendon Dahortsang of the Tibetan Youth Assn. in Europe. "I can't imagine the people won't wish for a 15th Dalai Lama."
Some observers say he can't resign.
"If the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation, then he can't really change that," said Justin Wintle, London-based author and cultural historian. "It's like a woman saying you are giving up being a woman."
If he chooses to keep his role as a spiritual leader and give the political mandate to someone else, Wintle says, he also risks undermining a pillar of Tibetan Buddhism.
"He is acknowledging the political leadership is a secular concern," Wintle said. "That's a major shift from Tibetan history, where the spiritual and the political leaderships are assumed by the same person."
Either way it will be a challenge to fill the shoes of the charismatic holy man whose full name is Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom). Even if he could choose his replacement, it could take years to identify a boy and wait for him to grow up, leaving a potential power vacuum and no clear form of alternative leadership.
But the threat of the Dalai Lama leaving his political post is real, according to Robbie Barnett, Tibetan expert from Columbia University.
"He's always said he prefers to get out of politics, go into a cave and meditate," Barnett said. "He's talking to people inside Tibet, asking will they please give up violence.
"The question is how the Chinese government can clear the static in the air so people in the rural areas inside Tibet can hear him."