John Oliver lays out the riveting drama of China and the Dalai Lama's reincarnation, with special guest

John Oliver interviews the Dalai Lama
(Image credit: Last Week Tonight)

When you mention the Dalai Lama's name in the street in America, "you can see how widely he's revered," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. But when you press Americans, nobody seems sure what the Dalai Lama does, or even what religion he represents. The Chinese government knows, but "instead of vaguely loving the Dalai Lama, they specifically hate him," Oliver said. That's because of Tibet, a Chinese-controlled territory that's probably much larger than you think, and also "a gross human rights violation."

"China is unlikely to loosen its grip on the region — Tibet has incredibly rich resources," Oliver said. And so the Dalai Lama is a thorn in its side. Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is both political and spiritual leader of Tibet, though this Dalai Lama ceded control of the Tibetan government-in-exile in 2011. "Here is where this story gets absolutely amazing," Oliver said. "Broadly speaking, when the Dalai Lama dies, he reincarnates as a child somewhere on Earth. And traditionally, a key person in the process of finding him is someone called the Panchen Lama. And when the Panchen Lama dies, the Dalai Lama plays a similar role in finding him," a process Oliver likened to "a Buddhist version of hide-and-seek."

But China kidnapped the 6-year-old Panchen Lama the Dalai Lama found 20 years ago, and nobody has seen him since. And while Beijing swears the real Panchen Lama is doing just fine and doesn't want to be disturbed, "they had another trick up their sleeve," too, Oliver said: "They made their own Panchen Lama — they basically counterfeited a religious leader like a knockoff handbag." The Chinese goal is obvious — control who is named the next Dalai Lama — but the Dalai Lama isn't playing along, saying he either won't reincarnate or will do so outside Chinese-controlled territory.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"That means that when he dies, we could plausibly wind up with two rival Dalai Lamas, and the already fraught situation in Tibet could spiral out of control," Oliver said. "There is really only one person who can fill you in on what is happening inside the Dalai Lama's head, but he lives in India, and that is a 14-hour flight away — and the reason I know that is I went to speak with the Dalai Lama in India." Watch the interview, and cringe at Oliver's parting gift, in the occasionally NSFW video below. Peter Weber

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.