Deity Goes into Retirement: Tibetans Face Uncertainty in Post-Dalai Lama Era


The Dalai Lama has officially retired from politics, claiming he wants to live as a "simple monk." It's a watershed moment for Tibet, amid fears of Chinese meddling and controversy over the new generation of leaders. Meanwhile the Chinese authorities continue to brutally crack down on protests by Tibetan monks.

He certainly doesn't want to end up like the Queen. "With all due respect, and she's a very nice lady in person, but having to recite bad speeches written by someone else? It's not for me," says the 14th Dalai Lama, known among the faithful as "Ocean of Wisdom" and "Buddha of Compassion." He dabs at beads of sweat on his forehead, careful not to endanger a fly that has landed there. "I would feel like a puppet."

For this reason, a political compromise was inconceivable for the man many worship as a "god-king." That was despite the entreaties of his Tibetan followers, no matter how much they begged him to at least remain the ceremonial leader of the government-in-exile, which he established more than 50 years ago in the Indian town of Dharamsala after the Chinese Communists had forced him to flee from the Tibetan capital Lhasa. The Dalai Lama no longer wants to hold any political responsibility.

"It has nothing to do with resignation, or health reasons, only with insight," he said in a recent interview with SPIEGEL in the French city of Toulouse, where he was giving lectures on Buddhism, before traveling to Germany this week as the guest of the Hessian state government in the western city of Wiesbaden. "I have taken a close look at all forms of government. A democratic parliament with an elected prime minister is the only modern and functioning one. Monarchy: yesterday. Theocracy: from the day before yesterday. I believe in the separation of church and state. But what sort of a hypocrite would I be if I didn't draw any conclusions from this realization?"

For centuries, the Dalai Lama was, in the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Tibetans, both the secular and spiritual leader of his people. The current holder of the office already introduced democratic structures while in exile, but they were reforms from the top down, and he always had the last word. Now he has resigned from his secular duties, including his right to dismiss ministers and shape the course of negotiations with Beijing. He also intends to significantly reduce his spiritual duties and address the search for a successor -- "male or female," as he says.

"I just want to be Tenzin Gyatso, a simple monk," he says. He signed the constitutional amendment that makes this transition possible "with relish," he adds. "The government in Beijing has described me as an obstacle to all compromises. Now this stumbling block no longer exists, and it will have to show its cards and reveal whether it intends to grant Tibetans true autonomy, and whether it is serious about installing its own Dalai Lama in the future."

And then, as is so often the case, a chortling, infectious laugh erupts from the Dalai Lama like a force of nature. "And besides, here's a suggestion for the Communist Party leaders: How about joining me in stepping down?"

The curtain has fallen. A theocracy is coming to an end, and it is doing so peacefully and without bloodshed. A god is going into retirement.

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