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


At least, he says, he is allowed to speak with his parents in China on the phone. Isn't this astonishing, given that his relatives were supposedly so harshly interrogated by the Communist Party after his escape? Does he see this as a concession to humanity or as a potential means of applying pressure to him -- and who listens in on the conversations?

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa cannot answer these questions. He knows that he has a role to play, as a god in reserve, a messiah in training and the new face of Tibetan Buddhism -- and as a man whose life is determined by others. And yet he is also someone who learned to send subtle messages at an early age. They include his way of steering clear of difficult questions with a smile, and of using aphorisms and religious allegories to avoid being specific. It isn't difficult to see at least a hint of his mentor's charisma in the young Karmapa -- and, when it comes to crucial issues, his mentor's seriousness.

The Karmapa's political future is still unclear. "I have no ambition to be a leader of great importance," he says at the end of the audience. "But if circumstances make me into a force for change, I will become a force for change."

'I Will Not Stop Praying for the Party' It is a scorching summer day in Dharamsala in the northern Indian foothills of the Himalayas.

The 14th Dalai Lama, a.k.a. the monk Tenzin Gyatso, got up at his usual time of 3:30 a.m., put on his plastic flip-flops and spent some time reading ancient Buddhist scripture printed on palm leaves. Then he ran on his treadmill for a while, checking his progress on the machine's computer while listening to the news on the BBC. After that he ate what he calls a cosmopolitan breakfast -- "as becomes a man between all times and worlds" -- consisting of Tibetan barley porridge, mixed with packaged American hazelnut muesli and fresh milk from cows that graze in India's Himalayan foothills.

He read the papers at 6 a.m., the Guardian and the Indian Express, and met with his advisers. At 8 a.m., he began his routine program for the day: preparing for trips abroad, audiences with groups of pilgrims in the garden, and an open-air "pep talk" with the local congregation. "Why are the Chinese often so much more enterprising than we Tibetans?" he asks his followers. "Learn from them! Make an effort!"

It's all in a day's work for the 14th Dalai Lama. He will continue to travel, and he will probably still meet "privately" with political leaders like US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but he will not be as active as he once was and will spend more of his time in meditation. Perhaps, in meditating, he will attempt to reconcile two aspects of his life that seem so contradictory: his Harvard-supported studies on the scientific relationships between Buddhism and brain research, on the one hand, and on the other his seemingly obscure belief in a living state oracle, the Nechung Oracle, who utters pieces of wisdom while in a trance. Most of all, however, the Dalai Lama will likely be putting his house in order and organizing his legacy.

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