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

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Huge Moral Authority What a long road for Tibet, for an institution, for the 14th Dalai Lama, who, as his followers believe, was first born in 1391 and, most recently, in the cycle of rebirths, in 1935. And what a long road for this Tenzin Gyatso, a farmer's son who, at the age of two, was chosen as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama by a search team of monks because of his special characteristics, who resided in the Potala Palace in Lhasa when he was only five, was named the political leader of his people at 15, negotiated with and long admired Mao, until he recognized that the Great Chairman was only trying to use him. A man who, after his dramatic 1959 journey across Himalayan passes, preached nonviolence, offered the Chinese rulers of his homeland the renunciation of claims to an independent Tibetan nation in return for cultural autonomy, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

For the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is still public enemy number one. Communist Party politicians berate him as a "wolf with the face of a man" and a "demon." In the Western world, however, the 14th Dalai Lama is seen as a role model. According to an opinion poll, he enjoys greater moral authority in Germany than the German pope. Many see him as the alternative to the "classical" politician, as someone who embodies what he says and who practices what he preaches, and even manages to reflect on himself in a self-deprecating way: a blend of Gandhi and Groucho Marx who is particularly beloved among celebrities like actors Richard Gere and Uma Thurman, French first lady Carla Bruni and Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner.

Buddhism has become the fashionable religion, from Los Angeles to London, just as the monk Padmasambhava predicted more than 1,200 years ago: "When the iron bird flies, when horses run on wheels, the king will come to the land of the red man." The Germans are particularly enamored of Tibetan Buddhism, with their dozens of Tibetan centers and tens of thousands of Dalai Lama disciples, who see the Asian faith as the most appealing world religion, and one that generally does not look down on people of other faiths. It preaches peacefulness instead of inquisition, persuasion through meditation instead of missionary evangelism and the hope of attaining Nirvana instead of the threat of jihad, and it treats guilt and sin as concepts from a different, more punishing religious tradition and man as the sole creator of his own fate. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Because of this global support, many pay close attention to the turmoil in Tibet, which they consider the land of their dreams, their Shangri-La. But many people are unaware that as recently as the early 20th century, there were brutal power struggles between the monasteries in Tibet, that torture (including the particularly notorious method of gouging out victims' eyes) was the rule, and that reforms were only begun under the predecessor of the current Dalai Lama. Many are also unaware that it is only the current Dalai Lama who has sharply criticized feudalism and called for an accounting with that aspect of Tibet's past.

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