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


In fact, the 14th Dalai Lama has often been all too willing to allow himself to be co-opted as a sort of lowest common denominator among all those searching for meaning. Now he wants to put an end to his role as an object of projection for dreams of all kinds. He also wants to stop being a "wish-fulfilling jewel," another of his epithets, for all of his supporters. Instead, he is leaving Tibet and his global fan club to their own devices.

But how can this work? Can someone simply shed his religious and political power like an old coat he no longer needs? Doesn't this make Tibet like a Vatican without a pope, a place robbed of its unique identity?

These are not only religious questions. The struggle over the legacy of the Dalai Lama has to do with more than the reorientation of a government-in-exile. It involves questions of power and influence in one of the world's most important and contested regions. It has to do with military bases in Tibet, new transportation routes for consumer goods, the world's highest railway line, giant deposits of minerals, including zinc, copper and lithium, and the reservoir of water contained in the Himalayas. Intrigues in the Exile Community At the center of this drama on the roof of the world are the rulers in Beijing, who hold sway over the majority of the roughly 6 million Tibetans and subject them to political, cultural and religious suppression in an "autonomous region" repeatedly shaken by unrest. The authorities in India, China's main competitor for dominance in Asia, which borders occupied Tibet and grants asylum to its refugees, also play an important role. And so do politicians in the West, who see the question of a successor to the Dalai Lama as leverage that could enable them to gain influence.

The Tibetan capital Lhasa is now a city of nightclubs, brothels and artificial palm trees, with ethnic Chinese making up more and more of the population. The Dalai Lama was once forced to flee the city like a thief in the night. Now his ancestral seat, the Potala Palace, is turning into a garishly decorated Disneyland.

Meanwhile his Indian exile about 1,400 kilometers (875 miles) to the south, Dharamsala, also known as "Little Lhasa," is a place where latter-day hippies rub elbows with monks in trendy cafés like "Shambhala."

The story of what is happening in the two cities is filled with intrigues and surprising twists and turns. It is a story where Shakespeare meets Siddhartha, and "The Name of the Rose" blends with "Hamlet" and the "Da Vinci Code" to form a narrative which could easily be filmed by Hollywood, if it weren't for one drawback: It seems a little too unbelievable.

The Chinese Communist Party, with its official commitment to atheism, is now seriously claiming the right to be in charge of Buddhist reincarnations and to enthrone a new Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, officials in the Tibetan exile community are watching each other carefully and hatching intrigues -- a situation not unlike that at the Vatican, with its jealously competing cardinals.

Lobsang Sangay, 43, is the Dalai Lama's political successor. A lawyer with a doctorate from Harvard University, Sangay, as a former leading member of the uncompromising Tibetan Youth Congress, was long regarded as a terrorist by the Chinese. There are also whispers and warnings about him in the exile community.

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