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

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'I Believe in Miracles' But the Communist Party also took things a step further and selected its own Panchen Lama ("Precious Teacher"). He is from the same district as his rival, and he is the son of two faithful party members. To give the process the appearance of religious legitimacy, the Chinese resorted to old Tibetan rituals, using a traditional golden urn in their staged ceremony to validate the reincarnation. Of course, the overwhelming majority of Tibetans never accepted the Communist Party's enlightened one, whose name is Gyaltsen Norbu, even berating him during public appearances.

Now the party has openly declared its right to determine the reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama, insisting that the reincarnation must be ratified by the Communist Party. Sangay chuckles at the very idea. "It's as if Fidel Castro were to appoint the next pope. On the one hand, China's Communist Party persecutes anyone who so much as displays a photo of the Dalai Lama on its territory, and on the other hand it is extremely concerned about the continuity of Tibetan Buddhism. I would say that the Communists have a credibility problem when it comes to reincarnation."

Sangay believes that he will be able to move from Dharamsala in India to Lhasa in Tibet one day. "I could have become rich as a lawyer in the United States. As Kalon Tripa, I earn about €350 ($505) a month," he says. "But I believe in miracles." The fall of the Berlin Wall was such a miracle, says Sangay, as was Nelson Mandela's success in South Africa. Besides, he adds, who would have thought it possible, only three decades ago, that the Soviet Union would collapse and the United States would have a black president one day?

The question remains as to whether the elected Tibetan leader has a concrete idea of the chosen one, the potential spiritual successor of the Dalai Lama. Could Sangay imagine a system of dual leadership for Tibet one day, with him as its political leader and the young Karmapa as its spiritual head?

"I know the Karmapa and have a high opinion of him. He is highly respected and can play an important role," he says carefully, but adds that he is not authorized to say anything more than that. Sangay expressed himself more clearly when he spoke with Newsweek in 2009, saying: "The Chinese hard-liner strategy has always been, when the present Dalai Lama passes away, the Tibetan movement will fizzle out, or disintegrate. So the issue is, is there anyone who can replace him? What will happen to the Tibetan movement after he passes away?" And then he answered his own question: "(The Karmapa) has grown up to be a very attractive lama to the general public, but also, importantly, to the young. They can connect with him. He's of the same age. They know the hardships he went through to escape."

But what if this new, terrible suspicion cannot be set aside, namely that the Karmapa's escape was nothing but a pre-arranged game with the communist archenemy? What if, following Beijing's choice of the second-in-command in Tibetan Buddhism, the third-highest ranking member of the religious hierarchy also turns out to be unacceptable?

A Rare Interview with the Gyalwang Karmapa

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