A 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.

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.

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.

The 17th Gyalwang Karmapa could play an important role in choosing the Dalai Lama’s spiritual successor. The Karmapa, a much-loved but controversial figure, is a 26-year-old monk and the third-ranking member of the hierarchy of Tibetan spiritual leaders. But following the suspicious discovery of a large amount of cash in his monastery, some police investigators in India speculate that he could be a spy for the Chinese, a «sleeper» planted in the nest of Tibetan exiles by forces on the other side of the Himalayas.

Some things are happening very openly in Dharamsala, the home of the exile government in India, where there are democratic elections, a reshuffling of power is taking place and objective police investigations are being conducted. In the People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, true tragedies are unfolding, largely hidden from the eyes of critical observers.

In mid-March, a roughly 20-year-old monk called Phuntsok protested loudly against Chinese oppression near the Tibetan Kirti monastery in China’s Sichuan Province holding a picture of the Dalai Lama in his hand. Then he poured gasoline on his body and set himself on fire. He died from the burn wounds, but according to Tibetan exiles, Chinese officials also beat him while he was dying.

An angry crowd that had quickly gathered at the site of the self-immolation blocked the path of security forces. Then a special unit that was brought in brutally forced its way through the wall of people and surrounded the monastery, which was known for being «defiant.» Tibetan exiles quote eyewitnesses who reported that the monks were regularly targeted by officials, being subjected to torture and brainwashing. Two Tibetans allegedly died, 300 monks were taken away and the rest were ordered to exercise humiliating «self-criticism» and disparage the Dalai Lama. Kirti was literally starved to death.

Another monk, 29-year-old Tsewang Norbu, set himself on fire in Dawu in Sichuan Province last week, shouting «freedom for Tibet» as he was dying.

«Our hands are tied,» says Professor Samdhong Rinpoche in a tone of despair, sitting in his modest office in Dharamsala. Rinpoche, 71, is the previous prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The cleric’s only explanation for the particularly brutal approach that China’s rulers are taking at the moment is the nervousness that has taken hold in Beijing in light of the revolutions in North Africa. «They fear a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China, which is why they are lashing out at minorities, civil rights activists and religious people,» he says.

He is already looking forward to his future job at a university. «You know, I think I’m quite a decent teacher,» says Rinpoche, keeping a straight face. «But I fear I was always something of a failure as a politician.»

Nothing has been achieved in his government’s relationship with the People’s Republic, says Rinpoche. «We have made more and more compromises, while Beijing has remained inflexible and has rudely insulted our leadership.» And yet, he is quick to add, his words should not be misinterpreted as criticism of the Dalai Lama. «There is no alternative to the peaceful middle way of His Holiness.»

But who are the two men who, in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s decision to retire, will soon wield so much influence? How could a Harvard-educated scholar and a young monk change Tibet’s fate, and how will they be able to make their views heard in the shadow of the Dalai Lama and under the watchful and hostile gaze of the powerful Chinese Communist Party?


A Tibetan with No Experience of Tibet

In the eyes of many of his fellow Tibetans, the new Kalon Tripa, the official title of the prime minister of the government-in-exile, already has two strikes against him. First, Lobsang Sangay has no religious education. And second, he only knows the country which he is fighting for from second-hand accounts. He is a Tibetan with no direct experience of Tibet.

This is probably the reason that there was some tension between him and his rivals near the end of the election campaign. «But I did capture 55 percent of the votes in the end,» Sangay, who is married with one daughter, says proudly. He rejects the criticism that someone in his position should wear a robe instead of tailored suits, calling it a cliché. His father was a monk whose monastery was completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. His uncle, says Sangay, went underground and was presumably arrested or killed, and then disappeared without a trace. «One can be devout without spending one’s life behind monastery walls,» he adds.

His parents fled to India in 1959, the year of the failed popular uprising. They married there and their son was born in India. They did everything they could to make sure that he had access to a good education, even selling a cow, one of their most valuable possessions, so that Sangay could attend an advanced school.

A gifted student, he seized the opportunity and earned a degree in English literature from the University of Delhi. He won a scholarship to Harvard, where he eventually earned a doctorate in law, writing his dissertation on the history of the Tibetan government-in-exile. He has been at Harvard for 16 years and has consistently worked on behalf of the Tibetan cause. In 2008, he testified as an East Asia expert before a US Senate committee, and on two occasions he arranged for secret meetings between the Dalai Lama and academics and artists from the People’s Republic.

In 1992, he became the youngest member of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) in Dharamsala. Despite its respect for the Dalai Lama, the TYC has always called for a tougher approach to China, and has demanded Tibetan independence instead of merely «true» autonomy. Some of its members dreamed — and probably still dream — of armed resistance against the Chinese occupiers.

During the 2008 popular uprising in Lhasa and other regions in the Chinese-controlled territory, many Tibetans died at the hands of brutal police officers and plainclothes security forces. But the violence was not one-sided. Tibetans, apparently encouraged by fellow Tibetans in exile, destroyed Chinese businesses. And the recent self-immolations of Tibetan monks in China are also not without precedent. As an act of protest, a member of the TYC set himself on fire in India a few years ago. And the TYC leadership is currently staging a hunger strike in New Delhi in protest against the siege of the Kirti monastery.

Violence against others, as well as violence against one’s own body, is forbidden in Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama condemned the acts of protest. Sangay agrees with him, but he also expresses «great understanding for the courage of my fellow Tibetans, who are understandably outraged and distraught,» and says that he respects their actions. He is performing a careful balancing act, as he tries to reconcile the highly contradictory positions in his community.

«I also welcome the intervention of the United Nations in Ivory Coast and Libya,» says the new premier, «and I call upon the world to intervene in our cause, as well.»

Is Sangay seriously calling for an armed international campaign on behalf of Tibet, within the internationally recognized borders of the People’s Republic of China?

«No, no, not military,» he adds. He is careful not to portray himself as an unrealistic dreamer. «But Tibet should become the subject of serious negotiations at a level that would involve presidents and prime ministers,» he says. «The whole world is morally and politically obligated to get involved.» He believes that the revolutions in the Arab world could become a model in China. «Wherever there is repression, there is always resistance. But I do not advise my fellow Tibetans who are oppressed in the People’s Republic to use violence.»

Sangay believes that the Chinese cannot resist the tide of history forever, a tide that is increasingly being shaped by the free will of the people. «I am democratically legitimized, but the leadership in Lhasa is not. The authorities in Beijing will have to talk to us sooner or later,» he says self-confidently. He expects especially strong support from Germany and points out that Chancellor Angela Merkel is a committed champion of freedom. «She knows what it means to live under communist tyrants.»

Naturally the premier-in-exile, who was sworn in at the parliament-in-exile two weeks ago, pays close attention to the political maneuvering of the communists.

The Communist Party, which has always equated Tibetan Buddhism with «feudalistic practices,» has long attempted to exploit religion in a bid to silence Dharamsala. Tibet’s god-kings have traditionally participated in the search for their spiritual deputies. In 1995, the Dalai Lama designated (or recognized, depending on one’s worldview), a young boy as the reincarnation of the deceased Panchen Lama, and hence the new second-highest ranking member of the religious hierarchy. Through middlemen, the abbot of the Shigatse monastery in communist-controlled Tibet had secretly sent photos of various candidates to Dharamsala.

China’s political leaders were outraged. Their agents abducted the boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was six at the time, and brought him to Beijing. Since then, the authorities have refused to provide any details about the boy, even though foreign delegations have repeatedly requested information about his whereabouts and wellbeing. Human rights groups have called him the «youngest political prisoner in the world.» When asked about his fate, officials in Beijing say tersely that he is doing well, that his parents are anxious to give him a «normal life,» and that it was necessary to protect him from the «Dalai Lama clique.»

«We don’t even know if he is still alive,» says Sangay. «He would be 22 now.»


‘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

The Karmapa lives in the hottest part of Dharamsala, 600 meters (2,000 feet) lower down and half an hour’s drive from McLeod Ganj, the elevated part of town where the Dalai Lama has his official residence. He resides in the Gyuto, a whitewashed monastery with little golden towers, which also houses the Tantric University — as a subtenant of the Dalai Lama.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje, a.k.a., the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, has given only a handful of interviews in his entire life, and he hasn’t given a single interview since the damaging accusations were made against him. Calling him well-protected is an understatement. The circles of his caretakers surround him like the leaves of a water lily. His daily schedule is managed by a staff of 12 people, with titles like public relations director, human resources manager, manager of reincarnation issues, and each of them has a deputy. Very few are granted the chance to penetrate to the center of the flower, the Karmapa himself.

After lengthy negotiations with the Karmapa’s team of advisers, SPIEGEL finally managed to arrange a meeting, but only under somewhat conspiratorial circumstances: It was characterized as an «audience,» the last item on the Karmapa’s agenda that day, following prayers and audiences with a handful of privileged pilgrims from around the world.

Historically speaking, the Dalai Lamas and the Karmapa Lamas are members of different schools. The Karmapa’s Kagyu school, also known as the «black hats,» were long more powerful than their rivals, the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa or «yellow hats.» But when faced with the common threat posed by the Maoists, the Tibetans, without abandoning their theological differences, joined forces under the undisputed spiritual leadership of the current Dalai Lama.

The 14th Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa have some things in common, including a magical, centuries-old life history that requires a considerable leap of faith on the part of their followers, or, as the Dalai Lama puts it, «about as much of a leap of faith as the story of the virgin birth» in Christianity. According to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, both men demonstrated significant signs of their uniqueness in their earliest youth, signs that could only be interpreted as a nod from above. In this sense, both men emerged as reincarnations of a very special sort.

The story of the current Karmapa («man of Buddha activity») goes like this: As predicted by his predecessor, he was born in 1985 in a nomadic tent «northeast of the snow,» to sounds resembling a conch shell horn. He baffled his mother by identifying himself to her as the Karmapa, saying: «If you wish to sacrifice something to the Karmapa, you can give it to me.» In 1992, he unerringly led his parents to a search team of monks equipped with the secret notes and clues provided by the deceased 16th Karmapa. When the seven-year-old boy was also able to identify ritual objects, the searchers were in agreement. «Apo Gaga,» as he was called, «the one who makes us laugh,» had to be the true holy one.

He was taken to the main monastery of the Kagyu order in Tsurphu near Lhasa, where he was enthroned in a magnificent ceremony — and recognized, not only by the Dalai Lama, but by the leaders in Beijing. It seems safe to assume that this was all part of a political calculation. But why was the government of the People’s Republic so accommodating when it came to the Karmapa?

At 14, he decided to flee Tibet to embark on a search for the best Buddhist teacher, as he would later recount. On a December evening in 1999, he jumped out of a window at his monastery and into a waiting SUV. Traveling on horseback and on foot, he crossed icy mountains, avoided military checkpoints and eventually made the risky crossing over the border into Nepal. He arrived in Dharamsala on Jan. 5, 2000. The Karmapa has never revealed the identities of those who helped him escape. Beijing must have felt humiliated. The boy’s parents and a few friends were allegedly interrogated for hours and briefly detained.

In Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama took the inquisitive boy under his wing, and he soon became a favored pupil. Speculation ran rampant after the young Karmapa was permitted to sit in the Dalai Lama’s chair during his absence. He was the «only plan B that the Tibetans have,» wrote the German magazine Geo, while Time was convinced that he was the «world’s next top lama.»

But that was before the embarrassing scandal that has now engulfed him.


Shadow of a Scandal

In January, the Indian police stopped a car on a highway near Dharamsala and seized the equivalent of €150,000 in cash. The men in the vehicle claimed that it was from the Karmapa’s monastery and was to be used to purchase a piece of land. Soon afterwards the Indian investigators, who had become suspicious, searched the premises at the Gyuto Monastery. They found additional cash, in various currencies, worth more than €1 million — a sixth of it in renminbi, the official currency of the People’s Republic of China. The police chief in Dharamsala claims that Chinese telephone cards were also found at the monastery, and calls them «substantial proof that points to a connection to China.»

The press in New Delhi pounced on the story. The weekly news magazine India Today devoted a cover story to the question of whether the Karmapa might be a spy for Beijing, while a headline in the respected daily newspaper The Tribune read: «Monk or Chinese Plant?»

Tibet is one of the most sensitive issues between the two major Asian powers, which sometimes play the game of «Chindia,» joining forces against the West on economic issues, and yet eye each other with suspicion in other respects. India feels increasingly provoked by China, which has adopted an extremely self-confident stance when it comes to foreign policy. «They are building new airports and new rail lines near our border. Beijing is zeroing in on us from all sides,» laments Prem Kumar Dhumal, the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where Dharamsala is located. In this climate, some would say that the idea of a «planted» spiritual troublemaker with long-term ambitions is not as far-fetched as it might sound.

The Karmapa laughs off questions about the lingering shadow of the scandal. He receives his guests in a standing position in his simple guest room on the second floor of the monastery, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, like an alert boxer before the first round. He occasionally adjusts his monk’s robe, which exposes his fleshy upper arms. He looks like a chubby-cheeked Raphael angel, except for his shaved head that resembles a large billiard ball.

«India, unlike China, is not a dictatorship but a functioning democracy,» says the 17th Karmapa. On the wall behind him is the only piece of decoration in the room, a likeness of his «forefather,» the first Karmapa. «And that’s why I am confident that these accusations will be fairly examined. They will prove to have been unfounded, because it is clear that true believers from the People’s Republic also find their way here as tourists and donate money.» These pilgrims, he says, were the source of the «suspicious» currency.

For him, the Dalai Lama is the great teacher, a man he looks up to. They are often alone together for hours, discussing the relationship between religion and science. No one can replace the Dalai Lama, says the young man. And yes, he adds, he too has heard the rumor that he is predestined to become the «new Dalai Lama.» But the traditions of his order would prevent him from holding the title in the first place. «Perhaps it is wishful thinking for some people, but for me it’s unthinkable.»

One of his advisers shoots him a stern look, and he immediately stops talking about current politics. He wrote an essay titled «108 Things You Can Do to Help the Environment,» says the Karmapa. He loves ink drawings and likes to write poetry, and he practices Buddhist self-criticism. «Sometimes I watch video recordings of my speeches, especially those that I thought were successful. And then I realize that I said nothing significant at all, and I am ashamed.»

He is a computer buff and is interested in world affairs, documentaries and films. He liked the animated action comedy «Kung Fu Panda,» and he also enjoyed James Cameron’s «Avatar.» He readily admits that these are escapes into other worlds, and is quick to point out that he is much more interested in real life. But with the exception of a trip to the United States in 2008, the Indian government has not permitted the Karmapa, a man with the status of a stateless refugee, to leave the country. The authorities, probably fearing negative reactions from Beijing, cancelled a planned trip to Europe in 2010.

His day is completely planned in advance. It begins with the audiences, in which he blesses pilgrims from around the world. On this particular day, his visitors included wraithlike French schoolteachers, Taiwanese theology students and American acting students, who brought gifts ranging from plastic Buddhas to white shawls to the ubiquitous envelopes filled with money. His meeting with SPIEGEL will be followed by a session with his Korean language teacher. After that, he will have his religious studies to attend to (copies of both the Koran and Bible are in the library), followed by discussions of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. «In my job,» he says, «I can’t lose sight of the big picture.»

The Karmapa spends his spare time playing with Tashi, his sister’s white lap dog, and his idea of freedom is listening to inner voices. «The people around me mean well, and I know that I must submit to my destiny,» he says. Then, with an almost defiant glance at the adviser, he adds: «But sometimes I do feel locked up and try not to be sad about it.»

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.

His advisers informed him that the Communist Party in Beijing characterized his retirement as a «malicious trick.» «I will not stop praying for the party,» the Dalai Lama says in response. And he tells SPIEGEL that he sees progress being made in China, despite the current wave of repression: «Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has advocated more transparency several times, and he has even said that democracy is a necessary development. I am pinning my hopes on the reasonable forces.»

The 14th Dalai Lama will undoubtedly pore over the old religious texts once again, the scriptures that grant him, should his people be faced with an emergency situation, the right of «madey tulku,» or choosing a «reincarnated» successor while he is still alive. He intends to set the course of his spiritual succession at an important conference in Dharamsala in September.

«The Communist Party should concern itself with the reincarnation of Mao or Deng Xiaoping,» he says. «I find it touching that the politicians in Beijing are concerned about my reincarnation, and yet it doesn’t make any sense, given that the Communist Party calls me a ‘demon.’ Do they want to have a demon forever? No, I can assure you, and Beijing, that I will decide on my successor entirely on my own.» Although there are several potential options, he says, «as long as I am in exile, we will only search for the successor in exile, as well.»

Perhaps the all-important moment of inspiration will come to him while he is trimming his rose bushes or pursuing one of his other hobbies, taking apart and reassembling old cameras, or perhaps while running on his treadmill in the early morning hours.

He will continue to strongly discourage his Western followers from rushing at Buddhism and expecting it to offer instant salvation, as a sort of lifestyle religion. And he will continue to repeat his standard admonition: «Try a religion from your own cultural environment first, like Christianity.» And he will also continue to promote world peace and interfaith dialogue, using the same universal, sometimes overly vague, esoteric language.

And, once again, his fans will stylize the Tibetan king without a country into their postmodern angel, as they have always done. They will turn him into a symbol that he never wanted to be: the last common denominator between believers and skeptics in the East and West, between the impotent and the overly powerful, a spiritual consolation for a world fragmented between the winners and losers of globalization. But they will also continue to worship him in his native Tibet and hang on his every word, as if he had the power to bring freedom, and they will wonder if there can be a life after the Dalai Lama.

That is the crux of gods: They can go into retirement, but they cannot abolish themselves — if only because the incorrigible faithful would never allow it.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

A Deity Goes into Retirement: Tibetans Face Uncertainty in Post-Dalai Lama Era – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International.

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