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As the Dalai Lama ages, Tibetan exiles turn to secular unity over sacred

As the Dalai Lama ages, Tibetan exiles turn to secular unity over sacred

DHARAMSALA, INDIA—  Surrounding the Dalai Lama’s temple in the Indian Himalayas, the leaders of Tibet’s exile community have been shifting their stance from sacred to secular as His Holiness ages, preparing to carry on the world’s longest-running non-violent resistance movement— with or without a spiritual leader. 

Top Tibetan Buddhist monks are preparing to discuss whether or not the 83-year-old Dalai Lama should reincarnate, and if so, how to prevent China from claiming their own reincarnated figurehead. 

 A monk pauses for a picture while on his meditation walk through a forested area near the Dalai Lama's temple in October 2018

A monk pauses for a picture while on his meditation walk through a forested area near the Dalai Lama's temple in October 2018

“The problem I see right now is how reliant we are on one individual,” Namdol Lhagyari, 32, the youngest member of Tibet’s exile parliament, said. “I understand that every freedom movement requires one role model, one leader, who would push everyone in the right direction, bring everyone to one goal. But he has reached an age where we will have to prepare ourselves for a post-Dalai Lama.”

The Dalai Lama and top monks planned to meet Nov. 29-Dec. 1 in Dharamsala, but a high-level monk’s death last week caused a hasty and indefinite-for-now postponement. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that while normal followers reincarnate according to their karma, a particularly enlightened person like the Dalai Lama can choose when and into whom he reincarnates. 

And though His Holiness has reincarnated into a male child since 1642, the 14th Dalai Lama has said in 2015 that he may reincarnate into a girl. In early November, he told reporters that he may choose a “high lama or high scholar” or a person “around 20 years old”. The goal would be to fill the leadership vacuum faster, or by not reincarnating at all, pass on leadership to a democratically elected president in a system only started in 2011.

Under the 14th Dalai Lama’s guidance, Tibet has struggled for freedom from China since their military invasion in the 1950’s, enduring heavy casualties (some estimate 1.2 million including starvation) and brutal religious persecution. Since 2008, Tibet’s leadership has abandoned the pursuit of complete independence and sought “The Middle Way Approach” – genuine religious and political freedom within China. About six million Tibetans live inside the region, according to a 2014 census, while another one million live outside. 

“I understand that every freedom movement requires one role model, one leader, who would push everyone in the right direction, bring everyone to one goal. But he has reached an age where we will have to prepare ourselves for a post-Dalai Lama.”
— Namdol Lhagyari, The youngest member of Tibet’s exile parliament

China has been steadily encouraging mainland Chinese to move into Tibet, replacing Tibetan language, businesses and even religion, with its own. Like other religions in China, Buddhism is tolerated in Tibet, but Beijing has appointed its own Buddhist leaders to ensure loyalty to the Communist Party comes first. (Chinese authorities consider the Dalai Lama a terrorist.) Many Tibetan refugees who’ve fled on foot in dangerous mountain conditions into Nepal have told stories of arrest, torture and killings for even mentioning the Dalai Lama, who himself fled to India in 1959.

Non-violence has long been a central tenant of the Dalai Lama-led Tibetan freedom movement, with India’s Gandhi as inspiration and drawing heavily from the concept of ahimsa, shared by some strains of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths. Ahimsa means “compassion” or “to do no harm” and refers to respect for all living things by avoiding violence. 

So far, 152 Tibetans inside the region (and some outside) have self-immolated to protest the alleged ongoing atrocities by Chinese authorities, but no Tibetan has harmed another person in protest. This is commonly credited to the Dalai Lama’s leadership.

The Dalai Lama teaches that everyone has a Buddha nature, even evil people. So no one should harm another person, ever. Those seeking justice should harm the act and not the actor.

Tibet’s pacifism began in the 9th century when the region underwent a Buddhist transformation that included voluntarily disarming its military. Backing away from its former imperialism of what’s now northern India, Nepal and China, Tibet became a magnetic area of spiritual learning. While the Mongol khans (of Genghis Khan) took over, the Tibetans lent the rulers spiritual guidance in return for protection, but they did not rule themselves.

That was the beginning of what you could call a tradition of separating religion from the state. 

Since then, Tibet has seen several violent uprisings, and its modern non-violence movement is just as much politically practical (why get crushed by the Chinese military) as spiritually principled. 

In 2011, the Dalai Lama gave up his role’s political authority (held for nearly 400 years) by setting up the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), a democratic system with a parliament and president. No country recognizes the CTA as a sovereign government but it receives financial aid from several countries and international organizations. 

Though the “toothless” CTA lacks police or prisons to enforce its laws, the Tibetan exiles follow their lead on civil matters. The CTA runs Tibetan schools and cultural programs, for example, and distributes welfare measures to Tibetan refugees in India.

It’s also a party-less democracy, meaning each elected representative runs only on his or her own merits. 

 Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan exile government, speaks from his office in Dharamsala, India in October 2018

Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the president of the Tibetan exile government, speaks from his office in Dharamsala, India in October 2018

This fall, the CTA parliament has been amending the Constitution to smooth election processes and prevent the community’s fracturing. On Oct. 3, for example, the president Dr. Lobsang Sangay signed a law banning nominations for parliament members from non-government organizations or political groups and shortening the length of elections to 100 days.

“We all are human beings right?” Sangay, the only president elected so far, said. “Greed, jealousy, laziness – these are cardinal sins in Buddhism. These play out. We must create a mechanism where these kinds of things are minimized.”

Sangay was born in India as the son of Tibetan refugees. He’s now an American citizen and a Harvard alum who studied international law and democracy. 

“Democratizing the society, secularizing the politics so there’s separation between church and state, is the idea, to prepare [for the Dalai Lama’s transition],” Sangay said. “Before it was only His Holiness as the leader. Now we have a political leader who has different responsibilities who will take care of necessary and administrative matters, who will carry forward the movement.”

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