BIG TROUBLE IN SHANGRI-LA
by Mark Hay
Writer Mark Hay travels through Tibetan communities in China and India to understand what might happen when the Dalai Lama dies — and China usurps his reincarnation process. Photographer Zishaan Latif contributes photography from Dharamsala, India.
Midway through the summer of 2013, Dolma Yangkey, a twenty-eight-year-old mother of two, climbed onto a motorcycle in the Tibetan hamlet of Shakchu (Chinese: Xiaqu), twisted the throttle as hard as she could, and sped off bent on killing herself in a brutal, public crash. But soon after peeling out, she fell from her bike, smashing into the earth and sustaining severe injuries. Yangkey was whisked away for medical treatment, but none of the locals reporting the story know what state she was in because, they told the Tibet Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) in Dharamsala, India, when she reached the hospital the local Chinese police posted guards on her door to bar all visitors.
China is a strange place with its own impenetrable, internal logic. But they don’t typically put a security detail on the suicidally depressed or mentally ill. Yet Yangkey was locked down because her botched attempt, according to the TCHRD, was a protest.
The young woman, they say, demanded:
1) That the Chinese release her husband, Lobsang Tsering, and the forty-nine men arrested with him.
2) That the Chinese renounce their intention to unilaterally install the next reincarnation of a late local Buddhist holy figure, the Rongpo Choeje Lama.
Many only know the term “Lama” in relation to another, more famous monk: The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet who lives in high profile and renowned exile from his traditional monastic seat and home in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a chunk carved out of of the larger mountainous Tibetan plateau and turned into a separate province by China in 1965.
But lama is just an honorific rank in Tibetan Buddhism awarded to thousands upon thousands of monks — there is no definitive number of just how many.
Some of these lamas, like the Dalai Lama, take the title upon assuming leadership of a reincarnated spiritual lineage. Others do not reincarnate, but take the title upon elevation by merit of their knowledge and virtues over a prominent monastery. Others still are just individuals deemed by vague and varied standards to have attained a high level of spiritual knowledge and authority.
Their full titles, differentiating one lama from another, often refer to their monastic seat or some particular attribute. (The “Dalai” in Dalai Lama means “ocean” in a form of Mongol. It’s a reference to the vastness of his wisdom bestowed upon his third incarnation in the 16th century by his ally and disciple, the Tümed Mongol ruler Altan Khan.)
The Rongpo Choeje Lama, the reincarnated head of a similarly-named monastery near Shakchu, sits somewhere in the middle of that mess of spiritual avenues.
Although it sounds esoteric to outside ears, the Chinese decision to appoint this provincial lama is the core of Yangkey’s complaint. Beyond Shakchu too, the communist state’s ironic decision to directly involve itself in the reincarnation of religious leaders, large and small, has become a major bone of contention in Tibet.
The Chinese care about contention in this barren and sparsely populated region because, aside from a few spectacular mountains, this traditionally restive minority region is home to some of the nation’s greatest strategic assets.
Once a strategic buffer between China and India, the mountains now serve as connective tissue to the equally dissenting and valuable Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to the north. More importantly, it’s home to the sources of the Indus, Mekong, Salween (or Nu), Yangtze, and Yarlung Tsangpo (or Brahmaputra) Rivers, among others — collectively the lifeblood of most of East, South, and Southeast Asia, the future of agriculture and hydropower in a growing China, and a major bargaining chip in China’s relations with its neighbors. And as of the the last few years, the Chinese have also discovered that Tibet is home to over $100 billion in untapped mineral reserves, with thousands of mines and hundreds of resources waiting to go online. Then there’s the intangible nationalistic value of controlling a huge chunk of land — almost a million square miles and just a little smaller than Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest nation — that China’s laid some kind of claim to for hundreds of years.
Given all that’s at stake on this Roof of the World, China’s always on the look for some means of consolidating its control over the region. And it’s never tolerated attempts to buck its rule, often reacting to unrest with vastly disproportionate force.
Yet as the state advances its claims on spiritual authority and oversight, it threatens to spark a new, potentially violent, and game-changing wave of dissent in this sensitive region.
From 1969 onwards, Yangkey’s village, a cluster of 170 households nestled amidst grey-and-brown hills northeast of Lhasa and smack-dab in the center of the Tibetan cultural zone, had been fairly peaceful despite longstanding Chinese restrictions on personal freedoms and religious expression. Until 2010, that is, when the state bureaucrats apparently decided to stick their hands into the selection of the reincarnation of the locally known Rongpo Choeje Lama. That decision triggered a series of radiating protests (including the one that led to Tsering’s arrest) that have contributed to the United Kingdom-based advocacy group Tibet Watch declaring the surrounding region of Driru (Chinese: Biru) “The New Hub of Tibetan Resistance” in an April 2014 report.
Chinese meddling in the rebirth of spiritual figures is not unprecedented in Tibet. Starting in 1792, the Qing Dynasty, Kuomintang, and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have all tried, with limited success, to influence monks selecting the reincarnations of key lamas.
In 1995, the CCP demonstrated their willingness to become spiritual arbitrators by rejecting the religious elite’s chosen Eleventh Panchen Lama, the second most prominent monk in the Tibetan world after the Dalai Lama, and installing their own candidate, the son of a Communist Party member.
But dozens of reincarnations, tacitly tolerated by the CCP since the 1980s, occurred without state involvement.
Intervention is set to become far more common. In 2007 the Chinese passed a new law — Order Number 5 of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, “Management Measures for Reincarnation of Tulkus [Lama Reincarnations] in Tibetan Buddhism.” The proclamation asserts the CCP’s right to oversee (via vetting of candidate applications by four layers of state bureaucracy) and, if needs be, direct the reincarnation of every Tibetan lama, including those in exile. Chinese reports indicate that at least 40 lamas have reincarnated in the TAR in compliance with this law over the past seven years.
Communist rule now encompasses the spiritual world as well, it seems.
Ostensibly, the law’s an attempt to control corrupt Buddhists. According to a report issued in the late summer of 2014 by Zhang Weiming of the Center for Tibetan Studies at Sichuan University in Chengdu, some individuals buy reincarnated lama-hood for $32,500 a pop, then use their false titles to extort followers in Tibet and beyond. Zhang estimates that there are over 8,000 fake reincarnations of false lamas bilking their way through life in China.
Although to Zhang, any reincarnated lama not recognized by the state, which currently allows for only 1,700 such monks, is a fake. Not all of these monks would be frauds in our eyes. It’s entirely possible that the number of lamas who bought their title is exceptionally small, but the claim makes for a great justification for state regulation of seemingly-swindling holy men.
Tibetans have their doubts about the level goodwill involved. To some, the dispute Rongpo Choeje Lama’s reincarnation just shows how far the Chinese will go to enforce their Order.
The details of the dispute also suggests that the 2007 decree is especially aimed at controlling the reincarnation of a the Dalai Lama, the figurehead of Tibetan resistance and on-and-off public enemy number one of the CCP since he fled into exile in 1959.
The Rongpo Choeje Lama, the eighth incarnation of an enlightened being bound by vow to return to the world to serve the people of Driru, died in 1999, long before the Chinese law came into force. Yet his disciples didn’t get around to searching for his reincarnation for eleven years. But lags like that are to be expected when your consciousness (the malleable thing which is reborn, rather than an immutable “soul”) is passing through perhaps the most complex system of rebirth in the world.
Tibetans base their conception of the afterlife and the journey back to life on the 8th century Tibetan Book of the Dead and subsequent discussions thereof. It’s an exceptionally esoteric text, but the hellish purgatory it describes is roughly as follows:
Upon dying, consciousness awakens in the Bardo, a terrifying maze of flashing colors, distorted realities, and manifestations of our worst fears and jealousies where it must remain for weeks at least, but can become lost for decades. Think an impossibly long bad acid trip — a man’s consciousness is warped and washed in the confusing fray of this other world until it stumbles quite accidentally into a new body.
But enlightened beings, namely high lamas, possess a special wisdom and know how to manipulate the Bardo to their own ends, preserving their personalities, sense of self, mission in the world, and guiding their consciousness to arise (after a duration of their choosing) in a location that can be intimated to one’s disciples before or after death.
In the (current) Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s case, when his predecessor died in 1933 the lamas assigned to seek his reincarnation reported a series of miraculous events. The Lama’s embalmed head turned in the direction of Taktser, a farming village of about 17 households on the far northeastern fringe of the Amdo region (now in China’s Qinghai Province) and his reincarnation’s hometown. A star-shaped fungus grew upon his tomb pointing in that direction as well. Then one of the lamas in charge of the search had a dream vision of a lake in Amdo near the Fourteenth incarnation’s home and saw three letters in the sky over it: “Ah, Ka, Ma.”
The letters guided them to Amdo’s Kumbum monastery, close to the Dalai Lama’s home, where they heard of a special boy, then two years old, whose father had been cured of a dire illness upon his birth in 1935. So they traveled in disguise to visit him, only to find that the boy knew not just that they were monks, but which monasteries they came from.
The boy spoke incessantly of Lhasa and, when presented with a jumble of objects, was able to precisely pick out those which belonged to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, proclaiming, “that’s mine!” each time. He was immediately whisked away to begin his monastic education.
Presumably Lama Dawa Rinpoche, a prominent monk at the Rongpo Choeje Lama’s Shak Rongpo Gaden Dhargyeling monastery, started receiving such visions in 2010 when he began his search for his superior’s ninth reincarnation.
But soon after he was arrested by the Chinese, who accused him of consulting the Dalai Lama as a spiritual advisor in his quest — a big no-no as the state’s law requires only the members of state-approved monasteries may apply for the right to reincarnate or participate in the search for a reincarnation. Then, in a telling follow-up, 150 police toting rifles and 50 state officials toting propaganda pamphlets descended on the monastery, demanding that the local monks denounce Lama Dawa and the Dalai Lama, causing many to flee and stoking discontent and mild protests in the nearby towns.
After years of seething, the region exploded again when the Chinese apparently (given the nature of Yangkey’s protest) declared that, in lieu of a candidate selected by monks and signs, they had located a suitable candidate to fill the Rongpo Choeje’s shoes.
Many in the area were already weary. Earlier in the spring droves of Han Chinese workers had descended on the nearby Naglha Dsamba mountain and Gyalmo Ngulchu river, breaking ground on environmentally questionable dams, mines, and roads, sparking protests. But with this second affront to their faith, a core aspect of their identity and culture which many Tibetans hold dear beyond belief, additional protests broke out in front of the little monastery.
The Chinese, in turn, mobilized 2,000 armed police to counteract the ecological and religious protests across Driru. It was overkill, commemorated in a poem entitled “Sad Song of Driru” by the local nomad-poet Tobden, pen-name Gho Gangga, who shortly before his arrest wrote:
“Yellow and dark armored vehicles, / parading in a neat line, / pointed the gun barrels / at helpless masses. // Under the bloody red flag, / with threatening siren sound, / hunted through [all of the] villages / and stole their happiness and peace.”
This was the fallout of forcing one reincarnation on an already beleaguered people: resurgent unrest across a 4,510 square mile chunk of Tibet, roughly the size of Qatar.
When it comes time for the Dalai Lama to reincarnate — and for the Chinese to adjudicate the fifteenth coming of their great enemy — the chaos will be immeasurably worse.
Although the modest monk denies this (and has done everything in his power to change it) he is the glue that holds the Tibetan people together. Every image we have of a nonviolent, spiritual, and united people is the result of his tireless efforts to overcome a history of division, warfare, and weakness in order to stand strong in the fight for Tibetan autonomy and rights.
When, not if, the Chinese and other hostile groups contest his reincarnation, then the confusion and vacuum of his death will create an opening for the cracks in Tibetan society to reopen and conflicts to reemerge, ushering in a confusing and bloody new era.
Prominent Tibetans have blasted Order Number Five since its 2007 enactment.
In 2007, the Dalai Lama’s chief Chinese negotiator, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, pushed the edges of his usual calculated civility by declaring it a “strike at the heart of Tibetan religious identity,” while the Central Tibetan Administration (the CTA, formerly known as the Government-in-Exile and at the time headed by the Dalai Lama) passed a resolution calling on the international community to help nullify the Order. Five years later, the Tibetan Youth Congress, a 30,000-member, 10-nation coalition of young activists founded by Gyari and his friends in the 1960s, published a 62-page booklet breaking down and refuting the law.
Yet the Dalai Lama, an indefatigably upbeat and jovial man, only makes light of it, explaining his reaction to the Chinese legists as such:
“I jokingly tell them: In order to be involved in my reincarnation, firstly, they should accept Buddhism. Or religion. Or Buddhism. Then they should recognize Chairman Mao Zedong’s reincarnation. Den Xiaopeng’s reincarnation. Then, they have reason to show some interest about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Otherwise, nonsense!”
Despite the pressures the law puts on his own reincarnation, the Dalai Lama has avoided addressing how he will be reborn from exile and how his followers should respond to a Chinese-appointed pretender as well. He almost teases the journalists who press him on this, musing, often with a smirk and chortle, that maybe he just won’t return, or will be elected, or he’ll come back as a woman.
Each little joke elicits a shrill response from the Chinese, claiming that any reincarnation made without their oversight will violate the law.
The only definitive thing he’s said about his reincarnation is that he won’t say anything definitive until 2025, when he turns 90.
There’s a chance, says Robert Barnett, the Director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, that this is a sly way of saying he’s open to negotiations with the Chinese.
An archetypal academic with a mop of wavy and tousled grey hair and tiny, oval glasses slipping down his long nose, it’d be easy to dismiss Barnett as a disengaged denizen of the Ivory Tower, speaking out of his ass from the abstract world of his little office, crowded in by precarious stacks of moldering Tibetan- and Chinese-language periodicals.
But Barnett’s one of the few individuals in the world who hears regularly from Tibetans in exile and in Tibet and from Chinese scholars and officials alike. Just before an interview for this article, he was conspiratorially mumbling into a microphone, apparently verifying longstanding accusations that China is selectively restricting domestic travel by Tibetans from the TAR.
His word comes from one of the most informed vantages — it means something. And more importantly it makes sense.
China has the might to control Tibet by force if all hell breaks loose when they name their own successor Dalai Lama.
But it’s far easier, in terms of practical, human, and public relations costs, to control a quiescent Tibet. Think of all the energy they expended and the ink international journalists spilled on the 2014 Hong Kong protests, then multiply that over a much larger and more inhospitable region. Wrangling Tibet may be doable, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
Yet Tsering Shakya, the author of The Dragon in the Land of Snows, the definitive history of modern Tibet, and a Lhasa-born Tibetan refugee, makes one thing very clear:
“The Chinese should be aware of the extent to which the [current] Dalai Lama has been involved in stopping violence” and maintaining the calm they so enjoy.
The Dalai Lama can seem like a doddering grandfather in interviews. The way he smiles and bobs his head about, you’re almost waiting for him to pull out a baggie of hard candies and pop one into the mouth of an unsuspecting world leader. His slow, deliberate speaking style, punctuated every few minutes by a giggle fit, makes him seem like his mind might be going.
But he’s sharp as a tack.
He knows how explosive his reincarnation could be, and so do the Chinese. Both sides are looking for a way to diffuse that power.
In the meantime, the Dalai Lama can use his potential cooperation with the Chinese as a bargaining chip, winning concessions and freedoms for his people in exchange for a smooth and uncontested transition.
But the specter of violence in post-Dalai Lama Tibet cuts both ways, and the Dalai Lama may feel the need to give up more in negotiations than he would otherwise, because if he dies without defusing this issue he risks the full closure of the small window of peace and unity he’s created for Tibet and a backslide into division and violence, just like the old days.
This Little Lhasa of just under 10,000 Tibetan refugees, granted to the Dalai Lama upon his exile in 1959 but formerly part of a countryside occupied by the mostly Hindu Gaddi tribes of the state of Himachal Pradesh, hangs off of the side of a mountain, nearly 5,000 feet above sea level and five miles isolated from the secular, Indian culture of grimy, bustling nearby Dharamsala-proper. For the thousands of foreigners who visit yearly, this town’s the only glimpse of Tibetan culture they’ll ever get — and it exudes an otherworldly, New Age sensibility. This is the Dalai Lama’s home in exile.
To the countless dreadlocked, pierced, and sarong-clad tourists milling about the streets of the Dharamsala suburb of McLeod Ganj, India, bloody Tibetan uprisings probably sound absurd.
The corner cafes are full of longhaired and goateed young Tibetans crooning acoustic covers of Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” to mixed Tibetan, Indian, and Western crowds. The streets are lined with intermittent stalls of knock-off turquoise-and-coral necklaces, prayer beads, and thangka paintings of ornate, blissed out Buddhas. And between the shops, placards and stenciled signs offer reiki healings, therapeutic meditation, and medicinal, traditional Men-Tsee-Khang Tibetan massages.
The town’s economy is almost solely built around pilgrims, tourists, and tourists-cum-pilgrims come to attend a workshop on nonviolent protest, listen to the Dalai Lama hold forth on peace, love, and understanding from his Tsuglugkhang Monastery, or wander about circumambulating golden prayer wheels with airy, evocative, and mysterious Tibetan characters carved into them, contemplating the cessation to worldly concerns and suffering.
Dharamsala is the quintessential image of Tibet, packaged and dispersed to the world.
In so doing, the Dharamsala’s tourist-pilgrim infrastructure riffs off of an old, orientalist trope: The Shangri-La image of Tibet as a secluded, utopian spiritualist kingdom popularized in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon and Frank Capra’s 1937 film of the same name.
Although less patronizing, the same image of pre-1950 Tibet as a paradise helmed by a young, farsighted, and serene Dalai Lama reappears in Martin Scorsese’s 1997 sensory treat, Kundun, and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s concurrent aural nightmare, Seven Years in Tibet.
So core is this image of serenity that in his book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters, Columbia University Professor and former Tibetan Buddhist monk Robert Thurman (who reportedly renounced his vows in 1967 then the same year married a model and thus begat Uma Thurman) claims that the Tibetan leader — and manifestation of the bodhisattva (enlightened being) of compassion, Avalokiteshvara — matters, in part, because he brings positivity and hope to a world in need.
The only reason we have those latter-day movies, though, is the tireless work of the Dalai Lama to export a palatable image of Tibet.
By the 1960s, the memory of the films and literature of the ‘30s had faded. Across Europe and North America, just over a dozens academics studied Tibet — the first scholars had to write their own language textbooks — and almost no one paid them any mind. The first time the Dalai Lama showed up in America, in 1979, he attracted only limited attendees who walked away baffled at his unskilled and impenetrable esoteric religious lectures.
But he learned for this experience and returned in the mid-1980s with a sophisticated media strategy, winning over celebrity supporters like Richard Gere. By 1989, he’s scored the Nobel Peace Prize, skyrocketing his fame and allowing him to do everything from, as Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra notes in his 2008 New Yorker profile of the Dalai Lama, guest-edit French Vogue, appear in an Apple ad, and lecture to the Society for Neuroscience.
“For someone who claims to be ‘a simple Buddhist monk,’” writes Mishra, “[he] has a large carbon footprint and often seems as ubiquitous as Britney Spears.”
Thanks to his omnipresence, he’s been able to personify and proselytize the image of an ultimately peaceful and righteous movement.
“People don’t know a lot” about Tibet, explains Empire State College Professor and Tibetologist A. Tom Grunfeld. “They feel more than they actually know.”
And what they feel is a great affinity with and protectiveness towards the Tibetan cause thanks to this image.
“Tibetans will always benefit from at least a residual sense of Tibet as a kind of haven,” adds Barnett. “As a mystical, even imaginary peaceful culture.”
That aura, as a common saying floating around the internet but lacking clear attribution puts it, makes criticizing Tibet akin to shooting Bambi.
“As Bob Thurman once put it,” says Barnett, “Tibetans are the baby seals of international politics.”
Alongside this digestible spiritual account runs a sympathetic account of conquest and destruction, narrated in grainy, black-and-white photos and simple poster board text snippets in the two-story Tibet Museum, just outside the Tsuglugkhang complex. A spare and straightforward historical exhibition undergirded by looped testimonials of torture, suicide, and grief broadcast from corner TV screens, the curators tell the tale of how in 1950 China bulldozed its way into a peaceful but neglected de facto independent Tibet, ushering in 30 years of brutalization and cultural destruction mowing down (they claim) one million Tibetans and looting almost all of the region’s 6,200 monasteries, nunneries, and temples.
Yet scanning over the text scrolling across the panels, a few words stand out against the quiet dignity of righteous suffering. Terms like Tibetan emperor, national army, and resistance fighter pop up here and there. It’s in these snippets that you get a sense of the more complete and complex human narrative of Tibet hiding under the made-for-TV-movie version. It’s a history not of airy monks existing thousands of feet above and on a plane of existence parallel to the world the rest of us inhabit, but of very human and fallible beings deal with greed, intrigue, and (especially during the initial Chinese occupation) rage, despair, and desperation. It’s a far bloodier picture of Tibetan Buddhists than the Dalai Lama’s lectures ever intimate.
The Dalai Lama’s own brother, the ex-Ngari Rinpoche Lama who renounced his monastic title to go by his given name, Tenzin Choegyal, and join the Indian Army to fight the Chinese, sums up this strand of Tibetan sentiment during a conversation with journalist Tim McGirk:
“My dream was to parachute into my favorite valley in Tibet, pissing on the Chinese soldiers as I drifted down. They had done terrible things to my people, and I was angry.”
This story of historic Tibetan violence is important not for the sake of busting idealistic lamas’ chops, but for the sake of appreciating the unique period of nonviolence in which we live, and the extent of disunity and conflict into which Tibet could someday backslide.
It’s also important as a validation of the emotions and impulses of many Tibetans who feel constrained by the peace-baby stereotype of their culture.
“We don’t want to be told to act timidly and submissively simply because we are ‘refugees’ or Buddhists or Tibetans,” writes Mila, a young activist (who chooses to use only one name, like many Tibetans) and firebrand bent on creating a new, free Tibetan state in the Kangpo region of the southern Tibetan plateau, in a pro-independence (Tibetan: Rangzen) blog. “We are human beings first!”
There’s as much primordial logic in Tibetan rage as there is in Tibetan serenity.
Even before Buddhism entered Tibet, the Tibetans enter history as an expansionist Central Asian empire. Led by Songstesen Gampo, who ascended to the throne in 629 C.E. as the 33rd King of his dynasty according to local legends, the Tibetans spent the early 7th century marauding across China to the east, the Turkic lands to the north and west, and Nepal to the south, then the 9th to 13th centuries in an orgy of bloody and fractured warlordism.
This imperial mode invaded Buddhism when it was introduced in the 7th century:
The Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace was consciously constructed over the palace of Emperor Gampo, with whom his bodhisattva is also associated. One esoteric argument also runs that the entire system of Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation, developed in the 13th century, was the reification of the old, pre-Buddhist imperial conception of military leaders manifesting themselves in future generations as guiding, warmongering ancestor-spirits-incarnate. And back then, lamas did war amongst themselves over lama titles and the riches they entailed.
You can still get a sense of this world in a town like Lhagang (Chinese: Tagong).
On the eastern edge of the Tibetan cultural zone, the village sits 19,000 feet above sea level in a 450 square mile respite of grasslands cut between the climbing mountains. These clumped and dead-brown fields can’t sustain much — just the Khampa Tibetan yak herders who ply their way around the valleys on sturdy little ponies, wearing yak wool, eating yak cheese, burning yak dung.
Save for the spindly power lines running out to them — fixing their places on the map like a delicate finger of surveillance — the nomads’ rickety wood-and-mud-brick houses, patched in places with yet more yak refuse, look absolutely medieval. And the modest estates of the traders and craftspeople in the town at the nexus of the fields aren’t much better: Old West ghost town shanties, complete with dusty and weather-worn men wearing long, tan or black robes and wide-brimmed hats ambling along the streets.
It’s not a picture of wealth — nor of the kind of development the Chinese promised when they invaded.
At the northern edge of town sits the Lhagang Monastery, a complex occupying one-third of the physical expanse of the municipality. Spic, span, and bustling, its rich colors and golden ornaments stand in stark contrast to the rest of the town.
On the mid-month, a holy day, at least a hundred monks in immaculate maroon robes, blowing brassy and booming horns and making a circuit of the ornately decorated prayer wheels lining their complex. They’re all supported by the collective meager donations of the surrounding townsfolk — and they’re not alone.
Two miles southwest of town, a brand new temple complex stands as an unfinished concrete shell, monumental statues and gilt icons in the hills around it, looming above yet another monastery and a shreda, a Buddhist college where yet another hundred young monks sit in orderly clumps slapping and screaming dialectic debates at each other with gusto.
Due south, the hills are dotted with sumptuous and monumental rock paintings of protector deities and enlightened beings.
Reversing the cardinal and climbing the prayer-flag-studded hills to the north of town, one can see, miles out, yet another gilded monastery and far beyond a nunnery of near-equal size.
And all of that’s long before you hit the regional metropolis of Kangding or the larger agricultural hub of Danba either way down the potholed highway plied by tattered hitchhikers.
Even now, in a pale glow of their previous grandeur, the monks of Lhagong prove the wealth that can be squeezed out of stony earth.
They’re far from avaricious. Instead, the modern monks channel their wealth into charity, handing out loads of sweets to make an American child weep on Halloween, blessed and supposedly healthy for the blessing, on the holidays and dolling out hearty bowls of rice and pickled vegetables. They guide and inspire and console.
But though the modern monks are kindly, they prove that both a civilization and an empire can somehow be squeezed out of whatever comes out or off of a yak. And while theirs is a spiritual kingdom, there are rumors here and there of more aspirational monks elsewhere on the plateau — men who leave their monasteries to fallow and parlay their donations into an iPhone 6 or a Lexus or, eying the productive farms of their neighbors, convince their devotees, raised from children in their charitable schools, to take up arms and muscle their way into control of further self-serving prosperity.
Few of these conflicts move very far today, but it’s easy to see how in the past, free of the state control and imbued with great charisma and power, men would have engaged in conspiracies, murders, and subterfuge over these estates violent enough to make George R.R. Martin weep.
The Dalai Lamas especially were mired in this Game of Thrones horse-trading.
The office was born when the Third Dalai Lama, who retroactively anointed two dead men, reportedly claimed power in a violent takeover, seizing monasteries and destroying materials that contested his supremacy.
The Fifth Dalai Lama, with the backing of the Oirat Mongols, notoriously went beyond internal competition for titles. He levied armies to fight the secular Ü-Tsang princes, then the rulers of central Tibet, and the Jonang and Kagyu, schools of Tibetan Buddhism opposed to his own Gelug tradition. He almost wholly eradicating the Jonang and usurped the political power and holdings of the Kagyu, thus establishing the subsequent traditional sphere of influence and rule of the Dalai Lamas by the spear rather than the spirit.
Moving beyond the Tibetan region, the Fifth Dalai Lama went on to lead invasions against Bhutan, Kashmir, and Ladakh, and to assist the Chinese emperor in suppressing revolts in Yunnan.
The first two Jesuit priests to visit the region in 1661, on their way from Beijing to Goa, referred to him as “a devilish god-the-father who puts to death such as refuse to adore him”.
A subsequent Dalai Lama would, in 1745, oversee the expulsion of the fledgling Jesuit order in the name of religious integrity.
Following two centuries of weak, simpering, and (once) drunk and womanizing Dalai Lamas, the Thirteenth incarnation, Thubten Gyatso, continued his predecessors’ bloody legacy, supporting a purge of Christians in the Kham region of eastern Tibet around 1904.
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, had a sinister look to him. Reproduction.
Bald, sharp-featured, with arched eyebrows and a waxed and pointed moustache, he even looks the part of the megalomaniacal villain — almost like a cross between Iron Man’s The Mandarin and Superman’s Lex Luthor. He made a great villain for Chinese accounts. But at least his conflicts were altruistic.
After fleeing British and Qing invasions in 1904 and 1909, Gyatso returned to Tibet in 1913 determined to declare independence, forcibly unite the region, and build it into a modern state. His attempt to tax monastic institutions to fund a mobbish police and military led him into conflict with the Ninth Panchen Lama in 1923, who defected to the Kuomintang and later the Communists, agitating for and supporting invasions by both forces.
But it was all an uphill battle against reactionary and greedy interests — upon his death in 1933, conservatives took advantage of the power vacuum to punish his reformist ally, Lungshar, by pressing yak knucklebones into his temples until his eyes popped out of their sockets, blinding him.
Violence — between competing monks, reformists and conservatives, and expansionist powers and the fledgling military of Tibet — continued into the age of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who entered monastic training at two years old in 1937.
The Tibetan army — really a collection of scantily trained Khampa with guns — clashed with the Kuomintang in the early ‘40s, then mustered 5,000 strong at the strategic pass of Chamdo, the main road from China into the TAR, in a standoff against Mao Zedong in 1950. The communist leader crushed them out of hand and marched on the paltry guard around Lhasa and the Potala unopposed.
Yet for decades after that trouncing, the peoples of the countryside — monk and lay alike — continued to draw blood bit-by-bit from their invaders.
Then the violence ceased, suddenly and almost completely, after almost a quarter century with a declaration from the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in 1974.
The roots of this sudden shift lie in the transformation of the Dalai Lama from the young leader of a corner of a divided land into the guiding light of a unified community.
When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was enthroned in 1950, nothing about Tibet hinted that this Dalai Lama would have such universal authority and popularity that a word from him could end an era of violence and usher in an age of peace.
Back then, his rule extended over the central lands of Ü-Tsang (the modern TAR) but petered out around the lands of the linguistically and culturally distinct peoples of Amdo and Kham in the east. Then there’s the fact that these Tibetans were not uniformly Buddhist — up to a tenth were similar but pre-Buddhist and spiritualist Bön practitioners and the countryside was dotted with communities of Catholics and Muslims.
But in 1959, all of these diverse peoples wound up in exile together.
That year, uprisings fanning radially out of Kham since 1950 finally reached Lhasa, the heart of Ü-Tsang, where rumors flew about plans to assassinate the Dalai Lama.
Until then a collaborator with the CCP, he’d grown distant. So when, for whatever reason, Chinese forces confronting protesters in Lhasa fired two artillery shells at the Dalai Lama’s palace and he fled to India, it was the excuse needed to spark the powder keg of trans-Tibetan violent uprisings.
The six years of crackdowns that followed, laying the grounds for the 1965 establishment of the TAR, sent 80,000 diverse Tibetans into exile in 1959 alone. Their numbers are now at least 150,000, according to the CTA, with 100,000 in 43 settlements in India and Nepal and 50,000 split across 42 more nations.
In 1960, the Dalai Lama called together the motley refugees at Bodh Gaya, a rural idyll in the Indian state of Bihar where the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama legendarily sat under a Bodhi tree, worn down by suffering and searching, so thin you could feel his spine through his stomach, and in a moment of release and insight attained enlightenment. There the Dalai Lama promulgated the Oath of Allegiance, a pledge by all those gathered to recognize that internal conflicts had made them weak in the past and to, in the future, eschew regionalism, sectarianism, and other bigotries to unite under his modernizing leadership.
It’s not immediately obvious why anyone bought into this scheme.
Born Lhamo Dondrub and renamed Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (often shortened to Tenzin Gyatso) upon his selection as the Dalai Lama, the high monk was originally the son of a small town farmer and horse trader, in the Amdo region of Tibet. By that time, Amdo was so assimilated into China that the Dalai Lama grew up speaking the Xining dialect of Mandarin, not Tibetan. And his ascent to the throne of the Dalai Lama, just before the Chinese invasion of 1950, gave him little more than leadership over the Gelug school (one of then-four: Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya) of Tibetan Buddhism and the government of Ü-Tsang.
He wasn’t even a truly high lama until 1959, just before going to exile, when he finally attained his Geshe, the Tibetan equivalent of a Theological doctorate.
Given that only two Dalai Lamas — the fifth and thirteenth — had ever even managed to leverage and unify that power, there was a good chance this youth would turn out a dud like eleven of his predecessors.
Yet, explains Geshe Lhakdor, the Dalai Lama’s former translator and robed-and-shaved monk-director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala for the past twelve years, the Communists’ repudiation of the Dalai Lama turned him into something of a living martyr for the exiles to trust and Tibetans to desire.
“Even the elderly, grown-up people are like small children,” explains Lhakdor, leaning back into the leather chair of his office with the smug look of a man who’s just come up with what he thinks is an inspired metaphor. You take something away from them and they desire it. “So we have something like that kind of tendency” towards the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama did not waste this goodwill.
Recognizing the struggles of his people to adapt to the climate and disease of India and carve out lives for themselves in a new world, the Dalai Lama scrambled to build them a safety net and a cohesive society.
“Wherever we have settlements, whether small or big, we have monastic institutions and we have schools and hospitals,” says Kalon (Minister) of the Central Tibetan Government’s Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs Pema Chhinjor, thanks to the initiative of the Dalai Lama.
Now a rotund and comfortable man with a constant dusting of crumbs on his gut and a window looking out over the hills and valleys beyond Dharamsala, Chhinjor’s one of those rare officials old enough to remember the era of deprivation. And he’s respected for it, sometimes seen as the number-two in the CTA, yet delightfully candid for someone of his stature and position.
“We send doctors, we pay them, we provide teachers … If there are 100 Tibetans [anywhere], they will have an association” for mutual support and guidance.
Aside from floating the Tibetans-in-exile through a rough transition, these institutions constructed a unifying culture.
Even Chhinjor’s post, which oversees 265 monasteries in South Asia, is all about forcing diverse interests into a room together and getting them to agree on some core identity and unity. Every two years he brings together representatives of the now five schools (after the 20th century reemergence of the Jonang, thought to be destroyed by the Fifth Dalai Lama) of Tibetan Buddhism and the Bön faith to set common goals and agendas.
Fifteen years into his exile, Dalai Lama may have felt that he had built enough unity for his people and goodwill for his office that he could take on the endemic violence in Tibet.
By 1956, piecemeal uprisings in the historically warlike eastern plateau had coalesced into the Chushi Gangdruk, a guerilla movement in Kham and Amdo harrying the Chinese at every turn. Just before the flight of the Dalai Lama, these mountain warriors had secured the support of the American Central Intelligence Agency.
These fighters were so gung-ho that one CIA trainee and later the last commander standing, Gyato Wangdo, reportedly asked his US contacts if they’d be able to give him one of those awesome nuclear bombs he’d heard so much about — then he could do some real damage.
Even after the CIA money dried up in 1965 and the massed camps in China were identified and slaughtered, the insurgency continued from the Mustang region of Nepal until 1974 when a taped message from the Dalai Lama arrived asking them to lay down their weapons.
“So when we heard his message,” a fighter in Mustang named Ugyen Tashi later told Joe Bageant of Military History, “I swear, some of the men even cried. Everyone heard the message with their own ears [though], so we had no choice but to give up. Then we turned in our weapons.”
A couple of bombs went off outside government offices in Lhasa during the ‘80s, but no one was harmed and with that the last sputtering of violence guttered out.
In 1974, the Dalai Lama started internal discussions on a tactic to replace violent uprisings, although the world wouldn’t learn about it until 1987 when he outlined his new strategy in an address to the US Congress on his first major whirlwind international support-building tour.
Then known as the Strasbourg Proposal, the plan was later renamed the Middle Way (Tibetan: Umay Lam). It abandoned the bloody and at-all-costs struggle for independence in favor of nonviolent protests agitating softly for a negotiated and real autonomy under Chinese rule, the respect of Tibetan culture and religion, the creation of a peaceful zone on the plateau free of the nuclear missiles and military brigades the Chinese had historically placed there, and the negotiation of all development in the region with the local Tibetan authorities to ensure that growth benefitted the people and did not degrade the fragile steppe environment.
This peace-mongering reached its apex just as the Dalai Lama achieved his international fame in the late ‘80s. So for much of the world, despite the existence of support communities for ex-guerillas like the Dokham Chushi Gangdruk in New York, the uprisings never happened.
Even Lobsang Tseten, the Asia Regional Coordinator of the International Tibet Network, admits he didn’t know that part of his people’s history until he stumbled across it in a book recently — although now it makes him proud to know they resisted China so long and valiantly. Born a refugee in Nepal and introduced to the Tibet movement through freeze mobs organized by Students for a Free Tibet while at college in Bangalore, India, he grew up inured in nonviolence and Umay Lam.
The construction of this national ethos and unity has created what President of the International Campaign for Tibet advocacy network Matteo Mecacci calls, “one of the most united [refugee populations] I’ve ever seen.”
It’s also opened a window of peace and unity that allows the population, despite their dispersion and generations of temporal dislocation, to act and marshal unmitigated support in unison. And it’s taken as much stress as possible off of potential negotiations with China.
From the sectarianism of the 1930s and the violence of the 1960s to now, that’s one of the world’s most rapid and complete paradigm shifts. But it’s not an eternal given, and as China hammers away at the Dalai Lamas, present and future, it threatens to give way to the frozen forces of the past.
He did it because he believed (and possibly still believes) that some in Beijing with real power are willing to entertain honest negotiations. After all, to this day the Dalai Lama considers himself more of a Marxist than the current Chinese leadership, and even in the worst of the violence of the 1960s the Chinese officially left a seat for him on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
He and Mao believed in the 1950s that they could work together — no matter what quotes you hear about the Chairman blithely slandering the Dalai Lama by telling him religion is poison.
At the Yongling School on the southern slopes of Dharamsala you can see that in action. Children of all different backgrounds, who just sixty years ago would have spoken rough and barely mutually intelligible dialects, run about in identical uniforms, then muster on the rooftop playground to sing standardized fables in a standardized tongue. They dance standardized dances and learn a standardized curriculum of history and culture. They do everything that you do to build a cohesive identity and hammer it into a child’s mind before he or she is too old to get stuck in a separate and isolated mental world.
To this day, says Grunfeld, who watches the Chinese media like a hawk, the occasional article goes up in China hinting at talks and a possible return and making a favorable impression of the supposed state enemy number one, before disappearing days later.
“Now it’s sort of heretical to say, well, there might be positive forces inside of China that we can engage with,” says Barnett.
But in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s especially, a reforming China, egg-faced and eating its share of crow for the failures of the Maoist years, was making an honest and clear bid at reform and reconciliation in Tibet. Fueled in part by a fact-finding mission by Hu Yaobang in 1980, a year before he became Party Chairman and two years before he became General Secretary (a position he held until 1987), the Communists acknowledged that they’d slandered Tibetan culture without bringing development.
The spearhead of reform from 1978 to 1992, CCP strongman Deng Xiaoping, was reportedly especially culturally sensitive, helping to repatriate countless artifacts to the plateau and repair monasteries throughout the 1980s. Together Xiaoping and Yaobang opened the TAR to travel and reportage, allowed the return of exiled lamas to rebuild their monasteries and lead charitable efforts in their communities, and towards the end of Xiaoping’s rule they even allowed the high Kagyu spiritual head, the Karmapa Lama, to reincarnate under the auspices of international monks and with their blessing.
“We think [the Dalai Lama] was advised … by a very famous Tibetan communist who had quite a high place in Beijing,” says Barnett, “who strong advised [him] to take this [Umay Lam] approach on the basis of Marxist principles. As this famous Tibetan intellectual pointed out — and as he was to spend 18 years in jail for having pointed out at the wrong time in the late ‘50s — international versions of communism are quite comfortable with self-determination and with nations discovering their own forms of communism. And there are many examples of this in early communism, particularly Leninism. There was an argument that could be made about this in the halls of Beijing. And the perception was that this still had resonance in the early 1980s.
Then the Dalai Lama made a few serious miscalculations that managed to discredit and oust his opportune partners in Beijing.
In 1989, the Tenth Panchen Lama, who’d stayed behind thirty years earlier to try to work with the Chinese and undergone a roller-coaster of arrests, reprieves, and re-elevations, finally passed away in Tibet.
“The Dalai Lama was invited to China by the Buddhist Association to attend funeral rights,” says Grunfeld. “They were only given a few weeks … and there were also hints that they’d be able to talk to Deng Xiaoping.”
But return might be seen as acknowledging the status quo, throwing his people under the bus.
“He decided not to go,” concludes Grunfeld. “And that was a huge mistake. And he’s admitted that was a huge mistake. The more hardline people were able to say: See? He didn’t come. He’s not interested. He’s still working with the CIA [who also for a time supported the Dalai Lama as well as the Chushi Gangdruk].”
Still, China allowed the Panchen Lama’s disciples to communicate with the Dalai Lama five years later, in 1994, to agree together and with the Chinese state on a reincarnation. Some speculate that the Communists pragmatically intended to have the Tibetans follow their procedure as a show of sovereignty, but to allow them under that artifice to carry out their own affairs as they wished.
However before conferring with the Chinese the Dalai Lama unilaterally declared his own candidate the reincarnation leading to the child’s abduction and the arrest of the Panchen Lama’s disciples.
There were elements of the Tibetan demands — the creation of a new autonomous region encompassing all 6 million Tibetans across the whole plateau, eating up the edges of the Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces rather than just negotiating over the 3 million Tibetans in the TAR; ceding rights to military deployment in the strategic region; and abandoning direct control over the economic development of a region multiple times the size of Hong Kong or Taiwan — that were never going to fly. But those points could have been negotiated.
Now the Chinese just reject the Umay Lam proposal out of hand, opting to wait until the Dalai Lama dies and deal with whatever may come rather than negotiate. Drumming up declarations from the 1960s by the Dalai Lama and modern quotes from his supporters calling for total independence, they call the proposal disguised and deceitful separatism, accuse the Dalai Lama of masterminding unrest like the 1960s guerilla movement or the 2008 riots, and publicly declare him, according to a 2008 report to US Congress on Tibetan affairs, “a jackal and wolf clothed in [a monk’s robes], and a vicious devil who is a beast in human form.”
For a time, it seemed as if China had a viable alternative to negotiations with the Dalai Lama to diffuse the potential for future violence, convince Tibetans to buy into Chinese citizenship, and resolve the Tibet issue once and for all: cash — a metric shit ton of cash.
“More money goes into Tibet,” according to Grufeld, “than into any other national minority.”
In 2009 alone, the Chinese poured $3 billion into Tibetan development — almost as much in one year as was invested ($4.2 billion) between 1952 and 1994. These grants, up to 90 percent of local government revenues, have funded highways and rail lines linking Tibet to the rest of China, state of the art classrooms and free education, and even cultural studies programs, despite accusations of cultural genocide.
And it’s visible on the streets of a city like Darzêdo (Chinese: Kangding).
Half Han and half Tibetan, the town sits at the edge of the Tibetan plateau in Sichuan, the historic junction between the two cultures and the chokepoint of a major tea trade route into the Khampa and onto the Ü-Tsang regions of Tibet.
A long city split in two by a narrow yet deafening river and hemmed in by steep peaks to either side, the town has grown starkly upwards in the past couple of decades. Spotless high-rises and neon lights, murals and statues of all the region’s ethnicities happily skipping about together, and shops selling monks’ robes as tourist knickknacks swallow up the streets and announce this as a trendy staging point for Han backpackers on their way to a commercial-spiritual journey of discovery at altitude. Hostels and coffee shops boast artificially rusticated wooden tables and imported Italian coffee (and carrot cake — no middle class Tibetan establishment seems to feel complete without carrot cake on the menu) at one end and handcrafted, over-priced, quasi-traditional jewelry at the other end of the counter.
Below the bustle and shine, though, haggard and stooped older Tibetans shuffle through street stalls of proffering momo dumplings and nearly obscenely tumescent purple tubers. Monks in dirty orange robes with scarves tied around their faces and visors on their heads (fewer in numbers than in 1950 but tolerated by the state if they live with its regulations) drift along in the bitter cold like spirits, foils to the jackets and jeans and rouge of the youth. One thumbs a new iPhone bought at a glassy boutique, the other fingers mala beads procured from the local temple, a squat and inconspicuous square dwarfed by a bank to one side and a supermarket to the other near the center of town.
The wealth fueling this rapid transformation has drastically improved the quality of life. Reliable heat, widespread internet connectivity, and consistent power arrive as readily as they do in the seven-hours-distant metropolis of Chengdu.
But the town just looks too much like aggressive capitalism vomited all over the Wild West. It’s like Star Wars’ Mos Eisley with a paint job.
Like all of China’s development in the region, it’s beneficial on paper and appreciable on a cold night, but it’s jarring and almost offensively tone deaf.
Some Tibetans look at Darzêdo and see the encroachment of Han reaping benefits from environmentally destructive developments, breeding them into a minority in their own homeland, flouting state laws (Chinese Constitution, Article 4, and the 1984 Minority Nationality Act, Article 37, guaranteeing the use and safety of a minority’s language) to push Mandarin, and benefiting disproportionately from the Disneyfication of their holy sites.
Inside the temples of Darzêdo and beyond, Han tourists talk on phones in prayer halls, pull monks out of meditation for pictures, and walk against the flow of pilgrims in a manner that feels more culturally degrading than economically developmental.
On the edge of Darzêdo lies one such anesthetized and whitewashed religious attraction: Paoma Mountain.
The site of a classic Chinese love song about fairies and love and sprites and all manner of saccharine fantasy it’s hard to pay attention to for too long, cable cars carry a steady procession of tourists up the mountain to an amphitheater and garden built in the late-2000s to honor the music. It’s a place for picnics, pony rides, and performances by whitewashed cultural song and dance troupes.
But above the amphitheater, at the end of a winding stairway of hewn stones climbing up about a thousand feet and lined with little mounds of prayer stones and clusters of multicolored flags strung through the trees, there’s a temple at the crest of the mountain, with views commanding the valley stretching back towards the fertile plains of Sichuan.
It’s a gorgeous location, and a chipped and worn structure seemingly ignored by the polished and gilded tourism developers downstairs at the amphitheater. But within the temple only one or two monks mill about — and they’re outnumbered by the Han picking over a souvenir stall positioned in the vestibule before the prayer hall, overseen by one of the party officials installed in every temple these days to oversee the activities and finances of the monks.
These “work crews” are part of a parallel trend that undercuts China’s hearts-and-minds-through-wealth strategy.
Starting in the early-1990s, after Tibetans began to flout regulations and stage mass protests from 1987 to 1989, leading to the purge of Yaobang, end of experimentation with personal freedoms, and institution of martial law, the state initiated policies banning mention of the Dalai Lama, instituting patriotic education campaigns, and expanding the security apparatus of the state.
At first isolated to experimental crackdowns in the TAR, the policies spread to the more relaxed regions of Amdo and Kham in 2007, sparking the now notorious pan-Tibetan protests of 2008 — a clear signal that no matter how much money came in, the locals felt it wasn’t enough to buy their acquiescence to a control-oriented regime.
Yet after the protests died down, the Chinese continued the slow ratcheting down of religious and personal freedoms.
Barnett believes that Beijing is “probably being lied to … as the [Qing in Tibet used to] say, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away … or they just don’t think through the consequences of some probably regrettable decisions.”
But it’s just as likely that the Chinese believe their own propaganda: That if they just keep pumping in material goods people will grow used to the state’s religious control, forget past slights, and buy into the Chinese project.
Negotiating With Yourself.
Determined not to allow the development of local, non-party leadership, the Chinese apparently still believe they need a popular partner to negotiate with to quell Tibet, discouraging fracture and violence, especially after the Dalai Lama dies and the leadership of the Tibetan people comes into question.
“There’s certainly intense focus on who will be the next leader,” says Barnett. “I believe they think they can’t rule Tibet without a charismatically magical figure who will do it on their behalf. Which is funny for a Marxist, but that seems to be their view. They don’t discuss it. They just seem to think there has to be a lama. … The party leader obsession with finding little children and state-managing them to become religious leaders is actually a form of unconscious magic.”
“I don’t know why they do it,” Barnett continues, gently raising his hands in confusion bordering b on defeat. “Because it consistently has always failed. If they looked at the history, they’d say, oh my god, all these people have turned out to be very loyally Tibetan! No matter how much they said they loved the Communist Party when they were young, they end up saying we can’t tolerate your policies towards religion and they defect or criticize us! And yet they continue doing it, which is fascinating.”
That trend goes all the way back to the Tenth Panchen Lama, who chose to stay behind to work with the Communists in 1959. But just three years later, in 1962, appalled at the decline of religious and cultural freedom in Tibet he released a massive petition for reform to the Party. Mao stripped the Lama of his post and had him imprisoned in 1962. He only attained release in the Xiaoping era, around 1977, and was returned to power after marrying a Han woman in 1982. Yet soon after denouncing Chinese crackdowns in the late-1980s era of riots, he died suddenly, leading to allegations of poisoning.
They tried again, this time from scratch with their state-endorsed Karmapa Lama, born in 1985 in Tibet and blessed by the Dalai Lama as well as the Chinese state, enthroned in 1992, and often paraded around with Communist officials who he publicly praised. Then in 1999, at age 14, he jumped out of his window onto a waiting horse and fled the nation to spend the next fifteen years as a semi-professional thorn in the Party’s side.
The only major, loyal lama the party has on staff is their chosen Eleventh Panchen Lama who according to reports by Tibetan groups and Western scholars alike is so reviled in Tibet that he has to live in Beijing and travel in Tibet with armed guards.
With this experience in mind, says Shakya, “they have the power to appoint their own Dalai Lama, but that figure will not have authority in the eyes of the public.”
They still will appoint a Dalai Lama, though, even if a separate reincarnation is located in Tibet because, continues Shakya, “what is most important from the Chinese point of view is to assert government authority.”
“Presumably they know that the risk is that every town will be burnt to the ground and a lot of slaughter will take place,” says Barnett. “That’s the ultimate risk. … They say they can handle this. And they can, but at a cost. … They’ve already initiated a new policy of having permanent or long-term rotations of troops on the plateau so they’re already altitude-adjusted.”
And when the smoke clears, the Chinese will have a handful of unpopular lamas to bless their own dealings.
These lamas can be asserted over the monasteries in Tibet by force or subtle, cajoling bribery and acclimation. And maybe they’ll get lucky, stumble upon a loyal and charismatic monk.
Or maybe they won’t, but at the very least they’ll feel self-legitimated, confident in their control, and empowered to ignore any outside reincarnations, sapping the Dalai Lama’s potential Fifteenth reincarnation of relevance and slowly wearing down the resolve of the Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet.
Back in Dharamsala, Tibetans grow frustrated with the Dalai Lama’s continued insistence on civility, pacifism, and (perceived) passivity, given the dismissive aggression they see in China.
Even Tenzin Phuntsok, the International Secretary for the National Democratic Party of Tibet, the exile community’s sole functional political party, has had his fill of the Umay Lam and will say so candidly.
A 29-year-old who looks closer to 40 thanks in part to his wrinkled eyes, shellacked hair, and the woolly sweater vest he wears around the office, offset by a little pin of the party symbol — a cheery, little yak — Phuntsok is smooth, self-assured, and always brimming with eagerness and cheer.
So even when he’s ripping on the official platform of the CTA, in which many of his party’s affiliates and candidates serve, he says it with a smile, as if it’s all a self-evident, cosmic joke.
“If we fight for cultural and religious rights,” like the Umay Lam advocates, says Phuntsok, “then we already get lots of rights [here] in India … the Middle path is already here!”
Meaning, what’s the use in kowtowing to the Chinese, who will not even give us what we already possess?
Even sitting members of the CTA, like Member of Parliament Karma Chophel and Deputy Speaker Dolma Gyari, have publicly questioned the legitimacy and merits of the Umay Lam approach and proposed full independence instead.
Murals have gone up with flags of a fully independent Tibet and pictures of screaming, angry Tibetans. Students stand on the streets yelling about and handing out flyers for pro-independence, Rangzen rallies. Organizations like the Tibet National Congress, Rangzen Party, and Rangzen Alliance now meet regularly in public forums and conventions — even in the Library of Tibetan Archives and Works in the pro-Umay Lam CTA complex, halfway down the hill between McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala-proper.
They’re savvy operators, and they’re winning the future.
“If you look at the younger generations,” says Phuntsok, “mostly they are for independence.”
For now these groups continue to respect the persistence of Umay Lam and follow the Dalai Lama’s path of nonviolence.
But organizations like Students for a Free Tibet are already breaking the Dalai Lama’s golden rule of mutual benefit — that any solution should not hurt China’s interests, instead furthering both Tibetan and Chinese agendas.
“Our long-term goal is to make the Chinese occupation of Tibet too costly to maintain,” says Jyotsen Sara George, the ethnic Indian campaign director of the Dharamsala branch of the Rangzen-supporting solidarity and direct action movement Students for a Free Tibet, a mousy, soft-spoken girl who’s oddly candid and pragmatic despite her idealism. “To make sure Tibet becomes a thorn in their [international] visits.”
Meanwhile, Tibetans inside of Tibet are growing isolated from the larger movement, bit by bit.
“The border area is very, very restricted now,” says Chhinjor. “If you go to the [refugee] reception center [in Dharamsala], 800, 900 people were always there. Now if you go it is totally empty … especially [since] 2008, 2009.”
Even without the ability to travel between India and Tibet readily, information still gets through, but only the direst accounts.
“A few scrambled messages here and there and some protests, often inchoate,” says Barnett of what does slip across the border. “And everybody then in exile fights over what those mean and which messages were actually sent.”
Alone and cracking under ratcheting pressure, these Tibetans have turned to new, more desperate protests like self-immolations.
Over 130 individuals since 2009, that we know of, have taken bottles of kerosene, gulped them down or doused themselves in the gas, or both, and then calmly, deliberately, set a match to their flesh, either sitting placidly as they burn or running through the streets to force their charred image on more than just the perverse or horrified rubbernecking bystanders.
The immolations are spreading through the countryside and across different sectors of society. They are unmoved by the prospect of autonomy and uneager to continue bearing indignities with grace and serenity.
And if the Dalai Lama dies abroad, without ever returning home or making progress in negotiations, only to have his reincarnation contested by a Chinese-appointed replacement, they could pop, sublimating that rage and determination into a externally-directed expression of resistance.
“The exile community we are not worried about,” says Chhinjor. “But we are worried about Tibet.”
The Dalai Lama himself remains neutral on the frustrations of the Rangzen camp and the new protest tactics in Tibet. He has stated his discomfort with self-immolations on numerous occasions, fearing that the rage behind them could easily tip towards out-and-out violence. He remains publicly steadfast in his belief in Umay Lam, confident in his ability to broker genuine autonomy, lift the pressures on Tibetans, validate the struggle of the exiles, and do all of this before he passes away.
But these murmurings and aspersions are signs of a priming for fracture, a restlessness for action, and an urge to leave the Dalai Lama’s brief spiritual era.
“It’s beginning to teeter back towards conflict,” says Barnett. “It shows signs of that. And the Dalai Lama is going to die. That would certainly put us back in the unknown again.”
“This has always been problematic in Tibetan history,” adds Shakya. “Because his influence has been so immense, no other leader can emerge during [the Dalai Lama’s] maturity. … Tibetans are not prepared for alternative leadership.”
And if that is true, then the Dalai Lama ought to be worried, because the space he’s made for dialogue will dissipate as these bubbling discontents boil over in his absence.
Vote Of Confidence.
Part of the Dalai Lama’s resistance to making a big deal out of his reincarnation most likely stems from his recognition of the fragility and risks involved with vesting the future of entire nations in fallible men — especially unbaked children.
Notoriously self-critical, in his 2010 manuscript Ancient Wisdom; Modern World, His Holiness admits of himself:
“Despite my habitual serenity today, I used to be somewhat hot-tempered and prone to fits of impatience and sometimes anger. Even today, there are, of course, times when I lose my composure.”
Personal shortcomings aside, he also recognizes that as a human, whether there’s a divine spark inside of him or not, he has made some terrible mistakes, like supporting the quasi-Buddhist cult Aum Shinrikyo in Japan before they launched a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
“He has been [saying] for a long time that everything should not depend on one person,” says Chhinjor. “And he is [saying] right now, do as if there was no Dalai Lama at all.”
Almost from day one in exile, the Dalai Lama planned to create a democratically elected government to escape the Tibet’s legacy of political instability and power imbalances.
Founded 2 September 1960, the Government-in-Exile (now the CTA) sought to construct a parliament based on quotas of representation. The same number of seats was allocated to those born in (or descended from those born in) each region, and to members of each school of Buddhism and Bön, to avoid undue power by the Dalai Lama’s Ü-Tsang home region or Gelugpa sect, the largest blocs in Tibet and in exile.
But straight through the end of the 20th century, the Dalai Lama remained the head of state with the executive power to assign ministers, manage the cabinet, and control the Sikyong (Prime Minister).
Then in 2001 the Dalai Lama started referring to the Sikyong as his boss and eschewing his powers of appointment. Over the next years, he distanced himself from politics, making fewer trips down the hill from Tsuglugkhang to the government compound.
In 2011 he proposed a few amendments to the CTA’s charter, including one completely writing him out of the political process, refusing to even take on a titular role like a constitutional monarch.
“I really prefer some freedom,” he said at the time. “Maybe, just maybe, I would like to become a real spiritual teacher, a working lame!” rather than a political leader.
It was a flippant and quiet exit, in keeping with the humor and softness of the Dalai Lama’s public persona. But the move utterly transformed half a millennium of political history.
“He formally eliminated the role of the Dalai Lamas forever in [politics],” says Barnett. “He made it a secular system, which is a bigger deal than people seem to realize.”
That year, after the Dalai Lama’s departure, a free election was held for the first fully independent Sikyong. Lobsang Sangay, a Harvard-educated legal scholar born in exile swept the polls and later that year took power from the outgoing monk-minister, Samdhong Rinpoche.
A craggy faced man of solid build, it’s easy to see how Sangay could carry an election. He looks great in a suit, carries himself with a perpetual air of deep introspection, and seems in every photo ever taken to be on the verge of making some monumental sermon on a mount. In short, he’s the kind of suave man who looks like he belongs in a whiskey commercial, but has yet to prove his competence or relevance behind a government desk.
The Dalai Lama and almost every spokesperson for the CTA has high hopes that the process of electing a leader will rally the people around a process and an institution rather than a charismatic individual.
“By talking about responsibilities” and the electoral process, says Phuntsok, “that will unify them.”
And they say there’s ample evidence that Tibetans in exile and in Tibet have bought into the concept of the Sikyong as an invigorating source of leadership.
“It used to be mostly old people [involved with the government]”, says Phuntsok. “Now, if you go to [the] CTA, you will see many people my age … me and my president are almost the same age.”
“The message has gone to Tibet,” adds Chhinjor. “The Sikyong’s photo is also there in Tibet,” circulating alongside clandestine snapshots of the Dalai Lama, given out as prizes in raffles and mentioned in songs like Gho Ghannga’s from Shakchu. “This Sikyong has a dynamic personality and he has a very good [education]. He is a Harvard University graduate. This means something all over the world, you know?”
When Narendra Modi invited Sangay to his swearing-in as the Indian Prime Minister this year, where he sat cool as a cucumber and stylish as ever alongside other major South Asian leaders, it led many to hope that the international community was buying into the office of the Sikyong as well. Rather than contest theology with Chinese bureaucrats, the Tibetan community could rest easy knowing that an eternal, secular, and legitimate office of leadership existed to tie Tibet together, perpetuate nonviolence, and move dialogue with China forward.
That’s mostly bluster, though.
Sangay, whose family is based in Boston, has received no official international recognition and has little previous leadership experience. Beyond his smooth demeanor, his rhetoric rings hollow.
He’s sugar on its own — a quick rush of pleasure and a promise of something sweeter and more substantial, but fleeting and swiftly irritating when taken on his own in large doses.
“He’s not terribly popular,” says Grunfeld, pointing out the difference between successful electioneering and genuine charisma. “He won. He’s democratically elected. But he has a lot of critics and I’m not sure that he has the ability to pull the community together.”
Ideologically, the Dalai Lama’s desire to put his faith and the leadership of the community in a democratically elected body makes sense. If robust, it’s less fragile and fungible than one man. It gives everyone a stake and a foothold in a common process — a secular ritual of union and affirmation. It plays by the international rules of legitimacy.
But in practical terms it’s just as likely to be bought as anything else. It’s more likely to produce a stuffed shirt.
Right now the CTA is a fawn stumbling about on wobbly legs, propped up by the Dalai Lama’s support and legacy. But when put under true duress and introduced to internal conflicts, it’s just as likely that the democratic structure could become an aid to forces of fission and faction as it is that it helps to hold the community together.
The Dalai Lama’s political power extends back five centuries. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is the longest-serving Dalai Lama. His acolytes refer to him as Kyabgon (savior) or Kundun (the presence). And, according to Mecacci, polling reveals that he has an approval rating over 90 percent in much of Western Europe.
That bespeaks a level of support and inherent power that almost no other leader can rival.
“Even an elected leader won’t have that stature with the public,” says Shakya. “And that will be hard to create”.
Despite stepping away from his leadership role officially, his subjects refuse to let him go.
“My generation, both inside Tibet and outside Tibet,” says Chhinjor, “they still believe he’s everything. Politically and spiritually, he’s still our supreme leader … he is the symbol of the unity [of Tibet].”
He is needed.
That power helps to prop up the CTA now.
“Whatever the Dalai Lama stands for, there tends to be genuine support for [that],” says Shakya.
Phuntsok adds that he believes that if the government ever holds elections for a president — a position that exists in its charter, but has never been implemented — “I think His Holiness will always be given that post. Even if he is opposed, he will always be given it.”
Whether he likes it or not, the Tibetan community believes that, while it’s nice to have a strong, democratic institution, right now it still needs a Dalai Lama.
Both as someone who has leverage with the Chinese and someone with the legitimacy to foster unity and guide a united movement, there’s no one in a position to take over his role.
So somehow the Dalai Lama will have to fulfill the obligation of his office — serving his community when needed — by attempting to transfer his bonding legitimacy on to the next generation when he dies.
When he turns 90, the Dalai Lama may leave a detailed procedure, delimiting the areas in which he reincarnates and the processes to be used to locate and educate his future self.
But that will do nothing to stop the fallout of the Chinese choosing to appoint their own legitimate Dalai Lama in place of one chosen by the exile community.
The Chinese will not be able to stop images of a new exile Dalai Lama from making it across the border.
And Lhakdor insists that, “if you are somebody who’s educated and who can use commonsense and not be easily led [astray] by people who say I’m a reincarnation, I’m a supreme being,” then no one will be fooled by or buy into the Chinese Dalai Lama.
But even if they can’t convince the Tibetan community to fully abandon an exile reincarnation in favor of the state-sponsored option, they can raise unholy hell, declaring the exile illegal, sweet talking smaller nations into recognizing their candidate but not the exile community’s, and persecuting an exile Dalai Lama’s followers inside Tibet with great venom.
There is another option for the Dalai Lama’s consciousness, though. It’s an obscure religious doctrine known as emanation, which can be a trip to get your head around, but Lhakdor does his best to explain:
Consciousness is not like an immutable and unified “soul.” It’s a diffuse and conceptual thing — it’s elusive and you can stretch and pull it just about any which way you like, if you have control over it.
It’s like a stream of water. It can be diverted, change its shape, froth or lay placid, but it is still a stream.
It’s the same stuff adapted to different ends.
So, he says, “when you reach such a high realization [as an enlightened being], then you can manifest yourself not just into human beings, but also in the form of a bridge, in the form of food, depending on how best to serve others.”
It’s also possible — and hang with it here — to transfer one’s essence, consciousness, authority, and holiness to another living individual.
Usually it’s a child born before the death of the high lama concerned, explaining temporal discrepancies in the search for a reincarnation. But it can also be an adult. Or multiple adults.
The Dalai Lama has publicly upheld and floated the notion of emanation. Meaning that he’s given himself full license to transfer his holiness and confer his legitimacy, theoretically, upon an established Tibetan leader, sidestepping the questionable future charisma of a child (not to mention the 20 years of spiritual training he would have to endure to have any real legitimacy in Tibetan eyes and the lifetime it’d take for the international community to treat this new, independent human being with the same respect as his predecessor) and using his aura to enhance and elevate someone already walking about with his own popularity and power.
Or he can grant a bit of his aura to every single Tibetan with the spark of leadership in him if he likes.
A gambling man’s best bet right now is that, if the Dalai Lama emanates, he’ll pass on his authority and as much of his power as he can to the Seventeenth Karmapa Lama, the boy who jumped out of his window in China at age 14 and fled to India, bucking his Communist handlers.
Born Apo Gaga and now named Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the boy’s grown into a strapping 26-year-old savant. His teachings attract tens of thousands, but he’s also an accomplished playwright with a fondness for rap. He often appears alongside the Dalai Lama at public events. Massively popular with young Tibetans of all stripes — they sometimes refer to him as His Hotness — he packs religious authority, charisma that transcends his Kagyu school, and a similar if nascent mass appeal (he’s drawn crowds in Europe and America too) and serenity to his friend and mentor the Dalai Lama.
More importantly, the Chinese never denounced the Karmapa Lama after he fled. They’ve left the door open for him to return and to resume his conversations with Chinese officials.
And Sangay and the CTA seem to support the notion of his ascent as a spiritual leader to serve alongside them, bolstering their legitimacy.
“The Karmapa is perfectly placed to be someone who could broker a solution in the future,” says Barnett. “This is one of the rather rare issues where the exiles and those in Tibet are in agreement. They have very wide respect for the Karmapa.”
If only it were so simple.
The Karmapa Lama is notoriously dismissive of the notion of taking on the Dalai Lama’s role.
“I don’t need more pressure,” he once told reporters.
And on a separate occasion he claimed, “I don’t even know what politics is.”
This is not just be about his personal disengagement. It’s a reflection of the fact that the Tibetans do not get to make decisions about their spiritual leaders in a religious vacuum. There are pressures coming down on them from all sides, creating a realpolitik calculation of what can and cannot be done and how it may or may not fly.
And right now, aside from China, the biggest elephant in the room for the future of spiritual-political leadership in Tibet is what India thinks of the future of the Dalai Lama’s consciousness — and they, for fairly opaque reasons, don’t exactly like the Karmapa.
Since taking in the Tibetan exiles in 1959, India’s been the safe haven for all Tibetan actions. The development of the CTA, the progression of the Dalai Lama’s international campaign, the safety and space to form a unified community and negote power with China, all of this came from the willingness of the Indian state to accommodate the Tibetan movement.
Now more than ever, as almost every other major nation in the world but India has recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, India is the most important state for the future of the Tibetan movement full stop.
And they make it increasingly clear that this future is uncertain after the Dalai Lama dies.
For all the platitudes about friendship and historic, cultural bonds, there’s a certain sense of distance and antipathy in a place like Majnu ka Tilla, the Tibetan colony on the edge of New Delhi, India.
Once a sleepy hill, left alone by ages of Indian kings and developers thanks to the malarial pestilence of the nearby banks of the Yamuna River, the neighborhood was named for a Muslim hermit who, when not falling into crazed reveries and incantations, would ferry people across the river — mainly Sikhs coming to attend the local gurdwara.
Seeing no real use for the stinking shore, the Indian government gladly turned it over to the Tibetan refugees in the early ‘60s.
The newcomers then happily set up a series of one-story plaster-and-brick hovels, separated from the bulk of the city by outward facing walls and a major thoroughfare, united to the nearby neighborhood of Punjabi Basti by just one pedestrian walkway lined in prayer flags.
After the Dalai Lama’s 1980s rise to fame, though, spiritual tourism injected a little wealth in the region.
Growing upwards and in upon itself to accommodate souvenir shops, bus companies, tour operators, and cheap guest houses, modern Majnu ka Tilla has no sun or sky anymore. It’s like a genteel and miniature version of the Kowloon walled city, with buildings extending out towards each other, then cutting off sharply at the edges of the highway and river.
Within walking distance of the University of Delhi, this “Little Lhasa” has become a Mecca for Indian students looking for some cheap ethnic food or a chilled out coffee shop to try out thick, salty Tibetan yak milk-and-butter tea.
But beyond those visitors and the occasional western flitting in and out, it’s solidly Tibetan.
The businesses are Tibetan, the couples and families are Tibetan, and the letters stenciled onto the sides of buildings are Tibetan. Unlike Dharamsala, which is all about a sense of international feel-goodery, Majnu ka Tilla is a nexus of traders linking together a now thriving and decidedly separate culture managing its own affairs on Indian soil.
Posters line the streets, leftover from current Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s historic visit to India in September 2014, of the statesman India is trying to woo and re-approach done up like a scorpion stinging Tibet or depicted with devil horns stirring a cauldron of unknown toxic sludge — an image that doesn’t serve the wider national interest.
“I don’t think the Indian government has been totally thrilled with having the Tibetans there,” says Grunfeld. “But they have no real choice. They can’t throw them out. They can’t give them the cold shoulder.” Although as it turns out they can do just about everything up to that point.
While students enjoy the novelty, rickshaw drivers sometimes sneer and try to tell visitors that the place is a dangerous slum.
In 2006 Delhi caved to its discomfort and reneged on assurances that the land would belong to Tibetans as long as they needed it, instead claiming the city would assert its right to the shores by bulldozing a section of the developed colony to expand the nearby road and beautify the Yamuna. Fortunately a court stopped the orders in 2012 before much damage or any evictions were carried out, but the incident speaks volumes.
If not for this longstanding ambivalence, it’s actually likely the Dalai Lama would have fled to India in 1956 rather than 1959.
That year the Chinese allowed the Tibetan leader to travel to Bodh Gaya to celebrate the 2,500th birthday of the Buddha. While there he approached Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saying that he wanted to defect. But the Third Way leader, eager to maintain strong relations with another emerging Asian power — India was the first non-socialist nation to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950 and only lightly protested the invasion of Tibet — convinced him to return.
But when the Dalai Lama fled unilaterally New Delhi had no choice but to welcome him.
Or at least the Indian regime was open to the option because of the growing border tensions between India and China.
The Chinese, since the rise of the Communists, have laid claim to a chunk of the Himalayas the size of Luxembourg, a slice of Jammu and Kashmir the size of Taiwan, and the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which the Chinese call South Tibet), just a bit smaller than Portugal.
In 1962, the two states fought a war over the border, with China winning easily before voluntarily moving back to the previous border as a sign of goodwill and opening for negotiations. But the wary Indians never warmed to that prospect, instead fighting two minor border skirmishes in 1967 and 1986, dealing with Chinese support of Pakistani forces in wars with that nation, and facing condemnation over their 1975 absorption of Sikkim.
Recently the border has been flaring again as the Chinese build highways right up to the edge and occasionally cross the line, leading to a full standoff between thousands of troops on either side in September 2014.
As of 2013, 73 percent of Indians viewed war with China as a major threat to their nation, just below jihadi violence.
When India’s feeling bullish, having Tibetans around is handy.
In 1974, perhaps capitalizing on the surplus of out-of-work and disgruntled Chushi Gangdruk fighters, the Indians formed the Special Frontier Unit, a cadre of Tibetan mountain commandos left to patrol the Chinese border — just to piss them off, really.
However, every time relations with China are on the mend, as from 2000 to 2011 when trade between the two nations increased from $2.92 to $74 billion, the Indians feel it necessary to control the Tibetan situation, viscerally reminding their guests that they are technically not immigrants or refugees but foreign residents.
Whenever the Tibetans in Majnu ka Tilla have tried to put up anti-Chinese posters or protest dignitaries, the Indian police have locked the rectangular enclosure down. It was the 1998 forcible conclusion of a Tibetan hunger strike in New Delhi, not some Chinese atrocity, that prompted the first self-immolation case on record.
But Modi, the new Prime Minister of India, allowed posters to go up and Tibetans to protest in Majnu ka Tilla in 2014.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an uncertain ally for Tibetan refugees.
His motives are hard to parse. He came to power as a hardline nationalist, defending Indian borders, which could be useful for Tibetans, but also with a plan to rebuild business ties with China.
During Xi’s visit, he also signed a barrage of trade, development and friendship agreements.
“The basis for India’s [good] treatment of the diaspora is that they’re honoring the Dalai Lama as a religious leader,” says Shakya. “In the absence of the Dalai Lama, India doesn’t really have a grounds for why they have offered such special treatment to the Tibetan diaspora.”
It will be worse for the Tibetans if they wind up following the Karmapa Lama as an emanation or for his own charisma, because the Indian state does not approve of this promising monk.
From the time he arrived in their nation, Indian intelligence officials have always suspected that the Karmapa fled China too easily and did not receive sufficient rebuke from his former handlers. Believing he may be a spy, they blocked his plans for international travel from 2008 to 2014. And in 2011 they even publicly put him under investigation after a raid on his house revealed $1 million in foreign currency, a tenth of it in Chinese Yuan.
The Karmapa was later acquitted, demonstrating that the currency was unused donations from his numerous international followers.
But the Indian campaign against him “has been highly destructive of [his] position,” says Barnett.
It’s tarred him in the Indian consciousness, and most likely his freedom does little to sooth intelligence agents’ concerns. And it’s made it clear that, should the Karmapa rise, the Indian state will have even more of a bone to pick with the Tibetans than if the Dalai Lama just reincarnates, severely hemming in the latter monk’s choices on spiritual succession.
“I think we should understand [this] as a message to the exiles,” says Barnett. “You have no guarantee after the Dalai Lama dies. You’re here because he’s good for India’s international prestige. He’s quite good for India’s domestic relations. He gives India the kudos of having a world religious figure who has the reputation of being above the painful politics of religion in India which we often hear about.”
If the Karmapa is put on the sidelines with no other emanation probable, the Sikyong lacks a certain charisma and savoir faire, and a young Dalai Lama must remain on the sidelines for at least a couple of decades, there’ll be little left to sooth and unite the Tibetan community when the Dalai Lama dies. Any provocation by the Chinese, especially the inevitable proclamation of their own reincarnation, is likely to push those already cautious about the Dalai Lama’s current tact over the edge.
“There are young people who are against nonviolence, who are against the Middle Way [Umay Lam] approach,” says Chhinjor. “If [the Dalai Lama]’s no longer there, the younger Tibetans might become violent.”
But the death of the Dalai Lama won’t just open the gates to young Tibetans eager to define a new generation with a more fiery rhetoric.
There are deeper rifts within the Tibetan community, which have been pushing up against the Dalai Lama for years. After his death, the transitional period will enable these rifts to grow and deepen, complicating the path and calculations for any reincarnation, emanation, or political regent following the Dalai Lama — a set of unknowns which makes it all the harder to predict how best to handle the transition.
Especially troubling for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, even if he does manage to escape his inherently political role, many of these fission run along religious lines — not the esoteric sort, but the sort that can have real implications for the unity of the Tibetan community.
The most visible manifestation of those aggrieved forces is the Dorje Shugden movement.
“One of the biggest problems facing the Tibetan community is the sectarian divisions within the Buddhist community,” says Grunfeld.
The name refers to a spiritual entity in Tibetan Buddhism. Depending on who you ask, he’s either an enlightened being who appears in visions to monks to guide them through their meditations, a less enlightened spirit who exists to protect those who practice correctly, or a malevolent and deceptive force. Older icons of the spirit suggest the latter option on a gut level:
He has fangs and three bloodshot eyes, disheveled hair, and some assortment of flaming weapons to hand, which he brandishes against a cloud of fire.
Newer statues have had a serene facelift, but there’s still an aura of menace.
That’s fitting, because according to Shugden acolytes he exists to punish the wicked.
The spirit is particular to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s school, and is promoted by those in the hierarchy who believe in sectarian purity and the supremacy of their own practices.
They held forth in the 1930s and reasserted their beliefs in the much circulated 1976 Yellow Book (a reference to the yellow hats worn by Gelugpa monks) that anyone practicing Rime, the unitarian theology of the current and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas that holds all schools equal and encourages crossover rituals, will be brutally punished by this wild-eyed spirit.
In his youth, the Dalai Lama did study and pay tribute to Shugden, but quickly distanced himself from the teaching and quietly rebuked the Yellow Book in religious circles in 1978.
When the Shugden refused to back down he began issuing more forceful and public condemnations of the practice, but always within his remit as a spiritual leader — if you follow Shugden, you cannot follow me, he argues.
Unfortunately, in a prime example of the difficulty some have dissociating the Dalai Lama’s religious from his political role, there’s a fair amount of evidence that everyday Tibetans have taken this as a tacit call to block the Shudgen movement out of public life.
“There are cases clearly of discrimination and harassment against people because they belong to that confession,” says Barnett. Tibetans have “publicly listed all the names of any Shugden people they could think of, irrespective of whether they’ve been involved in protests against the Dalai Lama or not,” and posted signs denying them access to shops and restaurants.
“The Dalai Lama and his government took very little responsibility for that,” he laments.
The CTA argues that officially it welcomes Shugden followers and guarantees their right to religious freedom. But within the same breath, Chhinjor, the Minister of Religion and Culture, denigrates those who believe in the spirit, saying:
“The problem is that Dorje Shugden is not Buddhism … It’s supposed to be a spirit. It’s not a religion.”
For the Shugden, this is an invitation to break away and oppose the current Dalai Lama.
These days they’re known for internet screeds, failed attempts to get Amnesty International to sanction the Dalai Lama as a human rights violator, and mass protests (especially in 2008 and 2014) outside lectures by the Dalai Lama in the West, calling him a hypocrite and bigot. They’ve even managed to get a pop star on their side — in 2014, Brazilian singer Deborah Blando sang a blunt-force ditty entitled “Dalai Lama Protest Song,” with lyrics like:
“You speak of harmony, dialogue and peace / then enforce bans and hateful decrees.”
But they’ve also been implicated in more dire attacks, like the 1997 murder of three monks close to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.
Thurman claims, like many Tibetans, that the spirit’s believers have gained such traction because “the [Chinese] propaganda agency got wind of it and pushed it to become more vocal and public, in hopes that it would finally get Tibetans not to like the Dalai Lama so much, and that foreigners would believe that, after all, the Dalai Lama is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as they have constantly tried to maintain.”
Unfortunately the rifts go beyond the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa sect. The Karmapa’s Kagyu school has its own contentious divide and much like the Dalai Lama he’s at the center of it.
During the search for the Seventeenth Karmapa Lama, one of the monks involved, the Shamar Rinpoche, decided in 1992 that he disagreed with the choice of his fellow high lamas. So he backed his own, separate candidate for the position, Trinley Thaye Dorje.
Those with a sense of history might have found this ironic, and those with a niggling suspicion about spirits and souls might have found it eerie, as the Shamar Rinpoche has, in past lives, been associated with contrarian and violent opposition to his fellow Kagyu lamas. Back in 1792, he encouraged the invasion of Tibet by Nepalese Gurkhas to loot and destroy monasteries he was not fond of and was banned from reincarnating for this intrigue until the mid-20th century.
That his first reincarnation since then should spend twenty years, until his death in 2014, supporting a minority and oppositional candidate raises eyebrows even for spiritual skeptics.
According to Thaye Dorje, himself (for all the contentiousness of his position) your standard monk more concerned with friendly platitudes about the quest for inner peace than about the nitty-gritty inside politics of the monastery, having two Karmapas in the world doesn’t much affect him or his followers.
“I have been able to travel freely, meeting students, leaders, and young people all over the world he says.”
But he does admit that contested incarnation can have his pitfalls.
“There is a risk,” he says, “where there is confusion and even anger that thoughts, words, and actions arise, which are not in harmony with the Buddha dharma,” which is to say nonviolence.
It’s hard not to connect this back to the riots during to his ascent under Shamar Rinpoche. Near the Karmapa Lama’s monastic seat in Rumtek, Sikkim, his followers clashed in a brick-and-bottle-throwing scuffle with other Kagyu that raged for days and spread throughout the state.
Though the dispute has not led to much violence since, neither candidate (nor the much less known third Karmapa Lama, Dawa Sangpo Dorje) has been able to claim the Rumtek monastery and unite the resources and supporters of the Kagyu.
There’s a risk, though, that if the seat of the Karmapa is imbued with some potential extra power, or if Trinley Dorje suddenly has much more of a stage than Thaye Dorje thanks to the Dalai Lama’s nod of recognition or emanation, that this disagreement could cycle back towards a feud.
It’s not just Buddhists who might shy away from the unified Tibetan movement, though. Minorities like the Bön, with about 300 monasteries, are officially welcome and incorporated within the CTA and the Tibetan community.
“We treat them equally as our other monasteries,” says Chhinjor. They also have quota representation in the parliament.
But up until 1977 there was a degree of stigma against the faith and it was mainly by the Dalai Lama’s initiative then and reassertion in 1987 that they were incorporated into the Tibetan movement and mainstream culture.
It’s not uncommon to hear Tibetans refer to Bön followers as chipa, or outsiders, a type of othering, which they may not appreciate. And it’s impossible to know right now, given the Dalai Lama’s role in winning their acceptance in the community, whether this outsider status will grow in his absence — to say nothing of the status of less numerous and more physically isolated Tibetan Catholics and Muslims.
Most challenging for the unity of the Tibetan people, though, is the move towards tacit-to-aggressive secularism in the Tibetan community, which the rhetoric of the movement is not yet equipped to handle.
It’s easy to see why some Tibetans have become disillusioned with their Buddhist faith:
Still more monks have growing up outside of the Tibetan monastic context, forsaken their vows and called the religious authority of lamas and very notion of conscience transference into question. Notably, the high lama Kagyur Rinpoche abandoned his vows in the mid-‘80s to run off and have a fling with Bollywood starlet Mandakini.
Monks in other Buddhist traditions, like Takashi Tsuji, have made strong cases against the notion of reincarnation based upon core Buddhist texts, implying that the practice is more of an invention and cultural accretion of Tibetans than anything else. And while that point is contentious, esoteric, and debatable, it does not help the case of reincarnation that American tough guy actor and martial artist Steven Seagal has been declared the reincarnation of the high lama Chungdrag Dorje of the Nyingma school by the fairly prominent monk Penor Rinpoche. Nor does it help when fairly important incarnations like the Twenty-Third Gomo Tulku get involved in downright silly hip-hop videos, as the young monk did in 2011 with his debut video “Photograph,” featuring sunglasses at night, hopping clubs, flowing booze, and utterly uninspired lyrics about lost love intercut with the sound of snapping shutters.
Combined with a slew of sex scandals over the past two decades — as outlined in the somewhat slanted but informative 2011 Canadian documentary In the Name of Enlightenment, these cases mostly involve Western lamas coercing or outright raping their disciples — and financial malfeasance, these odd reincarnations and the allure of modernity have drawn many away from devotion.
After attending modern schools, says Chhinjor, Tibetan youth in exile “are a little reluctant to join a monastery, to become a monk.”
Most of the Tibetan monks in India today are those who came from Tibet-proper, and they’re getting scarcer as the border clamps down.
“Now if you go to the monasteries, almot the majority of the students are from [other Himalayan regions],” adds Chhinjor. “From Bhutan, Sikkim, you know? Basically the culture is the same, the language is the same, the religion is the same.”
But it’s just not the Tibetan youth who come now.
“To some extent, it’s worrisome,” concludes Chhinjor.
It’s worrisome not just from a religious angle, but from a social and political vantage as well. The Dalai Lama and the CTA alike have stressed time and again that they believe feeling and thinking like a Tibetan, being a part of the culture, involves the internalization and practice of Tibetan Buddhism.
That sentiment doesn’t leave much space in the movement, the community, or the popular conception of Tibet for secular Tibetans.
“As far as the non-religious political unity is concerned,” admits Phuntsok, “I still think we have to go a long way.”
Inside Tibet, sectarianism and other divisions will take their toll as well.
Many have already bought into Shugden and may have turned towards secularism, although it is absolutely impossible to know their numbers or proportion of the population. And in the confusion of the Dalai Lama’s death and reincarnation many will be forced to seek out some other source of hope, guidance, or affiliation.
Some may well turn to the Communist state.
“Vast numbers of people won’t run into the iron fist of the system if they’re there,” says Barnett, because security crackdowns have become more egregious but also more targeted and precise than widespread at very distinctive and branded individuals and behaviors.
Maybe not everyone will approve, but it will become easier to acquiesce, fly under the radar, and live one’s life with a modicum of security. And state compliance and work can bring its benefits — monetary and social.
Chinese reports claim that party membership in Tibet is rising faster than in other parts of the country, with 46.5 growth from 2006 to 2012, 80 percent of the new members being Tibetan, making 7.67 percent of of the TAR party cadres versus the 6.23 percent national average. These reports are dubious, but even if exaggerated it’s possible they point to a trend.
Others may fall in line behind state-compliant lamas if for no other reason than that those lamas, not appointed by China and thus more agreeable than the Panchen Lama, have more resources to dole out and more sanctioned visibility than their counterparts. Compliant monasteries get refurbishment funds and inclusion on tourist routes, which can be irksome and constricting, but rewarding for those who cash in.
Popular and conventional lamas also find that they’re tacitly allowed to benefit from a Han Chinese obsession with spirituality, fueled by pilgrimages and devotions by Chinese actors like Chen Kun and Hong Konger singers like Faye Wong. Their cash and patronage bring more supporters and wealth which, though the lamas may choose to channel that elsewhere than Tibet, may attract followers of its own accord.
And despite their failures before, the Chinese have in the past two years made all efforts to bring their Panchen Lama back into the good graces of Tibetans. They’ve given him prime place at the World Buddhist Forum in Hong Kong in 2012 and brought him on a three-month tour of Tibet in 2014, looping through monasteries, nursing homes, hospitals, and schools doling out benefits and extolling the virtues of quiescence and social stability.
He’s gotten an unexpected assist from Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, a.k.a. Renji or Princess, the daughter of the Tenth Panchen Lama by his Han Chinese wife (and the ward of Steven Seagal), who has no official spiritual power but did draw crowds during a 2002 visit to Tibet where she threw some light support behind the institution of the Panchen Lama and the Chinese state.
No one knows if any of this will have an effect, but no one threw a rock at Norbu’s head during his fall tour of Tibet. And if he becomes a bit savvier, he may be able to gain a little traction — although that’s anathema to say now.
For everyone who buys into some organ of the state, it’s just as likely that someone else will fight.
Officials claimed to have found weapons caches during the 2008 riots, which did include the burning of Han and Hui shops. This was probably propaganda, but it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
“China is a place where everyone has knives and you can probably get a gun without people even thinking about it,” says Barnett. And Tibetans in Chengdu bars do have a particular reputation as knife fighters.
Chhinjor worries that the rage fueling self-immolations will snap outwards at the Chinese as soon as the Dalai Lama dies.
“If you hold that much willpower, who is making you suffer?” he asks. “They can burn Chinese shops and Chinese offices. They never do it because they believe the Dalai Lama said, no, we should not do it. … [But when] His Holiness passes away, the message is not there. The Chinese keep doing this, then it really might turn into violence. This is something we are really worried about.”
Even the circumspect and oily Tsering Wangchuck, a CTA Press Officer who usually speaks in the measured, monotonous, and calculating tones of an overly cautious government flack, bluntly backs Chhinjor in this assessment, stating (speaking for himself rather than the state):
“We fear that the Tibetan people, who for so long have shown such a resilience restraining from any violent incident, might someday be pushed because of the realpolitikal maneuvering going on and lack of respect for the most fundamental human values.”
Sitting on a bench by the Tsuglugkhang, watching old and young Tibetans alike make their circumambulations around the giant, golden prayer wheels and stop at various shrines, it’s easy to forget about all these bubbling and contentious forces. Listening to the Sikyong hold forth on the bright future of Tibetan democracy and the inevitable march of the justice of their cause, it’s easy to forget about disunity. Looking at a poster of the smiling and seemingly eternal Dalai Lama, it’s easy to forget that he is not some intangible and eternal symbol of the Tibetan movement, but a mortal man instead.
Dharamsala radiates hope and belief. But Dharamsala is not Lhasa or Lhagang or Majnu ka Tilla. This oasis of internationalism and nonviolence and dialogue is just a fixed point in a much wider world, and the strain of thought and breed of unitarianism it represents is just a fixed point in time in a much longer Tibetan history.
It is not the future. It is a beautiful present, but it is not a guarantee. It is a function of the forces that created it — namely His Holiness.
As time moves forward and the windows and moments he has created draw to a close, the Dalai Lama is faced with impossible choices about his role in the community after his death.
His ideas, challenged by the breakdown of dialogue with China, are already under fire from a new and restive generation. His perfect world, in which the Dalai Lama renounces all political force and the CTA becomes an inherently unifying force, is utopian, failing to acknowledge how his very existence clouds and limits the ability of any other force to take his place or how even politicians cannot fully extricate him from the notion of unity and nonviolence.
The world is not done with his presence.
Yet now that China’s made it clear that it intends to usurp effective control of Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama dies, he knows his reincarnation (along with those of many minor and major lamas) will be directly challenged — a gambit that’s proven explosive even with more minor lamas.
He can try to bypass this fracas. But his best potential emanation is wary of taking on a greater role than he already possesses and apt to cause friction with the last great ally of Tibet if he takes on a leadership role. His secular government doesn’t have much hold. And the unity of his people is under fire from sectarianism and secularism, all of which will be exacerbated by the uncertainty following his spirit’s temporary exit from this world.
Every choice leads down its own path towards a foggy new era of Tibetan history, which will likely be foreign and shocking to those accustomed to the spiritual paradise of Shangri-La.
Tibet will not fade from international consciousness. It’s far too important as an environmental, geopolitical, and economic concern for China and India — and by extension the world.
But international relevance doesn’t equate to widespread support for the cause. As of 2014, Mongolia, Russia, and South Africa have all denied the Dalai Lama entry to their nations and the Norwegian Prime Minister and even Pope Francis refused to meet with him during his travels.
They’ve shunned Bambi simply because he is no longer that useful or relevant compared to China.
And if the switch does flip and disunity and violence comes to Tibet, “[the Tibet movement] will lose, say, 50 percent of their support in the West,” says Barnett.
That’s why the Dalai Lama stresses his longevity, stating that he hopes to live to 113 and confidently delaying a final decision on his spiritual future until age 90. He’s determined to stretch his window of time as far and as long as he can, banking on his ability to leverage his remaining currency and broker a deal with Beijing before he dies.
In October 2014 he told National Public Radio in America that he still believes he will be able to return to Tibet before he dies, and rumors continue to fly about a possible visit.
“A new era has begun with the presidency of Xi Jinping,” he said. “He wants to create a more harmonious society than the one under his predecessor.”
The Dalai Lama and his supporters and fellow hopeful point to Xi’s March 2014 reference to Buddhism as an important part of Chinese culture as a sign that he is open to restoring religious freedom. They stress that his father, Xi Zhongxun, met the Dalai Lama and wrote the biography of the Tenth Panchen Lama. They desperately hope that some of this has rubbed off on the leader.
But this may just be desperate hope. In 2011, Xi promised to smash any plots of separatism. And during the first years of his rule there have been no signs of relent in Chinese policies in the TAR. Any negotiations will still make greater demands than the Umay Lam officially hopes to concede as well.
This faith in the good of Xi is all a bit willfully and necessarily naïve — clapping out of a belief in fairies in the hopes that they’ll magically resurrect.
None of this means the Tibetans are doomed, or that the achievements of the Dalai Lama were a waste and a lie. None of this means that a leader will not emerge within the next decade or two, or that the CTA or the Karmapa will not find some antidote for their current shortcomings.
It just means that one era is dying. And not even a being as enlightened as the Dalai Lama can negotiate the Bardo that lies beyond an epoch.
All that’s left is to hope that the grim prophecy of the Dalai Lama’s predecessor, written into his 1932 will, will not lie at the other end of the unknown:
“Our spiritual and cultural traditions will be completely eradicated. Even the names of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas will be erased. … The monasteries will be looted and destroyed and the monks and nuns killed or chased away. … We will become like slaves to our conquerors.”
Originally from Spokane, Washington, USA, Mark Hay graduated with a BA from Columbia University and a MPhil from the University of Oxford. He is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant. Hay is also a regular contributor at GOOD Magazine, Modern Notion, and VICE, and has been on numerous other platforms. He has conducted research and reported everywhere from India to Kenya to Mongolia.
Originally published on May 27h 2015 at http://brio.media