A Deity Goes into Retirement: Tibetans FaceáUncertainty in Post-Dalai Lama Era

By Erich Follath in Dharamsala, India

The Dalai Lama has officially retired from politics, claiming he wants to live as a "simple monk." It's a watershed moment for Tibet, amid fears of Chinese meddling and controversy over the new generation of leaders. Meanwhile the Chinese authorities continue to brutally crack down on protests by Tibetan monks.

He certainly doesn't want to end up like the Queen. "With all due respect, and she's a very nice lady in person, but having to recite bad speeches written by someone else? It's not for me," says the 14th Dalai Lama, known among the faithful as "Ocean of Wisdom" and "Buddha of Compassion." He dabs at beads of sweat on his forehead, careful not to endanger a fly that has landed there. "I would feel like a puppet."

For this reason, a political compromise was inconceivable for the man many worship as a "god-king." That was despite the entreaties of his Tibetan followers, no matter how much they begged him to at least remain the ceremonial leader of the government-in-exile, which he established more than 50 years ago in the Indian town of Dharamsala after the Chinese Communists had forced him to flee from the Tibetan capital Lhasa. The Dalai Lama no longer wants to hold any political responsibility.

"It has nothing to do with resignation, or health reasons, only with insight," he said in a recent interview with SPIEGEL in the French city of Toulouse, where he was giving lectures on Buddhism, before traveling to Germany this week as the guest of the Hessian state government in the western city of Wiesbaden. "I have taken a close look at all forms of government. A democratic parliament with an elected prime minister is the only modern and functioning one. Monarchy: yesterday. Theocracy: from the day before yesterday. I believe in the separation of church and state. But what sort of a hypocrite would I be if I didn't draw any conclusions from this realization?"

For centuries, the Dalai Lama was, in the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Tibetans, both the secular and spiritual leader of his people. The current holder of the office already introduced democratic structures while in exile, but they were reforms from the top down, and he always had the last word. Now he has resigned from his secular duties, including his right to dismiss ministers and shape the course of negotiations with Beijing. He also intends to significantly reduce his spiritual duties and address the search for a successor -- "male or female," as he says.

"I just want to be Tenzin Gyatso, a simple monk," he says. He signed the constitutional amendment that makes this transition possible "with relish," he adds. "The government in Beijing has described me as an obstacle to all compromises. Now this stumbling block no longer exists, and it will have to show its cards and reveal whether it intends to grant Tibetans true autonomy, and whether it is serious about installing its own Dalai Lama in the future."

And then, as is so often the case, a chortling, infectious laugh erupts from the Dalai Lama like a force of nature. "And besides, here's a suggestion for the Communist Party leaders: How about joining me in stepping down?"

The curtain has fallen. A theocracy is coming to an end, and it is doing so peacefully and without bloodshed. A god is going into retirement.

Huge Moral Authority

What a long road for Tibet, for an institution, for the 14th Dalai Lama, who, as his followers believe, was first born in 1391 and, most recently, in the cycle of rebirths, in 1935. And what a long road for this Tenzin Gyatso, a farmer's son who, at the age of two, was chosen as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama by a search team of monks because of his special characteristics, who resided in the Potala Palace in Lhasa when he was only five, was named the political leader of his people at 15, negotiated with and long admired Mao, until he recognized that the Great Chairman was only trying to use him. A man who, after his dramatic 1959 journey across Himalayan passes, preached nonviolence, offered the Chinese rulers of his homeland the renunciation of claims to an independent Tibetan nation in return for cultural autonomy, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

For the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is still public enemy number one. Communist Party politicians berate him as a "wolf with the face of a man" and a "demon." In the Western world, however, the 14th Dalai Lama is seen as a role model. According to an opinion poll, he enjoys greater moral authority in Germany than the German pope. Many see him as the alternative to the "classical" politician, as someone who embodies what he says and who practices what he preaches, and even manages to reflect on himself in a self-deprecating way: a blend of Gandhi and Groucho Marx who is particularly beloved among celebrities like actors Richard Gere and Uma Thurman, French first lady Carla Bruni and Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner.

Buddhism has become the fashionable religion, from Los Angeles to London, just as the monk Padmasambhava predicted more than 1,200 years ago: "When the iron bird flies, when horses run on wheels, the king will come to the land of the red man." The Germans are particularly enamored of Tibetan Buddhism, with their dozens of Tibetan centers and tens of thousands of Dalai Lama disciples, who see the Asian faith as the most appealing world religion, and one that generally does not look down on people of other faiths. It preaches peacefulness instead of inquisition, persuasion through meditation instead of missionary evangelism and the hope of attaining Nirvana instead of the threat of jihad, and it treats guilt and sin as concepts from a different, more punishing religious tradition and man as the sole creator of his own fate. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Because of this global support, many pay close attention to the turmoil in Tibet, which they consider the land of their dreams, their Shangri-La. But many people are unaware that as recently as the early 20th century, there were brutal power struggles between the monasteries in Tibet, that torture (including the particularly notorious method of gouging out victims' eyes) was the rule, and that reforms were only begun under the predecessor of the current Dalai Lama. Many are also unaware that it is only the current Dalai Lama who has sharply criticized feudalism and called for an accounting with that aspect of Tibet's past.

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

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

These are not only religious questions. The struggle over the legacy of the Dalai Lama has to do with more than the reorientation of a government-in-exile. It involves questions of power and influence in one of the world's most important and contested regions. It has to do with military bases in Tibet, new transportation routes for consumer goods, the world's highest railway line, giant deposits of minerals, including zinc, copper and lithium, and the reservoir of water contained in the Himalayas.

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