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Obituary - Thubten Jigme Norbu

September 18, 2008
Thupten Jigme Norbu, the elder brother of the Dalai Lama, died on 05 September 2008 after a long illness, and was cremated at on 11 September in Bloomington, Indiana. In his lifetime as well as in obituaries, he made headlines as an uncompromising advocate of Tibetan independence, rather than autonomy. But rather than the politician he was often portrayed as, he was a passionate expert on Tibet with strong emotional ties to his culture and people, as well as a strong, independent personality. Like the nomads of Amdo, whom dedicated part of his academic life to studying and whom he particularly cherished, he possessed a strong sense of freedom and refused to be constrained by mainstream structures.
Thupten Jigme Norbu was born in 1922 in a village close to the major Kumbum monastery in the Tibetan province traditionally known as Amdo, today part of Qinghai province. As a child, he was recognised as the incarnation of a regional high lama, Taktser Rinpoche, and left home in 1931 to become a monk. His family moved to Lhasa in 1939, as his then youngest brother had been selected to be the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. He was reunited with them in 1941 when he moved to Lhasa in order to pursue higher monastic studies at Drepung monastery.
 He returned to Kumbum, a region outside the control of the Lhasa government, seven years later and immediately before the victory of the Communist Party in the Chinese civil war. At this chaotic and tumultuous point, the monks of Kumbum, looked to him for stability because of his close kinship to the Dalai Lama, and despite his youth, he was asked to become the abbot of the monastery. Upon the arrival of the Communist troops in autumn 1949, Thubten Jigme Norbu/Taktser Rinpoche found himself under intense pressure from Party cadres to exert influence over his brother. He deeply resented their attempts to undermine traditional Tibetan institutions and enforce reforms against the obvious wishes of the population. In his autobiography, he described this defining period of his life as a "bitter experience". Feeling unable to ease the situation, he resigned from his position and made his way back to Lhasa where he warned the Dalai Lama against the imminent threat.
 When the People's Liberation Army (PLA) overran Tibetan troops in eastern Tibet and marched towards Lhasa, he left together with the Dalai Lama and his retinue for the valley of Chumbi, close to the Indian border, where the Tibetan leadership intended to await further developments. With the signing of the 17-point agreement in 1951 announcing a period of de-escalation, the Dalai Lama and his government decided to return to the Tibetan capital and try and cooperate with the newly established People's Republic of China (PRC). Following his negative experience in Kumbum, Thubten Jigme Norbu considered the endeavour futile. For this reason and in order to address his ill-health, he left Tibet for good and headed toward the United States via India.
 In the 1950s, Thubten Jigme Norbu travelled between North America and Asia, particularly Japan and India. He was involved in various Buddhist forums and pursued academic studies. Like his brother, Gyalo Thondup, he also assisted the CIA in their support for Tibetan resistance and held numerous talks about Tibet. When, in 1959, the Dalai Lama finally went into exile in India, he participated in efforts to support Tibetan refugees and wrote an autobiography together with Heinrich Harrer who he had known well in Lhasa during the 1940s. The book was published in German in 1960.
 Thubten Jigme Norbu acted as a representative of the Dalai Lama in the US and in Japan, but he also worked as an academic and published several articles, as well as a popular book about Tibet with the anthropologist Colin Turnbull in 1968. He had a strong personal interest in historical studies and vernacular culture, in particular that of the nomads of his native Amdo. He spoke several of their dialects as well as the Mongolian language. He was a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and worked until retirement at the Indiana University in Bloomington, USA.
 Politically, Thubten Jigme Norbu insisted: "The status of Tibet is not negotiable. Tibet is Tibet", although he conceded "you cannot get anything more [than autonomy] from the Chinese". He co-founded a US organisation called the International Tibet Independence Movement, together with Larry Gerstein in 1995. As a whole, however, he was more a political individualist than a leader figure and occasionally expressed some reservations about the Tibet support movement. He also kept a distance from the exile leadership in Dharamsala and notoriously complained in the 1990s that the exile establishment was "dominated by a few families, including my own". Finally, despite his early involvement with the CIA, Thubten Jigme Norbu was rather disillusioned with the role of the US in the Tibet issue. In an interview with the Indian journalist Mayank Chhaya he said: "I don't think the US can do anything because the US is interested in green paper [dollars] and how much Mr. Coffee they can sell. They are not concerned with Tibetans' suffering. They are concerned with trade".
 Although he had quit the religious order short after leaving Tibet, Thubten Jigme Norbu remained personally committed to the preservation and spread of Tibetan Buddhism. He founded the Tibetan Buddhist centre Kumbum Chamtse Ling and the affiliated Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Centre in Bloomington.
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