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Thubten Jigme Norbu; Brother of Dalai Lama Advocated for Tibet

September 15, 2008

By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008; B06

The Dalai Lama's eldest brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, who founded a 
Tibetan cultural center at Indiana University and was a strong voice 
for Tibetan independence from China, died Sept. 5 at his home in 
Bloomington, Ind. He had had several strokes in 2002 and was in poor 
health in recent years.

He was 86, but by Tibetan tradition he was 87, as babies are 
considered a year old at birth.

As a young man, Mr. Norbu was a monk and later abbot of Kumbum 
Monastery, one of Tibet's largest, before the Chinese invasion of his 
homeland in 1950. The People's Liberation Army overwhelmed poorly 
equipped Tibetan troops.

The Chinese army placed Mr. Norbu under house arrest, bribed him with 
titles and threatened him with punishment if he would not denounce his 
brother, the Dalai Lama, who was then 14. Mr. Norbu pledged to help 
the invaders but went to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to warn his 
brother of the danger he faced from the Communist Chinese.

Mr. Norbu evaded his Chinese minders and fled to India on horseback; 
his brother remained in Tibet until 1959. Mr. Norbu subsequently 
offered his services to the CIA, which, according to the Wall Street 
Journal, employed him as a trainer and translator based on the Pacific 
island of Saipan. He became part of the CIA's effort to arm Tibetan 
guerrillas to fight the Chinese, support that continued through the 
1960s.

He seldom spoke of his CIA service -- of which his brother did not 
approve -- and avoided any reference to it in his 1960 autobiography, 
"Tibet Is My Country," written with "Seven Years in Tibet" author 
Heinrich Harrer and which he dedicated to the Dalai Lama, "In respect 
and fraternal love."

Mr. Norbu never stopped agitating for Tibetan independence, calling 
Chinese actions "cultural genocide" and frequently noting that more 
than 1 million Tibetans had died during the Chinese occupation.

He briefly returned to Tibet in 1980, at the invitation of the 
Chinese, but was banned from future visits after he continued to 
criticize the Chinese government.

Throughout their lives, Mr. Norbu and the Dalai Lama disagreed on what 
Tibet's status should be: The Dalai Lama has favored political 
autonomy, and Mr. Norbu maintained the need for complete Tibetan 
independence from China.

But Mr. Norbu treated his brother with the deference of his title: "To 
me he is 'His Holiness,' " he told the Indiana University student 
newspaper in 1999. "He is family, yes, but he is the Tibetan leader 
first."

Besides the Dalai Lama, Mr. Norbu is survived by his wife, Kunyang 
Norbu; three sons; a sister; two other brothers; and three 
grandchildren.

Mr. Norbu was born Tashi Tsering in Taktser, Tibet, on Aug. 16, 1922, 
the oldest of six children and the first in his family to be 
recognized as a tulku, a reincarnated Buddhist monk. There are several 
tulkus, the most important being the Dalai Lama.

When he was 3, Mr. Norbu was recognized as the reincarnation of the 
lama Taktser Rinpoche by the 13th Dalai Lama (his brother is the 14th 
Dalai Lama), who also gave him his other name, Thubten Jigme Norbu. 
"Jigme" means "fear not," and "Norbu" means "jewel." For the rest of 
his life, he was known by both names, Rinpoche and Norbu.

Mr. Norbu left home at the age of 8 to live at Kumbum, where he later 
served as abbot until he fled the country, renouncing his monastic 
vows as he pretended to assist the Chinese.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Norbu settled in the United States and soon 
married the sister of a Tibetan lama. He spent several years in New 
York as a curator of Tibetan artifacts at the American Museum of 
Natural History.

He began teaching at Indiana University in 1965 and made his home in 
Bloomington for the rest of his life. He taught for 23 years, 
establishing a Tibetan studies program.

In 1979, he founded the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, which 
the Dalai Lama has visited and blessed several times. Since its 
founding, the center has expanded. It is now called the Tibetan 
Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and supports a fully functioning 
Buddhist monastery on its grounds named Kumbum Chamtse Ling, completed 
and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2003.

In 1995, Mr. Norbu co-founded the International Tibet Independence 
Movement, leading three "freedom walks" in the mid-1990s.

He gave a speech at the 1997 Austrian premiere of the film version of 
"Seven Years in Tibet" -- starring Brad Pitt as Harrer -- in which Mr. 
Norbu proclaimed China was "leaving Tibet as nothing more than a toxic 
waste dump."

The final sentence of his 1960 autobiography expresses his feelings on 
exile from his homeland, a sorrow he never overcame: "As my plane 
winged its way towards the West I looked back for a long time at the 
peaks of the Himalayas, the throne of our gods, the gods of my lost 
country Tibet."
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