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The Last: Tawang’s dreaded phrase

November 13, 2009

Ashis Chakrabarti
The Telegraph (India)
November 12, 2009

Tawang, Nov. 11 -- She had been there at the
ground the last two days, too. But today was
different for the 80-year-old mother of Lobsang Nima.

Frail and barely able to walk on her own, she
cried and pleaded with her son to take her to the
ground again so that she could listen to the last
public teaching session of the Dalai Lama here this morning.

This was the last time, she thought, she would
see and listen to her "God" because he might not
come here again in her lifetime.

Lobsang, who worked in a hotel here, took her to
the "teaching" but he had a different reason from
his mother’s. He has heard people say this could
be the last Dalai Lama. He didn’t have the heart
to tell his mother so. She wouldn’t believe it even if he did.

"Everybody says China can put up a fake one. You
know what it did with the Panchen Lama chosen by
the Dalai Lama," he said in broken Hindi.

As the Dalai Lama wound up the last day of his
stay in this monastery town -- he leaves for
other places in Arunachal Pradesh tomorrow -- the
question if he was the last Dalai Lama seemed to
have gripped the minds of many here.

Not that ordinary people would really believe it.
They simply can’t imagine a world and their own
life without a Dalai Lama. But even the humblest
of his flock had heard of the Chinese plan to end
the institution of the Dalai Lama.

As a monk at the monastery explained it, the
Dalai Lama wasn’t just their spiritual leader.
"He is their God as much as the Buddha is. He is the Bodhisatta."

For the monastic community here, too, the
question about the end of the institution, as
Tibetans have known it for several hundred years,
could no longer be avoided. Apart from the fact
that the Dalai Lama is 75 years old, his own
assertions on the issue are known to have
introduced many uncertain elements in a hitherto unassailable tradition.

The Dalai Lama, who is known to have a scientific
and democratic mind, is known to have said many
different things on the issue on different
occasions. He has himself said he may be the last
Dalai Lama. He has also said that his successor
can be chosen in a democratic way. On another
occasion, he has said his successor could be a
woman, an unprecedented thing in the history of the institution.

Then there is always the question what happens if
his successor -- the reincarnation of his soul --
is born within Tibet and the Chinese lay their
hands on the child. On at least one occasion, the
Dalai Lama has said that his successor could be
born in India, which would again be an unprecedented happening.

A monk who lived in Dharamsala and knew about the
functioning of the Dalai Lama’s
government-in-exile there said: "Everybody in the
government and the religious hierarchy will abide
by whatever His Holiness decides. But for the
common people, a democratically elected Dalai
Lama would be such an impossible thing. You can
have an elected Prime Minister of this
government, but it would be hard to make Tibetan
Buddhists accept an elected Dalai Lama."

One possibility, he said, is that the Dalai Lama
himself can select a "board of regents" in his
lifetime to oversee the selection of his successor.

But he was confident that the Dalai Lama knew
about the impossibility of letting the line die
and thereby plunge the Tibetan people and their
future in a worse tragedy than they are facing now.
The Dalai Lama in Tawang. (Reuters)

For the 45 lakh Tibetans within Tibet and another
lakh or so outside it, the end of the Dalai Lama
lineage would mean a crisis not only of their
religion but also of their culture.

During his visit here, the 14th Dalai Lama
repeatedly emphasised the importance of keeping
Tibetan culture alive. But he himself is the
ultimate symbol of the hope for the continuity of Tibetan culture.

No one knows better how difficult the challenge
is. In China’s Tibet, despite all the recent
moves to make the promotion of Tibetan culture a
tourism tool, the government and the communist
party try everything to “sinicise” Tibetan
culture. In India, for all the efforts of
Dharamsala and Tibetan activists, the younger
generation of Tibetans find it hard to survive
economically without imbibing Indian mores.

Like Lobsang Nima, most people of his generation
here speaks Hindi. "It came with the Indian Army.
We have always been so dependent on the army for
so many things. Hindi has given us much
advantage. And now English-medium schools are sprouting here.”

Tibetan culture, like Tibetan Buddhism, survived
unscathed for generations as long as outsiders
had not climbed the mountain passes and ridges to
penetrate that forbidden world.

The Dalai Lama faces a daunting task that none of
his predecessors faced -- to take Tibet to the world and also keep it Tibetan.
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