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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Longing to ride the next train to Lhasa

March 23, 2009

Canbera Times (Australia)
March 21, 2009

Seated in a small armchair in his wood-panelled
living room, the Himalayan sun streaming through
the garden window, Tenzin Gyatso contemplates his
death and the remote prospect of again setting
foot on Tibetan soil before that moment comes. He
grasps both arms together under the folds of his
claret-coloured robe, and for the briefest moment looks entirely lost.

"When I was five my journey from my home in Amdo
to Lhasa took two months," says the man better
known to most of us as His Holiness the 14th
Dalai Lama. "Sixty-eight years have passed since
then. Now people tell me about riding the new
train [from Beijing to Lhasa] - that you can see
the Tibetan plateau, rare Tibetan animals and
have a very, very pleasant trip - and I want to
join them. If the opportunity arose to visit
Lhasa on that train I would feel very, very happy."

Born in 1935 and identified as the reincarnation
of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of two, Gyatso
appears to carry a personal burden of
responsibility both for Tibet's former
introspection and the advantages enjoyed by the
abbots and aristocrats under the rule of his
previous incarnations. He remains a feudal master
in the eyes of China - a symbol of the iniquity
that Mao sought to sweep away in the name of
Tibet's serf and peasant classes - despite
scarcely being a teenager when he assumed full
political power of Tibet in 1950.

His eyes peer from behind large steel-rimmed
glasses as he analyses the faults of Tibet's old
theocratic ways. "Our mistake was that we covered
ourselves [from the outside world]," he says,
pulling his cloak over his shaved head to
illustrate the point. He grimaces under the hood
he has formed: "And because of this we did not
realise how the world was [evolving] until one
day it was too late; the hammer struck."

The Dalai Lama fled the Norbulingka Park and
Summer Palace on the night of March 17, 1959, a
week after his people's failed uprising against
the Chinese. Accompanied by members of his court
and family, he made a two-week trek across the
frozen Himalayas by foot and pack horse. Arriving
in India, on March 31, the 23-year-old accepted
the offer of asylum from India's first prime
minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and established his
government-in-exile in Dharamsala, the former
British hill station that has been his home for the past half century.

Since then he has travelled the world
ceaselessly, advocating his strategy of peaceful
resistance to what many observers consider the
social, political and cultural evisceration of
Tibet - a homeland the Dalai Lama fondly recalls
as heavenly, but last week described as "a hell
on Earth" under Chinese occupation.

Now 73, the elderly monk finds himself at an
anxious juncture as he enters the second
half-century of his exile. The future is
uncertain enough, but in this anniversary period
tensions are particularly high as Chinese
paramilitary forces continue a clampdown aimed at
preventing a repeat of last year's violent
protests, not just in the Tibet Autonomous
Region, China's second largest province, but
extending into Historic Tibet, an area the size
of western Europe that includes parts of Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai provinces.

"The Tibetan spirit does not depend on one
person," the Dalai Lama says firmly. "When my
death comes, for a short period I think there
will be some serious setback[s]. That will
naturally happen -- shock -- sadness. But the
Tibetan spirit, that will prevail, and the
modernising work which I began will continue, of
that I have 100 per cent confidence."

Since the exile, Gyatso has led his people on a
journey of social rejuvenation. "He has given
leadership issue by issue," says Tsering Yeshi,
the director of the Tibetan Women's Association,
the oldest non-governmental organisation in
Dharamsala. "His [progressive] views on women are
a good example. People think of the Dalai Lama as
a man, but His Holiness caused much surprise when
he said his next incarnation could be a woman. He
feels it would be logical because women are more
compassionate." Imagine the Pope proposing a female successor.

Speaking animatedly about the pleasure he derives
from meeting Tibetan youths around the world -
"One Tibetan boy in Switzerland, he had an afro
-- looked like a Tibetan hippy -- very, very
funny -- Tibetan spirit very, very strong," he
recounts between roars of laughter that bring
tears to his eyes - His Holiness says that
preserving Tibet's Buddhist traditions and
education system are his most fulfilling achievements of the past 50 years.

However, the element of his modernising agenda
that has probably touched most Tibetans-in-exile
has been the transfer of political power from the
monasteries to the masses. This democratising
process is central to Gyatso's Middle Way: his
outline for genuine, extended Tibetan autonomy
within China - not secession - that Beijing labels "splittist" in essence.

"It may be that I am the last Dalai Lama," he
reflects stoically. "As early as 1969 I said that
the institution should continue only with the
agreement of the Tibetan people; that Dalai Lama
as a [spiritual] institution and political leader should be separate."

In 1963 Gyatso prepared a far-reaching
constitution, and by 1990 he had introduced
universal suffrage for the 150,000 Diaspora to
elect the parliament-in-exile. "I always say
[mine] is a semi-retired position -- and as far
as democratisation is concerned, I think we are
more advanced than China," he says, rocking with
laughter and sounding something akin to Baloo,
the affable bear in Disney's Jungle Book movie.

Wisely, last week, amid the turmoil of the
anniversary, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao,
addressed the possibility of renewing dialogue
with the Dalai Lama's representatives. The
concern is that Gyatso has become the single
focal point of the Tibetan cause, and, in the
interregnum after his death, Tibetans will not
just lose a talisman - a friend to world leaders,
movie stars and regular folk alike - but the one
person who prevents Tibetan frustrations erupting into violent struggle.

The Tibetan Youth Congress, reviled by Beijing,
is one group that opposes the Dalai Lama's Middle
Way. "[His] age and physical condition are a red
light sign," says the group's spokesman, Konchok
Yangphel, outlining the movement's quest for full Tibetan independence.

"So far we have conformed to non-violent
activities, but I can't say about the future.
When the Dalai Lama is no longer here the Tibetan
people might turn to violence. Without him
nationalist sentiment inside China will be difficult to contain."

But even Yangphel speaks respectfully, and
fondly, of the Dalai Lama as head of state. And
he stresses that the congress has no desire to
see the separation of his spiritual and political
powers. Two days later, after being invited back
to the Dalai Lama's private residence to observe
a special meeting he will hold with a group of
refugees recently arrived from Tibet, I understand why.

The event is a masterclass in how Gyatso
seamlessly blends the political and spiritual
elements of his role, no matter that he says he
would willingly forsake his position as statesman
to concentrate on his religious duties.

The atmosphere is electric. The sheer collective
willpower of his people seems to draw the Dalai
Lama into the meeting room. There are gasps;
looks of sheer joy and amazement. Seated on the
floor, about 80 Tibetans are caught between their
desire to prostrate themselves face downwards and
their desire to look up and witness their leader
in the flesh. A tiny baby cries and his mother
holds him aloft to see the man before them, as
though she expects her infant to remember this
moment forever. An elderly man and the young nun
seated next to him both quietly dab tear-filled
eyes with a dignity that speaks of just how much this moment means to them.

For the next hour and a half the Dalai Lama stood
before his people, who had risked so much to join
him, and entered a dialogue with them that
fluctuated in tone and content from religious
sermon to political rally. "The Tibetan spirit
will prevail" was the message he gave them to
take home, but it was not framed in terms of
conflict against China. "Reach out and make
friends with the Chinese. Don't curse them," he
advised. "They are sentient beings. Pray for
them. We are not opposed to them as a people."

And then a moment of some surprise for anyone
schooled by a global news media that talks of the
China-Tibet problem only in terms of political
oppression: the Dalai Lama asked how many of
those in the room would be heading back to Tibet
in the coming weeks. Nineteen people raised their hand.

Talking with some of the refugees later, it
became clear that a constant stream of Tibetans
undertake the dangerous walk across the snowy
Himalayas, running the gauntlet of Chinese border
guards, simply to visit Dharamsala on pilgrimage;
for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to
receive a blessing from their spiritual leader.

Despite the political situation - Beijing's
Sinicisation of Tibet through massive Han
immigration; investment and infrastructure
projects such as the Beijing-Lhasa railway the
Dalai Lama had earlier spoken about, which
predominantly benefit immigrant Chinese in Tibet
- these people are happy enough to return home.
Sadly for the Dalai Lama, home, for the time
being at least, remains a foreign country.

The 15th dalai lama?

THE QUEST for a dalai lama's reincarnation
historically involves senior Tibetan monks
including the panchen lama looking for signs
indicating which child, born around the time of
the previous incarnation's death, might be the successor.

One story goes that the head of the deceased 13th
dalai lama rolled to face Amdo, where Tenzin
Gyatso was living as a boy. His Holiness now says
he is amenable to Tibetans either choosing to
vote for his successor; voting to rid themselves
of the institution of dalai lama; or appointing
his reincarnation in his own lifetime
(metaphysically illogical, but not without
precedent in the selection of junior lamas).

These alternatives are rejected by Beijing. China
argues that since the reincarnation of the 5th
dalai lama in the early Qing dynasty, the
successor has been ratified by its ultimate
political authority: either the emperor or, in
the case of Gyatso, the Nationalist government.

In 2007, Beijing legislated that any appointment
of a new lama without government consent was
illegal. Based on the precedent of his 1995
nomination for the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun
Choekyi Nyima, who was kidnapped by China as a
six-year-old and replaced by "the official
Panchen" Qoigyijabu, the Dalai Lama has grave
concerns about his succession: "When I die, I
expect the Chinese Government will appoint a
second dalai lama - so one will be China's -- and
the other will be in the Tibetan people's hearts," he says.

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