Tim Robertson, in The Diplomat – Dalai Lama May Not Reincarnate

This article was written by Tim Robertson, an Independent Journalist. It was published in The Diplomat.

The Dalai Lama and the Politics of Reincarnation

The Dalai Lama suggests he’ll be the last of his line, and in doing so challenges Chinese imperialism.
By Tim Robertson
September 22, 2014

If one stands at the foot of the Potala Palace – once the residence of the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa – and looks south, the beauty of the surrounding mountains and old Tibetan architecture is somewhat marred by a concrete monolith erected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It’s somewhat hopefully titled the Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. When I was there in April last year I took a photo of it and, in the time that it took to bring the view into focus, two armored Chinese military vehicles had driven into my shot and were captured in time.

This is what peace and liberation looks like today in the one-time Himalayan kingdom. Lhasa is an occupied city. Police, security forces, and military officers have flooded the city in recent years. They stand on every street corner, march through the city’s squares, “guard” the temples, and terrorize Tibetans.

This once far-away city is undergoing a face-lift of sorts (perhaps this isn’t the right analogy, since its becoming markedly uglier). The expanding dusty outskirts look like any other small, non-descript Chinese city: soulless concrete shops and apartments, built solely with functionality in mind, line the recently re-laid roads. They’re occupied mostly by recently migrated Han Chinese, many of whom have accepted government subsidies to relocate. This has been an effective policy, for the CCP and Han Chinese residents now outnumber Tibetans in the capital.

Lhasa bears the mark of present-day Chinese colonialism: in regions across the country where the CCP expects to face political opposition from the ethnic minority population they move in, take control of the economy, exert their cultural influence, and become dominant, overwhelming the indigenous population.

The façade of unity is threadbare: an edict from the CCP demands that monasteries, temples, and even homes fly the Chinese flag. It may seem trivial, but since the 2008 riots many Tibetans have been locked-up or killed for committing crimes no more serious than waving a Tibetan flag or possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama.

Within China, people almost universally accept the government’s line on Tibet: that it’s only thanks to the CCP that this corner of China is no longer a feudal backwater and, rather than protest it, Tibetans should be thankful for the CCP’s intervention.

Outside China, public opinion generally swings the other way, largely because of the affable Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama. But it would be wrong to mistake this for real sympathy; people like to be seen to care, but any long-term activism takes real commitment. We are fickle beings and the extent of most people’s dedication doesn’t go much beyond retweeting a #FreeTibet hashtag. The most valuable thing the Tibetan cause has going for it is their Nobel Prize-winning leader who can travel the world making his case – a pretty effective megaphone.

It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that without the Dalai Lama, the Free Tibet movement would be bereft. After all, in the West, Tibetan self-immolators almost never make the news and the riots of 2008 are long forgotten.

This is hardly a problem unique to Tibet: Remember the child soldiers enlisted in Kony’s army? Or the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram? Or even the Yazidis? The West doesn’t have much of an attention span when it comes to things happening “over there.” What’s needed when trying to keep people engaged for long periods is “celebrity humanitarianism.” People like Nelson Mandala, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Dalai Lama: individuals who can tirelessly devote themselves to a cause and, more importantly, command a large audience.

The hitch is that – despite the Buddhist belief in reincarnation – the 14th Dalai Lama, once dead, will be just as dead as the rest of us. In recent years, when asked about what will happen to the institution of the Dalai Lama once he dies, he’s said that when he turns 90 he’ll consult the high Lamas, the Tibetan public, and others concerned with Tibetan Buddhism in order to make a decision whether it ought to continue.

But his more recent comments seem to indicate that he’s leaning towards not reincarnating. Speaking to the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, he said that “the institution of the Dalai Lama has served its purpose.” He continued, “We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

Determined not to let reality dictate terms, the CCP responded by feigning sympathy for Tibetan Buddhism and championing their own ludicrous historical record. According to the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, ‘The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

This response gives an insight into what the CCP’s plans to do once the current Dalai Lama dies. Invariably they’ll select their own puppet Dalai Lama, base him in Beijing and roll him out whenever they want to show they’re accepting of Tibetans and their culture. And to most Chinese citizens – who get their fill of “news” from the state-media – this will seem a magnanimous gesture.

The CCP has form when it comes to circumventing Tibetan Buddhist traditions and selecting their own reincarnated Lamas. In 1995 the CCP kidnapped the 11th Panchen Lama – the highest-ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama – and installed their selection in his place. He now resides in Beijing while his kidnapped counterpart remains unaccounted for. Needless to say, Beijing’s choice isn’t recognized by Tibetans.

So what, amidst all this posturing, is the best course of action for those hoping to see China’s hold on Tibet loosened or, ideally, ended? The reality – it should be acknowledged – is that the chance of achieving independence, or even more autonomy, in the conceivable future is miniscule, not least because the Dalai Lama and government-in-exile have almost no bargaining power with the CCP. Beijing has easily rebuffed any international pressure to address the Tibet question and seems content to simply wait until the Dalai Lama dies.

Tibetan activists were able to spark a resurgence in international interest in their cause in 2008 when the Olympics came to Beijing. For the CCP, this was a chance to show the rest of the world that China was a power to rival any other. No longer a poverty-stricken backwater, China had the world tuned into her capital and was keen to impress.

This was the leverage that Tibet had lacked for so long: activists disrupted the torch relay around the world and forced the issue into the international spotlight. Within China, as well as the Chinese diaspora, this raised the ire of patriotic citizens who didn’t want to see their country’s appalling human rights record made the main focus.

But the campaign derailed when an earthquake that killed 69,195 people and left a further 18,392 missing hit Sichuan. The outpouring of grief was overwhelming and the government announced a three-day mourning period, during which the torch relay was suspended. Internationally, people reacted sympathetically and were touched by the Chinese response. In China, a country that’s uncomfortably nationalist in good times, patriotic fervor went into overdrive and, with that, any traction Tibetan activists may have hoped to gain was dashed.

The Dalai Lama has long said he’d settle for autonomy within the Chinese state, but this has about as much chance of happening as China recognizing Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands. As China’s economy grows, Tibet’s state-supporters – already a rather meek lot – will continue to diminish. The most recent example is South Africa’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.

With this in mind, his recent response to the question of whether he thinks he’ll ever see Tibet again seems misguided: “Yes, I am sure of that. China can no longer isolate itself, it must follow the global trend towards a democratic society.” Now aged 79, he must be the only person in the world so sure of this. One can’t help but feel this kind of complacency rather takes the fight and vim out of the struggle for independence.

However, there have also been times when the Dalai Lama has proven to be a rather shrewd political operator. He’s amassed a great deal of support for his cause throughout the world. He has also not received enough credit for his decision to transform the Tibetan government-in-exile from a theocracy to a democracy in 2011 by abdicating and transferring power to an elected prime minister. It’s a rare thing for an absolute ruler to acknowledge that his rule is fundamentally unfair and unjust, and to voluntarily give it up is rarer still, yet that’s what the Dalai Lama did.

This decision hints at his thinking on whether or not to reincarnate: he seems to hope that once he’s dead and, with the institution of the Dalai Lama dissolved, the political fight will be left to the politicians. This is all very radical thinking from what’s always been a very conservative institution. Moreover, with seemingly no leverage, the Dalai Lama is pushing back against Chinese imperialism.

By refusing to reincarnate, the Dalai Lama will make it more difficult for the CCP to give the impression that any puppet-leader the party installs has any legitimacy in the eyes of Tibetans. He’s also undoubtedly mindful of the fact that the move towards a democratic secular government-in-exile contrasts with the Communist Party’s brand of one-party authoritarianism.

Watching Tibetans go about their daily lives in Lhasa couldn’t feel further removed from all this politicking. Although a shadow of its former self, Lhasa is still the most sacred place in the world for Tibetan Buddhists and it draws many fanatically devout worshippers from across the Tibetan plateau.

While soldiers with automatic weapons look on, people endlessly perambulate the Potala Palace spinning prayer wheels, others performing a kind of ritual reach-for-the-sky-kiss-the-ground routine with each step. This is – save the military – quintessential Tibet; yet, one feels that if it’s ever going to be a political force, this is the kind of superstition it needs to outgrow. Until then, the Dalai Lama’s efforts to annex it from the machinations of Sino-Tibetan politics are the best hope the government-in-exile has of one day returning to its homeland.

Tim Robertson (@timrobertson12) is a Beijing-based independent journalist and writer.



Roberta Rich, an Inspiration

I attended a Gibsons Public Library special book club event on Saturday afternoon. Roberta Rich, author of the brilliant historical novels The Midwife of Venice and The Harem Midwife was a guest speaker. Her description of how and what she researched for her two books stimulated my creative juices and I wished I had brought pen and paper with me.

Roberta’s research was extensive, first about the Venice Jewish getto, then for her second book, the Muslim communities of Istanbul. It covered everything, from daily life, to celebrations, to Harem culture, even down to the beauty products the women used. She even addressed the topic of writing about what you don’t know about, contrary to popular advice, as she did.

My next venture will be into the area of fiction, a short novel about a Tibetan nomad girl who escaped to India in her early twenties, diligantly pursuing her English studies, then eventually emigrating to the United States. Because fiction is a new landscape for me, other than a children’s story I wrote in 2009, I will be part of a writing group here Gibsons.

On another topic, we had a lovely welcome celebration for our latest Tibetan arrival, a young male artist, yesterday at Roberts Creek Cohousing, where some of our sponsors live. Three other new arrivals, also young men this time, came over from Vancouver for the event. As our co-ordinator spoke briefly, then Lama Tsundu welcomed each man with a khata scarf around his neck, amidst lots of clapping, I felt my heart open. This is what it’s all about I thought – cultures coming together, people helping each other.

We’re beginning our preparations for our India visit next year, travels in Tamal Nadu, then volunteering and soaking in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala’s amazing energy. Then back home and onto our next sponsorship.

Contact me if you live on the Lower Sunshine Coast and are interested in learning more about sponsoring. We’ll be hosting an information evening next month.




Lifechange: Sponsor a Tibetan Family or Individual

FlagsIt’s been an amazing summer here in Gibsons and we’ve been relaxing into it, with swimming, Music in the Landing and friends over for dinner on the deck. Our Tibetan family is settling into their own lovely home, where Tibetan flags flying outside the house greet visitors and a beautiful altar gives their living room a tranquil feeling.

Our five year Tibetan Resettlement Project is past the halfway mark now. Of the 1000 people who won the lottery in Arunachal Pradesh, fewer than 200 have settled in Canada. Many of those waiting to come will not make it: time is running out and Canadian sponsors are few are far between.

Arunachal Pradesh, where all the applicants for this resettlement project come from, is the northernmost of the six Indian Tribal States, nestled between Myanmar and Bhutan, and south of China. China has laid claim to more than half the state, although it is still under Indian Army rule.

Life for Tibetans living in this remote place is harsh; His Holiness the Dalai Lama considers that there is no future for them there. Families are very poor unless the breadwinner works away from home, as is the case in many families. Even then money earned is quite limited. The main jobs available are in the Tibetan-Nepalese regiment of the Indian Army, where Tibetans are paid wages lower than their Indian counterparts.

In order to get a decent education, Tibetan children are also separated from their families, attending Tibetan boarding schools farther south in the state of Himachal Pradesh, if they are fortunate enough to have sponsors.

Don and I are looking to form our second sponsorship group, to sponsor a Tibetan couple who will live in our home, beginning in the latter part of 2015. We need three committed sponsors who live in the Gibsons area to form a group.

I can assure you, that although the commitment is a big one, what you will get back far exceeds what you put in. If you are interested in joining with us in Gibsons, or working with others in the Sechelt area, we would like to meet with you. I’m sure the Tibetan families now on the Sunshine Coast would be happy to speak with you also.

Tashi delek (Tibetan for blessings)




Summer, Time to Kick Back

Summer is a time when we enjoy kicking back, doing the things we’ve been putting off. We thoroughly enjoyed a neighbourhood potluck in the park yesterday evening. It’s a two minute walk from our house & overlooks the ocean & the beach where we swim in the summertime.

Word of mouth is quite amazing here in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast of BC, & just two emails brought about about 40 people! There was even entertainment; our nextdoor neighbours, ages 11 & 15, on keyboard & fiddle, along with two younger girls also playing fiddles. They’ve been playing at the new Gibsons Public Market  & are very good.

Our *** Tibetan sponsorship family *** has moved into their own home & are now learning the bus routes & so on. So the bulk of our work is done, now we just need to help them with the final parts of learning to live in Canada.

I’ve been relaxing on our deck when time & weather permits, reading a lot, even for me. Here’s what I’ve been looking at:

The Circle by Dave Eggers: Found this long novel quite compelling & read it in 3 days. It takes social networking & the gathering of personal information to the nth degree. Scary but fascinating!

Sing You Home by Jody Picoult: Her writing, on a vast variety of subjects is always captivating, & her plots excellent. Not for the faint of heart though or if you’re looking for upbeat.

Big Jack (Sequel to Hot Rocks) by J D Robb: Found these in a used book store, then ordered them from a library in the town north of ours. Not one of her best, but still fun (maybe I’ve been reading too many of hers lately). Eve Dallas & Roarke are pretty cool to ‘watch’ always.

Nine Parts Desire by Geraldine Brooks: This one just showed up in my house, no idea how it got there. A true tale about Muslim women in many countries, through the eyes of a journalist who has travelled there. Much of it is anecdotes about real Muslim women she met.


Canada’s Tibetan Resettlement Project is halfway through (2-1/2 years), & only 200+ of the 1000 exiled Tibetans who won the lottery have arrived from remote northeast India. We need more sponsors, housing & donations.




In Praise of Nature

I had what was probably the best sleep of my adult life on the ground in an out of season campground outside Salmon Arm, BC. It was many years ago, I was hitchhiking with my partner from Vancouver to Medicine Hat,  where we would catch the train to Toronto, our home. On the grassy field, right out in the open, I slept like a baby, so deeply immersed in my dreams that I had to be shaken awake in the early morning when the rain came.

Most of us spend much of our time indoors, unless we’re fortunate enough to have outdoor jobs or to have finished our scheduled work careers, grabbing an hour or so when we can. I find I’m drawn to nature more each year, and this year I have the urge to sleep in my ‘outdoor room’, the sixth room of my house in summertime. But I like my creature comforts like memory foam bed and I must admit I’m more than a bit nervous of the night time visitors that often trigger the sensor light outside our bedroom window.

Coyotes…not so bad, but bears, now that’s another story. We know they don’t look for confrontations, but when a roly poly bear cub runs right past my studio door, a mere four yards from the back door of my house, in broad daylight, I’m expecting an anxious mama bear to come stomping right behind. The animal control officer in Victoria (they’re on duty 24/7 BTW), after hearing my description, told me that this was a yearling, not a cub. Bears that weigh from 50 to 80 pounds are about a year old, and are autonomous or semi-autonomous by then.

So after all this excitement, I guess I’ll soak in nature during the daylight hours, on long walks along the waterfront or meals and reading on my deck, erring on the side of caution!