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Dalai Lama’s journey provokes China, and hints at his heir

April 10, 2017

By Ellen Barry

New York Times, April 6, 2017 - It has been a hard journey for the 81-year-old Dalai Lama, perhaps his last over the mountain passes at the edge of China, to a town that has played a fateful role in his life, and in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

Violent rains buffeted the small plane he flew into the valley. His party was forced to continue overland, traveling seven or eight hours a day over steep serpentine roads, lined with villagers hoping to glimpse him.

Each day, as he came closer to the holy site of Tawang, China pressed India more forcefully to stop his progress, its warnings growing increasingly ominous.

By Thursday, a day before the Dalai Lama was expected to reach Tawang, the official China Daily wrote that Beijing “would not hesitate to answer blows with blows” if the Indian authorities allowed the Dalai Lama to continue.

At stake on this journey, scholars said, is the monumental question of who will emerge as the Dalai Lama’s successor — and whether that successor, typically a baby identified as the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, will live inside or outside China’s zone of influence.

By visiting Tawang, a Tibetan Buddhist stronghold that was the birthplace of a previous Dalai Lama, he is expertly needling Beijing, which maintains that this area should be part of China. He is also consolidating his sect’s deep roots among the population, potentially laying the groundwork for a reincarnation there.

“He is a wise Lama, and he is thinking far ahead, as he always has,” said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research. “He is not given to sentimental reasoning. There is nothing about his trip to Arunachal Pradesh that is sentimental in its nature.”

Tawang is home to the Monpa people, who practice Tibetan Buddhism and once paid tribute to rulers in Lhasa, 316 miles to the north. Though the town’s population is about 11,000, officials said they were expecting as many as 60,000 to gather for the Dalai Lama’s appearances at Tawang’s monastery this weekend.

“We have been preparing for the last two months,” said Lobsang Khum, secretary of the monastery. “Everybody wants to see him, get his blessings, touch his feet. For us, the Dalai Lama is more important than our lives.”

The most treasured lore among the Monpa surrounds Tsangyang Gyatso, who in 1682 became the sixth Dalai Lama. People here make pilgrimages to his childhood home, where a stone is displayed with a faint footprint said to be his, and speak longingly of the possibility that it could happen again.

“That is the dream of many people here, that the next Dalai Lama should be born in Tawang,” said Sang Phuntsok, Tawang’s deputy commissioner. Tsering Tashi, a local legislator, said that, as a layman, he had no business commenting, but in the end he could not restrain himself. “I wish that the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama happens in Tawang,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

The Dalai Lama has been enigmatic about how his successor will be chosen.

In the past, monks have turned to visions and oracles to lead them to a child conceived just as the previous Dalai Lama died. Having identified a child, they administer tests seeking to confirm that he is the reincarnated lama, such as asking him to pick out objects belonging to his predecessor.

But that method would leave Tibetan Buddhism without a leader for at least a year, allowing China to identify and promote its own candidate. The Dalai Lama has hinted that he may instead opt for a nontraditional selection process, selecting a child or an adult to succeed him while he is still alive.

Aging Tibetan Buddhist lamas have, in some cases, visited places where they would later be reincarnated as babies, and the Dalai Lama’s visits to Tawang and Mongolia seemed to fall into that pattern, said Robert J. Barnett, a historian of modern Tibet at Columbia University.

“This is a way of getting under the skin of the Chinese, of probing them, and reminding them that they have no control over where the next reincarnation occurs,” he said.

As the Dalai Lama’s arrival in Tawang grew closer this week, Chinese statements grew increasingly bellicose, a tactic that has succeeded in pressuring officials of many countries to snub the Tibetan leader.

On Wednesday, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said India had “obstinately arranged” the Dalai Lama’s visit, causing “serious damage” to bilateral ties. On Thursday, The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, suggested that China could retaliate by supporting the anti-Indian militancy in Kashmir.

“Can India afford the consequence?” it asked sarcastically. “With a G.D.P. several times higher than that of India, military capabilities that can reach the Indian Ocean and having good relations with India’s peripheral nations, coupled with the fact that India’s turbulent northern state borders China, will Beijing lose to New Delhi?”

Though India is typically wary of provoking China, several officials have been unusually pugnacious in their responses. Pema Khandu, the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, took the unusual step this week of stating that an independent Tibet, not China, is India’s true northern neighbor.

“Let me get this straight,” Mr. Khandu told journalists. “China has no business telling us what to do and what not to do because it is not our next-door neighbor.”

The Dalai Lama, for his part, has been characteristically jovial to the crowd of journalists trailing after him, expounding cheerily on subjects from quantum physics to global warming. He hardly needs to do more, Mr. Barnett said.

“He doesn’t have to do anything except exist and be his usual beaming self to embarrass the Chinese,” he said. “He will be right on the border, he will be a complete free person, he will be only meters away from Chinese territory, but they cannot do anything about it.”

The Dalai Lama also revisited his escape from Tibet in 1959, when he fled a Chinese military crackdown in Lhasa. Disguised, and with a small group of aides, he crossed the mountain passes to safety in Tawang.

He was reunited this week with Naren Chandra Das, 76, an Indian soldier who escorted him on the last three days. The two embraced before the cameras: the former soldier painfully thin, his eyes clouded by cataracts; the monk apple-cheeked and jovial.

“I became old, but he stays the same,” Mr. Das said. “He is a big man, the king of Tibet.”

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