A Conversation with the Dalai Lama

His Holiness on his reincarnation and his decision to step down as head of the Tibetan government

July 21, 2011 9:45 AM ET
The Dalai Lama retires
Protector of the People: The Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C., on July 8th, 2011.
Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

The sun is shining on Tsuglakhang temple, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, and hundreds of Tibetans have gathered in the courtyard for a feast. As Buddhist monks ladle out white rice and stewed vegetables, horns blow and cymbals crash. Such celebrations are common here — the monks often feed local villagers as an act of service to earn karmic merit — but the festive air seems to capture the mood of the man who lives next to the temple. The Dalai Lama, despite many heartfelt petitions by his constituents, has finally been granted his wish for official retirement from government duties.

The Tibetan Parliament had twice urged His Holiness to reconsider, but he had declined even to read a message from them or meet with legislators. His mind was made up. On May 29th, the papers were signed and the Tibetan charter amended. The act marks a remarkable and voluntary separation of church and state: For the first time in more than 350 years, the Dalai Lama is no longer the secular as well as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

Although the Tibetan government-in-exile has been largely democratic for decades, the Dalai Lama still had the final say in every major political decision within the diaspora. He appointed foreign envoys, determined the scope and timing of negotiations with China, had the power to sign or veto bills and could even dismiss Parliament. Now, with his signature, his formal title has changed from "Head of Nation" to "Protector and Symbol of Tibet and Tibetan People." Many of his political responsibilities will rest on the shoulders of Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard legal scholar who was elected in April to the post of prime minister.

China, dismissing the transfer of power as a "trick," has refused to meet with Sangay. The Communist government believes that the struggle for Tibetan autonomy will die with the Dalai Lama; all they have to do is wait him out. But by turning the reins of government over to the governed, His Holiness is banking on democracy's ability to serve as an effective bulwark against Chinese oppression. At 76, he knows he won't be around to steer the ship of state forever. Tibetans, he believes, must learn to steer it for themselves.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was born in 1935, the son of a farmer in a small Tibetan village. In accordance with ancient tradition, the dreams and visions of high lamas and oracles eventually led a search party to the boy. At age two, he successfully identified people and possessions from his past life and was officially recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. At four, he entered the capital of Lhasa and was named the spiritual leader of his people. At 15, he became head of state. In 1959, as tensions with the Chinese army reached a flash point, he fled to India, where he has led the Tibetan diaspora ever since.

Looking back over his 60 years of leadership, he has much to be proud of. He has established a successful and stable government in exile and stood firm against a brutal regime. As the first Dalai Lama to travel to the West, he has also extolled the virtues of nonviolence to millions, a lifelong effort that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. As the spiritual leader of Tibet, he remains the personification of his nation's struggle.

I have known His Holiness since 1990, when I wrote Kundun, a movie about his childhood directed by Martin Scorsese. Since then, we have developed a lasting friendship. I continue to work as an activist for Tibetan autonomy and serve on the board of the International Campaign for Tibet. Every day I pray for Tenzin Gyatso's long life.

When we meet on June 2nd in his reception area behind the busy main temple in the dusty Indian hill town of McLeod Ganj, he asks if he still looks as healthy as the last time we met. Yes, I tell him — even younger, if possible. But, I add, his eyes look older. "That's right," he says. He wishes to inform me, however, that he hasn't needed to increase his eyeglass prescription — in part because he doesn't use a computer. "I never even tried," he says, breaking into his distinct, ebullient laugh. "I don't know how!"

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