By Melissa Mathison
July 21, 2011
His Holiness on his reincarnation and his decision to step down as head of the Tibetan government
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.
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