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The Long Road
The central question surrounding Tibet, of course, is what will happen when the current Dalai Lama dies. In preparation for that event, the man has been stressing for years that the function of any Dalai Lama is only to fulfill the work of the previous Dalai Lama; therefore, any young child selected by Chinese authorities and declared to be the 15th Dalai Lama, a Beijing puppet, will not be the true "Dalai Lama of Tibetan hearts." As practical and flexible as ever and holding to the Buddhist ideas of impermanence and nonattachment, he told me as far back as 1996, "At a certain stage, the Dalai Lama institution will disappear. But that does not mean that Tibetan Buddhist culture will cease. No!" Most Tibetans, however, cannot abide the thought of a future without their traditional leader.
The deeper issue, as the Dalai Lama always stresses, is that names and forms are unimportant so long as something more fundamental is sustained. The Buddha's joband therefore that of his most prominent contemporary studentwas not just to be clear-sighted and compassionate but also to show how compassionate and clear-sighted any one of us can be. In that regard, it hardly matters whether the terms Dalai Lama or Buddhism or even Tibet continue to exist. As it is, thanks to the exodus of Tibetans in the past half-century, Tibetan culture and Buddhism have become part of the global neighborhood. Whereas there were all of two Tibetan Buddhist centers in the West in 1968, there are now more than 40 in New York City alone. In Taiwan, there are more than 200. More French people call themselves Buddhist than Protestant or Jew.
Perhaps most significant, some of the people most eagerly drawn to Tibetan tradition and Buddhism are, in fact, citizens of China, who have been denied any religious sustenance for more than 50 years. The last time I visited Lhasa, in 2002, I saw more and more Chinese individuals going to the Jokhang Temple at the center of town as pilgrims, seeking out Tibetan lamas for instruction, even trying to learn Tibetan, the same language that is all but banned for Tibetans. When I traveled across Japan with the Dalai Lama last November, I saw dozens of Chinese people clustering around him, sobbing and asking for his blessing and, 30 minutes later, saw another group of Chinese, much more poised and sophisticated, eager to talk to him about their plans for democracy in the mainland.
"If 30 years from now, Tibet is 6 million Tibetans and 10 million Chinese Buddhists," the Tibetan leader said to me five years ago, "then maybe something will be O.K." As the world looks toward Beijing and its glittering coming-out party this August, and the Chinese government prepares to unveil all the fruits of its recent remarkable economic achievements, oppressed citizens in Tibet and elsewhere will no doubt use the same opportunity to remind the world of what has been lost in terms of freedom and humanity in the rush for those achievements. The calm scientist in monk robes, however, with his habit of looking at the deeper causes beneath every surface, will surely keep noting that the only revolution that lasts and that can truly help us toward a better world is the one that begins inside.