Dharmsala, India: The question looms over this raggedy hillside town, a place where ancient mysticism constantly brushes against the realities of modern geopolitics. The monks who fled across the Himalayas ask it quietly, as do the exile politicians. Even the angry young activists are careful how they raise the issue.
But as the man at the center of the Tibetan exile movement approaches his 75th birthday, the question has become impossible to escape: What happens after the Dalai Lama dies?
The issue echoes far from Dharmsala, the Dalai Lama's home since he fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. It ranges from policy decisions in Beijing to widespread fears inside Tibet and among the 150,000 exiles that their struggle for autonomy may collapse with the death of their icon.
It is something he thinks about all the time.
"When I pass away, when I die, of course (there will be) a setback. Very serious setback," the Dalai Lama said quietly in a recent interview in his private hilltop compound, speaking in his often-tangled English. His words spill out in bursts, and he can veer suddenly between resignation and determination. "But then, this younger generation will carry this on. There is no question."
That younger generation, though, isn't so sure.
"Right now we are under His Holiness' leadership," said Tenzin Norlha, a 29-year-old Tibetan genetics researcher in Dharmsala, her face creased with worry. While the Dalai Lama is thought to be in reasonable health, he has struggled with a series of ailments in recent years and turns 75 in July. "After he passes away, then what will we see? ... Who can take care of us as His Holiness has done?"
It is hard to exaggerate the hold that the Dalai Lama, like his predecessors over the centuries, has over Tibetans. To them he is a king, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the embodiment of compassion. He is The Presence, The Holder of the White Lotus, The Absolute Wisdom, The Ocean. His presence often reduces his followers to speechless weeping.
For nearly 500 years the tradition has continued, with each dead Dalai Lama reincarnated into the body of a young Tibetan boy. But with Tibet's leadership in exile and an aging Dalai Lama, Tibetan history is at a precipice.
"Once the Dalai Lama dies, the whole exile structure is going to be under enormous pressure," said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University.
Among the possible aftershocks: a rival Dalai Lama anointed inside China, home to some 5.4 million Tibetans; squabbling among various Buddhist sects; a plunge in donations; infighting in the exile government and a drop in interest among wealthy foreign supporters and young activists.
Why should we trust China?
In many ways, the Dalai Lama is a man who could be undone by his own charisma. Behind the monk's robes he might look like a midwestern 1960s retiree — with a buzz haircut, oversized glasses, maroon polyester socks and orthopedic shoes — but decades of visitors have talked about his ability to make intense personal connections. He laughs loudly, he slaps playfully at people he barely knows.
His most fervent Western supporters revere him as a mystical amalgam of Nelson Mandela and Yoda, and his wealthy and powerful allies range from actor Richard Gere to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
He will be a hard man to follow.
"The Tibetan government is now standing on the strength of one man," said Jamyang Norbu, a writer who once fought for the small, long-disbanded Tibetan guerrilla army. He is one of the most outspoken intellectuals favoring complete Tibetan independence, as opposed to the limited autonomy the Dalai Lama now demands.
Norbu worries about the personality cult that surrounds the Dalai Lama, and the way his god-like status can make it difficult for dissenting voices to be heard. "In many ways I am loyal to him. But it's difficult to have an independent point of view" in the exile community, he said from his Tennessee home.
The Dalai Lama, the 14th in the line of reincarnations, has at times insisted his reincarnation would be born in exile and has also said the tradition could end with his death. He has talked about dividing his power, with his reincarnation carrying on spiritual duties while someone else — perhaps someone he appoints — takes up the leadership of the exile movement.
He regularly meets with high-ranking monks to discuss his succession. The group includes the Karmapa, a 24-year-old monk known for his daring escape from China and appreciation of PlayStation war games. Many observers believe he is being groomed to take on more power.
Publicly, the Dalai Lama often treats the issue lightly — his advisers "are hoping my life may remain infinite," he said, laughing — but he is clearly sending up trial balloons, gauging what his followers will accept after he dies.
And always, Beijing's potential reactions are weighed.
"There's a fear that unless we can strengthen the exile government before His Holiness passes away, the Chinese will make a strong attempt to control his reincarnation process," said Norbu.
China has left little doubt that it intends to be deeply involved in the Dalai Lama's succession, ridiculing his scenarios and insisting that religious law requires the reincarnation be born in a Tibetan area under Chinese control.
This means a government led by fierce atheists may soon be trying to steer an ancient mystical process, using monks loyal to Beijing to install a China-approved successor.
The Dalai Lama shrugs at the idea: "This is very possible," he said, adding no one will be fooled: "One Dalai Lama is official; one Dalai Lama is Dalai Lama of the Tibetan heart."
Such a move would echo Beijing's tactics with the Panchen Lama, one of the leading figures in Tibetan Buddhism. In 1995, when the Dalai Lama named a young boy as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, that boy disappeared and has not been seen since.
Nepal in fresh Dalai Lama row
Another boy, backed by Beijing, was soon named the official reincarnation, though he has little support among Tibetans.
It was far different in 1939 when, after a series of mystical signs, a young Tibetan boy named Lhamo Dhondrub was announced at age 2 to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.
The new Dalai Lama was enthroned in a feudal Himalayan kingdom that had remained deeply isolated until well into the 20th century. It was a place where indentured servitude was common, telephones nearly unknown and where, in the 1930s, a politician was sentenced by the Tibetan government to having his eyeballs removed for trying to use black magic to kill a rival.
The Dalai Lama found himself jousting with China while he was still a teenager. In 1950, when he was 15, Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet. Nine years later, as talks with Beijing collapsed and a Tibetan uprising was crushed, the Dalai Lama fled with a handful of supporters across the mountains into India.
Over the past half-century, the once-feudal king has become a master of the modern world. He is an ascetic Buddhist monk long accustomed to celebrities who want to prostrate themselves before him. He travels and lectures constantly. He has raised tens of millions of dollars for the Tibetan cause, supporting everything from orphanages to a soccer team. He has become an international symbol of peace.
In Beijing, though, he's something different: "A jackal wearing a monk's robe," one China-appointed Tibetan official said. "A demon," said another. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of being a "splittist" who is secretly plotting for Tibet's complete independence from China.
Tibetan exile leaders and independent human rights observers, meanwhile, say China is systematically stripping Tibet of its heritage. Ethnic Han Chinese are pouring into the region, while Beijing has arrested generations of political activists and oversees a vast military and intelligence network that reaches into nearly every village and monastery.
While the Dalai Lama still advocates talks with China — the discussions have limped along for years — he has few other choices.
"So far, dialogue failed, but that does not mean in future no possibility," he said in the Dharmsala interview. He insists one minute that change is at hand, but then says he is always disappointed. "Eventually, all these hopes disappear."
Today, increasing numbers of Tibetans are putting their hope in a new generation of political leaders.
Dalai Lama advocates unity-in-diversity to world leaders
In 2011, Tibetans will choose the exile government's next prime minister, an election widely seen as the most democratic yet for the exiles. Reflecting the constant tug here between tradition and modernity, exile politicians have long tried to do what they think the Dalai Lama wants — while the Dalai Lama says politicians need to make their own decisions.
"In a way, it's like saying 'Who will be our next leader?'" said Tenzin Choeying of the activist group Students for a Free Tibet. "Without mentioning His Holiness, this is a way of addressing the issue" of his death.
And, he insists, one day the movement will succeed: "People say we're dreamers, but the same thing might have been said about Indians who wanted independence (from England) in the 1890s."
That pervading sense of hope is perhaps the strangest thing about Dharmsala, this town of Tibetans and wandering hippies, with its astrologers, crystal shops and enough yoga masters to form a small but exceedingly limber army.
The Dalai Lama, despite his occasional lapses into pessimism, is hopeful that things will improve in Tibet. The activists are hopeful.
Even the state oracle is hopeful.
The oracle is an avuncular 52-year-old monk named Thupten Ngodup who, during trances, is said to be able to communicate with the spirit world and look into the future. He is a powerful political and spiritual adviser to the government and the Dalai Lama.
Ngodup, who fled Tibet as a child, has no doubt that he'll return.
"Perhaps my hope might sound a little stupid," he said in his monastery office. "But in this century, the era of dictatorship is passing."
"Change will come," he said. "Change will come to China."