Photo: Luca Sartoni/Flickr
Photo: Luca Sartoni/Flickr

Tibet: Impossible yet existent?

A reinvigorated spiritual politics of Tibetan Buddhism could prove to be a way forward.

Mila Samdub is a writer and curator based in New Delhi. He studied creative writing at Bard College in upstate New York and worked as a curator and programmes manager at Khoj International Artists Association.

A confusion of sounds: the gurgle of two-stroke engines, big-truck roars, bicycle bells, the crunch of pickaxes breaking earth. A band of musicians sits in a line on the roadside playing flute, tabla, and tambourines. A traffic policeman yells instructions into a bullhorn. Speakers installed on lampposts carry sounds from the main prayer ground: the sombre drone of Tibetan monks in chant, or more upbeat Indian Buddhist prayers, returning every few minutes to the Dalai Lama's deep voice, audible everywhere, explaining what the monks have just chanted or dispensing life advice, occasionally breaking into that famous good-natured laugh. During the final four days of the fortnight's proceedings, between 10 and 14 January, 2017, the Dalai Lama delivers the Kalachakra empowerment, a series of esoteric tantric initiations and visualisations which hardly anyone can understand but everyone is here for. His words are clipped, as if spoken in meter. The reverb on the PA system saturates the careful pauses in his speech with cascading trails of the previous syllables, like after-images from an intensely bright light.
The Cham dance
After the preliminary teachings end, a day is set aside for the propitiatory Cham dance. Weighed down in richly brocaded costumes, with silver ornaments and ritual instruments in their hands, a group of monks walks on stage with great gravity. Unlike on other days, the Dalai Lama is seated to one side: the Cham is to be the main act. The monks take their positions, commence a sonorous chant; they raise their right legs, angle their instruments just so; with a clash of cymbals, the dance begins. They are erecting an invisible vajra fence which will prepare the ground for the main Kalachakra empowerment. Arms trace magical shapes with hypnotic regularity. The figures move from one formation to another. Their chant swells, then ebbs, again and again. The air comes alive; some energy is shifting.

I felt we were witnessing the emergence of novel formation: a combination of a reinvigorated Tibetan Buddhist spiritual politics and a geopolitics in which Tibetans don't own a land.

Meanwhile brightly costumed people begin to assemble in one corner of the enormous tent. In groups they take to the stage and begin to perform. The monks are relegated to the back of the stage but they continue their movements with unabated intensity, their chanting drowned out now by a succession of less holy tones: an uptempo call-and-response song of the people, the women's voices raised in glassy chorus, a flute piece by a Vietnamese monk, a farmer's song from Eastern Tibet. A group from the Russian republic of Kalmykia leap frenziedly around, accompanied by an orchestral pop number. On the big screens mounted around the tent, we see a monk standing backstage, dressed in workaday maroon robes, holding up his mobile phone to record the spectacle: the Cham dancers struggling to keep focus, their gaze slipping again and again to the leaping Kalmyks in front of them. Despite the tantric gravity of the Cham, the crowd laughs out loud at the absurdity of what we are seeing. Performers come and go, from Nepal, Bhutan, different parts of Tibet, Mongolia, the Russian Republic of Buryatia, and so on. Some are professionals, others untrained pilgrims, all wishing to represent their countries in front of the Dalai Lama.
The performers' origins coincide with older spheres of Tibetan imperial and religious influence, harking back to the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century. In a contemporary touch, these are joined by some new entrants, like Korea and Vietnam, all parading themselves in front of the present Dalai Lama and the Cham dancers. In the cacophony and confusion, I felt we were witnessing the emergence of novel formation: a combination of a reinvigorated Tibetan Buddhist spiritual politics and a geopolitics in which Tibetans don't own a land.
Nation-building in exile
When the Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959, they found themselves in a world fresh with anti-colonial struggles and newly independent nations. These countries were claiming their place in a global order of nation states modelled on the Westphalian system that had flourished in Europe since the 17th century. Central to this order was the notion that a state had sovereign control over a territory with defined borders. The new nations, prominent among them India, to which the Tibetans had escaped, also inherited from their former colonial rulers the principles of liberal democracy. For the Tibetans, struggling in an unfamiliar land and hoping to gain back their lost home, participation in international politics meant emulating such a setup in exile. Beginning with the 1963 draft constitution of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Tibetans began to set up a modern state in Southasia – which would in successive stages draw closer to the ideals of liberal democracy. The new government mimicked the Indian model, to the extent that it came to include a planning commission that promulgated five-year plans.

The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 caused a more unified [Tibetan] identity to emerge, with Khampas spearheading a resistance based out of Lhasa.

In the early years of exile, the national category of 'Tibetan' was not self-evident. At the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, much of the ethnic Tibetan population lived in the regions of Kham and Amdo, which lay beyond the eastern limits of the Dalai Lama's state centred in Lhasa. The Tibetan Buddhists of these regions looked to Lhasa, with its great monasteries and markets, as a site of spiritual authority and economic possibility, but the Lhasa government rarely had any administrative influence on the ground. Kham and Amdo were controlled instead by various authorities, from Tibetan chieftains in the steep valleys of Kham to the Hui Muslim Ma clique that ruled the plateau around Lake Kokonor. Yet the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 caused a more unified identity to emerge, with Khampas spearheading a resistance based out of Lhasa. In the years following the Dalai Lama's escape to India in March 1959, over 80,000 Tibetans followed him across the Himalayas. Among them were also the Khampas and Amdowas who had lived beyond the administrative authority of his erstwhile government. In later years, many more escaped into exile from these outer regions, which were incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan.
Along with its aim of seeking freedom for Tibet – by supporting a protracted CIA-funded guerrilla war in the 1960s and 1970s and through international campaigning – the Tibetan-Government-in-Exile began to serve these new refugees. Shortly after its formation, it created settlements in India, Nepal, and Bhutan with a rationalised bureaucracy, health, educational and welfare systems. Monks escaping from Tibet set up monasteries in exile that bore the names and claimed the lineages of the monasteries they had left behind. The great three monasteries of Lhasa, Ganden, Drepung and Sera, were transplanted to the settlements of Mundgod and Bylakuppe in tropical Karnataka. A network of schools sprang up, including the exile-state-run Central School for Tibetans and the Tibetan Children's Villages which were founded and overseen by the Dalai Lama's sister. A Tibetan-language curriculum was devised. The settlements where the exiles began their new lives were carefully maintained mini-Tibets, relatively unmixed with their Indian surroundings and thus spaces where Tibetan identity and culture could be kept alive.
As part of these efforts, the government-in-exile also began to actively shape a monolithic identity for its people. In language, in dress and in customs, a central Tibetan hegemony emerged. The complex, shifting territory of Tibet with its various regions and diverse borderlands was distilled into a simplistic map comprised of the three provinces, Utsang, Amdo and Kham, that children are taught in Tibetan exile schools. This three-province framework also formed the basis for a parliamentary system and would become central to the exile government's claims to authority. With these developments, Tibetan ethnicity, territory and governance came to coincide in a way that was legible in the global nation state order.

The question of Independence and Middle Way has since been the focus of an increasingly tired debate in exile.

But while exile institutions, directly and indirectly administered by the government-in-exile, did well to create and provide for a new population (to the extent that newspaper reports often describe exile Tibetans as the most successful refugee community in the world), Tibetans were less successful in winning back their homeland. With the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 and a rapprochement between Mao Tse Tung and Richard Nixon, the CIA withdrew support for the Tibetan guerilla army, spelling the end of armed resistance. After the dissolution of armed struggle, the exile Tibetans needed a new strategy.
In 1988, at the summer session of the European Parliament at Strasbourg, the Dalai Lama inaugurated the Middle Way policy, marking a shift away from the government-in-exile's demand for independence. Under the new policy, which remains in effect, the government-in-exile sought "genuine autonomy", which could supposedly be pursued within the Chinese communist Constitution. The question of Independence and Middle Way has since been the focus of an increasingly tired debate in exile. The two camps have been talking at cross purposes: independence is conviction without policy, and Middle Way is policy without conviction. Above all, faced with the reality of an increasingly powerful and uninterested China today, both are impossible goals. But though the inauguration of the Middle Way was an enormous policy shift that we are still arguing about, it continued to operationalise the same categories: Tibet as the three provinces and the Tibetans as a homogenous ethnic-religious group as its inhabitants. Even after the failure of successive rounds of dialogue with the Chinese government, the Central Tibetan Administration hasn't given up its demand that the Utsang, Kham and Amdo, today parts of various Chinese provinces, be combined into a single administrative unit.
Around 2011, as China gained economic clout and international pressure began to dwindle, the Middle Way approach broke down. The Chinese were no longer interested. Although still the official policy, in the face of Chinese intransigence it can't possibly have any results. In the same year, perhaps sensing the futility of the Middle Way, but officially as a move to further democracy, the Dalai Lama officially stepped down as the political leader of the Tibetan people. In a dramatic move, he "took back" the Ganden Phodrang, the metonymous institution that referred both to the personal quarters of the Dalai Lama and the government that had ruled Lhasa since the 5th Dalai Lama's reign in 1642. The centuries-long association between the Dalai Lama institution and the Tibetan state was severed. The Tibetan Government in Exile became the Central Tibetan Administration. Its elected leader, the kalon tripa, or prime minister, became the sikyong, simply leader. According to the Dalai Lama, delinking the exile government from his lineage would ensure the survival of the exile setup after his death. But many exile Tibetan intellectuals argued that the move gave up the last claim to Tibetan independence and essentially depoliticised the Tibet issue. Certainly, that appeared to be the case if we understood politics conventionally, within the nation state paradigm that the Tibetans had followed for the past 60 years. But looked at another way, maybe the politics had simply shifted elsewhere.
An impossible urbanity
The 2017 Kalachakra teachings were taking place in an open ground close to the Mahabodhi temple, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment, where an enormous structure, more scaffolding than tent, had been put up. The event was being organised for the first time by the Central Tibetan Administration. It is uncertain how many people had come – 200,000 according to the Central Tibetan Administration; 150,000 according to the Bihar state government – but the numbers necessitated the construction of several auxiliary tents, each the size of an aircraft hangar, mounted with its own huge screen beaming the Dalai Lama's image out to devotees. I was privileged enough to be seated in the cavernous main tent, but even from my place near the front I could barely make him out. Like everyone else, I turned my attention to the closest screen, where he appeared to me in unreasonably high definition. I saw every pore and wrinkle, and every tremor of his lips.
A city had sprung up around the Dalai Lama, the Kalachakra ground and the Mahabodhi temple. Swathes of farmland had been taken over by canvas tents and tarpaulin lean-tos. Extending many kilometres beyond the town of Bodh Gaya, the settlement had swallowed and transformed whole villages. Its citizens were diverse: Bhutanese men in tartan robes and long socks, snaking lines of Arunachali ladies wearing intricately embroidered red and black jackets, Taiwanese spiritual high-rollers in sensible trekking gear. People pumped through its impromptu alleyways, stopping occasionally to purchase shawls, monks' robes and various ritual objects, or eat foods from Bhutan or Sichuan or Thailand. Chinese millionaires treated young lamas to lavish restaurant buffets, Sri Lankan monks begged for alms on street corners. Hawkers sold selfie-sticks, boiled eggs, and FM radios that allowed those of us less fluent in the Dalai Lama's Lhasa Tibetan to tune into the simultaneous translations that were broadcast in 20 languages and dialects, from Spanish to Amdo Tibetan. In the mornings we all converged on the Kalachakra ground. We waited in endless queues at its gates, passed through security (no mobile phones, no cameras) to finally sit cross-legged on scraps of foam and tarp and cushions and fill ourselves with knowledge and karma. In the evenings, there were film screenings and panel discussions, exhibitions on Tibetan history, Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, a football league, and at least three outdoor concert series – all temporary – a vision of an impossible urbanity.
The Kalachakra afforded a thrilling freedom, particularly for monks, who make up a significant proportion of the Tibetan Buddhist population in Southasia and are at the centre of the community. One reincarnate lama told me that he had the luxury here of sleeping in, till 7 or 8, far later than his usual wake-up time of 4 am at the monastery. At the finals of the Tibetan Football Champions League, the monks stormed the field and refused to leave, so that the penalty shootout had to be contested with thousands of monks surrounding the goalposts. This was behaviour that would have been considered unacceptable under normal circumstances, but such slips were allowed here, as rare indulgences, where we had all convened for the Kalachakra.
In a field next to the sweater market, the Tashi Delek series of concerts took place every night for a week. The fog that covers the Indo-Gangetic plain in winter hung heavy on the ground. Stage lighting scattered through the thickened air. The 80-foot statue of the Buddha, built by the Japanese Daijokyo Buddhist Temple, loomed in the background. Inside, the set up was like a stage at a music festival. A jib crane swung around taking video that was projected onto the back of the stage. A drone flew overhead, attracting the gaze of the crowd and their cellphone cameras. The show started late; we were waiting for Richard Gere, the chief guest, who never arrived. Every singer opened with a song about the Dalai Lama, performed with the passion of a love song. It was a social event for young people from the Tibetan refugee settlements and Himalayan regions from around Southasia, a rare moment of pan-Tibetan and pan-Himalayan exchange. Teenagers from Ladakh rubbed shoulders with their peers from Bylakuppe, everyone dressed up in their finest.
Tibetans beyond borders
At one point during the last day of the Kalachakra, after the initiation had ended, the Dalai Lama's mode of address changed. Instead of speaking to a universal public, as he had been previously, he now turned his attention to the Tibetan people. Tibetans were lucky to have a special link to Buddhism through himself, he said, referring to the belief that he is an emanation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of compassion. With this special link to Buddhism came a special responsibility to safeguard it for the world. Later, during the closing ceremony Lobsang Sangay, sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration, reminded us that this was the first time the Kalachakra had been organised by the Administration. He added hyperbolically that it had been the best Kalachakra ever. The Tibetan people had preserved the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism, he said, first after it was destroyed in India, and now as it is being destroyed in Tibet. The ancient Indian knowledge of the Kalachakra was the Tibetan people's gift to Bihar, India, and the world.

Tibetan sovereignty was being expressed in a new register: not as nation and territory but in cultural-religious terms. The Tibetans were being cast as the custodians of a borderless Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama and Sangay, both sharp politicians, have a keen sense for occasion and audience, which in this instance included the Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar. But their statements were more than just empty gestures. If we listened carefully, this was a clearer articulation of what we were seeing everywhere at the Kalachakra, and had been crystallised at the Cham dance. It contained the possibility of a shift away from the ideals that formed the basis of the past 60 years of exile governance. Tibetan sovereignty was being expressed in a new register: not as nation and territory but in cultural-religious terms. The Tibetans were being cast as the custodians of a borderless Buddhism. If, as Lobsang Sangay suggested, the Central Tibetan Administration's responsibility is to preserve the Nalanda tradition, then its purview is greatly expanded: if its physical jurisdiction remained confined to the settlements in Southasia, its newfound spiritual jurisdiction encompassed the Himalayan regions of India and Nepal, Mongolia, the former Russian republics, and even a large population of Chinese Buddhists.
This change emerges from unprecedented mobilities and momentous shifts in the demographics of Tibetan exile. According to Indian government data, the population of Tibetans in India fell from 150,000 in 2011 to 85,000 in 2018. These Tibetans have mostly emigrated to North America and Europe. More or less integrated into their host countries, they no longer require the state-like institutions of the exile government. In India, where refugees aren't given legal recognition and Tibetans until 2017 weren't eligible for citizenship, their perennial foreigner status marked them as citizens of a no-longer existing country. Meanwhile, in the West they gain citizenship and become hyphenated Americans or Canadians. In multicultural environments, religion and culture have become some of the main avenues to express a sense of Tibetan identity. In the same period, as China has grown more economically successful and politically restrictive, the flow of refugees from Tibet – who previously would have joined exile institutions in Southasia – has come almost entirely to a halt.
The schools and monasteries in Southasia are now increasingly filled with people from the 'greater Himalayan region' – a transnational area that includes Ladakh, Spiti, Mustang, Sikkim, parts of Arunachal, and Bhutan. Running the length of the Himalaya, these places have historically had a great deal of contact and exchange with central Tibet. Their inhabitants share ethnic bonds with Tibetans, they speak languages closely related to central Tibetan, and include large numbers of followers of Tibetan Buddhism. In pre-modern times, when borders were fluid, before centralised states were able to assert their authority in these mountainous territories, they might have looked to Lhasa for religious authority and to Kathmandu or Shimla for political authority. But these people are not formally recognised by the exile establishment as Tibetan, and the areas from which they hail have not been claimed as part of a Tibetan nation state in modern times. Even so, more than ever before the attendees of the Kalachakra hail from these regions, and today they are turning increasingly to Dharamshala for religious and cultural guidance.

The exile set-up could exist… to serve those with historical cultural ties to Tibetan Buddhism as a node within a globalised Buddhism. The new populations that fall under the ambit of these institutions are both trans- and post-national, representing in some ways a revival of a Tibetan imperium.

Globally, the vast majority of followers of Tibetan Buddhism live inside Tibet, in Mongolia and the former Russian republics of Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva. 6.2 million of a total population of 6.4 million Tibetans, almost all of them Buddhist, remain inside Tibet, while Tibetan Buddhists in Mongolia number 1.5 million and in Russia at least 700,000. In these places, the diminishment of state atheisms and increased transnational mobilities have allowed people to rekindle religious practices, often supported by the Tibetan exile monastic order under the Dalai Lama. Monks from these regions are occasionally trained in the large Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of South India, returning to their homes as teachers. In effect, the religious institutions of an exile community numbering 150,000 can make a claim to spiritual authority over more than 8 million people spread around the world.
Tibetan exile institutions have always had multiple duties – providing Tibetans with healthcare and education, preparing them for a return to a homeland riven by years of communist rule, demonstrating to the world that Tibetans are capable of running modern institutions. Now that their beneficiaries are less and less Tibetans who can trace their lineage to one of the three provinces, they exist increasingly to serve followers of Tibetan Buddhism at large. The possibilities inherent in these new circumstances were perhaps what the Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangye alluded to in their speeches: that the exile set-up could exist not in order to win back a Himalayan homeland, but to serve those who have historical cultural ties to Tibetan Buddhism as a node within a globalised Buddhism. The new populations that fall under the ambit of these institutions are both trans- and post-national, representing in some ways a revival of a Tibetan imperium. Exile institutions might even find their raison d'etre in maintaining and spreading a particular lineage of Buddhism, whose congregants hail from areas that had long ago been under Tibetan influence.

The postwar liberal democratic consensus, which the exile Tibetans – and so many others around the world – aspired to for so long, is no longer a given.

This is not a coherent policy and will likely never become one. It is rather a shift in the field of the political which requires us to imagine new ways forward. In much the same way that the demands of the early Tibetans in exile reflected the global conditions of their time – decolonial nationalism and liberal democracy – this emergent formation of exile Tibetan statehood reflects new conditions of global politics. All over the world, we are witnessing the growth of new post-secular religious politics, in which the lines between the religious and the temporal are blurred. The postwar liberal democratic consensus, which the exile Tibetans – and so many others around the world – aspired to for so long, is no longer a given. Because this is a departure from a longstanding and little-questioned status quo, it is difficult to foresee what will emerge.
The Dalai Lama and contradiction 
Many of the incoherencies of this new field are deeply embedded in the Dalai Lama's own worldview. If we ask questions of some of the statements he made at the Kalachakra, they yield contradictory answers. Does the Dalai Lama want foreigners to be Buddhist? Should the Tibetan exile state be involved in spreading the Buddhadharma? Yes and no. There is a universal impulse in his pronouncements that comes from Buddhism itself, which has historically been a proselytising religion. But he says repeatedly during the Kalachakra that the Buddhadharma shouldn't be spread, that people should stick to their birth religions; almost in spite of himself, it seems, he is limiting Buddhism to Tibet's former imperial sphere of influence. In the Dalai Lama's philosophy, swinging between the individual and the universal, which he expounded at length, material conditions are ultimately illusory. And yet for decades he has been the leader of a struggle for a homeland that has been brutally colonised. He appears to be caught between two cosmologies: one in which the world is made up of political structures – nation states, empires – and another in which every sentient being is capable of attaining Buddhahood and freeing themselves from the illusions of material existence. In the constant back and forth between these two cosmologies, he has created, possibly by accident, a distinctive position on the question of Tibetan political community.

It was a space of the imagined, of self-sustainment, where we can walk around and be part of a diverse, contemporary Tibetan city. The city need not be Lhasa. It could be Bodh Gaya, Toronto, Leh or – who knows? – maybe one day, Beijing.

This position may well outlast the present Dalai Lama. Some of its ramifications can barely be imagined today but may in the future become realities. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly and prominently stated that he may not have a successor at all. But he has also occasionally hinted that he will be reborn in Ladakh or somewhere in the Himalayan region. If this is the case, the next Dalai Lama might not be Tibetan at all in the territorial-national sense. A future Ladakhi Dalai Lama need not have any familial or territorial ties to a colonised homeland. And since the Dalai Lama no longer has an official political role, the 'Tibet Question' as it has been framed until now could well fall entirely outside of such a Dalai Lama's purview, which might be only to promote and continue the Buddhadharma.
Politics after in the nation state
All this may seem far removed from the ongoing colonial occupation of Tibet, where the vast majority of Tibetans continue to live. Chinese domination in Tibet works through a range of oppressive policies, from the large-scale resettlement of Tibetan nomads from their traditional pastureland into group housing in towns and the environmental degradation brought on by infrastructure and mining projects to surveillance, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and movement, and harsh punishment for infractions. Protest is forbidden, religious practice policed. In the months leading up to the Kalachakra, many Tibetans' passports were confiscated so they wouldn't be able to travel. Most of the 7000-odd Tibetans who managed to travel to India for the Kalachakra were forced to return before the event began. Only 300 remained. The Chinese government had threatenrd to subject those who stayed to patriotic re-education, dismiss their relatives from government jobs, and deny all government aid to their families for three generations.
In the face of such brutal power, maybe an imagined but impossible nation state, premised on untenable territorial boundaries and a shaky ethnic distinction between Tibetans and all others, is no longer a viable utopia. This is not to suggest that the Middle Way, which demands autonomy for Tibet, is any more viable, for it is underwritten by the same categories and borders as an imagined nation state. After six decades of colonial occupation in Tibet and life in exile, and with independence a receding possibility, the emergent yet still incoherent field of politics that we witnessed at the Kalachakra offered a new kind of space. It was a space of the imagined, of self-sustainment, where we can walk around and be part of a diverse, contemporary Tibetan city. The city need not be Lhasa. It could be Bodh Gaya, Toronto, Leh or – who knows? – maybe one day, Beijing. This impossible but existent city is the everyday space where new configurations of Tibetanness, new forms of community, are generated. In this new cosmopolitanism, perhaps the ethnic category of Tibetan itself is being replaced by a more capacious, though still fraught, cultural-religious one.
In the context of a global rise in the right, xenophobia and the assertion of narrower identities, the shift from territory to religion as a primary site of identity is also deeply worrying. Tibetan Muslims, Christians and Bonpas, already left out by the dominant discourses of Tibetan nationalism, may be even more excluded. But liberal democracy has never been able to fully address the complexities of religious difference, and if we are moving beyond it we need to develop new ways of dealing with and respecting difference. Identities are multiple, and regimes that define it singularly – as only ethnic or only religious – are bound to fail. The new field cannot tout court replace what came before. Rather, these two ways of defining Tibetanness must uneasily co-exist.
Crucially, I believe the situation I've been describing allows us to imagine new futures. By de-linking the occupied territory of Tibet from the people called Tibetans, it allows us to think that Tibet needn't be free in order for Tibetans to be free. Maybe Tibet need not even exist. We can oppose Chinese domination in Tibet without demanding a nation state. In fact, this is a shift that a lot of recent exile activism has begun to make. Demands for Tibetan-language education in schools, campaigns against the brutal resettlement of nomads, agitations for religious freedom in Tibet: these don't have any necessary or intrinsic link to an independent nation state.
Like everything, the Kalachakra had been a fleeting presence in our lives, but for me at least it had not been an illusion. As we got ready to depart, another ending hun­g heavy over our heads: the question of the Dalai Lama's death. I am not religious and I didn't entirely understand everyone's adulation of the Dalai Lama, the way people sucked their breath in when he entered the tent, the giggles that escaped their lips when he made a joke. But when we turned to the question of his mortality, I was troubled.
On the closing day of the Kalachakra, during the customary long life offering, we collectively prayed that the Dalai Lama live for 10,000 years. He responded gravely after the prayer: unfortunately, since he was a human being, such a lifespan was impossible. But he had had dreams, he said, and had a strong premonition that he would live till 113. Even if this doesn't come to pass, he assured us he would live till at least 100. We shouldn't worry, he was still here to guide us.
That evening, I walked around aimlessly, melancholic that these two weeks were ending, stopping occasionally to talk to passersby about this or that. At the Kalachakra ground, the main tent was already being dismantled, melting into puddles of cloth. I came upon the stall set up by the NGO Students For A Free Tibet, where a crowd had gathered. Inside, a few people sat on plastic chairs facing a television. On screen a documentary film about the protests against Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 played, dubbed into Tibetan. I sat down and for a while watched these Eastern European faces speaking a familiar tongue.
The next day, Gaya Junction railway station was full of Kalachakra attendees. They were slumped on the platform and in the waiting rooms. They swarmed in front of all the tea shops, played video games on their phones and sipped chai from paper cups. At the train station bookstore, groups of monks shyly leafed through paperback romances, which they bought furtively and slipped into their bags. The screen that displayed waitlisted tickets was filled with names like Stanzin and Sherpa and Lama, Tibetan Buddhist names but maybe not belonging to those from Tibet. Everyone was returning, perhaps slightly altered, perhaps not at all, to their homes in Dharamshala, Ladakh, Sikkim and beyond.
Six decades into an exile that may continue forever, hopefully we can begin to imagine different ways of being in the world. The grounds of identity are shifting, the rigidity of the nation state and its impossible futures being tested by an as-yet unfixed religious community. It remains to be seen where they will settle.
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