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Calif. Birthday Celebrations Reinforce Dalai Lama's Global Presence


And for those who believe in reincarnation, the end of life can lead to rebirth. Tibet's Dalai Lama says he's often dreamed he would live to be 113. This week, he's here in Southern California celebrating getting to 80 along with some 20,000 admirers eager to hear his message of tolerance and compassion. Looming over this big birthday, though, is the question of succession and the future of Tibet, which China claims as its own. For more on what this moment means for Tibet and its exiled community, we reached Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet. Good morning.

ROBERT BARNETT: Good morning to you.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think the Dalai Lama did not celebrate in the home of the exiled community - the exiled government - Dharamsala, India? I mean, he did celebrate his 70th birthday there.

BARNETT: Yes, we're definitely seeing signals from him to show that his base is not just India, that as he grows older, he's spending more time in other parts of the world, just to reinforce that he has a kind of global footprint. But I think he's being quite careful here not to be in a major city or in the capital. So he's trying to suggest that this presence is not just a political presence but part of his spiritual mission.

MONTAGNE: The question of succession would seem to be an urgent one for the Tibetan nation in exile. Already, China has attempted to co-opt the choice of the next Dalai Lama. What is going on?

BARNETT: Well, the Chinese passed a law mandating that only the Chinese state can do this. So once the Dalai Lama dies, we're heading on a collision course on the reincarnation or succession issue. Traditionally, a Dalai Lama is chosen by looking at mystical signs, any indications that have been left by the previous Dalai Lama. In one famous case it was a rather cryptic poem that he had written that named a particular town in the east of Tibet. Then they take these signs. They go and look in a famous lake where it's said if you look down from a mountain in a certain state of prayer or trance, you can see signs in the lake which show you where this new child might be born. And the Dalai Lama has proposed a way of getting around this by suggesting alternative methods. Sometimes, he talks about a papal conclave type of system. Other times, he's referred to a kind of popular mandate about whether there needs to be another Dalai Lama. So we're seeing a lot of play between the two sides on this issue. And it's really a major issue for China. They seem to be unable to be able to consider running Tibet without having a Lama of his stature on their side.

MONTAGNE: China has been encouraging exiled Tibetans to return, essentially holding out for them the promise of a better life economically in China. How much of the religion of Tibetan Buddhism - how much of that would a Tibetan have to give up to go back?

BARNETT: Yes, well, China only uses the term Tibet for the western half of the vast Tibetan Plateau, which is roughly the size of Europe. And there, you can't worship the Dalai Lama. You can't mention his name. You can't have his photographs. It's really like living under a microscope. Actually, we've just discovered a whole new set of village-level systems for controls. Every 10 households has to have a new official representing their political behavior. In the eastern Tibetan areas, it's a little bit looser. You can probably worship the Dalai Lama if you aren't seen by officials. But it's still limited. You couldn't talk about politics.

MONTAGNE: Is there a particular way that a Tibetan - a traditional way - that this birthday would have been celebrated among Tibetan Buddhists?

BARNETT: We don't have a record of major political figures in the Tibetan world getting to this age and still being in position. I mean, it's really hard to imagine how important he is to Tibetans inside Tibet. He's just - the more the Chinese crack down on him and try to ban his presence, the more he's become important for Tibetans. And so for these people, the birthday, if they'd been allowed to celebrate it, would have been a tremendous event. They traditionally - and they still do this when they can get away with it - they go out into the grasslands. They have picnics. They typically celebrate by standing in huge lines, hundreds of people, with their hands full of tsampa, parched barley flour - a little handful - that they then recite an invocation to the mountain spirit that protects the Dalai Lama. And they throw that handful of tsampa into the air as they call on that deity, that spirit, to protect the Dalai Lama. And of course the tsampa goes all over everybody. And it becomes a kind of occasion for festivity in normal times. And in some secluded areas, we've heard that people have already been trying to do this.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

BARNETT: Not at all.

MONTAGNE: That was Robert Barnett, who has written extensively about Tibet and is director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.