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The Dalai Lama shocked the world of Buddhism last month when he announced he was giving up his political powers as head of the Tibetan government in exile. For more than 50 years, the Nobel Peace laureate has been the public face of resistance to Chinese control of Tibet. His decision comes just as the government in exile is about to announce the results of an election for a new parliament and chief minister.

Some analysts say the aging leader is playing the opening moves of a risky strategy. His goal: To protect Tibetan Buddhism from Chinese influence after his death.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF: The Dalai Lama's headquarters is here in Dharamsala, India, where Buddhist temples and monasteries cling to slopes that rise to the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas.

(Soundbite of bells)

FLINTOFF: Tibetan exiles come to this temple to pray and walk counter-clockwise around the sanctuary, turning the big brass cylinders that are believed to release prayers and mantras.

The Indian government allowed the 14th Dalai Lama to establish himself here when he and many of his followers escaped from Tibet after a failed uprising against the Chinese in 1959.

Now, the Tibetan refugees here are trying to come to terms with the news that Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, will no longer be their political leader.

Mr. CHHIME CHHOEKYAPA (Secretary to the Dalai Lama): From the point of view of his holiness, it is for the good of the Tibetans for the long haul.

FLINTOFF: This is Chhime Chhoekyapa, the Dalai Lama's secretary.

Mr. CHHOEKYAPA: From the Tibetan people's side, for many of them, it is something that is unthinkable.

FLINTOFF: Unthinkable for people who've lived in exile and known no other political leader for more than 50 years. Why do it now?

Tenzin Gyatso is 75 years old and, though he keeps a busy schedule of travel around the world, he has suffered bouts of ill health.

The choice of his successor is governed by the belief that when the Dalai Lama dies, he reincarnates himself in another body to continue his work.

This is Thubten Samphel, secretary of international relations for the government in exile.

Mr. THUBTEN SAMPHEL (Secretary of International Relations for the Government in Exile): You know, reincarnation is a belief. You either, you know, just believe in it or you laugh at it. We Tibetans believe human beings have the, you know, the spiritual resources to reincarnate, at - especially high-realized beings, at a time and place of his choosing.

FLINTOFF: The tradition calls for senior Tibetan lamas to find the child who's determined to be the reincarnation of the leader who has died. That child is then brought up and educated to be the next Dalai Lama.

China, which claims that Tibet is part of its territory, has intervened in the choosing of two other major Tibetan lamas. The best-known case is that of the Panchen Lama.

In 1995, the Chinese government rejected a boy chosen by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders. The Chinese supervised the selection of a Panchen Lama of their own, who has never been accepted by most Tibetans.

If the Chinese were to name their own Dalai Lama after the current leader dies, there could be yet another lama throne with two claimants.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. He thinks the Dalai Lama is handing his political powers to the elected government so that even if there is a dispute, the Tibetan people will have a strong political structure to rally around.

Mr. BRAHMA CHELLANEY (Professor, Center for Policy Research): I think it's a smart move because once he passes away, there will be great opportunity for the Chinese to take advantage of the situation.

FLINTOFF: Editorial writers in the official Chinese media have already accused the Dalai Lama of trying to manipulate the reincarnation process to designate a successor during his lifetime.

The process of handing over the Dalai Lama's political powers will begin once the new government has been installed. In the meantime, life goes on for the exiled community in Dharamsala, known as Little Tibet.

People come to pray and turn the mantra wheels as they have done for 50 years. Monks chant as they renew their vows.

(Soundbite of chanting)

FLINTOFF: Everyone here knows that change is coming, but no one is sure what that change will bring.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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