LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now to the snowy Himalayas, where an international drama is playing out over the soul of one elderly man - the Dalai Lama. Tibetan Buddhists believe their spiritual leader will be reincarnated when he dies, but where and when? And what will China have to say about it? NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the Dalai Lama's home in exile in northern India.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Vocalizing).
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thousands of Buddhists from all over the world made pilgrimage this fall to Dharamshala, India. There were bald monks in orange robes and Tibetan dancers in silver headdresses, all singing prayers for the longevity of the Dalai Lama.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Vocalizing).
FRAYER: He sits cross-legged atop a throne, chanting in the monastery where he's lived for 60 years since fleeing a Chinese crackdown in his native Tibet.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
FRAYER: Tourists also crowd in to catch a glimpse of the 84-year-old Dalai Lama while they still can. He was hospitalized earlier this year with a chest infection and has scaled back public audiences.
Alicia Goldsworthy is from England.
ALICIA GOLDSWORTHY: When he first came out, I started to cry. To be here to see the Dalai Lama is something really amazing that I'll remember for the rest of my life.
FRAYER: This is the 14th Dalai Lama, the same being, faithful believe, that's been reincarnated for more than 600 years. Before he dies, he's supposed to tell aids where to look for a child who will next embody his essence. But China, which controls the Dalai Lama's native Tibet, says that's its job now.
NORBU DONDRUP: (Speaking Mandarin).
FRAYER: Norbu Dondrup, an official from the Chinese government, told reporters this spring that the Dalai Lama lost all authority when he left Tibet 60 years ago. Once he dies, China says it gets to identify his successor. The Dalai Lama has been vague about his plans. He says he might be reincarnated as a man or woman, adult or child, maybe here in India or maybe not at all. But one thing is clear, he told reporters back in 2011.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DALAI LAMA: As far as my own rebirth is concerned, the final authority is myself, no one else - and obviously not Chinese communist (laughter).
FRAYER: It's difficult to gauge how all Tibetans feel about this. The vast majority - more than 6 million of them - still live under Chinese control. China bombards their monasteries with propaganda. Many have been arrested for hanging the Dalai Lama's portrait or communicating with exiles. Tibetans abroad - about 100,000 of them are here in India - fiercely oppose the idea that China's atheist Communists might choose their next spiritual leader.
TSEWANG GYALPO ARYA: We are very much worried. Where is the Buddhism? Where is spiritualism, then?
FRAYER: Tsewang Gyalpo Arya is spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile. He worries the world could end up with two Dalai Lamas, one identified by China and another by Tibetans in exile. It's happened before. In 1995, a 6-year-old Tibetan boy was recognized as the reincarnation of another Buddhist holy man, the Panchen Lama. Days later, China detained him, and he hasn't been heard from since. Beijing named a replacement, whom exiles refused to recognize. Arya supports legislation currently before U.S. Congress that would sanction any Chinese official who interferes in the Dalai Lama's succession.
ARYA: International community should take interest in these things because we cannot let China go on bullying other peoples. It's not only about the Buddhism. In Christianity, in Islam, also, they have been repressing everything.
FRAYER: He's talking about China's repression of Uighur Muslims and its efforts to vet Catholic clergy there.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD CARVING)
FRAYER: Downhill from the Dalai Lama's monastery, Tibetan woodcarvers are at work. One of the first things the Dalai Lama did when he fled to India was establish workshops here for Tibetan crafts and music to keep the culture alive in exile.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOOD CARVING)
FRAYER: So these are carvings of the Buddha.
SHAKIA TSIRING: Yes, yes - mostly used in a monasteries, yes, yes.
FRAYER: Are you Tibetan?
TSIRING: Yes. Yes, ma'am - born in India.
TSIRING: My grandparents - maybe they were born in Tibet.
FRAYER: Shakia Tsiring is two generations removed from Tibet. The Dalai Lama is his only link. And once his holiness is gone, he's not sure what will happen.
AMITABH MATHUR: Yes, there will be fracturing.
FRAYER: Amitabh Mathur has advised the Indian government on Tibetan affairs. He says there are actually four schools of Tibetan Buddhist thought. The Dalai Lama heads just one. And the others are loyal to him, but that hasn't always been the case.
MATHUR: The Tibetans themselves were never completely united in the past. I think the Chinese will manipulate these differences to make them divisions.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).
FRAYER: At the Dalai Lama's monastery, as faithful pray for his longevity, 89-year-old Pemba Wangdu rests on a stone bench. He grew up in Tibet, where he says he did prison time for being a follower of the Dalai Lama. He escaped to India 40 years ago, he says.
PEMBA WANGDU: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: "If his holiness leaves this world without certainty about what comes next," he says, "there will be trouble."
Lauren Frayer, NPR News, at the Dalai Lama's monastery in Dharamshala, India.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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