The Dalai Lama on Succession and on the CIA

This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet into Indian exile. He is sixty-five and some day even god-kings must die. But in the eyes of Tibetans he is also the fourteenth incarnation of the first Dalai Lama, who died in 1578. Eventually there will be a fifteenth Dalai Lama whose identity will be of the greatest importance for Tibetans—and for Beijing. The succession problem is therefore on the mind of the present Dalai Lama, who was in London in early May to give religious lectures to sold-out audiences of the faithful in the gigantic Wembley Convention Centre.

The Chinese expect to make, or at least to arrange, the choice of the fifteenth Dalai Lama; they hope a friendly god-king will secure for them the legitimate hegemony over Tibet which they have yet to achieve with the two million inhabitants of the Autonomous Region who regard the exiled Dalai Lama as their leader.

When I suggested to the Dalai Lama, during a recent interview in London, that the abduction and disappearance in 1995 of the eleventh Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-most-prominent religious leader, was a dress rehearsal for what will happen after he dies, he agreed. The tenth Panchen Lama died in 1989. Although a virtual prisoner of the Chinese, for many years he had publicly and privately criticized their condemnation of Buddhism and the persecution of its adherents. In the spring of 1995 the Dalai Lama appointed Gendun Choekyi Nyima, a six-year-old boy, as eleventh Panchen. He vanished in May of that year together with his family and Abbot Chadrel Rimpoche from the Tashilhunpo, the Panchen’s traditional monastery in Tibet.

Near the end of 1995 a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said that the child, whom Beijing had earlier described as a “dog drowner,” “is where he is supposed to be,” and insisted that “the Chinese government does not know the address of every one of its citizens.” The authorities still decline to disclose his whereabouts, but insist he is well and that they are shielding him from kidnapping by Tibetan exiles. The Dalai Lama told me that he has no idea where he is.

In Beijing’s view the Dalai Lama’s appointment of Gendun Choekyi Nyima broke a two-centuries-old agreement—disputed by Tibetans—whereby Beijing must approve the designation of new Panchen Lamas. If this were true, it would be a fundamental proof of Beijing’s claim that Tibet has been a part of China for at least 250 years. The Chinese authorities in Tibet issued a statement blaming the Dalai Lama’s “crimes of undermining the work related to the reincarnation of the Panchen in violation of historical convention…and the crimes of the former persons of the Tashilhunpo Lamasery….” The People’s Daily, the Party’s newspaper, in language odd for the mouthpiece of a thoroughly antireligious regime, described the dispute as “a political struggle with the Dalai Lama in the search for a verification of the reincarnation.”

In November 1995 Beijing presided over its own ritual to choose a boy as Panchen Lama and issued an extraordinary document describing the mysterious events and signs surrounding his birth and infancy that proved he was the genuine incarnation.

Early in the following year, Beijing’s choice, the six-year-old Gyaltsen Norbu, was introduced to President Jiang Zemin. After receiving a ceremonial scarf from the child, President Jiang instructed him to “uphold the leadership of the Party, have a deep love for the nation, for the people, and for socialism.” The boy responded, “I thank the Party’s Central Committee and President Jiang. I will certainly study hard and become a patriotic and religious living Buddha.”

The implications of this incarnation-switch are plain to the Dalai Lama. “If I passed away,” he told me, “the Tibetan people would want a Dalai Lama. But I have made clear that the next Dalai Lama will be born in a free country. I think the Tibetans will accept that—and they won’t accept a boy chosen by the Chinese.”

* * *

The search for a new Dalai Lama is an arcane matter. The thirteenth died in 1933, and his successor was identified in 1937 in a peasant village remote from Lhasa.1 Monks scoured Tibet, spurred on, it was said, by telltale signs on lake surfaces and in the clouds. A short list of possible small boys in various quarters of Tibet was drawn up. The search committee, composed of very senior monks disguised so that prospective parents would not know them, showed each small boy several ordinary objects—the dead Dalai Lama’s spectacles, pencil, and so on—jumbled up with other things. The true incarnation had to select only the correct objects, say things which reminded the committee of his predecessor, and possess certain physical characteristics such as long ear lobes and markings like “tiger-stripes” on his thighs.

Because the search for a successor is so difficult I was struck by the Dalai Lama’s statement that his successor would be “born in a free country.” This appeared to open him to a charge of political manipulation similar to those leveled at the Chinese for “discovering” their handpicked Panchen. But although he was plainly firing a shot over Beijing’s bow, Tibetan religious doctrine is clear on this matter: some high lamas, themselves incarnations, can choose the place and time of their deaths and the whereabouts of their successors; sometimes they leave letters and hints about where their incarnations may be found. For the Dalai Lama, a “free” country means a place whose people are free to practice Buddhism.

I asked him if the Chinese could succeed in persuading Tibetans that their choice of his successor was authentic. He replied that pictures of the Chinese-appointed Panchen were regularly torn down in outlying regions of Tibet, while in the Panchen’s own monastery, the Tashilhunpo, “the monks have photographs of my Panchen Lama in their cells.”

What worried the Dalai Lama—he has said this to me often over the past fifteen years—is that China’s occupation of Tibet is filling the country with a growing Chinese population and “Tibetans are in danger of becoming a minority.” This is especially so, he noted, in the main towns, where “people are more sophisticated.” Moreover, because high schools teach Chinese as the first language, many urban people now speak Chinese more easily than Tibetan. I was reminded of the Tibetans I had met in March 1997 in Taipei, where a small number of them who live abroad are being educated. As they waited in his hotel to see the Dalai Lama, who was visiting Taiwan, I heard them conversing among themselves—in Mandarin. These young people are losing their culture, the Dalai Lama warned, to the extent that “it cannot be restored.” Such deracinated Tibetans might not care very much, fifteen years or more from now, about the origins of the next Dalai Lama.

I asked about President Clinton’s advice to President Jiang Zemin last year in Beijing that he hold talks with the Dalai Lama. I noticed that when Mr. Clinton suggested such a meeting Mr. Jiang threw back his head and laughed: “sarcastically,” the Dalai Lama observed. President Jiang said that for such a meeting to take place the Dalai Lama would have to agree in advance that Tibet and Taiwan are both parts of China. The Dalai Lama had already written a letter to Mr. Jiang, “through one of our informal channels,” proposing such a meeting. But he has never had a reply and since last fall there has been none of the tenuous contact of the past. Nothing came of Clinton’s suggestion.

* * *

Nonetheless the Dalai Lama believes that China is changing and that more people, especially intellectuals, feel that their country is being too hard on Tibet. (He nodded, however, when I remarked that every Chinese I have met, including the dissident Wei Jingsheng, is convinced that Tibet is part of China.2) The Dalai Lama told me that he recognizes that “if I were seeking independence any Chinese would emotionally find that hard to accept.” Instead, he said, he is looking for what he sometimes calls “an arrangement” or “an analysis,” in which Tibet would have what he calls “true autonomy,” but Beijing would manage its foreign and military affairs. If there were such close and peaceful relations between China and Tibet, the Dalai Lama told me, “Any sensible Chinese could see we would be helping them achieve stability and unity, which the Chinese government always makes its top priority.”

Such a formulation, however, is not enough for China, which insists that the Dalai Lama agree that Tibet has always been part of China; nowadays the Dalai Lama suggests that this is a matter best left to historians. But there are many among his younger followers in the diaspora who feel he has already backed away from the fundamental insistence on full Tibetan independence when he cautions them that this insistence is no longer practical.

In any event, the Dalai Lama said, this is a year of dangerous anniversaries for Beijing: the fiftieth anniversary of the founding in 1949 of the People’s Republic—which invaded Tibet the following year; the fortieth anniversary of Tibet’s uprising against the Chinese occupiers in 1959 and his own flight; and the tenth of the Tiananmen massacre, which was preceded by another Tibetan uprising—which was immediately crushed—a few months earlier. “So I’m not surprised they are silent with us,” the Dalai Lama said. “They are being harder than usual on all dissidents, in China and in other areas, and I have heard they are afraid that we Tibetans are in some kind of contact with democrats inside China. I’ve heard also that they are afraid that if I visit China for talks with President Jiang, Chinese Buddhists might go out of control.”

* * *

The Dalai Lama also talked about his contacts with the CIA, from the late Fifties until about 1974. This long-discussed story is the subject of two recent books, The Dragon in the Land of Snows3 by the historian Tsering Shakya, and Orphans of the Cold War4 by John Kenneth Knaus, a CIA veteran of forty-four years. During those years, as both books show, the CIA trained a small number of Tibetans in Colorado and sent them back into Tibet by parachute and by foot from Nepal and Mustang. The goal was to mobilize groups of guerrillas to harass the Chinese army. Like CIA-led irregular forces in Vietnam, Laos, and elsewhere, they ultimately failed, and many Tibetans were killed. The guerrilla campaign also convinced Beijing that the United States was trying to overthrow Chinese rule in Tibet in order to weaken the central government. The CIA’s operation stopped in the late Sixties as Washington moved toward the eventual Mao-Nixon rapprochement in 1972. According to Knaus, the agency, starting in the late 1950s, paid the Dalai Lama $15,000 a month. That payment came to an end in 1974.

Was the CIA connection a harmful one, I asked him? “Yes, that is true,” the Dalai Lama said. “Once the American policy toward China changed, they stopped their help. Otherwise our struggle could have gone on. Many Tibetans had great expectations of CIA [air] drops, but then the Chinese army came and destroyed them. The Americans had a different agenda from the Tibetans.”

The Dalai Lama made one exception. The Tibetan resistance to the Chinese, he said, began in the mid-Fifties, before the CIA’s involvement, when the Khampas, a nomadic people of warlike disposition, began attacking the People’s Liberation Army. “They eventually cleared southern Tibet of the Chinese. They did this with CIA help. Without the CIA they couldn’t have done that clearing, and without the clearing I wouldn’t have been able to escape from Lhasa across the mountains into India. And if I hadn’t escaped from Tibet, the situation there would have been even worse.”

The Dalai Lama, however, has been misinformed. As Shakya and Knaus point out, there was next to no CIA contact with the Khampas until after his flight; and the first parachuted agents did not drop into Tibet until months after he arrived in India. The escape operation was an entirely Tibetan affair.

The Dalai Lama ended our talk with some reflections on Mao’s character. “If Mao hadn’t been so violent, so radical, his people in Tibet would have been less brutal. There would have been no revolt in 1959. There would have been no Great Leap in the late Fifties in China, no famine, and no Cultural Revolution. Everything would have been different if Mao had been more open.” The Dalai Lama shook his head ruefully. “But it’s useless to think of these things.”

  1. The best account in English of the process is in Melvyn Goldstein's A History of Modern Tibet (University of California Press, 1989), reviewed in these pages in the issue of December 20, 1990. An eyewitness account of the child's entry into Lhasa by the British representative there, Hugh Richardson, is in High Peaks, Pure Earth by Hugh Richardson, edited by the late Michael Aris (London: Serindia, 1998), and reviewed in The New York Review of April 8, 1999. The film Kundun portrays the search and discovery according to traditional accounts.
  2. See my interview with Wei Jingsheng in The New York Review, March 5, 1998.
  3. London: Pimlico/Random House, 1999.
  4. Public Affairs, 1999.