As China tortures monks and drives Tibetans into poverty, many young activists are renouncing the Dalai Lama and resorting to violence. Is one of the world's most ancient cultures facing extinction?
By Joshua Kurlantzick
The small concrete room smells of urine. In the corner, a young woman lies on a metal cot, moaning softly and vomiting up blood. A former Buddhist nun, she is recovering from an operation on her stomach to fix internal injuries caused by beatings from Chinese guards. Her roommate, Lhundrub Zangmo, speaks in a whispery monotone. Zangmo's head is no longer shaven, and her straight black hair falls over her tight sweater emblazoned with the words The Coolest Boy. But even though she has left the clergy, Zangmo remains deeply religious. She has plastered the walls of the tiny room with photos of Buddhist deities and the Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhists.
It has been only a few months since Zangmo and her friend fled Tibet on foot over the Himalayas to this squat, block-shaped center for Tibetan refugees in India. The two women had been imprisoned along with a group of other nuns, some for as long as sixteen years. They were first arrested in 1990 for staging a protest in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to demonstrate their outrage over China's continuing presence in their native land. As the women chanted "Free Tibet," Chinese police moved quickly, knocking them to the ground and dragging them to jail before their protest could attract attention. Inside the prison, Chinese authorities subjected the nuns to a brutal routine. "Police stuck electric prods into my vagina and then hung me from the ceiling," Zangmo says softly. Her voice doesn't waver, but she looks away. Some of her friends lost consciousness as soon as guards pushed the cattle prods inside them, but Zangmo remained alert throughout the torture. "I was totally, totally frightened," she says.
Police eventually transferred the women to Drapchi, the most feared prison in Lhasa. According to human rights organizations like the International Campaign for Tibet, there are hundreds of political prisoners in Tibet, the majority of them Buddhist clergy. Scores have died from torture at the hands of Chinese authorities: electric shock, hanging, forced blood extraction. "They tried to pull my arms out of my sockets, and beat my legs and arms with metal bars and shocked me," recalls Phuntsog Nyidron, another nun who was imprisoned at Drapchi. "I was worried they could easily kill me." After repeated beatings, a monk named Lobsang Choephel hanged himself at Drapchi, his body dangling from the iron bars of his cell.
The punishment was most severe for those who refused to give up their faith. "In Drapchi, there were numerous demonstrations," Zangmo says. One day, four nuns refused to renounce their Buddhist beliefs in front of the Chinese guards. "They were beaten until they died." Zangmo stares at the floor and starts to cry, her voice breaking. "They died together."
Before places like drapchi existed, Lhasa was the capital of a remote kingdom where a long line of Dalai Lamas presided over a civilization infused with spirituality, perpetuated in more than 6,000 monasteries and protected by the snow-capped Himalayas. In their sacred land, Tibetans built a distinct and mystical culture, a matchless experiment in faith that permeated their lives. "Tibetans are unique on the planet in that their national life is wholly dedicated to Buddhism," says Robert Thurman, the most famous Tibet scholar in America. By developing a worship of living things, he says, Tibetans also preserved the Earth's highest ecosystem, one that comprises biodiversity on the scale of the Amazon and serves as the source of rivers that sustain nearly half the world's population. "This is some of the most important environment in the world," Thurman says, "so fragile that, once it's gone, it can never come back."
Locked away from the world, Tibetans created a religion of otherworldly rituals and monumental structures. Even today, the gleaming white Potala Palace, home to generations of spiritual leaders, towers over Lhasa's modern skyline, its fifty-foot-high tombs of past Dalai Lamas covered in gold and gems. "The Potala looks and feels like no other building on the planet," writes the noted essayist Pico Iyer, who visits Tibet frequently. "But more extraordinary is its meaning: The Potala stood for a unique system in which administrators would be monks, political meetings would include prayers, and law and order was in the hands of a meditating clergy."
For Tibetans, devotion centers on the Dalai Lama, whom they regard as a living god. As Thurman notes, the Dalai Lama's spiritual connection to Tibetans is so great that, for his people, it's as if Jesus still wandered the Earth in person. In a modern world filled with war and consumerism, the current Dalai Lama -- who has lived in exile in Dharamsala, India, since China seized control of Tibet in 1959 -- has become a global icon, inspiring millions in the West. "With the quality of world leaders declining in recent years, the Dalai Lama has become even more important," says Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University. "He is one of the few morally inspiring leaders left."
But Tibet's time may be running out. In the past decade, China has waged a quiet but ruthless war on Tibetan society -- part of a deliberate and sophisticated campaign to strip "the Roof of the World" of any vestige of spirituality or political autonomy. Beijing has systematically replaced Tibet's holiest monks -- the center of Tibetan power -- with its own puppet leaders, torturing and killing those who refuse to submit to Chinese authority. It has flooded Tibet with thousands of Chinese immigrants, who have seized control of local businesses, driving many Tibetans into poverty and prostitution. And as Tibetans have become increasingly powerless in their own land, China has dragged out political talks with the Dalai Lama, causing some supporters to accuse their god-leader of caving in to Beijing. Increasingly, young Tibetans reject the Dalai Lama's commitment to nonviolence, engaging instead in the tactics of Palestinian militants. In a sharp break with the past, Tibetan rebels have stormed Chinese embassies and even cut the throats of Chinese migrants, dumping the corpses in the streets of rural towns as a warning to those they see as collaborators.
"I have no hope for the future," says Lhasang Tsering, one of Tibet's most famous activists. We are speaking in his home in Dharamsala, where he has lived in exile since fleeing Tibet more than two decades ago. "Time is running out," he tells me. "Every day, while we're sitting here praying for world peace, truckloads of Chinese are coming in, and trainloads of Tibetan resources are coming out. Once the Chinese have the land for themselves, they might have a few reservations for ethnic Tibetans, the way you Americans have Native American reservations."
Tsering puts his head in his hands. I look away. When I glance back, his shoulders are heaving with sobs.
Even the Dalai Lama himself, perpetually optimistic about his homeland, cannot help but fear for the future. "This is a critical period for Tibet," he tells me at an event in New York last fall, his face drawn with fatigue. "We don't know what will happen." This, in short, could be the end of Tibet. As the Dalai Lama has warned his people, "We are facing our own extinction."
When china annexed Tibet in 1959, it savaged the country, unleashing Mao's soldiers to tear apart monasteries, shell ancient structures and kill as many as 1.2 million people. Thousands were executed; many more died of starvation, forced to subsist on nothing but a thin gruel made of bark and leaves. "Their bodies became bloated," one senior monk recalled. "Then they lay down, and as the weeks passed, they died."
But such heavy-handed tactics failed to destroy Tibet's cultural identity. By the late 1980s, Tibetans fed up with Chinese oppression began to fight back, pouring into the streets of Lhasa by the thousands to demand independence. Hu Jintao, an obscure party bureaucrat with an Elvis pompadour, imposed martial law, dispatching thousands of soldiers to lock down Tibet. But the strong-arm tactics only served to rally international support for the Tibetan cause. In 1989, the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize, and his people's David-and-Goliath struggle appealed to Western artists and politicians as diverse as Richard Gere, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, and the U.S. Congress, which last year voted to award the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal.
Although the U.S. government officially recognizes Tibet as part of China, it has pressured Beijing to curb its human rights violations. Gregory Craig, who served as special envoy for Tibet in the Clinton administration, recalls a meeting at which then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confronted Jiang Zemin, the president of China, with a list of Tibetan political prisoners. Jiang was not pleased. "He went on an uninterrupted twenty-minute monologue on the role of religion in China," Craig recalls.
Today, however, China has adopted a subtler and more sophisticated approach to Tibet. Its new president -- Hu Jintao, the official who once imposed martial law on Tibet -- got smart. He knows that heavy-handed repression only serves to spark international protests, emboldening dissenters in other parts of China. He also covets the billions of barrels of oil and gas recently discovered in Tibet, resources that could help fuel energy-starved China's rapid industrialization. So Beijing has enacted a new policy it calls "grasping with two hands" -- co-opting Tibetans while quietly silencing those who still demand freedom. Rather than putting soldiers in the streets and shelling monasteries, Hu has set out to undermine the core of Tibetan identity: the monkhood.
In Tibet, senior monks known as lamas have historically wielded both spiritual and secular authority, essentially running the state while laying down principles for society to follow. In Lhasa, elderly women still walk in circles for hours around the holy city every morning, murmuring prayers for the lamas' health. In eastern Tibet one day, I watch as pilgrims prostrate themselves before a senior monk. Women push their ill relatives close to the lama, desperate for a prayer of healing. "For older people, their whole lives revolve around their spiritual leaders," says a Tibetan whose elderly mother spends her days walking around Lhasa and praying to her favorite monks. "They will follow monks anywhere."
In public, China has announced new policies promoting tolerance of Buddhism. Beijing has lavished funds on restoring the Potala Palace, for example, and thrown open monasteries to tourists. But across the city from the Potala, a senior monk living in a crumbling earthen hut describes what is really happening. "Plainclothes security are all over the monastery," he tells me. "There's never a time when the monks are together that the public security bureau isn't watching them. The Chinese hold 'patriotic campaigns,' and all the monks are forced to renounce the Dalai Lama."
Like many Tibetans I speak with, the monk asks that his name not be used, for fear of reprisals. Chinese security agents, he says, have cracked down on interactions with foreign visitors. "When I first came here, it wasn't illegal for monks to talk to foreigners," the monk says. "Now it is."
Inside the monasteries, Chinese authorities dominate the education of new monks, barring boys who have any background in political action from becoming lamas and placing strict limits on the number of students. "Management committees" staffed by Chinese officials control monastic activities and indoctrinate monks in Chinese ideology. "The monks will never recover," says one lama. "We cannot have enough boys studying at monasteries, the traditional knowledge is vanishing, and we could just die out. In twenty years, what will be left?" Another monk is even blunter: "This is the end of our entire religious society," he tells me.
Thanks to the new tactics implemented by Hu Jintao, the systematic assault on the monks has received little notice outside Tibet. "China has been skillful in creating a facade of social and political freedom," says one human rights activist who asked not to be identified. "They're not out there cracking the heads of monks, the way they did in the 1980s."
But many Tibetans believe that China continues to back violence against those who defy Beijing. On the evening of February 4th, 1997, monks in the Dalai Lama's central compound in Dharamsala were translating Tibetan scriptures in a room fringed with golden curtains. As they worked, six men armed with knives rushed into the room, attacking the translators. The assassins slit the throat of Lobsang Gyatso, a senior monk and close friend of the Dalai Lama, stabbing him so fiercely that blood splattered the walls. Two other monks who were translating near Lobsang were hacked to death. Though the compound contains priceless artifacts, the killers took nothing of value.
Indian police blamed the killing on Dorje Shugden, an obscure Tibetan Buddhist sect that opposes the Dalai Lama, and many Tibetans believe that China has quietly provided financial support to the Shugden. "Monks who follow Shugden get promoted in China," says one Tibetan monk. "They get support for their monasteries."
At the center of china's campaign to undermine Tibet's monks is the Panchen Lama -- the Buddhist leader who ranks second only to the Dalai Lama. The Panchen not only possesses enormous power in Tibetan society, he also helps select a new Dalai Lama when the previous Dalai dies. Like the most powerful Tibetan lamas, the Panchen is chosen through an ancient process of reincarnation, in which the soul of the dead monk is rediscovered in a young boy. This unique tradition of finding reincarnations is essential to the power of lamas -- Tibetans believe that through rebirth, the soul of Buddha himself lives on in their leaders.
The search for a new Panchen can take years. To find the chosen boy, monks crisscross Tibet's rugged landscape, consulting oracles, visions and markers in the sky or in the waters of Lake Namtso, a turquoise pool perched in the Himalayas, some 15,000 feet above sea level. The searchers may find thousands of children before identifying the one. In the ultimate test, the monks hand a chosen child the dead man's possessions. If the young boy is truly his reincarnation, he recognizes them as his own from his previous life.
For centuries, Tibet had followed these ancient traditions to find its leaders. But in 1989, the year Hu Jintao imposed martial law on Tibet, the tenth Panchen Lama died of a mysterious illness he contracted shortly after he publicly criticized the Chinese government. Many Tibetans believe he was poisoned, and Beijing never allowed an investigation into his death. Suddenly, China had a chance to take control of Tibetan Buddhism. All Beijing had to do was select its own Panchen. Then, when the time came, the Panchen would choose a puppet Dalai Lama beholden to Chinese authorities. The supreme spiritual leader of Tibet would answer directly to Beijing.
The complete story of the selection of the new Panchen Lama has never been told. But one senior monk who took part in the choice, the Arjia Rinpoche, fled Tibet in 1998 and now lives in exile in America. When I located him late last year, I discovered that he had written an unpublished memoir that describes China's role in the selection. Although no writer had read the manuscript, the Arjia agreed to let me review it. It was delivered to me by courier, like an old-school intelligence document, in an unmarked manila envelope. In stacks of pages, the Arjia spills his life story. When I called him, he talked for hours, like a man who had been waiting for years to reveal himself. He kept returning to one date: November 29th, 1995.
Early that morning, the Arjia and other senior monks huddled inside the Jokhang, Lhasa's holiest temple. Flickering lamps fueled by pungent, creamy yak butter lit the interior, casting shadows across the faces of grinning warrior deities painted on the walls. Smoky incense wafted through the temple. On this morning, the deities stood guard over a small golden urn on a table draped with yellow silk. As is traditional in Tibet, monks in long robes surrounded the urn. But in an alarming break from the past, the urn itself had been brought by the Chinese -- and joining the monks were a host of officials from Beijing dressed in sleek modern suits.
The lamas eyed each other nervously. The ceremony could determine the fate of Tibet, but they had not come here voluntarily. The night before, Chinese guards had hustled the monks into the Jokhang, along empty streets patrolled by armed soldiers, and ordered them to prepare for a ceremony. If anyone disrupted the proceedings, one official warned, "We will punish him without mercy." As dawn approached, with undercover Chinese policemen standing in corners, the monks began selecting a Panchen Lama.
Every lama present knew that the ceremony should not be taking place. According to Tibetan tradition, the selection had already been made. Since the previous Panchen died, several leading monks had been working secretly with the Dalai Lama to conduct a search for the next Panchen, quietly following the old traditions. After years of looking for signs, they had identified Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a boy from a family of herders from Lhari, a region of east-central Tibet. On May 14th, 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized Nyima as the eleventh Panchen Lama.
But Beijing had reacted furiously. Before Nyima could appear in public, Chinese security forces abducted the boy from his home and brought him to Beijing. Then Chinese officials summoned Tibetan monks to an emergency meeting early in November 1995 and ordered them to denounce the Dalai Lama's Panchen. When the monks did as they were told, in front of television cameras, they were each rewarded with $1,250 -- a fortune in a country where the annual per-capita income is less than $500. When the Arjia Rinpoche tried to suggest that China accept Nyima, he was warned, "Never mention that again." China then sent chartered jets to the birthplaces of the boys they wanted to be Panchen Lama and whisked them into hiding.
Now, as dawn approached in the Jokhang, Chinese officials placed pieces of ivory marked with the names of each boy inside the golden urn. Bomi Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama appointed by the Chinese government, approached the table. He rubbed the sides of the urn, picked out one of the ivory lots and handed it to Luo Gan, a top Chinese official. Luo then read the name: Gyaincain Norbu, the six-year-old son of a party member. Surprise -- tiny Norbu happened to be waiting in the next room, dressed in a golden robe and hat. Luo shook Norbu's hand, telling him, "Love the country and study hard." The monks who had just been forced to participate in the destruction of centuries of tradition could only murmur quiet prayers. After Norbu was enthroned, the Dalai Lama's office called the ceremony "invalid and illegal."
Eager to create the fiction that Tibet's top religious leaders endorsed their new Panchen, Chinese officials asked the Arjia Rinpoche to tutor Norbu. "They offered me a Mercedes and a very senior government position," the Arjia says. Beijing also pressured lower-ranking monks to pay respects to Norbu. Only nine days after his selection, Chinese officials brought Norbu to another Tibetan monastery. With soldiers looming in the background, they hoisted the tiny boy into a giant throne and gathered hundreds of monks in front of the child. "The boy was sitting there, and all together we had to prostrate ourselves before him," recalls the Arjia, his voice soft with shame. "It's supposed to be a happy occasion, but no one was smiling."
Norbu has served his purpose. At his first major international event, a conference of Buddhists held in China last April, the boy praised Beijing. "Chinese society," he declared, "provides a favorable environment for Buddhist belief." Appearing before the Chinese media, Norbu added, "We wouldn't have made all these achievements without the good leadership of the Chinese Communist Party." Monks who refuse to appear in public with Norbu have been threatened with expulsion from their monasteries, a crushing blow in Tibetan society.
Shortly after the Buddhism conference, I tracked down one of the few foreigners ever granted an audience with Norbu, an American businessman named Laurence Brahm, who has close relations with both Tibetan lamas and Chinese officials. According to Brahm, Norbu echoed the Chinese government's line, urging Tibetans in exile "to come back and help Tibet." He also grilled Brahm about Christianity, possibly seeking to better understand how the West would react to China's moves in Tibet. With the current Dalai Lama approaching his seventy-second birthday, Norbu is in a position to play a major role in the future of Tibetan Buddhism. According to several sources, Beijing has already created an informal committee to pick a new Dalai Lama, with Norbu to give his seal of approval to China's choice. "The Chinese are thinking they're going to pick their own Dalai Lama," says the Arjia.
Nyima, the Panchen selected by the Dalai Lama, has meanwhile vanished. In April, Asma Jehangir, a United Nations special envoy for freedom of religion, expressed her concern to the Chinese government about Nyima's whereabouts. Beijing refused to present the boy, but informed Jehangir that he was "leading a normal, happy life." Other foreign diplomats have been similarly rebuffed. On a trip to China, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh asked to see Nyima. "They said that he was fine -- We know where he is, and he's fine," Koh told reporters. When Koh asked to see the boy, he was told, "That's not necessary."
Information about Nyima remains sketchy, his movements tightly managed. But stories trickle out. According to Tibetans who have traveled to Nyima's hometown, the boy remains under guard in Beijing, living a sad, underground life as a political prisoner. Chinese officials, they believe, sometimes smuggle him into Tibet so he can see his family, but his visits are never announced, perhaps for fear that Tibetans would flock to their chosen boy-god. People in Nyima's hometown remain deathly afraid to tell anyone about his visits.
One Tibetan provided me with what he said was a photo of Nyima, which he had obtained from sources close to the boy's family. The snapshot shows a moon-faced kid with short hair. He sits on a simple bed in a bare room. He stares sad-faced and wide-eyed at the camera.
On a dry, clear morning, i climb to the top of the Potala Palace. Gazing across downtown Lhasa, I see a city nothing like the low-lying town of twenty years ago, when Tibetan vendors gathered every morning in the open-air markets to weigh hunks of yak cheese and bloody yak meat, and pilgrims in long cloaks adorned with sashes rubbed prayer beads and murmured to themselves as they circled the Jokhang. In those days, Tibetan nomads wearing sheepskin coats would often ride into town on horseback, herding their flocks of yaks into the streets.
Today Lhasa is booming. In the modern downtown, construction workers dig up entire sections of the city, building new avenues lined with Chinese banks, Chinese department stores and even Chinese fast-food restaurants overlooking the holy Jokhang. Along the main drags, packs of taxis and Chinese tour buses jam the streets, disgorging crowds of visitors who try to collar monks into posing with them or who play scratchy Chinese pop tunes on their cell phones. On side alleys dotted with grim new apartment blocks, recent migrants from China's Sichuan province crowd into four-table hot-pot restaurants, where they use their chopsticks to dip vegetables and tiny chunks of meat into vats of steaming oil sprinkled with fiery Sichuan chilies. Those with more money skip the hot-pot joints and head instead to the new tearooms on the upper floors of hotels, where Chinese businesspeople talk shop over thimble-size cups of tea, bowls of noodles or games of mah-jongg.
As Lhasa is rebuilt from the ground up, Tibetans are being pushed to the margins -- in the newer section of the city, I cannot find a single Tibetan-owned shop. And the pace of change is only likely to increase: Last summer, China opened the first rail line to Tibet, a move expected to flood the territory with as many as 800,000 migrants and tourists each year.
The sweeping changes in Lhasa are no accident. "The government has a long-term strategy to encourage more Chinese businesspeople to come to Tibet, so it'll be easier to control the Tibetan people," admits one former Chinese official. (Although the Chinese embassy declined to comment, many government officials spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.) Beijing has made it easier for migrants to gain residence in Tibet, and the region receives more government subsidies than other provinces in China. The cash has sparked growth and created prosperity -- but it often primarily benefits Chinese migrants. According to one former official, government bureaucrats convince rural Tibetans to give up their land, promising them that they will be given property in the city. "But then they never give the Tibetans any compensation," the official explains. Instead, the bureaucrats give the land to Chinese entrepreneurs, throwing in loans to help them start their own companies.
"Businesses in Tibet simply are being taken over by the Chinese," says one prominent Tibetan. Although Beijing officially denies the rapid influx of Chinese, a top government official recently admitted to reporters that Tibetans would soon become a minority in Lhasa. At the same time, the government ensures the support of provincial officials by paying them some of the highest salaries in China. "The government allows more space for corruption in Tibet," says Lukar Jam, a specialist on Chinese development policy who has worked for the Tibetan government in exile. "The Tibetan officials accept Beijing's policies because they see there will be significant financial benefits."
As Chinese migrants take over the city, they have turned traditional Tibetan culture into a carnival sideshow. One Saturday night, I visit a nightclub in a high-end section of Lhasa. The place is packed with Chinese businessmen, some of whom pay the equivalent of fifty dollars each -- a fortune in Tibet -- for private boxes overlooking the stage. At 11 p.m., Tibetan men dressed in fake animal skins take the stage. The Chinese media often portray Tibet as a wild, savage land, and the performers do their best to embody the stereotype, flashing their bare chests and smashing drums while they chant and shake their long black hair -- a traditional Tibetan dance hyped up for the crowd. Smoke machines and flashing lights illuminate their writhing bodies, while giant speakers pound out traditional Tibetan songs rewritten with Chinese lyrics and hip-hop beats.
When the men are done, female singers in traditional costumes dance toward the edge of the stage, thrusting their hips and pouring shot glasses of alcohol down the throats of favored customers. Chinese tourists and businessmen toss back shots and slip traditional white scarves around the necks of their favorite singers. By midnight the drunkest members of the audience have run onto the stage to slur songs along with the Tibetan performers and pretend to pray like devout Tibetans.
Outside the club, China's policies have succeeded in impoverishing many Tibetans. Robbed of their land and unable to compete with Chinese migrants, Tibetans now suffer the highest poverty rate in China and the worst malnutrition and infant mortality. Young people often cannot find jobs in Chinese-dominated businesses, and many are homeless. On a grassy plain on the outskirts of Lhasa, in the shadow of one of the city's most important monasteries, I come across a cluster of white yurts surrounded by piles of garbage. It is only afternoon, but groups of drunk young men already sit on tiny stools outside the yurts, tossing dice and chugging local brews. Monks in ragged robes caked with dirt wander from yurt to yurt, begging for coins from liquored-up Tibetans. Women circulate through the camp, too, trying to lure men into a yurt for a quickie.
Prostitution is flourishing in Lhasa. By one estimate there are 10,000 sex workers in the Tibetan capital, which has a population of less than 500,000. The day after visiting the yurt camp, I wander to the core of the city. By four in the afternoon, hookers are pouring into the streets. Along a narrow lane near the holiest temples in Tibetan Buddhism, young women wear knee-high boots, push-up bras and so much eye shadow that they resemble the evil offspring of Courtney Love and Katherine Harris. The girls, many of them no more than adolescents, press themselves against the glass windows of their brothels. As Chinese and Tibetan men stroll by, the hookers run outside, trying to drag them through their doorway.
Inside one brothel, a concrete and metal shack with large windows exposing the front room like a fishbowl, a fourteen-year-old girl takes my hand, leading me into the back. Welts cover her stomach, which is exposed by her tube top. There is nothing on the concrete walls, and the concrete floor is bare save for a small square of moldering linoleum. The girl points to the bed and offers sexual intercourse for ten dollars. When I pull away, she cups her breasts in her hands and halves the price to five dollars.
On a larger boulevard near the brothels, Chinese and Tibetan men saunter through a maze of sex shops that sell dildos, inflatable breasts and other sex toys. Some pick out herbal remedies from the shelves, Viagra-like potions designed to keep you hard all night. Others wander next door to small convenience stores selling massive containers of beer. Behind the convenience shops, the heaviest drinkers have collapsed on the ground, their faces red, their clothes stained with food and feces. Laughing Tibetan children kick a soccer ball around the drunks' prostrate bodies.
In a back alley behind the convenience stores, other prostitutes negotiate with customers. A girl shaped like a child's top offers me oral sex for five bucks. When I turn away she, too, lowers the price -- to three dollars, pleading for me to stay. As I walk away, she shrieks, a pained scream.
Since he fled to india in 1959, the Dalai Lama has remained the only figure able to keep his people from succumbing to utter despair. For Tibetans, the fact that he lives offers some meager hope they will not be forgotten by the world. His writings are smuggled into Tibet, and his speeches are broadcast on stations like Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded broadcaster. Almost every Tibetan I speak to tells me that their greatest wish is for the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland. In the ultimate tribute to their love, Tibetans frequently praise his name in public, knowing that doing so can result in harsh treatment. "I knew that I would go to prison," says a former monk who screamed out blessings for the Dalai Lama in front of Chinese police and paid for it with years of beatings. "We will never forget him."
Eventually, however, even a living god must die. Facing his own mortality, the Dalai Lama has adopted an approach to Beijing that he calls the Middle Way. Instead of demanding independence for Tibet, as he did for decades, he affirms that the land is part of China and calls only for greater political and cultural autonomy. China has responded by quietly opening a dialogue with the Dalai Lama's envoys about the future of Tibet.
Lodi Gyari, a Tibetan diplomat based in Washington who leads the Dalai Lama's negotiators, insists that the talks are essential for China. Tibetans will be furious, he warns, if their spiritual leader dies in exile without stepping foot in Tibet again. "The only person who can provide them with legitimacy is the Dalai Lama," Gyari says.
But others say privately that China is simply using the negotiations to co-opt the Dalai Lama and blunt international criticism. Despite five rounds of talks, the Chinese have offered nothing concrete, and a source close to Beijing policymakers tells me that China believes it has no need to make a deal. "The view in China among the leaders is still of the Dalai Lama as a traitor," says a scholar with close ties to Beijing. Even a senior U.S. official worries that "the Chinese are engaged in the dialogue just to please the U.S. -- they have no desire to do more than that."
China's strategy seems to have succeeded: When Hu Jintao visited America last year, the Dalai Lama quietly asked Tibetans not to protest. "The Chinese government has been very successful in convincing the Dalai Lama to exercise some control over Tibetan exiles," says Tenzin Dorjee, a leader of Students for a Free Tibet, a prominent activist group based in New York. Some furious Tibetans go even further, accusing their god-leader of unwittingly selling out to the Chinese. "There's anger and frustration and disappointment with the Dalai Lama's envoys," says Lhadon Tethong, head of the student group. "We don't support this appeasement line."
In the past, such blunt opposition to the Dalai Lama would have resulted in ostracism. But these days, such sentiments can be heard throughout the exile community in Dharamsala. One day, in the middle of a downpour, I drink tea with Tenzin Tsundue, a young Tibetan whose wispy goatee and intense stare give him a striking resemblance to Che Guevara. After the Dalai Lama, Tsundue has become the most prominent figure in the exile community. Unwilling to accept anything less than complete independence, he and his supporters have abandoned the Dalai Lama's peaceful approach, drawing inspiration instead from the Palestinians and other militant organizations. "Youngsters tell me they don't want to join a nonviolent protest," says Tsundue. "Youngsters feel nonviolence is getting nothing."
In Tibetan universities and monasteries, activists tell me, underground cells have formed to organize resistance to Chinese rule. In rural Tibet, Chinese truck drivers have been ambushed and killed. In the age of CNN and the Internet, says an associate of the Dalai Lama, young Tibetans "know about suicide bombers and Afghanistan and Iraq, and it doesn't take a lot of ingenuity for a small group of Tibetans to emulate these tactics. It's a powder keg."
"Young people are going to become more aggressive," agrees Sonam Wangdu, one of Tibet's most respected activists and writers. "They can see how other nations, like East Timor or the Soviet countries, were able to get their independence back. They will attack."
In India, young Tibetan activists have stormed Chinese embassies, clashing with guards. During a recent summit between India and China, a young Tibetan attempted to immolate himself near a luxury hotel in Bombay where Hu Jintao was staying. Several years earlier, another Tibetan named Thupten Ngodup burned himself to death. The Dalai Lama openly despaired that his message of nonviolence was not reaching Tibetans, but Ngodup became a martyr figure among young Tibetan hard-liners. Thousands of demonstrators attended his funeral in Dharamsala. "Self-immolation was very inspiring for the Tibetan people," says Kalsang Phuntsok, head of the Tibetan Youth Congress in Dharamsala. "It showed the younger people that they could sacrifice for the Tibetan people."
With his bushy hair, stilted English and trim suit, Phuntsok seems like a cartoon version of a 1960s British mod. But the group he leads is the largest Tibetan exile organization, with some 15,000 members. "It's my responsibility to tell people what will be the scenario when the Dalai Lama is no more," Phuntsok tells me, pounding his fist into his palm. I ask him about the Middle Way, and he emits a snarly laugh. "We are nullifying all we have achieved in the past forty-five years," he says. "We are admitting at the international level that Tibetan people, and the Dalai Lama, are happy in China. We need to educate Tibetans that attacking China is the only way. If you're willing to die, you have no fear."
Tibetan hard-liners are considering a range of possible targets, including the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the new train line to Lhasa. "The railway has been built, and it'll be there," says Tsundue. "Unless you bomb it, you'll get no attention."
Yet violence could play into China's hands, enabling Beijing to tar Tibetan activists as violent fanatics. "If they turn to violence," says Robert Thurman, "all their legitimacy would be gone." Taking advantage of the hysteria surrounding the war on terror, China has already claimed that Tibetan activists are terrorists and has held counterterrorism exercises in Tibet. The Panchen Lama selected by China is so despised in Tibet that he travels to monasteries under heavy guard, fearful that he will be murdered by the very people who supposedly worship him.
Discovered as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama at age two, the current Dalai Lama had to assume responsibility for his people at a young age. Normally, a regent ran Tibet while a young Dalai Lama grew into manhood, but with Chinese troops approaching his land, the Dalai Lama assumed the power of head of state in 1950, while still a teenager. "I could not refuse my responsibilities," he has said. "I had to shoulder them, put my boyhood behind me."
Carrying a nation on your back never gets easier. On a recent morning in New York, I wait for the Dalai Lama in a small room above a conference room where he is scheduled to speak. On his visits to America, the Tibetan leader packs in dozens, even hundreds, of events; the previous day, he flew from New York to California and back, at the behest of Maria Shriver, for another appearance. Now, he sweeps into the room flanked by a small army of bodyguards. He sits across from me at a small table, his head down. Friends say the Dalai Lama cannot hide his feelings, and today his seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm have been replaced by gloom and fatigue. Groups like Students for a Free Tibet have stepped up their complaints about his decision to abandon independence, and even his own brother recently contradicted him by declaring that China is giving no ground to Tibetans.
"There is definitely more criticism from our own people and also from our supporters," the Dalai Lama tells me, his voice a low rumble. "More and more criticism about our Middle Way approach."
He begins to outline the threats facing Tibet. The attitude of Chinese officials, he admits, is "not encouraging." The new railroad to Lhasa has brought rampant development that poses "consequences on the wild animals and also the environment." I try to interrupt him, but he keeps talking, caught up in the litany of concerns. "And then the demographic pressure is also increasing, and the ecological consequences are very serious."
But as he comes to the end of his soliloquy, the Dalai Lama's face suddenly brightens. There is still hope for the future, he insists. "This is not a question of my return to Tibet but a question of this century," he says. "So therefore, the Tibet issue will not go away."
When our interview ends, I mention to the Dalai Lama that I have recently returned from Tibet, a land he has not been able to visit for almost half a century. He beams. "Oh!" he shouts. "Oh!" Eager for firsthand accounts, he pumps me for information about the new railroad to Lhasa. "Did you see new towns along the train?" he asks. "I've heard there are many new Chinese towns."
As I try to describe what I saw, the Dalai Lama's aides grow nervous; dignitaries wait in the next room for a photo shoot. But the Tibetan leader ignores their entreaties, firing questions at me. "Did you see an impact on the environment?" he asks. The aides stare pointedly at their watches, but the Dalai Lama seems to want more, desperate for any information about his homeland.
Finally, the aides get his attention. The Dalai Lama grasps my hands. "Thank you," he says, staring hard at me. His robes rustle as he heads into the next room.
Watching him go, I am reminded that, to a very real extent, the future of Tibet resides in this elderly man. In an era of terror, his message of steadfast peace in the face of destruction has proven an inspiration to people far beyond his own land. "He has given something indelible to the world," writes the essayist Pico Iyer. "He has shown that justice and nonviolence have a power of their own. And he has shown that globalism can be a way of taking seriously the idea that all of us are one another's neighbors."
But despite the Dalai Lama's immense accomplishments, no leader has emerged who can take his place, and the violence in Tibet is only likely to increase once he is gone. "When the Dalai Lama passes away, it's a real mess," admits Randy Schriver, a former senior official in the U.S. State Department. Worse, it will be at least twenty years before the next Dalai Lama, once he is found and chosen, becomes old enough to lead his people. By that time, given the rapid influx of Chinese and the next generation's growing disillusionment with nonviolence, the Roof of the World may no longer be recognizable as Tibetan. "Right now, Tibetans have nothing more to lose," says a prominent businessman in Lhasa, echoing the concerns of those who fear that one of the world's oldest cultures is coming to an end. "It's like we have a gun at the back of our head and a ditch in front of us."