By Gwynne Dyer
The Dalai Lama wants Tibet's political decisions made by an elected prime minister. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, recently said: "The Dalai Lama equals non-violence, and without him there would be violence."
In Beijing, Chinese writer Wang Lixiong agreed: "If ... the Dalai Lama does not return to Tibet before he dies, the moment that he dies will see general riots across the Tibetan areas of China." And he is going to die, probably fairly soon.
The Dalai Lama will be 74 next week, and he has been in hospital three times in the past year. He presumably believes that he will immediately be reborn as soon as he dies, but the traditional search for the child who is his next incarnation could take years.
Waiting for that child to grow up and become the Tibetans' next leader will take several decades. That is a big political problem.
One measure he has already taken to ease the difficulties is to announce that he is most unlikely to be reborn in Chinese-ruled Tibet, which greatly narrows the search area for his successor. There are only 120,000 Tibetans in the diaspora, mostly descendants of the 1959 refugees.
Three-quarters of them live in India, and most of the rest live in Nepal, the United States, Canada or Switzerland.
But this almost guarantees what was already quite likely - that the Chinese authorities will "find" a rival reincarnation within Tibet and promote him as the next legitimate Dalai Lama.
Even if that does not happen, the 20-year gap while the current Dalai Lama's successor matures leaves a political vacuum that must be filled one way or another, and he long ago suggested that he might name a regent to exercise his authority during that period.
The core of the problem is that his role as defined by tradition embodies both political and religious authority. Religious questions rarely require instant answers, and Tibetan Buddhism has flourished for many centuries despite these recurrent 20-year gaps in the highest leadership job.
Political decisions, on the other hand, need to be made promptly - so maybe the solution is to separate those two roles.
The Dalai Lama has been raising this possibility for years, only to have it repeatedly rejected by his adoring followers. He brought it up again at a congress of the Tibetan exile community not long after last year's bloody anti-Chinese riots in Tibet, saying that his moderate, "middle-way" approach to the Chinese authorities in Beijing, seeking only autonomy and not independence for the country, was having no success.
Maybe it was time for him to take a back seat and let the younger generation of leaders in the community deal with that thorny problem as they saw fit, he suggested.
The congress rejected the suggestion, reaffirming him as their political leader. They simply could not imagine a future without him.
The Dalai Lama himself, however, knows that such a future will arrive. So he has now released a video in which he urges the Tibetan exile community to embrace democracy and stop depending on a political leader who is essentially (at the risk of sounding disrespectful) picked at random.
That may serve for religious purposes, but for the material world something different is required.
"The Dalai Lama held temporal and spiritual leadership over the last 400 or 500 years. It may have been quite useful, but that period is over," he says in the video.
"Today it is clear to the whole world that democracy is the best system despite its minor negativities. That is why it is important that Tibetans also move with the larger world community."
It's a nicely crafted statement that does not trample on anybody's religious sensitivities, but what it means is that political leadership of the Tibetan exile community must move from the Dalai Lama to an elected prime minister.
Such an office has existed since 2001, but until now its holder has deferred to the Dalai Lama in all important decisions. That has to stop, says the man himself - so maybe now it actually will.
That is a neat solution to the succession problem, but it has implications that should concern the Chinese government. A Tibetan prime minister elected solely by the exile community cannot hope to have the political authority of a "living Buddha" within Tibet.
For almost 50 years the Dalai Lama has used that authority to restrain Tibetans from open revolt against China, always seeking negotiations with Beijing on Tibetan autonomy and discouraging talk of outright independence. A prime minister elected only by the diaspora could not do that even if he wanted to - which he might not.
China has never appreciated the Dalai Lama's services, of course. In classic imperial style, it assumes that material improvements in the living standards of its subjects will make them forget their nationalist aspirations.
When it turns out that Tibetans have not forgotten them, as was brutally demonstrated in last year's anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa, Beijing blames "outside agitators" and "plotters" like the Dalai Lama, whom it calls "a jackal clad in monk's robes".
In fact, he has been feeding tranquillisers to the Tibetan population for decades, in the (probably accurate) belief that Tibet cannot win its independence by violence. But a lot of Tibetans would like to try, and Beijing will miss the Dalai Lama when he's gone.
* Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.