- Associated Press - Thursday, June 17, 2010

DHARMSALA, India

The question looms over this raggedy hillside town, a place where ancient mysticism constantly brushes against the realities of modern geopolitics. The monks who fled across the Himalayas ask it quietly, as do the exile politicians. Even the angry young activists are careful how they raise the issue.

But as the man at the center of the Tibetan exile movement approaches his 75th birthday, the question has become inescapable: What happens after the Dalai Lama dies?

The issue echoes far from Dharmsala, the Dalai Lama’s home since he fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Implications range from policy decisions in Beijing to widespread fears within Tibet and among its 150,000 exiles that their struggle for autonomy may collapse with the death of their icon.

It is something the Dalai Lama himself thinks about all the time.

“When I pass away, when I die, of course [there will be] a setback. Very serious setback,” the Dalai Lama said quietly in a recent interview in his private hilltop compound, speaking in his often-tangled English. His words spilled out in bursts, and he could veer suddenly between resignation and determination. “But then, this younger generation will carry this on. There is no question.”

That younger generation, however, isn’t so sure.

“Right now we are under His Holiness’ leadership,” said Tenzin Norlha, a 29-year-old Tibetan genetics researcher in Dharmsala, her face creased with worry. Although the Dalai Lama is thought to be in reasonable health, he has struggled with a series of ailments in recent years and turns 75 in July. “After he passes away, then what will we see? … Who can take care of us as His Holiness has done?”

It is hard to exaggerate the hold that the Dalai Lama, like his predecessors over the centuries, has over Tibetans. To them, he is a king, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the embodiment of compassion. He is the Presence, the Holder of the White Lotus, the Absolute Wisdom, the Ocean. His presence often reduces his followers to speechless weeping.

For nearly 500 years, the tradition has continued, with each Dalai Lama reincarnated after his death into the body of a Tibetan boy. But with Tibet’s leadership in exile and an aging Dalai Lama, Tibetan history is at a precipice.

“Once the Dalai Lama dies, the whole exile structure is going to be under enormous pressure,” said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University.

Possible aftershocks include a rival Dalai Lama anointed inside China, still home to about 5.4 million Tibetans; squabbling among various Buddhist sects; a plunge in donations; infighting in the exile government; and a drop in interest among wealthy foreign supporters and young activists.

In many ways, the Dalai Lama is a man who could be undone by his own charisma. Behind the monk’s robes he might look like a Midwestern 1960s retiree - with a buzz haircut, oversized glasses, maroon polyester socks and orthopedic shoes - but decades of visitors have talked about his ability to make intense personal connections. He laughs loudly and slaps playfully at people he barely knows.

His most fervent Western supporters revere him as a mystical amalgam of Nelson Mandela and Yoda, and his wealthy and powerful allies range from actor Richard Gere to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

He will be a hard man to supersede.

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