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“The Tibetan government is now standing on the strength of one man,” said Jamyang Norbu, a writer who once fought for the small, long-disbanded Tibetan guerrilla army. He is one of the most outspoken intellectuals favoring complete Tibetan independence, as opposed to the limited autonomy the Dalai Lama now demands.

Mr. Norbu worries about the personality cult that surrounds the Dalai Lama, and the way his godlike status can make it difficult for dissenting voices to be heard. “In many ways I am loyal to him. But it’s difficult to have an independent point of view” in the exile community, he said from his Tennessee home.

The Dalai Lama, the 14th in the line of reincarnations, at times has insisted that his reincarnation would be born in exile, at times also said the tradition could end with his death. He has talked about dividing his power, with his reincarnation carrying on spiritual duties while someone else - perhaps someone he appoints - takes up the leadership of the exile movement.

He regularly meets with high-ranking monks to discuss his succession. The group includes the Karmapa, a 24-year-old monk known for his daring escape from China and appreciation of PlayStation war games. Many observers think he is being groomed to take on more power.

In Public, the Dalai Lama often treats the issue lightly - his advisers “are hoping my life may remain infinite,” he said, laughing - but he is clearly sending up trial balloons, gauging what his followers will accept after he dies.

As always, Beijing’s potential reactions are weighed.

“There’s a fear that unless we can strengthen the exile government before His Holiness passes away, the Chinese will make a strong attempt to control his reincarnation process,” Mr. Norbu said.

China has left little doubt that it intends to be deeply involved in the Dalai Lama’s succession, ridiculing his scenarios and insisting that religious law requires that the reincarnation be born in a Tibetan area under Chinese control.

This means a government led by fierce atheists may soon be trying to steer an ancient mystical process, using monks loyal to Beijing to install a China-approved successor.

The Dalai Lama shrugs at the idea: “This is very possible,” he said, adding that no one will be fooled: “One Dalai Lama is official; one Dalai Lama is Dalai Lama of the Tibetan heart.”

Such a move would echo Beijing’s tactics with the Panchen Lama, one of the leading figures in Tibetan Buddhism. In 1995, when the Dalai Lama named a boy as the reincarnated Panchen Lama, that boy disappeared and has not been seen since.

Another boy, backed by Beijing, was soon named the official reincarnation, though he has little support among Tibetans.

It was different in 1938 when, after a series of mystical signs, a Tibetan boy named Lhamo Dhondrub was announced at age 3 to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.

The new Dalai Lama was enthroned in a feudal Himalayan kingdom that had remained deeply isolated until well into the 20th century. It was a place where indentured servitude was common, where telephones were nearly unknown and where, in the 1930s, a politician was sentenced by the Tibetan government to having his eyeballs removed for trying to use black magic to kill a rival.

The Dalai Lama found himself jousting with China while he was still a teenager. In 1950, when he was 15, Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet. Nine years later, as talks with Beijing collapsed and a Tibetan uprising was crushed, the Dalai Lama fled with a few supporters across the mountains into India.

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