DHARMSALA, India – In a lifetime spent advocating the plight of his Tibetan community, promoting inter-religious harmony and pleading for world peace, the Dalai Lama now faces perhaps his greatest challenge: trying to truly retire from politics.
In May, the Dalai Lama formally stepped down as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, giving up the political power that he and his predecessors as Dalai Lama have wielded over Tibetans for hundreds of years. Though he remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, his decision to abdicate is one of the biggest upheavals in the community since the Chinese crackdown led him to flee in 1959 into exile in India.
And it raises the question of whether a man worshipped by his people as a living deity can ever stop leading them.
"It's almost impossible for the Tibetan people to accept that their political, religious leader, their Buddha, will be truncated to just a religious leader," said Tenzin Tsundue, a 37-year-old poet and activist.
There are other questions as well, of the legitimacy of the exile government to speak for all Tibetans, of China's refusal to talk to the new leaders and of whether elected representatives could ever make a decision contradicting the revered holy man.
The Dalai Lama, the 14th in a line of men said to be the living incarnation of Chenrezig, a Buddhist god of compassion, says he had little choice. Though he appears hearty, he turns 76 this week.
He said he needed to act now because he feared political chaos would erupt in the Tibetan community after his eventual death, when the Chinese government and Buddhist monks are certain to argue over the identity of his successor reincarnation as the 15th Dalai Lama.
"Now, that danger is no longer there," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He has also been working for years to move his people toward democracy, a form of government he has long advocated even as his people looked to him as a god-king. In 2001, he established the elected position of prime minister, know as the Kalon Tripa, for the Tibetan government-in-exile and handed over many of his administrative duties.
Though he remained in charge, he spoke with increasing frequency of his desire to fully give up power.
Earlier this year, as he watched the vibrancy of the election campaign for a new exile government, the Dalai Lama decided his people were ready, he said. He delivered a major address on March 19 calling on parliament to strip him of his political powers.
"That night, my sleep was extraordinarily, very sound," the Dalai Lama said.
His people were terrified.
The Dalai Lama, the living symbol of Tibetans' struggle against China, is the only leader most have ever known, and his predecessors have ruled them for more than 3 1/2 centuries. For a deeply religious people, his effort to tease apart his spiritual and temporal roles was confusing and frightening.
"I can't accept it," said Chazod Nawang Tenpa, an 83-year-old Tibetan, who feared the decision was made under Chinese pressure and worried no one would ever be able to lead Tibetans like the man he called "a genius leader."
Many broke into tears and begged him to stay. Parliament repeatedly appealed to him to change his mind. When he refused, they tried to make him a ceremonial figurehead. He refused that as well.
"I want to completely withdraw," he said.
Even among the younger generation, less steeped in tradition and more comfortable with democracy, there was concern — even among those who oppose his Middle Way policy promoting compromise by seeking only autonomy for Tibet within China.
"Of course, we think it's best if he stays for now as leader of the movement," said Dorjee Tseten, director of Students for a Free Tibet, which advocates full independence from China.
The Dalai Lama has been struggling to reassure his people.
"You shouldn't be afraid," he told nearly 100 Tibetans, many newly arrived from their homeland, as they sat in rapt attention on red carpets in a meeting hall at his office.
He is merely returning to tradition, he said, since the first four Dalai Lamas were purely religious leaders before the fifth incarnation took political power in 1642. His retirement also proved the Tibet movement's commitment to democracy, giving it a powerful moral weapon against China, he said.
"China will try to sow fear, but don't worry," he said. "My devolution of political power is something that will help Tibet in the future. It is not that I have lost heart. It is something you should be proud of."
Though the Dalai Lama's formal authority has been removed from the exile government's charter, there are serious concerns about how much power he can truly cede.
His people still worship him and treat his words as sacred, making it unthinkable for a mere elected leader to contradict him or the policies he has set in place.
"I think it will be a gradual process, no one is thinking of changing anything overnight," said Lobsang Sangay, the 43-year-old Harvard-trained legal scholar elected the Kalon Tripa in April. "I, for one, will definitely seek his counsel and advice and take it to heart."
Sangay said it could take years for the government to stake out its own positions.
For Tsundue, the poet activist, a disagreement between the Kalon Tripa and the Dalai Lama — ever — "is not possible."
Future prime ministers "will of course keep His Holiness' position in mind," he said. "They will be hugely respectful of His Holiness and seek guidance from him."
As one of the most recognizable people on the planet, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who regularly meets with top world leaders, the Dalai Lama also remains the most effective representative for his people's plight. Acknowledging this, he says he will continue to advocate for them and will allow the exile government's envoys to act in his name.
China, which has vilified him for decades as a separatist troublemaker but dislikes the exile government even more, is also forcing him to remain involved. Chinese leaders have said they will only hold negotiations — which have gone on for nine fruitless rounds already — with his representatives.
In addition, there is the question of legitimacy. The Dalai Lama was revered by the 6 million members of the community living in Tibet as well as the tens of thousands of exiles scattered from his headquarters in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala to the streets of Toronto.
The new government was only elected by the tiny percentage of Tibetans in exile.
The Dalai Lama dismisses the issue as a legality.
"Our legitimacy is moral basis not legal basis," he said. "The refugee community is the true representative of the Tibetan people."
Others speak of signs of support by those in Tibet for Sangay that should be accepted as proxies for votes.
Tseten spoke of songs Tibetans inside wrote in Sangay's honor. Sangay said people lit off fireworks when his victory was announced. Regardless, Sangay said he saw himself as more of a spokesman than a leader for those inside Tibet.
"Ultimately, what we want to do ... is to achieve our freedom and have our dignity restored. On that the Tibetans inside and outside Tibet are united," he said.
The Dalai Lama says his daily life has changed little since his official retirement.
Soon after giving up power, he flew off for a tour of New Zealand and Australia. And he was heading to the United States this week where he will celebrate his birthday in a Washington D.C. arena, lead a prayer for world peace on the lawn of the Capitol and conduct a special Buddhist ceremony.
He plans to devote his time to the promotion of human values and ethics and to his dialogue with scientists about Buddhist contributions to knowledge of the mind.
"Now, anyway, I have more time," he said.
His dream now, he said, is to return to what he feels he is at heart: "A simple Buddhist monk."
Ravi Nessman can be reached at http://twitter.com/ravinessman