Thousands of Buddhists from all over the world made a pilgrimage this fall to a monastery high in India's Himalayas. Orange-robed monks with shaved heads huddled cross-legged on the floor, as Tibetan opera singers in multicolored gowns teetered under the weight of giant silver headdresses. They carried fruit baskets as offerings and chanted in unison, all praying for the same thing: the Dalai Lama's longevity.
Tibetan Buddhists believe their spiritual leader, now 84 and ailing, will be reincarnated when he dies. He is the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's traditional high priest — the same being, faithful believe, that has been reincarnated for more than 600 years.
Traditionally, the Dalai Lama himself gives instructions before he dies. He's supposed to tell aides where to look for a child who will next embody his essence. But this time, politics may complicate the search.
"The Dalai Lama's reincarnation is a civilizational struggle between China and Tibetans over who controls Tibetan Buddhism," says Amitabh Mathur, a retired adviser to the Indian government on Tibetan affairs. "It's not merely about one individual. It's about who truly heads the Tibetans."
For the past 60 years, the Dalai Lama has sought to do so from exile in northern India, ever since fleeing a Chinese crackdown in his native Tibet. Beijing, which has controlled Tibet since, says the Dalai Lama lost his legitimacy when he and his followers fled. The Chinese government claims the right to name his successor.
So once he dies, the world could end up with two Dalai Lamas — one identified by the Chinese government and another by Tibetans in exile. The discrepancy threatens to divide the Tibetan Buddhist community and imperil relations between the world's two most populous countries, India and China.
The Dalai Lama's vision
The Dalai Lama says he has plenty of time: He has had dreams, he says, that he will live to 113. He has told advisers he plans to consult with them and others, including the Tibetan public, about his reincarnation plans when he turns "about 90."
According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, he has control over his reincarnation: "The person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth," according to the Dalai Lama's official website, "and how that reincarnation is to be recognized."
But he was hospitalized earlier this year with a chest infection and has scaled back public audiences. This has worried his followers. So far, the Dalai Lama has dropped contradictory hints: He says he might be reincarnated as a man or a woman, an adult or a child — or might emanate into the bodies of several people simultaneously. He has said his rebirth will occur in a "free country" — which could mean India — but also suggested that it may not happen at all.
"One thing I want to make clear: As far as my own rebirth is concerned, the final authority is myself — no one else — and obviously, not Chinese communists!" the Dalai Lama told reporters in 2011.
He has also warned Buddhists not to trust anything China says after he dies.
"In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from [India], in a free country, and one chosen by the Chinese, then nobody will trust — nobody will respect (the one chosen by China)," he told Reuters in March. "So that's an additional problem for the Chinese! It's possible, it can happen."
When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 — crossing the Himalayas on foot, in disguise and under cover of night — India granted him asylum. He and tens of thousands of followers set up a new base at a Buddhist monastery in Dharamsala, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. From there, he has traveled the world, campaigning for nonviolence, spirituality and equality — efforts that won him the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. He also campaigns for the welfare and self-determination of Tibetans.
But Beijing maintains that the Dalai Lama forfeited his authority over Tibetans 60 years ago, when he went into exile.
The Dalai Lama hasn't done a "single good thing" for Tibet, China's Communist Party chief for the region, Wu Yingjie, told reporters in March. He insisted that Tibetans are "extremely grateful for the prosperity that the Communist Party has brought them." China has poured billions of dollars into Tibet, bringing factory jobs and development to the poor mountainous region. That development has also brought in more ethnic Han Chinese, fueling fears that the government is intentionally diluting native Tibetan influence.
"China wants to pacify Tibet, which is a very religious and devotional society, by controlling the economy and also the [Tibetan Buddhist] clergy and monastic orders," says Mathur, the former adviser to India's government.
Controlling the Dalai Lama's succession is the most important part of that, he says.
In recent years, China has taken to calling Buddhism an "ancient Chinese religion," even though Buddhism was born in India. Beijing is bankrolling the restoration of Buddhist sites in Nepal, Myanmar and Pakistan.
The reincarnation of all Tibetan Buddhist holy figures, including that of the Dalai Lama, "must comply with Chinese laws & regulations," an official at China's Foreign Affairs ministry, Lijian Zhao, tweeted last month.
It's difficult to gauge the Tibetan reaction to all this. The vast majority — more than 6 million — still live in China. Beijing inundates their monasteries with propaganda. Many have been arrested for hanging the Dalai Lama's portrait or communicating with exiles. Starting in 2009, more than 100 Tibetans self-immolated to protest Chinese rule.
Tibetans abroad — about 100,000 of them in India alone — fiercely oppose the idea that China's atheist communists might choose their next spiritual leader. India grants special residency to Tibetans and hosts their largest community outside China, followed by Nepal and the United States.
"We are very much worried! Where is Buddhism? Where is the spiritualism then?" Tsewang Gyalpo Arya, spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, told NPR in an interview in September at his office downhill from the Dalai Lama's monastery in Dharamsala.
Until 2011, the Dalai Lama was considered Tibetans' political leader as well as their spiritual leader. But that year, he handed political power to a government in exile, headed by Lobsang Sangay, elected by Tibetans in exile.
China rejects that government's authority.
"It's illegal and invalid. It does not represent our people. It isn't our people's government," a Tibetan official in the Chinese government, Norbu Dondrup, told reporters in March.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many sacred lineages of reincarnated beings — and China has tangled with them before.
In 1995, a 6-year-old Tibetan boy was recognized by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, another high-level Tibetan Buddhist holy figure. Days later, China detained him. He hasn't been heard from since. Beijing named a replacement, whom exiles refuse to recognize.
"Decisions regarding the selection of Tibetan Buddhist leaders rest with the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leaders and the people of Tibet. Period!" U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said during a visit to India to meet with the Dalai Lama late last month.
The U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would sanction any Chinese official who interferes in the Dalai Lama's succession. Arya says he would like to see similar legislation in India and other countries.
"The international community should take interest in these things, because we cannot let China go on bullying other people," Arya says. "It's not only about Buddhism. In Christianity and in Islam, also [the Chinese] have been repressing everything."
"Fracturing" of Tibetan Buddhists?
There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhist thought, but only the youngest one is headed by the Dalai Lama. The others have agreed to support him. But that wasn't always the case, says Mathur, the ex-adviser to the Indian government.
"The Tibetans themselves were never completely united in the past. They have shown greater unity in exile than they showed when they were in Tibet," he says, referring to centuries of regional infighting among the four schools. "It's also possible that the Chinese will manipulate these differences to make them divisions."
In other words, he warns, "There will be fracturing."
As the Dalai Lama's monastery in Dharamsala filled in September with the faithful, all praying in unison for their leader's longevity, an 89-year-old Tibetan man hung back, resting on a stone bench, softly chanting.
Pemba Wangdu grew up in Tibet and served prison time there — three years, three months and six days, he says — for being a follower of the Dalai Lama.
"When I got out, I was still under [Chinese government] surveillance, so I couldn't meet with other [Buddhist] people. I realized I didn't have freedom of religion. I watched the destruction of our monasteries," he recalls.
He says he escaped to India 40 years ago to be closer to the Dalai Lama.
"If His Holiness leaves this world without certainty about what comes next," Pemba says, "there will be trouble."
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.