Because India has almost as many holy men as it has cricketers, Indian officialdom remains in denial about the effect that the 1959 decision to give His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, asylum (along with an indeterminate number of his followers) has had on relations with China. Although Delhi has sought to normalise relations since at least 1978, such efforts have foundered on the rock of Zhongnanhai's distrust of Indian intentions.
To the Chinese leadership, by 'protecting' if not encouraging the Dalai Lama, India is a willing participant in what it regards as an international effort to 'split' or weaken China. But if the presence of the Dalai Lama in India has had a baleful effect on Sino-Indian ties, no less harmful has his half-century of absence from Tibet been for the people that revere him. Although few would mourn certain aspects of the Lama System in Tibet, such as the practice of using the poor as serfs or the fusion of religious with temporal roles, some strands in Tibetan culture deserve to be eternal, including its contribution to medicine and to Buddhism.
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The absence of the Dalai Lama – the core of Tibetan spiritual life – has led to a steady dilution in the intensity of tradition, an outcome that culturally impoverishes the whole world. While his present exile is comfortable, alternating between India and the West, the Dalai Lama may need to ask himself if a return to Tibet would not help reverse the steady drift away from indigenous culture.
Having visited China numerous times since 1999 and dealt with party officials, the military, academics and ordinary Chinese, my assessment is that the Communist Party may be willing to consider a return of His Holiness to the Potala Palace, if some adjustments are made – the obvious one being a clear enunciation that both Taiwan and Tibet are a part of China and will, in the opinion of the Dalai Lama, remain so.
Next, would be the abjuring of any temporal role within Tibet, with the Dalai Lama conforming to the practices and lifestyle of a religious leader (although for logistical purposes, he may once again be given the protocol rank of a Minister, as he held in the 1950s). Discussions between the Dalai Lama's very able negotiator, Lodi Gyari, and the Chinese leadership could ensure that not only His Holiness but all the senior lamas would be given the facilities needed to function, but this time without temporal authority.
While such an agreement would be viewed as a climbdown by several within the Dalai Lama's entourage, the reality is that unless a catastrophe befalls the Peoples Republic and it dissolves, there seems no prospect of independence even for the present territory constituting the Tibetan Autonomous Region, much less the Greater Tibet sought by several acolytes and their international well-wishers. After 50 years, the time seems to have arrived for an unsentimental look at the impact of current policies on the population that most needs to be factored in – the indigenous people of Tibet. Indeed, given the widening hold of spiritualism among the Chinese people, it's not improbable that His Holiness would emerge as the pre-eminent religious figure of the Peoples Republic.
China has changed significantly since the 1950s, as indeed has Tibet. A generation is coming up that, while being intensely patriotic, is nevertheless searching for anchors to moor traditions in. Should the Dalai Lama return to the Potala Palace, such an outcome could well be the proverbial swallow heralding an acceleration of faith in China.
Congressional Medals of Honour to the Dalai Lama and meetings with Western leaders have made no tangible difference to the millions of Tibetans who have been without their spiritual leader for so long. Perhaps the time has come to take the initiative for a return of a spiritual leader who has for too long been separated from his roots and most of his people.