The Dalai Lama is considered a living Buddha of compassion, a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Chenrezig, who renounced Nirvana in order to help mankind. The title originally only signified the pre-eminent Buddhist monk in Tibet, a remote land about twice the size of Texas that sits veiled behind the Himalayas. But starting in the 17th century, the Dalai Lama also wielded full political authority over the secretive kingdom. That changed with Mao Zedong’s conquest of Tibet, which brought the rule of the current Dalai Lama to an end. On March 17, 1959, he was forced to escape to India.
A report published in the Time stated that in the six decades since, the leader of the world’s most secluded people has become the most recognisable face of a religion practiced by nearly 500 million people worldwide. But his prominence extends beyond the borders of his own faith, with many practices endorsed by Buddhists, like mindfulness and meditation, permeating the lives of millions more around the world. What’s more, the lowly farmer’s son named as a “God-King” in his childhood has been embraced by the West since his exile.
Yet, as old age makes travel more difficult, and as China’s political clout has grown, the Dalai Lama’s influence has waned. Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that drove him out of Tibet is working to co-opt Buddhist principles — as well as the succession process itself. Officially atheist, the party has proved as adaptive to religion as it is to capitalism, claiming a home for faith in the nationalism Beijing has activated under Xi Jinping. In January, the CCP announced it would “Sinicize” Buddhism over the next five years, completing a multimillion-dollar rebranding of the faith as an ancient Chinese religion.
The report further stated that from Pakistan to Myanmar, Chinese money has rejuvenated ancient Buddhist sites and promoted Buddhist studies. Beijing has spent $3 billion transforming the Nepalese town of Lumbini, birthplace of Lord Buddha, into a luxury pilgrimage site, boasting an airport, hotels, convention centre, temples and a university. China has hosted World Buddhist Forums since 2006, inviting monks from all over the world.
Beijing still sees the Dalai Lama as a dangerous threat and swiftly rebukes any nation that entertains him. That appears to be working too. Once the toast of capitals around the world, the Dalai Lama has not met a world leader since 2016. Even India, which has granted asylum to him (he stays in a private chapel in Dharamshala) as well as to about 100,000 other Tibetans, is not sending senior representatives to the diaspora’s commemoration of his 60th year in exile, citing a “very sensitive time” for bilateral relations with Beijing. Every US President since George HW Bush has made a point of meeting the Dalai Lama until Donald Trump, who is in negotiations with China over reforming its State-controlled economy.
Still, the Dalai Lama holds out hope for a return to his birthplace. Despite his renown and celebrity friends, he remains a man aching for home and a leader removed from his people. Having retired from “political responsibility” within the exiled community in 2011, he merely wants “the opportunity to visit some holy places in China for pilgrimage,” as he says. “I sincerely just want to serve Chinese Buddhists.”