BODH GAYA, INDIA
The young Tibetan monk was taking his elderly aunt and uncle on a trip of a lifetime – a tour of holy Buddhist sites in India and a chance to meet the Dalai Lama. But halfway through, word came from China: The family was to return right away.
Chinese police had descended on the monk’s home five times in December, fingerprinting his parents and forcing them to sign documents guaranteeing his return.
But the monk and his family were determined to see the Dalai Lama speak at Bodh Gaya, the Indian city that many consider the birthplace of Buddhism. So they defied Chinese authorities and continued their journey, risking imprisonment, harsh questioning or loss of identity cards when they return home.
“I’m very worried,” the monk said on a chilly evening, sitting in a tent not far from a teaching ground where thousands have gathered each day since Jan. 3 to pray, meditate and hear their religious leader. “If we are put in prison, they will interrogate us: ‘Why did you go to India?’ This can be very dangerous.”
Authorities from the Tibetan government in exile say the Chinese government barred an estimated 7,000 Tibetan pilgrims from attending this month’s 10-day gathering in India, an unprecedented move that further erodes the rights of 6 million people who live in the Tibetan region of China. It was also a fresh reminder that the Chinese are threatening to control the selection of the next Dalai Lama after the eventual demise of the renowned religious leader, who is now 81.
“It’s tragic,” said Lobsang Sangay, the head of Tibet’s government in exile in India. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for Tibetans, like Muslims going to Mecca. It’s a sad commentary on the Chinese claim to have religious freedom – or any kind of freedom in Tibet.”
The Dalai Lama told reporters that the move was “unfortunate.”
China has denied threatening pilgrims or blocking their departures, but local authorities in Tibet declared this ritual gathering, called the Kalachakra, illegal in 2012, the last time it was held in Bodh Gaya. Most of the 7,000 had already traveled legally to India and were forced to return early. Only 300 remain.
“The government by no means threatened them to return, although the government does not encourage them to attend the ritual,” Xu Zhitao, an official with the Communist Party’s Central Committee, told the Global Times, a tabloid associated with the party newspaper.
Since unrest broke out across the Tibetan plateau in 2008, the Chinese government has enacted sweeping measures that have curtailed freedom of expression, notably by prioritizing Chinese over the Tibetan language in schools, posting police in monasteries and increasing surveillance.
Activists say China’s Communist Party seeks to break the connection between Tibetans and their revered leader to ensure compliance with ambitious party objectives in Tibet, a region rich in mineral and water resources.
“What we’re seeing is new,” said Kate Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet. “It’s a systematic attempt to prevent Tibetans from having any access at all to the Dalai Lama.”
An estimated 10,000 Tibetans attended the last such gathering in Bodh Gaya in 2012, but many were jailed or detained for “reeducation” in military camps when they returned, Saunders said.
Around 200,000 maroon- and saffron-robed monks and nuns and Buddhist devotees from around the world – including American actor Richard Gere – converged on the town in eastern India for days of chanting and lessons on Buddhist thought. As darkness descended, many of them performed prostrations and encircled the ancient stupa next to the tree – a descendant of the original – where the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment.
Since the Dalai Lama escaped over the mountains from Tibet to India in 1959, Indian governments have treated him as an honored guest in Dharamsala, a hill town in northern India, but they long kept him at arm’s length to avoid offending the Chinese. Now, that may be changing.
The Dalai Lama appeared prominently at an event with India’s president in Delhi last month. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made preserving India’s ancient heritage a priority, becoming the first prime minister in decades to visit Bodh Gaya.
“I don’t believe it’s a fundamental shift of position, but certainly what you’re seeing is trending towards perhaps a less self-conscious expression of our sentiments and our support for the Tibetan cultural identity and the high standing the Dalai Lama enjoys here in India,” said Nirupama Menon Rao, a former foreign secretary and ambassador to China.
The support is key, as the Tibetan exile community faces uncertain times. The Dalai Lama has said that when he dies, he may choose not to be reincarnated, as Buddhist belief holds, or that he could come back as a woman. But China has signaled it will control the search for the next Dalai Lama by anointing its own Panchen Lama, another important religious figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
Some of the attendees said they are worried it will be the last such ceremony the Dalai Lama will perform. The octogenarian moves and speaks more slowly now, and he had to be helped to the elaborate throne on the dais by two monks.
“He can’t go into top gear anymore,” said Gaden Tashi, a Tibetan from Kathmandu. “But he keeps saying he’s happy and healthy.”
One young Tibetan-language tutor who made the risky journey from China recalled that when he first unrolled his prayer mat at Bodh Gaya and got his first glimpse of the Dalai Lama, “I couldn’t control myself; I thought it was a dream.”
The tutor, 29, arrived Jan. 3, weeks after his trip began in a small village in the Tibetan area of Amdo. He paid a guide to take him to Kathmandu, where he then received legal papers from the Indian Embassy to make the pilgrimage.
Almost immediately, he said, frightening messages began appearing on his WeChat, China’s popular social media platform. He said police sent a warning through his parents that he should return by Jan. 3, the day the Kalachakra would begin. His mother cried and begged him to come home soon. Others sent photos of pilgrims who were met at the airport only to have their passports sliced into pieces by police.
He now feels he cannot return to China, but he believes his sacrifice has been worth it.
“Every Tibetan has a dream – to meet the Dalai Lama,” he said. “I told my parents I have no regret, even if I die.”
(The Washington Post’s Luna Lin in Beijing and Swati Gupta in New Delhi contributed to this report.)
THE WASHINGTON POST