When the Dalai Lama talks about his health, as he did with me one day less than two years ago, he often recounts with a giggle how physicians say his body is that of a much younger man.
Despite his 75 years, he's had only minor bouts of ill health. One came in October 2008, when doctors in India operated on his gall bladder. Afterward, he delighted in telling listeners that he was less of a Dalai Lama than before: A monk without his gall bladder.
The Dalai Lama may be advanced in years, but he remains quick-witted.
Thursday's announcement that the Dalai Lama plans to retire from political life is actually not a new sentiment. I heard him express it at a news conference in Tokyo just a month after his gallbladder surgery.
"I'm looking forward to complete retirement," he said. "Some people tell me it's impossible . . . . I tell them my retirement is my human right."
It isn't weariness or age that prompts such remarks. After all, the Dalai Lama keeps up a punishing pace of international travel. Consider his schedule through mid-June, as listed on his website, www.dalailama.com. In April, a European swing takes him to Ireland, Sweden and Denmark. In May, he flies from India to the U.S. (California, Minnesota, Arkansas and New Jersey), then travels in June to Australia, where he crisscrosses the continent-size nation.
He does so without comforts or excess privilege. He refuses to fly first-class. Only with pressure from his staff does he sit in business class. First class, I heard him say once, is "too much luxury."
By "retiring" from political life, what the Dalai Lama really is doing is prodding Tibetan exiles to take more initiative and stand up for themselves. It's a surprisingly difficult struggle.
One of the facets of the Tibetan dilemma is that Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama as a god-king. They look to him for guidance on all important issues. Even as he prods them to embrace democracy and make their own decisions, they often refuse, looking to him and uttering, "Whatever His Holiness wants."
Later this month, the 140,000 or so Tibetan exiles scattered around the world will choose a new prime minister for their exile government. The Dalai Lama would like for the new prime minister to take a more visible role in political affairs. The outgoing prime minister, Samdhong Rinpoche, has been so submissive that an advocate of Tibet independence, Jamyang Norbu, likened him to a court sycophant.
In fact, the powers that the Dalai Lama would devolve to a prime minister are few. They include signing amendments to the exile government's charter, convening parliament sessions, appointing top functionaries, calling for referendums and signing budgets.
In reality, such functions are minimal. A handover would be a symbolic gesture, a move to empower Tibetan exiles to stand up and make their voices heard.
But the reality is that the Dalai Lama is too towering a figure to really retire from politics. He holds a lifetime job. Once a Dalai Lama, always a Dalai Lama.
Without his active involvement, the cause of Tibetan autonomy risks fizzling out around the globe. Even if a charismatic Tibetan takes the reins as prime minister, making pronouncements on Tibetan issues, Tibetans will still look to the Dalai Lama as their leader. And so will much of the world outside of mainland China.
After all, apart from the Dalai Lama, how many Tibetans are widely known?
How would a little known Tibetan prime minister capture attention of the world's media, the Hollywood stars, the kings, princes and fellow religious leaders with whom the Dalai Lama routinely meets?
A prime minister of the government-in-exile also would remain largely unknown to the vast majority of Tibetans, the 5.5 million who live under Chinese rule on the Tibetan plateau. Chinese censors allow little news of exile politics to filter into Tibet itself.
It's those Tibetans who suffer most from China's restrictive policies. Many of them long to see their god-king return to his homeland after more than five decades of enforced exile.
On numerous travels around the Tibetan plateau as I researched a book on the Tibetan issue, the most painful question I would hear would be: "Will His Holiness be returning to Tibet this year?"
The harsh answer, of course, is no. Not this year. Not next. Maybe never. For those Tibetans, concepts of democracy are often foreign. They simply ache for the Dalai Lama's return.
(Johnson covered China and Tibet as McClatchy's Beijing bureau chief and is now McClatchy's Mexico City bureau chief. He's the author of "Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China)
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