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Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2003

Dalai Lama's role vital to Tibetans in Bloomington, worldwide

Nobel Prize winner and spiritual leader has strong ties to university and community

NOTE: Professor Sperling is available for interviews until Sept. 4. He will be unavailable Sept. 5-12, including the Dalai Lama's visit to Bloomington on Sept. 7, because he will be attending a major conference abroad on Tibet. Visit the Tibetan Cultural Center's Web site at for a complete schedule.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama makes his fourth visit to Bloomington in September, some may view him as a celebrity and others as a religious visionary. But to one Indiana University Bloomington scholar, there is no question that he has been crucial to the survival of a strong Tibetan identity in exile.

"The fact that we have a cohesive Tibetan community in India and in exile is in large part due to the fact that we have the Dalai Lama as the focus," said Elliot Sperling, associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies at IU Bloomington. "Without him, the Tibetans would probably be no different than any other group of exiles who were uprooted without choice and who would ultimately be assimilated. The Dalai Lama's focusing the Tibetans has allowed them to maintain cohesion, which I don't think has been a small accomplishment."

Sperling, currently on a sabbatical, has been chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies and teaches courses on Tibetan language, history and culture.

Not only is IU's Tibetan Studies Program located in Bloomington, but the community itself is home to many people who are actively engaged in issues relating to Tibet. The Dalai Lama's older brother, Thubten Norbu, is a retired IU Bloomington professor who founded the Tibetan Cultural Center. The campus also has a chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, which is active in addressing human rights concerns there.

Norbu fled to America and in 1965 made his way to Bloomington and IU, where he began teaching. In 1979, Norbu opened the Tibetan Culture Center, which is hosting the spiritual leader's fourth visit to Bloomington.

The Dalai Lama last visited Bloomington in 1999 to preside over the Kalachakra, a 12-day religious celebration for world peace.

In addition to visiting Bloomington, the Dalai Lama will make other stops in the United States including Washington, D.C., where he will meet again with President George W. Bush. He has previously met with sitting presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

"He's trying to clarify and seek support from foreign governments for direct negotiations between his representatives and the Chinese government," Sperling said. "For a long time, there were no negotiations. In the past year, after many, many years of no visible progress, two delegations have gone from the Dalai Lama's government in exile to China to discuss the issue."

Sperling said there hasn't been any apparent progress coming out of these talks, but he is encouraged that they have taken place. "The Dalai Lama is still in India," he said.

As the current Dalai Lama gets older, questions arise about whether the Tibetan liberation movement can sustain its momentum after his death. Under the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, when the Dalai Lama dies, he will be reincarnated in the body of someone born after his death. It would take several years for a successor to be selected.

"He has said several times that he will not be reborn under Chinese rule. It goes without saying that when it comes to the next incarnation, the authorities in the People's Republic of China will want to take charge of the search and find the next Dalai Lama," Sperling said. "It would be surprising, should this Dalai Lama die in exile, if there are not then contradictory tendencies or opposing searches and candidates, as selected by the Chinese authorities and other Tibetans.

"Setting aside the question of reincarnation, you're looking at a period of several years during which there is no Dalai Lama," said Sperling, adding that it may be China's strategy to wait for his death.