“That day was the start of a real emotional roller coaster, many anxious moments and a lot of introspection,” he says. “I realized, if what His Holiness was saying went through, it could be me stepping into his shoes.”
Several weeks later, Mr. Sangay was elected as the next Kalon Tripa.
When I ask how he feels about taking over the temporal duties of a man regarded by his followers as a living god at a time when Tibet stands at such a crossroads, Mr. Sangay replies that it is his leh, or karmic destiny.
On the thorny question of his spiritual succession, the Dalai Lama is said to be still considering alternative scenarios. According to his nephew and official spokesman, Tenzin Takhla, his uncle will be convening the latest of several meetings of senior lamas to discuss this issue in Dharamsala in September.
Meanwhile, Tibet has been rocked by growing demonstrations against the discrimination suffered by the six million Tibetans living within China. Since the violent crackdown on protesters in Lhasa in 2008, human-rights groups report that there are now more Tibetan political prisoners in Chinese jails than at any other time in recent history. According to GuChuSum, an organization that helps former political prisoners who have escaped from Tibet, there were at least 824 named political prisoners in detention in March, 2011. The whereabouts of many more is unknown.
In the face of this unrest and the increasing tensions among those in the 145,000-strong exile community, Mr. Sangay was seen as a much-needed shot in the arm for the exile leadership. At Harvard, he specialized in international human-rights law and much of his energy has been devoted to bringing Tibetan and Chinese academics together.
Despite his self-effacing manner, those who know Mr. Sangay describe him as “extremely ambitious,” an unusual trait in Tibetan culture, which values humility as one of the highest virtues. He is married to a descendent of one of the founding kings of Tibet, who was also born in exile, and they have a three-year-old daughter.
Mr. Sangay tells of how hard it was, given his impoverished background, to win the approval of his wife's parents for her hand in marriage. “I told my wife's father, ‘I am nothing now and maybe I don't deserve your daughter. But one day I'll show you I will be someone.' Fortunately he took me at my word,” he says, a broad smile spreading across his handsome features.
As our plane touches down, Mr. Sangay slips on a pair of aviator sunglasses and emerges onto the tarmac, swinging his finely cut suit jacket over his towering, athletic frame – he has become an avid fan of American baseball. A starker contrast to the balding, berobed holy man whose political role he has assumed would be hard to imagine.
To millions of Buddhists around the world, the Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of the supreme Buddha of Compassion. Globally, he is regarded as an icon for peace; in 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to violence in his quest for Tibetan self-rule. These are large shoes to fill.
Until now, the moral weight the Dalai Lama has carried has kept the situation from becoming more volatile. One sign of the concern many felt at the prospect of this restraining influence diminishing were the pleas, culminating in a formal petition by the government-in-exile, that he change his mind about ceding his temporal power. When the Dalai Lama refused, he was asked to consider continuing as a “ceremonial head of state” with a constitutional role similar to that of the British monarchy. “If you give me a queen, maybe I will reconsider,” the aging monk quipped before declining the request.