The Dalai Lama is now 76 years old and is fast running out of time. The leader of Tibet has repeatedly said that he will return to Lhasa again to walk the streets he knew as a boy. Millions of Tibetans dream of this happening. But every year that passes, there is less and less chance that it will.
By every metric, China has won on the issue of Tibet. They hold complete control over the ancient nation and are remaking the society in their own image. The language, culture and religion of the natives are under severe pressure, its dissidents jailed or in exile. Beijing is riding a wave of prosperity and power that makes it harder and harder to apply even the minimum pressure on Tibet.
With that in mind, I'd like to make a modest proposal. The Dalai Lama and his followers should march to the Tibetan border and demand to cross back into their ancestral homeland. His Holiness should be accompanied by some of the tens of thousands of Tibetans who fled with him after 1959, along with young men and women in their teens and twenties who have never even seen the dun-colored hills and valleys of Kham and Amdo.
They should all walk to the border and present the world with an image that should exist but doesn't: a Chinese soldier born in the provinces outside Tibet confronting the spiritual and secular leader of the country and telling him he can't enter. The Chinese can refuse, in which case His Holiness should then camp out, with the media in tow, and make the cruelty of the Chinese stance abundantly clear.
What would be the good of doing this? What will it produce? At the very least, a photo. Perhaps much more, but the picture itself would be important.
The Dalai Lama is one of the most photographed people on earth, but the images of him leaving the White House (by the back door, shamefully for President Obama) and shaking the hand of this or that leader do little to advance his cause. They may even harm it by giving the world a false jolt of pleasure. The images suggest that something is being done about Tibet at the highest levels of power when in fact nothing at all is being done.
What the Dalai Lama needs to do is engineer a photo that portrays the very real suffering of millions of his own people. Because they are suffering, hidden away in the foothills of Dharamsala and in other parts of their far-flung diaspora.
The Chinese will be furious, of course. But nothing has really worked with the Chinese on Tibet. It's time they confronted in the simplest way possible what they've done in and to that country.
The expedition would not only retrace the route Buddhism took from India to Tibet, it would echo other marches, such as Gandhi's salt campaign and the two Selma marches. In those, oppressed people risked their lives to demand what was due them. The Tibetans' cause is as good and as just as the others.
It wouldn't be an easy journey, physically speaking, for the 76-year-old Dalai Lama, or without its own risks. Last year his nephew, Jigme Norbu, was accidentally killed on a freedom walk in Florida, and other activists approaching the Indian-Tibetan border have been arrested. But the Dalai Lama has shown physical bravery in the past, in his own 1959 escape from Tibet. And when he dies, his people will lose their only global symbol. Who know if his successor will have half his magnetism or force of character?
As a follower of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama inherits a radical tradition as well as a more compassionate one. His Holiness has emulated the Indian leader's pacifist example. But Gandhi also walked a more fiery path – boycotts, mass arrests of his followers, implacable political confrontation. And it was the those things, amid all the gentle wisdom, that finally brought justice to his people.