Thubten Jigme Norbu; Brother of Dalai Lama Advocated for Tibet

Thubten Jigme Norbu, left, shown with his younger brother the Dalai Lama in 1996, founded a Tibetan cultural center at Indiana University.
Thubten Jigme Norbu, left, shown with his younger brother the Dalai Lama in 1996, founded a Tibetan cultural center at Indiana University. (Courtesy Of The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center)
By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Dalai Lama's eldest brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, who founded a Tibetan cultural center at Indiana University and was a strong voice for Tibetan independence from China, died Sept. 5 at his home in Bloomington, Ind. He had had several strokes in 2002 and was in poor health in recent years.

He was 86, but by Tibetan tradition he was 87, as babies are considered a year old at birth.

As a young man, Mr. Norbu was a monk and later abbot of Kumbum Monastery, one of Tibet's largest, before the Chinese invasion of his homeland in 1950. The People's Liberation Army overwhelmed poorly equipped Tibetan troops.

The Chinese army placed Mr. Norbu under house arrest, bribed him with titles and threatened him with punishment if he would not denounce his brother, the Dalai Lama, who was then 14. Mr. Norbu pledged to help the invaders but went to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to warn his brother of the danger he faced from the Communist Chinese.

Mr. Norbu evaded his Chinese minders and fled to India on horseback; his brother remained in Tibet until 1959. Mr. Norbu subsequently offered his services to the CIA, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, employed him as a trainer and translator based on the Pacific island of Saipan. He became part of the CIA's effort to arm Tibetan guerrillas to fight the Chinese, support that continued through the 1960s.

He seldom spoke of his CIA service -- of which his brother did not approve -- and avoided any reference to it in his 1960 autobiography, "Tibet Is My Country," written with "Seven Years in Tibet" author Heinrich Harrer and which he dedicated to the Dalai Lama, "In respect and fraternal love."

Mr. Norbu never stopped agitating for Tibetan independence, calling Chinese actions "cultural genocide" and frequently noting that more than 1 million Tibetans had died during the Chinese occupation.

He briefly returned to Tibet in 1980, at the invitation of the Chinese, but was banned from future visits after he continued to criticize the Chinese government.

Throughout their lives, Mr. Norbu and the Dalai Lama disagreed on what Tibet's status should be: The Dalai Lama has favored political autonomy, and Mr. Norbu maintained the need for complete Tibetan independence from China.

But Mr. Norbu treated his brother with the deference of his title: "To me he is 'His Holiness,' " he told the Indiana University student newspaper in 1999. "He is family, yes, but he is the Tibetan leader first."

Besides the Dalai Lama, Mr. Norbu is survived by his wife, Kunyang Norbu; three sons; a sister; two other brothers; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Norbu was born Tashi Tsering in Taktser, Tibet, on Aug. 16, 1922, the oldest of six children and the first in his family to be recognized as a tulku, a reincarnated Buddhist monk. There are several tulkus, the most important being the Dalai Lama.

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