Thubten Jigme Norbu, aka Taktser Rinpoche who has died aged 86, was the eldest brother of the Dalai Lama. Recognised at the age of three as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama, he became the abbot of a great monastery, but as a young man he also underwent another remarkable transformation. After rejecting overtures from the Chinese communists, who hinted that he should get rid of his brother, he left Tibet in 1951 for the US under the sponsorship of a CIA-front organisation. Within a few years he was helping the Americans to promote covert guerrilla warfare against the occupation of his homeland.
While living in Lhasa before the Chinese storm broke, Norbu and the young Dalai Lama became friendly with the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who had just completed the long trek from India. This “nice young man” could tell them about the west, and mend their broken watches. He would also become an intermediary with the Americans and help Norbu to write his autobiography, Tibet is My Country (1960). This remains the only substantial source for Norbu’s early life and his dealings with the Chinese – but avoids any mention of the CIA connection.
Born in Taktser village, in Qinghai province, Norbu left home at the age of eight and began his religious training at the Shartsong Ritro, a remote monastery perched so high that pilgrims to the chapel at its peak sometimes fell to their death below. It was here in the 14th century that Tsongkhapa, founder of the leading Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, had also learned his first lessons.
Norbu was no ordinary apprentice monk, but had been recognised by the 13th Dalai Lama (predecessor of the current Dalai Lama) as the Taktser Rinpoche, one of the highest reincarnates in the region of Amdo (eastern Tibet), which was already under Chinese Nationalist rule. The subsequent discovery of his younger brother as the new incarnate Dalai Lama was not quite so amazing as the usual story makes out. The family was already known in religious circles: the previous Taktser Rinpoche was their father’s maternal uncle and one of their own uncles was treasurer of the great monastery of Kumbum.
Norbu soon moved to Kumbum, near Xining (the present-day capital of Qinghai province), where he studied under strict discipline, rising every morning before dawn. He learned by heart almost 2,000 pages of scripture, which, as he would recall, “talked of both merciful and vengeful gods and treated of the exorcising of demons”.
Passing his first exams at the age of 14, Norbu joined the general assembly of monks. In the mornings, he drank butter-tea with them and listened to sermons in the great hall; in the afternoons, he studied in the courtyard of the school of logic, taking part in public disputations known as “intellect sharpeners”. His brother’s elevation put him in a more exalted position, and in 1941 he joined his family in Lhasa, continuing his studies in Drepung, one of the three leading monasteries of Tibet.
As the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Norbu had a place of honour everywhere in Lhasa. When Harrer visited the Dalai Lama’s family, he found Norbu sitting on a throne elevated above his mother, the much-loved Dekyi Tsering, and his father. In 1947-48 Norbu travelled through India to China, then still under Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, returning home to bury his father’s ashes and resume his position at Kumbum monastery.
Within the year the monks had asked Norbu to become their new abbot – a dubious honour, as the victorious Chinese communists approached. Norbu was soon put under great pressure by them and followed everywhere by two Chinese minders who sought to “re-educate” him. Had prayer ever filled anyone’s belly, they inquired sarcastically?
Norbu now resolved to resign the abbotship and return to Lhasa, still then under Tibetan rule. The local Chinese officials agreed, on condition that he would convey their demands for a peaceful liberation of Tibet to his brother. They promised to make him governor-general if he could persuade the Tibetan government to welcome in the Chinese army. According to Norbu’s later account to Harrer, if the Dalai Lama objected, “ways and means would have to be found to get rid of him.” Even fratricide, the officials apparently hinted, would be justifiable to further the cause of socialism.
Shaking off more Chinese minders, Norbu finally reached Lhasa late in 1950 and told his brother the dreadful story. With the news that Chinese troops were advancing, the young Dalai Lama withdrew to the Sikkim border, but eventually rejected overtures from the US to leave the country. While he returned to Lhasa, Norbu headed for Washington as guest of the CIA-funded Committee for Free Asia. His official biography describes him as “the first Tibetan to settle in the US”. A second elder brother of the Dalai Lama, Gyalo Thondup, followed soon after. By 1956, when the Dalai Lama visited India, both brothers were involved with a CIA project to set up a clandestine network of agents in Tibet. Once again the Dalai Lama had to decide whether to return to Lhasa: Norbu told him that he had obtained “foreign support”, but China’s premier Zhou Enlai persuaded the Dalai Lama to continue cooperating with Beijing.
Norbu and his brother were soon helping the CIA to recruit and train Khampa fighters, from the toughest Tibetan tribe, to be infiltrated into the borderlands of China. Norbu’s name appears in reports of secret training camps in the Colorado Rockies and on the Pacific island of Saipan. The operations were unsuccessful, but the Beijing authorities became aware of the brothers’ role. Their suspicions of US involvement may have heightened the harsher policies adopted towards Tibet, especially after the Lhasa uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959.
The covert US programme only ended in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon initiated his famous thaw with Beijing. Norbu became the Dalai Lama’s representative in the US, and in 1965 began teaching at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where he later set up the Tibetan Cultural Centre and built a stupa (or Buddhist pagoda) in memory of the “one million Tibetans who have died since 1959”.
In the 1990s he led several walks for Tibetan independence across the US, implicitly disagreeing with the Dalai Lama’s more limited call for autonomy from China. He continued to lecture on Buddhism, but having renounced his monastic vows on leaving Tibet, went on to marry and have children.
He never spoke publicly about his transition from reincarnate lama to CIA trainer, and in 2000 deprecated his religious origins. “Some Tibetans believe that I am the reincarnation of the teacher from a monastery,” he said. “That is their belief. But who knows? I don’t know anything…” Asked what he would like his epitaph to be, he replied, “I would have nothing written, nothing. What does that matter?” He had “no more tears” to cry for the fate of Tibet. He is survived by his wife Kunyang Norbu and three sons.
Thubten Jigme Norbu, religious leader and campaigner, born 1922; died September 5 2008.