Even to many in the Buddhist world, the name Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari might not ring a bell. Though his half-century career as an activist, journalist, politician, humanitarian, negotiator, and emissary for His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was impressive by any standards, much of Gyari’s work went on out of public view. But since his death on October 29, after a lengthy battle with liver cancer, diplomats, legislators, and other global figures have joined Tibetans around the world in mourning the loss of one of Tibet’s most tireless champions. Gyari was 69 years old.

To the Tibetan community, he was Gyari Rinpoche. He was recognized at age four as a reincarnate lama, but never ordained; the honorific “rinpoche” was a sign of the respect he engendered. Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government-in-exile), hailed Gyari as a “true Tibetan patriot [who] leaves behind a legacy of public service.” In its tribute, the International Campaign for Tibet, which Gyari served from 1991 to 2014 as president and then board chairman, described him as “an impassioned advocate for the Tibetan people, universal human rights, and global democratic reform.”

In the world arena, Lodi Gyari is best remembered as a skilled diplomat, whose expertise on the Tibet question and relations with China, India, and the US was sought after by government leaders and policy makers. Appointed the Dalai Lama’s special envoy in Washington, DC, in 1991, Gyari led nine rounds of high-level negotiations with the Chinese government between 2002 and 2010, in an effort to resolve the status of the Tibetan Autonomous Region under Chinese rule. Despite Gyari’s back-channel efforts to keep the process on track, the talks broke down. The Chinese flatly rejected the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” proposal to grant Tibet “genuine autonomy” while remaining within China, claiming that it was not “mutually beneficial,” as His Holiness suggested, but a backhanded move to gain independence. Undeterred, Gyari continued to work for reopening the dialogue until it was clear further effort would be fruitless. (Midway through the process, he had commented,  “For someone like me, engaged in the negotiations, I see it more as a spiritual practice than an exercise in diplomacy.”) When the Dalai Lama transferred political power to the elected Tibetan government-in-exile in 2012, Gyari resigned as special envoy.

Related: The International Year of Tibet

More successful were his efforts to rally the global community behind the Tibetan cause. The International Campaign for Tibet, which under Gyari’s leadership increased its membership from less than 1,000 to over 75,000, played a key role in helping put Tibet on the international agenda. The Chinese took a dim view of Gyari’s lobbying, but he persisted. A major coup was persuading the US government to “institutionalize” support for Tibet through legislation. For decades the US had supplied aid fitfully and unofficially, wary of antagonizing the Chinese. But the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 made the aid official: its stated purpose was “to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity.” The act established a Special Coordinator on Tibetan Issues within the State Department and laid out policies and allocated funds to benefit Tibetans in Tibet and in exile. The 2002 act also offered support for the Dalai Lama’s efforts to reach a negotiated solution with the Chinese.

Lodi Gyari is further credited with garnering bipartisan support in the US Congress for awarding His Holiness the legislative branch’s highest expression of national appreciation, the Congressional Gold Medal, “in recognition of his many enduring and outstanding contributions to peace, non-violence, human rights, and religious understanding.” George W. Bush, who presented the award, was the first US president to meet the Dalai Lama in public.

Gyari was frequently consulted by members of Congress. It was a big change from his early days in Washington, when Tibet wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. “Some junior officials would meet me in some coffee shop that was as far away as possible from Foggy Bottom,” he told the Washington Post in 2007. A Congressional aide interviewed for the Post described Gyari as “very humble, quiet, very persistent, but in a way that is never threatening.”  

When Gyari retired as special envoy in 2012, the US Senate passed a resolution (S. Res. 557) commending his achievements “in building an international coalition of support for Tibet” that recognizes the importance of Tibetan culture and the need for Tibetan autonomy in China. In a statement after Gyari’s death, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House, recalled his legacy and said, “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle benefited from Lodi’s insight and wisdom.”

Early years

Lodi Gyari’s commitment to the Tibetan cause was instilled early on. He was born in 1949 to an influential family of activists in Nyarong, a region in Eastern Kham. After the Chinese occupied Tibet (1950–1951), Gyari’s father, who was the regional administrator, was placed under house arrest, as was his grandfather, who later died in detention. After being recognized at age four as a reincarnation of the Nyingma master Khenchen Jampal Dewe Nyima, Gyari was taken to Lumorap Monastery in Nyarong for a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastic education. His training was cut short in 1959, however, when his family fled to India to escape Chinese persecution. Gyari resumed study with Tibetan Buddhist masters in India, but early on he joined the struggle for Tibetan freedom and did not complete the training for ordination. The CIA tapped Gyari to be schooled as an interpreter for Tibetan freedom fighters being trained in the US, but he declined the offer and went into journalism instead. He edited Sheja (Tibetan Freedom), a Tibetan-language weekly, and in 1967 helped launch The Voice of Tibet, a monthly later renamed Tibetan Review that was the first English-language publication for Tibetans.

Though Lodi Gyari continued to support armed resistance against the Chinese, in 1970 he and three friends established the Tibetan Youth Congress to motivate young people to join the political struggle for Tibet’s future. Today, the Tibetan Youth Congress, which identifies itself as a “worldwide organization of Tibetans pledged to restore complete independence,” is the largest grassroots political organization for Tibetans in exile, with over 30,000 members.

As Gyari gained attention for his democratic principles and progressive ideas, his views on the future of Tibet evolved. Influenced by the Dalai Lama, he gradually rejected armed resistance in favor of a nonviolent negotiated settlement. In 1979, Gyari was elected to the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, becoming, at age 30, the youngest person to preside over that body. He also served as a member of the Kashag (Cabinet) and as Minister of the Department of Information and International Relations, and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Gyari made his first trips to China in 1982 and 1984 as part of a three-person delegation to explore the possibility of talks. Nothing came of those visits, and in 1991, he moved to Washington, DC, to take up his post as the Dalai Lama’s special envoy.

Humanitarian work

Gyari’s efforts on behalf of the Tibetan people went beyond his service to the Dalai Lama and his leadership of the International Campaign for Tibet. He chaired the board of the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture, a US-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving Tibet’s living heritage in partnership with institutions, scholars, and religious leaders. And both formally and informally, he supported a number of initiatives focused on such areas as cultural and environmental preservation, health and education, job development, and protecting sacred sites and Tibetan Buddhist texts.

Gyari’s humanitarian activities extended to the wider world as well. He was a founder of the Allied Committee, formed to address issues common to Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians under Chinese rule, and a founder of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, established before the dissolution of the Soviet Union to promote human rights through democracy and nonviolence.

The Institute for Asian Democracy, another US-based organization that Gyari co-founded, is said to be one of the “most enduring and effective organizations working for human rights and democratic reform in Burma [Myanmar].”  

Gyari was a frequent lecturer at universities and other institutions in the US, Europe, and Asia. A prolific writer, he published articles and editorials, and contributed book chapters on the challenges facing the Tibetans. At his death, he is said to have been putting the final touches on his memoir.  

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Lodi Gyari lived with his wife, Dawa Chokyi, in McLean, Virginia, where they raised five daughters and a son. He is also survived by his mother, four brothers, three sisters, and a number of grandchildren.

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