The work that made him a hero to thousands of Tibetans around the world ended Monday when Norbu was struck by an SUV about 25 miles south of St. Augustine, Fla., during the first day of a 300-mile walk. The walk was the latest in a journey that had seen the 45-year-old activist log more than 7,800 miles on foot and bicycle in the U.S. and overseas to support freedom for Tibet and highlight the suffering of its people.
News of Norbu's death stunned his supporters and acquaintances, who said he had grown into his role as a leader for Tibetans in recent years after a wild youth in the Indiana college town where his family moved in the 1970s.
"He grew up in America. He was Americanized and Westernized," said David Colman, whose son owns a fine arts gallery near Norbu's Tibet and Indian food restaurant in Bloomington. "But he was the Dalai Lama's nephew, and there was a certain specialness that he assumed as a result of that. He viewed himself some ways as royalty - which on a religious level, he was. He was the nephew of the Dalai Lama, and that tends to shape your ego. And it did."
Colman said that started to change in recent years as Norbu, who was married and had three children, became more involved in the walks.
"It's really tragic that this happened just as he was hitting his prime as the nephew of the Dalai Lama," he said.
Norbu's father, Thubten Norbu, who is known to Buddhists as Taktser Rinpoche, was a high lama who served as an abbot at a monastery before fleeing Tibet with his brother in 1959 during a failed uprising against Chinese rule. He was a Tibetan studies professor at Indiana University and founded the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center on the outskirts of Bloomington.
Thupten Anyetsang, owner of Anyetsang's Little Tibet Restaurant in Bloomington, said Jigme Norbu was "carrying in the footsteps of his father's wishes, trying to campaign for a free Tibet. I think the Tibetans appreciated that."
Norbu completed his most recent 300-mile trek in December in Taiwan and had made a 900-mile journey from Indiana to New York in 2009 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1959 uprising.
Florida Highway Patrol officials say Norbu was hit at dusk Monday while heading south in the same direction as traffic, following the highway's white line. There are no streetlights on the stretch of the two-lane highway, and a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant was killed in September in the same area.
Authorities said Norbu's death appeared to be an accident and that the driver swerved but couldn't avoid Norbu. The Highway Patrol was still investigating but didn't expect any charges.
About an hour before the accident, Norbu met a Florida couple, Gary and Damian Drum Collins, who had heard about his jaunt through town.
"He was smiling and happy. He had as much positive energy as you could imagine," Gary Collins said.
The Collinses, troubled by the fading sunlight, urged Norbu to stay at their Florida condominium for the night. Norbu wanted to spend the night under the stars, so Collins and his wife made preparations for him and his group to stay outside their Hammock Wine & Cheese Shop.
Norbu was struck just a quarter of a mile from their shop while walking alone after his companions had gone ahead in a van.
Around dusk Tuesday, about 40 people gathered at the Bloomington Buddhist center's Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple to honor Norbu's life. Center director Arjia Rinpoche led three other monks through a series of prayers in front of a framed photograph of Norbu lit by three burning candles. The prayers came amid the monks' rhythmic chanting and pealing of bells.
"He was so full of life, full of energy, and very, very dedicated to his father," said Mary Pattison, a Bloomington resident who was an assistant to Taktser Rinpoche.
"He (Norbu) grew up drinking that in," she said. "He was carrying forth, carrying the torch for his father."
China claims Tibet as part of its territory, but many Tibetans say Chinese rule deprives them of religious freedom. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for Tibetan autonomy and fomenting anti-Chinese protests.
Those joining Norbu in the Florida walk vowed to continue on. In a post on walkfortibetflorida.com, Donna Kim-Brand said the group would continue its journey to West Palm Beach, Fla.
Norbu often acknowledged the rigors of his walks, which left his feet with painful blisters and missing nails. But he said the cause energized him.
"I think a lot has to do with your heart and determination," he said after completing a 600-mile walk in 2010. "My heart and my determination is with my cause, my people."
Larry Gerstein, a Ball State University professor who joined Norbu on many walks, said Norbu never complained and that his death was "symbolic of what happens when you lose your country."
"He lost his country and died walking," Gerstein said.
Associated Press writers Mike Schneider in Palm Coast, Fla., Freida Frisaro in Miami and Ken Kusmer in Indianapolis contributed to this story.