By Swati Chopra August 2001 His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s compassion, humility and ability to be ‘free in exile’ have attracted millions over the world to his spiritual tradition—Tibetan Buddhism. Yet he refuses to play the eager missionary, talking instead about universal human values like compassion, love, wisdom and kindness. He is an extraordinary modern mind, preaches what he practices and still eats the same food his mother cooked for him as a child. We offer our prayers with fervent devotion:That Tenzin Gyatso, protector of the Land of Snows,live for a hundred aeons. Shower on him your blessingsso that his aspirations are fulfilled without hindrance…By the power of this prayerExpressed from a heart filled with fervent devotion and humility,may the body, speech and mind of the soul of the Land of Snows,the supreme Ngawang Lobsang Tenzin Gyatso,be indestructible, unfluctuating and unceasing;May he exist immutable for a hundred eons,Seated on a diamond throne, transcending decay and destruction…You are the jewel-heart embodying all compassionate, beneficial deeds;O most courageous one, you carry upon your shouldersthe burden of all the Buddhas of the infinite realms.May all your noble aspirations be fulfilled as intended. —from The Prayer for the Long Life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,translated by Dr Thupten Jinpa Langri Every day, this prayer emanates from the hearts of six million Tibetans (within and without Tibet) to ensure the continued health and well-being of their spiritual and temporal leader—Jamphal Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso or, as the rest of the world knows him, the 14th Dalai Lama. Born Lhamo Thondup in 1935 to a peasant family of Taktser, a village in Tibet’s Amdo province, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at the tender age of two. From then on, the child was groomed not only to rule as a regent but also to administer to the spiritual needs of his people, believed, as he is to be the manifestation of Avalokiteshwara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Dalai Lamas have traditionally been ‘monk-kings’ of Tibet, embodying a unique synergy of monastic life with state affairs. Little did the young Dalai Lama know that as his life unfolded, circumstances would arise that would try his political acumen and his spiritual faith to the utmost. In the summer of 1950, Communist China’s People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet, ostensibly to ‘liberate’ the Tibetan people from a feudal regime, but actually as part of China’s expansionist agenda. After nine years of trying to work out a peaceful resolution, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India. He now lives in the picturesque Himachal town of Dharamsala, India, which also houses the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. With hindsight, His Holiness, as he is often referred to, says in his autobiography Freedom in Exile: ‘When I look back to the time when Tibet was still a free country, I realize that those were the best years of my life. Today I am definitely happy, but inevitably the existence I now lead is very different from the one I was brought up to. And although there is clearly no use indulging in feelings of nostalgia, I cannot help feeling sad when I think of the past. It reminds me of the terrible suffering of my people. The old Tibet was not perfect. Yet at the same time, it is true that our way of life was something quite remarkable. There was much worth preserving that is now lost forever.’ GOING WEST As the architect of the Tibetans’ nonviolent struggle for self-determination, His Holiness has been able to elicit world support for the cause. According to his nephew, Khedroob Thondup, who is also an elected member of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile: ‘His Holiness is the best spokesperson for the Tibetan cause as being in exile, he can speak freely. He takes his role as the Dalai Lama very seriously and this is why he speaks on behalf of Tibet and travels around the world.’ The going wasn’t always smooth. Knowing that it was important to acquaint the world of the injustices happening in Tibet, His Holiness decided to personally visit other countries. Thondup remembers accompanying him on his first visit to the USA in 1979. ‘We didn’t have much money and the Americans were initially wary of us as they suspected us of being a new cult,’ he says. ‘His Holiness started giving teachings and people were naturally drawn to him. His popularity grew and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.’ International acclaim and his busy travel and teaching schedule notwithstanding, His Holiness regularly visits Tibetan settlements around the country. Each year, three to four thousand Tibetans make the arduous journey into India with the sole purpose of seeing him. They inform him about the ground realities in Tibet, so that he ‘has his ears in Tibet’, as Thondup says, even as his life in exile enters its 42nd year. TRADITIONAL ROOTS In spite of having assumed the Dalai Lama’s role at the age of two, His Holiness is a people’s leader able to relate to the poorest of the poor. He is firmly rooted in his cultural and nationalist identity as a Tibetan, which Thondup attributes to his (the Dalai Lama’s) mother, Diki Tsering’s influence. The Great Mother, as she was known, taught her family never to forget where they came from, that they had once been peasants. She says in her autobiography Dalai Lama, My Son: ‘I am proud to be, despite my resilience and ability to accept change, a very traditional woman. Does this make me archaic and anachronistic? I don’t think so. My tradition and my roots as a Tibetan, have fortified me. Traditions cannot be denied or forgotten. They are the creators of your spirit and your pride, and are the backbone of your sensibilities. They make what you are and define what you want to be.’ Although the Dalai Lama is defined by his Tibetan identity, he is certainly not limited by it. His roots have anchored him firmly in reality; his Buddhist discipline and open disposition have given him wings to soar above narrow sectarian positions. As he says in Freedom in Exile: ‘Because of my spiritual training, I do not really make a distinction between Tibetans and others. I believe that all human beings have an equal right to happiness and freedom from suffering.’ This mindset is evident in his support for China’s bid (since successful) to host the 2008 Olympic Games at Beijing based on the reasoning that to oppose it would hurt the sentiments of the Chinese people. DHARMA IN POLITICS Philosopher and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Ramchandra Gandhi sees this attitude as exemplifying a meeting of dharma, or spiritual philosophy, with political struggle. ‘This is reminiscent of Gandhiji’s life wherein his spiritual ideals found expression in bringing about a social and political revolution,’ he says. Noted scholar and director of Delhi’s India International Centre, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, who has been working in tandem with His Holiness since his arrival in India in 1959, agrees: ‘Gandhiji gave up mass movements when there was violence and was bitterly criticized for it. People who work at an evolved spiritual plane are often not understood. When the Dalai Lama talks about not hurting the sentiments of the Chinese, he is speaking another language of humanity that is not restricted to his identity as a Tibetan in exile. One has to make a distinction here between a person belonging to a culture in a given sociopolitical situation and another who is all that and yet has transcended it to become a universal being. That is why His Holiness talks about universal responsibility. In that situation, it would be only natural for him to have the kind of response he had on the Olympics. He is being himself and those who are criticizing him are speaking the language of discourse of the rest of the world, which is that of argument and confrontation.’ The Dalai Lama is an individual who has realized the potential of his tradition and moved beyond it to a higher spiritual plane wherein all are one. In the words of Ramchandra Gandhi: ‘He has seen the many faces of the Divine and this seems to have contributed greatly to his own spiritual evolution.’ AN EVOLVING BUDDHA The idea of an individual evolving includes within itself the seed of growth and dynamism, which is perhaps the very essence of the human experience. That the Dalai Lama actually underwent an evolution of consciousness and thereby arrived at his insights might seem unacceptable to those who regard him as a bodhisattva—a being who has attained Buddhahood but chooses to be reborn to relieve the suffering of other sentient beings. However, we must remember that this remarkable ‘simple monk’ has come a long way since he, as a young man barely out of his teens, left his palaces and kingdom in the ‘roof of the world’ and journeyed forth into the unknown. Over the years, from being the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, head of the Gelugpa sect and heir to the Ganden throne, he has grown into a spiritual master venerated throughout the world. It would have been impossible without some sort of a spiritual journey having occurred. Says Dr Vatsyayan: ‘Evolution and transformation happen when people shed their small identities and become symbols of a much bigger and perennial element. Then the distinctions of race, color and territory are transcended. The idea of belonging to a particular Buddhist sect and religion are there, one cannot wish them away, but there is an overarching glow or aura that is universal. The whole world has recognized this in the Dalai Lama. As you grow from
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