By Swati Chopra
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 blessings
so that his aspirations are fulfilled without hindrance…
By the power of this prayer
Expressed 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 shoulders
the 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.’
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.
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 any single denomination or philosophy, you transcend it. The image used to describe this is that of bridges, they are used but then have to be broken down.’
His Holiness’ universality makes him a contemporary role model, for he speaks the language of compassion and understanding the other, relevant not only to Buddhists or Tibetans, but to every human being seeking to lead a fruitful life. His openness to ideas and ways of thinking far removed from his own tradition qualify him as an extraordinary modern mind. This reflects in his willingness to talk peace with the Chinese without any preconditions as also in his ability to find a common ground between Buddhism and science.
SCIENCE OF SPIRITUALITY
Science and a spiritual master make an unlikely combination, one might think. Yet, since 1987, the Dalai Lama has participated in a series of discussions with scientists of various disciplines organized by the Mind and Life Institute, founded for the very purpose of facilitating such a dialogue. Issues discussed at these meetings that took place between 1987 and 2000 have ranged from the nature of mind and consciousness, healing emotions, sleeping, dreaming and dying to cosmology and New Physics.
In Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, based on the first meeting and edited by participant scientists DR Jeremy Hayward and DR Francisco Varela, His Holiness says: ‘My aim as a human being is to build a happier human society. Deep human feeling is the key factor in positive developments. Naturally, this can happen only through mental training, not by surgery or injections. So it is most important for Western science and Eastern mental development to work together. People might think that these two are incompatible. However, in recent years, some Western scientists have reached issues in research work such as: What is the mind? What is ‘I’?” Elsewhere, he goes on to say: ‘Buddhist thinking relies more on investigation than on faith. Therefore, scientific findings are helpful to Buddhist thinking. In my experience, Buddhist views may also give scientists a way to look at their own field with new interest and enthusiasm.’
Renuka Singh, director of the Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre in Delhi, was present at two of the Mind and Life discussions: ‘I attended the discussion on ‘Sleeping, dreaming and dying’ and another on New Physics. The scientists present their theories and His Holiness reacts to them from the Buddhist perspective. A dialogue is thus initiated. It is interesting to see that the scientists come with their theories and evidence and often see them collapsing. His Holiness comes up with such interesting ideas for their research in areas they had not even thought about. After all, whether they are physicists or microbiologists, they are all working to understand the mind and they get the Buddhist interpretation of the mind from His Holiness. I got the impression that it is a learning experience both for His Holiness and the scientists.’
At another level, His Holiness’ logical bent of mind finds expression in repairing watches. His autobiography contains numerous references to his having taken apart pieces of machinery, once even a gun, as a child, to explore their working mechanisms. At 65, he retains the same childlike wonder and enthusiasm to know the world around him. Thondup, his nephew, reminisces: ‘While waiting at an airport, he would ask questions about the aeroplanes he would see. Over the years, he has learnt about all kinds of aircrafts.’
A BUDDHIST RENAISSANCE
In the past decades, Buddhism (particularly Tibetan Buddhism) has experienced a renaissance of sorts and now has adherents in all corners of the world. Many attribute this to His Holiness’ charisma. Says Renuka Singh: ‘Apart from his immense intellect, what is so attractive about His Holiness is that there is no discrepancy between what he says and what he does. When he talks about compassion, you can see that he actually practices it in his life, those around him can feel it. His kindness and sincerity are captivating. That’s why he has been able to reach out to so many people all over the world. I would say let’s also thank the Chinese. If it were not for them, His Holiness’ message would not have spread throughout the world. On one hand, there has been repression of Tibetan culture and atrocities on the Tibetans, on the other, the whole world has gained from his wisdom. It may be a paradoxical situation, but that’s where the truth lies.’
HIS HOLINESS IN HOLLYWOOD
His Holiness’ life seems riddled with paradoxes of all kinds-he is in exile yet feels free; he lives the austere life of a monk, yet celebrities flock to him. At one point, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, in a bid to woo the Chinese government for business, referred to him as a ‘monk in Gucci shoes’. The glamorous image His Holiness has acquired has a lot to do with the media hype that accompanies Hollywood stars, many of who are attracted to his philosophy. Says Thondup: ‘In the West, whenever people from the media see His Holiness with Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Harrison Ford, they think he has ‘celebrity status’. That is the media, right? These people are simply attracted to His Holiness and what he has to say.’
Renuka Singh agrees: ‘The media has played a great role in glamorizing His Holiness. He has almost been turned into a Hollywood star! And I don’t think he has a problem with that, because he is a very deep and profound person. Nobody can take away from him or detract from him.
ONE MAN, MANY ROLES
Maybe it is his profundity and well-integrated persona that enable him to balance diverse roles with such élan, and of course, humility. Lama Doboom Tulku, director of Tibet House in Delhi, feels that there is no contradiction as far as His Holiness’ varied roles are concerned. ‘His Holiness believes that if you are carrying out your duties sincerely, it is equivalent to a religious act,’ he says. ‘It is fine to be involved in the mundane world if your motivation is pure. Being the Dalai Lama and a simple monk are not two contradictory things for him. It is one and the same.’
Actualizing His Holiness’ vision for a happier, gentler world is the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, which was set up after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. While delineating the agenda of the Foundation, His Holiness said: ‘If we can develop a genuine feeling of closeness and a true understanding of interdependence, many of our problems will be solved…The Foundation will implement projects to foster a commitment to Universal Responsibility amongst peoples. It will address conflicts, particularly in the name of religion, facilitating harmony and cooperation between faiths. It will work towards assisting nonviolent methods, on improving communication between religion and science, on securing human rights and democratic freedom, and on conserving and restoring our precious earth.’
The Foundation and its work is an example of His Holiness reaching out beyond barriers to all humankind with his message of peace and love. Many of its projects present a concretization of his dearly loved ideals, such as fostering multi-faith dialogue and encouraging a pluralistic society. WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace) is developing the expertise of Asian women in nonviolent conflict management. The Green Earth Project is based upon the concept of responsibility towards the earth and organizes mass tree planting ceremonies. The Gurukul Project provides an opportunity to stay in a Tibetan monastery to provide an insight into Tibetan culture. The Foundation also awards the Scholar of Peace Fellowships to those researching peace and security issues in South Asia.
THE FUTURE UNFOLDS…
With His Holiness stressing upon the democratization of the Kashag (the Tibetan government) as and when he returns to Tibet, means that the Dalai Lama’s office will some day become redundant. He is also known to have said that he will not be reincarnated while China continues to hold Tibet. So, is Tenzin Gyatso the last Dalai Lama? Clarifies Lama Doboom Tulku: ‘Even if a democratic government is installed in Tibet, the Dalai Lama will be the Dalai Lama. How can you say otherwise? It is like saying that a tree will not be a tree! What he says is that he will not be a political leader anymore. As for the future, we have a saying in Tibetan-the Dalai Lama, being the bodhisattva of compassion, manifests according to the need of the hour. He is what he is because it is required at this point in time. As long as there is need for him, he will be reincarnated.’
Need for him there is. His presence makes our world seem a little less cruel, a little less sad, a little less cold. And inspires us to embark upon the quest for the Buddha within.
O holder of the white lotus Embodiment of all the conqueror’s compassion Who appears as guide of the land of Snow Mountains for wandering beings, You are the sole deity and refuge of beings. At your feet, Tenzin Gyatso, I request inspiration.
—from the Tibetan prayer Offering to the Assembly of Buddhas
Freedom in Exile: The autobiography of the Dalai Lama (Abacus); Dalai Lama, My Son by Diki Tsering (Viking Arkana);
Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of the Mind edited by Dr Jeremy W. Hayward and Dr Francisco J. Varela (Shambhala Publications);
Creeds of Our Times by The Foundation for Universal Responsibility (Full Circle). Contact:
Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies,
Central Tibetan Administration,
Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.
Foundation for Universal Responsibility,
India Habitat Center,
Core 4A, U.G. Floor,
New Delhi 110 003,
1 Institutional Area,
New Delhi 110 003,
Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre,
9 Padmini Enclave,
New Delhi 110 016,
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