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Understanding the Dalai Lama

by Rajiv Mehrota

The following excerpt is taken from the new book, Understanding the Dalai Lama, edited by Rajiv Mehrotra. It is published by Hay House (June 2009) and is available at all bookstores or online at www.amazon.com.

The Dalai Lama: An Introduction

by Rajiv Mehrotra

Tenzin Gyatso is a Buddhist monk. His message of compassion, altruism, and peace have made him a statesman for our troubled times. For six million of his followers, he is Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Eloquent, Compassionate, Learned, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom—His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him in December 1989 became a formal global acknowledgment of his personal spiritual striving and the goal of liberating Tibet from the Chinese oppression that he personifies.

In awarding the Nobel Prize to a religious leader, the Nobel Committee identified three specific elements of his philosophy: nonviolence, the interrelatedness of social and individual human rights, and the critical need in our generation to confront the threat of a global environmental disaster. It is significant that the ecological issue has been put on the agenda of the Nobel Peace Prize by a spiritual leader. He combines rationality, humanism, and religious tradition as foundations for moral responses to the great challenges of this century. Nor did the Nobel Committee shrink from identifying the Dalai Lama as the "political and spiritual leader" of the Tibetan people and his struggle for the "liberation" of Tibet, despite strong Chinese protests.

Tibet today is at once a tragedy and a triumph, a stark example of modern totalitarianism fighting to a draw against an unwilling traditional society. A number of delegations from the Dalai Lama first visited Tibet in the 1980s, evoking powerful emotions among Tibetans there. Following the death of Mao, delicate and potentially substantive contacts were first established between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. This was followed by a virtually decadelong impasse after the student protests at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 created by, in the words of the Chinese government, counter-revolutionaries, capitalist agents, and enemies of the people. Protests and demonstrations continued in Tibet.

Martial law was in force for more than a year, and only supervised tourist groups were allowed into the capital, Lhasa. The Chinese government repeatedly, rhetorically, accused the Dalai Lama of instigating anti-Chinese and antinational sentiments. There has been increasing Chinese nervousness over growing popular global support for the Dalai Lama and international pressure to resolve the Tibetan question, even if usually under the guise of drawing attention to human-rights issues in Tibet.

Recently, a promising dialogue has resumed through direct contacts and visits to Beijing by representatives of the Dalai Lama. While these have been described as a confidence-building step, it seems that the Tibetan position draws on more than the decade-old proposal of a five-point peace plan set out by the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has proposed the transformation of Tibet into a zone of peace, a respect for fundamental human rights, an abandonment of China’s population transfer, the protection of Tibet’s environment, and the commencement of earnest negotiations. This was followed by an offer renouncing Tibetan independence and any political role forhimself in the Tibet of the future made before the European Parliament. The Dalai Lama had warned that if there is no concrete response from the Chinese in the near future, he will be obliged to reconsider his position.


The Dalai Lama has been exiled in India since 1959 by the Chinese occupation of Tibet. But to the Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet, he has remained their spiritual and temporal leader, embodying the ideal of the religion he heads and the people he represents but no longer directly rules. He represents the past as well as future history of Tibet.

Tenzin Gyatso is heir to a religious tradition that began in India more than 2,500 years ago when, seated under a tree, a young Indian prince from deep meditation attained decisive knowledge of the human condition and theunshakable certainty that he was released from its suffering. He had become the Buddha, the Enlightened One. The core of the Buddhist path is the recognition that life is an endless round of suffering, disease, death, and rebirth: a cycle caused by a desire bred of ignorance and of an innate misconception of reality.

Liberation of enlightenment occurs when through a training of the mind, the mind itself is transcended. There isthen an experience of the innate nature of reality, the recognition that all matter exists only in the manner of an illusion and in an ultimate void. Some beings who have attained enlightenment and thus liberation from rebirth opt for reincarnation voluntarily out of compassion for others in order to teach and serve humanity. They are called bodhisattvas. The Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the patron saint of Tibet, the Buddha aspect of compassion— Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva.

Buddhism, from its earliest forms, included the finest moral philosophy with a vast range of mind developmentand pioneer psychology. As it traveled the globe, it evolved into religion, advanced philosophy, mysticism, metaphysics, and the triple yogas of India: the paths of reason, devotion, and action. It was not enough to be told to bemoral and ethical. Buddhism became an adventure in "how."

A constant theme of the Dalai Lama’s teaching is that the essence of a Buddhist’s life lies in a person’s own efforts to purify his mind. By replacing its coarse, deluded states such as anger, attachment, and ignorance with patience, wisdom, and equanimity, a lasting internal happiness can be achieved independent of external conditions.

Spreading 2,000 miles from China in the east to Afghanistan in the west, with India the home of much of its culture in the south, Tibet is a severe Himalayan plateau 15,000 feet above sea level. Tibetans were confronted by natural grandeurs so cruel that it brought an intense awareness of the contrasting splendors and terrors in the Universe, relieved by a few pleasant plains and a spiritual quest. It was a remote, secret Shangri-la so deeply inspired by the Buddhist cosmic view that it pursued its religion in splendid isolation with an unusual fervor. Hunting and killing ceased because it meant an arbitrary interruption in that being’s own evolution. Armies disbanded and became monks.

The traditional kings were replaced by religious rule. The essential peace-loving nature of their religion encouraged a simplicity and quiet pragmatism in the people. Famine was unknown; disease rare. The Dalai Lama has acknowledged, "Unfortunately, some monasteries and institutions became like landlords, not practicing well. The general public’s practice of Buddha Dharma declined; although there was a great deal of devotion, there was little actual education."

The social structure was feudal. Most Tibetans were peasants paying taxes to the great monastic and noble estates. One in four Tibetans was a monk or nun and constituted its de facto ruling class. Naturally warmhearted, with an innate sense of order and humor, the various classes had been immutably defined for centuries. Inside the cloisters flourished a rich culture and tradition.

In 1933, the Great 13th Dalai Lama passed on to the Honorable Fields. Two years later, Tibet’s regent journeyedto its sacred lake seeking a vision of the one who would be the new leader, returned in a new body. In the waters, he was shown a monastery, a nearby house, and a baby.

Other omens directed the search party to the northeast, to the monastery and the house of the vision. A two-and-ahalf- year-old boy approached and recognized the disguised lamas and called them by name. He spoke in the dialect of the capital, Lhasa, more than 1,000 miles away. He identified as his own the rosaries, walking stick, and hand drum of the 13th Dalai Lama. On the child’s body were the marks distinguishing the Dalai Lamas, including the large ears, tiger-skin-like streaks on the legs, and the conch-shell print on the palm. On a bright October morning in 1939, the now-four-year-old boy entered the great city of Lhasa in a brilliant procession, where thousands lined the yellow and white route cheering and waving. There was no doubt that this wasindeed the holy one himself, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Talking of his reincarnation, he says, "The original Dalai Lamas, the first, second, third—these were no doubt thereincarnations of Avalokiteshvara, so that means Buddha. I believe I am a blessed one. My own spiritual level is not high. I am still practicing. . . ." The philosopher-king born of peasant parents began his long, arduous training while a regent held temporary power. Surrounded by tutors and attendants, he lived in splendid but disciplined isolation. He was soon recognized as an exceptional student. As most of Lhasa watched, His Holiness the Dalai Lama won his doctorate of Buddhist philosophy with honors, in public debates, at the age of 24.

Meanwhile, China had begun to assert a claim on Tibet, contending that the nation was part of the Chinese motherland because the Tibetans, descended from the Mongolians, were a part of the five races comprising theChinese. On New Year’s Day in 1950, the Dalai Lama, at only 16 years old, began his education in real politics. The new People’s Republic of China announced its intentions to "liberate" Tibet. As its armies marched into a nation physically and temperamentally unprepared for war, at the urging of the state oracle and his people, Tenzin Gyatso assumed formal temporal power of Tibet as the 14th Dalai Lama to steer the country through its darkest hours.

On March 17, 1959, after nine years of fruitless attempts at compromise with the Chinese, as atrocities against the Tibetans grew, on a night of firing, shelling, and popular revolt in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama, guarded by Tibetan guerillas, slowly began his long, dangerous escape into India. Over the next few weeks, an estimated 87,000 Tibetans were killed, 25,000 were imprisoned, and 100,000 followed him into exile. Speaking on this topic, the Dalai Lama comments, "As a Buddhist, all these tragedies, the basic factor or cause, is because of one’s own previous karma. The external factors are the Chinese forces, but the basic cause is one’s own previous bad karma. Although personally that enemy is harming you, forget that so-called enemy. Look at him as a human being just like you or me who also wants happiness. With that reason you can develop genuine sympathy or compassion."

The 1960 report of the International Commission of Jurists recognized Tibet’s status as that of a fully sovereign state. China was found guilty of "the gravest crime of which any nation can be accused: the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial or religious group" as such—genocide.

At the end of the "cultural" revolution, the new Chinese order revealed that 45 of Tibet’s 6,000 monasteries remained. The number is soon to be increased to 53. Of the more than 500,000 monks and nuns, 1,300 survived in Tibet. These numbers may increase. However, a Socialist education is today a prerequisite for permission to enter the monkhood.

Ever looking for insights and understanding, the Dalai Lama began to study Marxism, looking for a common ground: "I think in Buddhism there is much emphasis on love and compassion. In Marxism, somehow the basis of the class struggle is hatred. Also, of course, Buddhism is not only thinking of this life, but the next. But both believe that the individual is capable of taking control of his own destiny; there is no belief in a creator in either. I believe that the two can coexist."

On the afternoon of March 31, 1959, the Dalai Lama entered India and exile. The Dalai Lama’s seeking political asylum in India initially embarrassed its government. Although India and Tibet shared a long religious and cultural history, Prime Minister Nehru was obliged to take into account the then-recent delicate rapprochement between India and China. However, humanity triumphed over politics and asylum was granted. The Dalai Lama became an honored guest in the land of Buddha’s birth. Although there was profound sympathy and substantial material support for the refugees, there was little political backing. Tibet’s isolation had given it no experience of international diplomacy and few friends.

In India, the Dalai Lama plunged into frenetic activity, serving as leader and shock absorber to a traumatized people uprooted from their natural habitat and relocated into the heat and dust of India. They not only survived change but flourished, drawing upon a philosophy that provided important insights into the permanent nature of change and flux, of how "becoming" is a vital aspect of "being."

The Dalai Lama found residence in Dharamsala, a day away from Delhi. Out of the graciousness of a foreign government, a residential area of less than two acres was now the Dalai Lama’s physical domain. He was stripped of the external symbols that attested to his power and authority in Tibet. It was a call to Tenzin Gyatso to build a much vaster empire sourced on an inner kingdom. For the Dalai Lama, the cultivation of inner peace and a refined integrity are the ultimate weapons that an individual can use to make a difference in this seemingly mad world.

While the world soon prepared to put Tibet back on the shelves of myth and legend, the Dalai Lama and his people were driven by a different perception of reality. Religion was their well-spring, and it had top priority.

Preserving, and as it evolved, perpetuating, Tibetan religion and culture became an essential strategy in exile and countered Chinese attempts to decimate it. The Tibetan identity would not be allowed to die. For every major monastery destroyed in Tibet, a new, if smaller, one was built in India, continuing the same lineage and practices as in Tibet. Children, the hope of any exiled people, continued to be ordained as monks, and senior lamas now began to reincarnate in exile.

His Holiness explains, "Because I am outside Tibet, still the pure form of Tibetan culture has survived. Now today, strangely, the true Tibetan culture or community is found outside Tibet—not inside."

The major challenge was rehabilitation. By the 1990s, 44 Tibetan settlements linked by commercial, political, and religious ties, housing almost all of the 100,000 exiles, looked to Dharamsala as their headquarters. The refugees arrived with few assets and little immunity to the many diseases unknown in Tibet’s dry atmosphere but prevalent in subtropical India. Slowly the survivors began to weave a small economic miracle. Their former feudal lives were quickly relinquished. The barren land was equitably distributed, and a marketing and purchasing collective established.

Tibetan medicine, arts and crafts, and education were encouraged. The Tibetans in exile have carved out one of the most successful stories of the rehabilitation of a people—of vigorously maintaining their own identities yet harmonizing with their new environments to remain welcome by their hosts.

One of the first tasks the Dalai Lama undertook in India was the establishment of an education system that would inculcate traditional Tibetan values and culture while imparting instruction in modern ways. The first Tibetan schools were for orphans, but soon a network of schools accommodated all children. Many of them went through Indian universities and now serve in the administration in exile.

The Dalai Lama’s keen personal interest in the modernization of a medieval social system has been rewarded with the emergence of a new generation of Tibetans fiercely loyal to their cause, the first children to see maps of the world and hear about people other than their own.

While still in Tibet, the Dalai Lama had recognized the disadvantages and the injustices of the old ways. Always drawn toward the lowest strata in society, he now included them in a power-sharing scheme with their former rulers:

"Here we have a draft constitution made in 1963 that has subsequently evolved. It is based on the basic principles of the democratic system. In Buddhist practice, especially monk-system, it’s really a democratic system, so in a draft constitution we are making, I mentioned ‘according to principles of Buddhist teaching we are making [a] democratic constitution.’ So we are trying to make as much as we can while we are exiled in a different country. Now in the future, as I often mention, I regard myself as a free spokesman of Tibetan people, so in future the final decision will be taken by people inside Tibet."

The text of the constitution draws heavily on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it is uniquely Tibetan; the preamble refers to the principle of justice, equality, and democracy laid down by the Lord Buddha. Today the Dalai Lama stands as the head of the government, assisted by a directly elected Kalon Tripa or de facto prime minister and his cabinet. A parliament consists of deputies chosen in popular elections among the exiled community.

An annual general meeting enables the public questioning of individual departments. Article 36, Section (e) of the draft constitution provides for the suspension of the Dalai Lama’s executive functions by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly.

The Dalai Lama has personally laid the foundation for his administration in exile: a cabinet, a liaison bureau with the Indian government, and a civil service that was established early in 1959. Although no country has recognized his government in exile, the Dalai Lama has representatives overseas in several countries, including the U.S., Britain, Switzerland, France, South Africa, Taiwan, and Japan, often working as centers of Tibetan culture rather than as his political nominees. Together they have managed to keep the Tibetan issue on the international agenda. His emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things has helped generate a new sensitivity to the significance of our environment and the real potential for a truly secular interreligious dialogue.

Tibet’s cause is never far from the pilgrim’s thoughts. Today there is renewed hope, a Nobel Peace Prize that reflects a measure of consensus in international public opinion in support of both his cause and the strategy he embodies. Forty-odd years later, the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, and numerous groups across the political spectrum have articulated their concern over human-rights violations, the threat to the environment in Tibet, and the future of its people.

The Dalai Lama believes that only by building up a collective merit of good karma through overcoming their own delusions can the situation resolve itself favorably. Each day’s teachings conclude with prayers for their brethren— both friend and oppressor—who still suffer, followed by a dedication of the merit gained to the speedy end of their suffering. In the words of the Tibetan prayer: "By their rough actions masses of cruel ones are bringing down ruin on themselves and on others. They are drunk with demonic delusions. Forge the glorious unity of friendship among them, these objects of compassion, and with love and mercy help them acquire the wisdom Eye to see what is right and what is wrong."

The cultivation of altruism remains the essential and pivotal goal of Buddhist practice and the essence of the Dalai Lama’s own practice. He explains: "The essential teaching of Buddha Dharma is Bodhicitta—which means firm determination to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of others that is on the basis of Karuna and Maitreya. I am developing that mind as a result of the last 30 years’ effort, and somehow I am gaining experience. The other one iswisdom, which is Shunyata—what Shunyata is and understanding about that—and I am gaining experience. "Without training you cannot utilize even your little finger properly. Once you train it properly, even a small finger can do big things. The mind feels very difficult sometimes—almost impossible—but through gradual training, step bystep, you can do these things. It is one of the good qualities of human consciousness, frequently a troublemaker, but if you train it properly, that will be very nice and useful, like a real jewel."

To a mind thus cultivated, the precision and logic of modern science and technology holds a strong attraction. It has been a passion since childhood, when the adolescent Dalai Lama took apart watches, film projectors, and Tibet’s three cars. He is an expert at and enjoys tinkering with mechanical things.

Discussing the role of science, he states: "Scientific research is very important. The general Buddhist attitude is that wemust accept reason; if a certain thing we cannot believe by reason as a fact or something, then we must accept the fact rather than the certain thing described in the scripture. For example, the Buddha himself says you must accept certain things through your own investigations, your own use and logic and reason, not out of faith."

The Dalai Lama in word and deed seeks to demonstrate how ethics and noble principles have been obscured by the shadow of self-interest, particularly in the political sphere. The instruments of our political culture have destroyed theideals and concepts meant to further human welfare. He questions the popular assumption that religion and ethics haveno place in politics and that religious people should seclude themselves as hermits. Ethics is as crucial to a politician asit is to a religious practitioner. Such human qualities as morality, compassion, decency, and wisdom have been the foundations of all great civilizations.

Rather than be divided by politics, His Holiness states: "So the other alternative is we try to develop a real human feeling. No matter what the differences to ideology or distance—all are human beings; all have to live together on this planet. On this level there should be more contact, more exchanges. Even disagreements are human, so the human dimension is still there. On that basis, we should make an understanding; that way you can achieve mutual trust. Then you can talk."

In recent years the Chinese have adopted a more subtle strategy to overcome Tibet. Due to attractive incentives, there has been a massive influx of Chinese into the harsh terrain of Tibet. In the northeast, for example, in the Koknoorregion, where the Dalai Lama was born, there are now an estimated 3.5 million Chinese compared to 500,000Tibetans.

His Holiness explains his own place in this ongoing struggle: "The Tibetan problem is the problem of six million human souls, not that of the Dalai Lama institution. The Dalai Lama is not so important; the important thing is that the nation must remain. In the future, it will remain. Happiness and the right of the nation are very important. The institution of the Dalai Lama . . . that comes and goes; that depends on the actual circumstances. If people feel that there should be another Dalai Lama, then I will appear. As my own incarnation, I will be there. As long as the suffering of any sentient being is there, I will serve as much as I can—this is my determination; this is not something extraordinary. All the persons who sincerely practice the Buddha’s teaching, that is their way of thinking. I may bereborn as an American, as a Canadian, as a Tibetan, as an Indian—I don’t know."

The Dalai Lama’s role as a preeminent Buddhist monk is today almost universally acknowledged among thedifferent schools of Buddhism. While the battle between Marxist, or more lately, Western, materialism in China and Buddhist spiritualism—between the power of the gun and the power of wisdom and compassion—now simmers, theDalai Lama himself reaches out to a world increasingly responsive to his personality, teaching, and message—if not tohis political cause.

He explains: "Major religions of the world carry more or less the same teachings, the same messages. I always look at what is the real purpose of these different teachings, these different philosophies; I have found that all are meant for entire humanity. All are focusing or aiming at the same aim . . . however, because there are so many mental dispositions among humans, one religion may not be suitable for everyone. Under the circumstances, one thing we should keep in our mind is closer relations and better understanding. Then we will develop mutual respect."

The Dalai Lama has not sought one common faith for all people. He has instead reached out to the commonground of all religions, the quest for happiness. His disarming personality demonstrates the joy and laughter in the journey. Buddhism, never a missionary religion, is carried on his smiling face.

His Holiness suggests that we abandon religious divisiveness: "Small, small differences between this church or that church or this faith or that faith are very minor. Always the main goal, the supreme thing, is very important. Forgetthese small things; try to make a common effort for the bigger goal.

‘I feel the ultimate aim is society’s nirvana—of that nirvana, my definition is: completely peaceful, harmony, no hatred for each other. All people need to be concerned about their brothers and sisters—with less selfishness and no quarrels. Even if there is some disagreement, let’s solve it by human understanding. . . . No racial problems, no ideology problems. Ideology is a private business. If someone believes a certain ideology is the best means to achievehappiness—that is his right to pursue that thing; another person has the right to a different ideology or a different faith.

. . . They should not interfere with each other, but understand that both are human beings, members of the human family. Both want happiness and do not want suffering. Both have the right to be happy. Under these circumstances, they remain as a brother, a sister. Now that is my dream."

In the finely balanced mixture of spirituality and politics, what room is there left for the man, the monk. He constantly surprises, questions, or overturns old habits—shifts the entrenched certainties. In the middle of a solemn Nobel lecture, he can pause, wave to a familiar face in the audience, and resume listening as if nothing has happened; he can shed tears when touched by the work of Baba Amte, break out into infectious laughter at his inability to express himself in English, or admit "I don’t know" when he doesn’t have an answer to the innumerable questions he confronts. The Dalai Lama carries his erudition and insights with an easy, comfortable grace.

The Buddha’s teachings, as the Dalai Lama’s today, are a call to the "more" of life, not to the ending of it and not to the running away from a relative and imperfect world. The transient world must die, but what attains enlightenment and achieves nirvana when the misery-causing self is dead? The answer is man, but to many, the Dalai Lama is more God than man.

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