A profile of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama by Pico Iyer
(from Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign, published by Knopf in 2004)
Though the Dalai Lama is increasingly famous as a speaker, his real gift, you see as soon as you begin talking to him, is for listening. And though he is most celebrated in the West these days for his ability to talk to halls large enough to stage a Bon Jovi concert, his special strength is to address 20,000 people–Buddhists and grandmothers and kids alike–as if he was talking to each one alone, in the language she can best understand. The Dalai Lama’s maxims are collected and packaged now as books to carry in your handbag, as calendar items and as advertising slogans, but the heart of the man exists, I think, in silence. In his deepest self he is that being who sits alone each day at dawn, eyes closed, reciting prayers, with all his heart, for his Chinese oppressors, his Tibetan people and all sentient beings.
Yet the curiosity of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s life–one of the things that has made it seem at once a parable and a kind of koan–is that he has had to pursue his spiritual destiny, for more than half a century, almost entirely in the world–and, in fact, in a political world whose god is Machiavelli. His story is an all but timeless riddle about the relation of means to ends: in order to protect six million people, and to preserve a rare and long-protected culture that is years away from extinction, he has had to pose for endless photos with models and let his speeches be broadcast on the floors of London dance clubs. To some extent, he has had to enter right into the madness and vanity of the Celebrity Age, in order to fulfill his monastic duties. The question that he carries with him everywhere he goes is the simple one of whether the world will scar him before he elevates it: in three centuries, no Ocean of Wisdom, Holder of the White Lotus and protector of the Land of Snows before him has ever served as guest editor of French Vogue.
I went to visit the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, not long ago, as I have done at regular intervals since my teens. I took the rickety Indian Airlines flight from Delhi to Amritsar, itself a restricted war zone (because it houses the Sikh stronghold of the Golden Temple), and from there took a five-hour taxi ride up into the foothills of the Himalayas. As I approached the distant settlement on a ridge above a little town–the roads so jampacked with scooters and bicycles and cows that often we could hardly move (the Dalai Lama has, for security reasons, to drive for ten hours along such roads every time he wishes to take a flight)–Dharamsala came into view, and then disappeared, like a promise of liberation, or some place that didn’t really exist. Most of the time–the car collapsing on a mountain road, a group of villagers assembling to push it hopefully forwards, night falling and each turn seeming to be taking us farther and farther away from the string of lights far off–I felt sure we’d never get there.
As soon as you arrive at the dusty, bedraggled place, however, you realize you are very far from fairy-tale, in the realm of suffering and old age and death. Windows are broken and paths half-paved in the rainy little village where the Dalai Lama has made his home for more than half his life now; even the happy cries and songs of the orphans at the Tibetan Children’s village on one side of town have a slightly wistful air, as the sun sets behind the nearby mountains. When you call the Dalai Lama’s office, you will hear that “All circuits are busy” or that the five-digit number changed yesterday. Sometimes my calls got cut off in mid-sentence, amidst a blur of static, sometimes I got put on hold—-for all eternity, it seemed–to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down.”
It is, therefore, perhaps the perfect paradoxical setting for a humble monk who lives alone when he is not being sought out by Goldie Hawn or Harrison Ford. In the ante-chamber to his living-room, after you’ve been checked by a Tibetan guard and then an Indian one, you sit under a certificate of Honorary Citizenship from Orange County, an award from the Rotary Club of Dharamsala and a plaque commemorating an honorary professorship from Kalmyk State University. Ceremonial masks, Hindu deities and pietas shine down on you. On one wall, is a huge, blown-up photo of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, showing that the palace where the Dalai Lama once lived is now ringed by discos, brothels and a new Chinese prison, with high-rises dwarfing the old Tibetan houses.
The Dalai Lama has a singular gift for seeing the good in everything, and seeming unfazed by all the madness that swirls around him; he is always thoroughly human and always thoroughly himself. Sometimes, as you wait to see him, his exuberant new friend, a very puppyish German shepherd, runs into the room and starts jumping over a group of startled Tibetan monks here for a serious discussion, licking the faces of the Buddhist teachers before romping off into the garden again. Sometimes a pair of English hippies sits there, since the Dalai Lama is ready to take advice and instruction from anyone (and knows–such is the poignancy of his life–that even the most disorganized traveler may know more about contemporary Tibet, and the state of his people, than he does). When a photographer asks him to take off his glasses, pose with this hat, sit this way or sit that, he seizes the chance to ask him about what he saw when he photographed uprisings in Lhasa many years before.
As I sit across from him in his room with its large windows, looking out on pine-covered slopes and the valley below–thangkas all around us on the walls–the Dalai Lama makes himself comfortable, cross-legged in his armchair, and serves me tea. He always notices when my cup is empty before I do. He rocks back and forth as he speaks, often, the habit acquired, one realizes, over decades of punishing hours-long meditation sessions, often in the cold. And part of his disarming power (the result, no doubt, of all that meditation and the dialectics of which he is a master) is that he launches stronger criticisms against himself than even his fiercest enemies might.
When first he met Shoko Asahara, he tells me one day (referring to the man who later planned the planting of deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system), he was genuinely moved by the man’s seeming devotion to the Buddha: tears would come into the Japanese teacher’s eyes when he spoke of Buddha. But to endorse Asahara, as he did, was, the Dalai Lama quickly says, “a mistake. Due to ignorance! So, this proves” (and he breaks into his full-throated laugh), “I’m not a `Living Buddha!’ ” Another day, talking about the problems of present-day Tibet, he refers to the fact that there are “too many prostrations there,” and then, erupting into gales of infectious laughter again, he realizes that he should have said, “too much prostitution” (though, in fact, as he knows, “too many prostrations” may actually constitute a deeper problem). He’d love to delegate some responsibilty to his deputies, he says frankly, “but, even if some of my Cabinet ministers wanted to give public talks, nobody would come.”
The result is that it all comes down to him. The Dalai Lama is rightly famous for his unstoppable warmth, his optimism and his forbearance–“the happiest man in the world,” as one journalist-friend calls him–and yet his life has seen more difficulty and sadness than that of anyone I know. He’s representing the interests of six million largely unworldly and disenfranchised people against a nation of 1.2 billion whom nearly all the world is trying to court. He’s the guest of a huge nation with problems of its own, which would be very grateful if he just kept quiet. He travels the world constantly (on a yellow refugee’s “identity certificate”), and, though regarded by most as a leader equivalent to Mother Teresa or the Pope, is formally as ostracized as Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong II. He is excited when meeting Britain’s Queen Mother–because he remembers, from when he was young, seeing newsclips of her tending to the poor of London during the Blitz-—but the world is more excited when he meets Sharon Stone.
And so a serious spiritual leader is treated as a pop star, and a doctor of metaphysics is sought out by everyone, from every culture, who has a problem in his life. As a monk, he seems more than happy to offer what he can, as much as he can, but none of it helps him towards the liberation of his people. I ask him one day about how Tibet is likely to be compromised by its complicity with the mass media, and he looks back at me shrewdly, and with a penetrating gaze. “If there are people who use Tibetans or the Tibetan situation for there own purposes,” he says, “or if they associate with some publicity for their own benefit, there’s very little we can do. But the important thing is for us not to be involved in this publicity, or associate with these people for our own interests.”
The razor-sharp reasoning is typical, even if it doesn’t quite address the conundrum in which he finds himself. For precisely in order to satisfy his inner and outer mandate, the Dalai Lama is obliged to traffic in the world incessantly. He has to listen to a reporter asking him how he’d like to be remembered–which is, in the Buddhist context, akin to asking the Pope what he thinks of Jennifer Lopez (” I really lost my temper,” he tells me, of the question, “though I didn’t show it”). He has to answer for every scandal that touches any of the many, often highly suspect Tibetans and Tibetan groups around the world. And he has to endure and address every controversy that arises when his image is used by Apple Computers, or younger Tibetans deride him as an out-of-it peacenik who’s done nothing to help Tibet for forty years.
As we spoke for day after day in the radiant fall afternoons, young monks practicing ritual debates outside his front door, the snowcaps shining in the distance, and the hopes of Tibet poignantly, palpably in the air around the ragged town of exiles, the time the Dalai Lama most lit up, in some respects, was when he spoke of some Catholic monks he’d run into in France who live in complete isolation for years on end, and “remain almost like prisoners” as they meditate. “Wonderful!” he pronounced, leaving it to his visitor to deduce that, left to his own devices, that’s how he’d like to be.
* * *
At this point, after two autobiographies, and two major Hollywood films telling the story of his life, the otherworldly contours of the Dalai Lama’s life are well known: his birth in a cowshed in rural Tibet, in what was locally known as the Wood Hog Year (1935), his discovery by a search party of monks, who’d been led to him by a vision in a sacred lake, the tests administered to a two year-old who, mysteriously, greeted the monks from faroff Lhasa as their leader, and in their distant dialect. Yet what the mixture of folk-tale and Shakespearean drama doesn’t always catch is that the single dominant theme of his life, a Buddhist might say, is loss.
To someone who reads the world in terms of temporal glory, it’s a stirring story of a four year-old peasant boy ascending the Lion Throne to rule one of the most exotic treasures on earth. To someone who really lives the philosophy for which the Dalai Lama stands, it could play out in a different key. At two, he lost the peace of his quiet life in a wood-and-stone house where he slept in the kitchen. At four he lost his home, and his freedom to be a regular person, when he was pronounced king. Soon thereafter, he lost something of his family, too, and most of his ties with the world at large, as he embarked on a formidable sixteen-year course of monastic studies, and was forced, at the age of six, to choose a regent.
The Dalai Lama has written with typical warmth about his otherworldly boyhood in the cold, thousand-roomed Potala Palace, where he played games with the palace sweepers, rigged up a hand-cranked projector on which he could watch Tarzan movies and Henry V, and clobbered his only real playmate-—his immediate elder brother Lobsang Samten-—in the knowledge that no one would be quick to punish a boy regarded as an incarnation of the god of compassion (and a king to boot). Yet the overwhelming feature of his childhood was its loneliness. Often, he recalls, he would go out onto the rooftop of his palace and watch the other little boys of Lhasa playing in the street. Every time his brother left, he recalls “standing at the window, watching, my heart full of sorrow as he disappeared into the distance.”
The Dalai Lama has never pretended that he does not have a human side, and though it is that side that exults in everything that comes his way, it is also that side that cannot fail to grieve at times. When the Chinese, newly united by Mao Zedong, attacked Tibet’s eastern frontiers in 1950, the fifteen year-old boy was forced hurriedly to take over the temporal as well as the spiritual leadership of his country, and so lost his boyhood (if not his innocence), and his last vestiges of freedom. In his teens he was traveling to Beijing, overriding the wishes of his fearful people, to negotiate with Mao and Zhou En-lai, and not long thereafter he became only the second Dalai Lama to leave Tibet, when it seemed his life might be in peril.
At twenty-four, a few days after he finally completed his doctoral studies, and shone in an oral in front of thousands of appraising monks, he lost his home for good: the “Wish-Fulfilling Gem,” as he is known to Tibetans, had to dress up as a soldier and flee across the highest mountains on earth, dodging Chinese planes, and seated on a hybrid yak. The drama of that loss lives inside him still. I asked him one sunny afternoon about the saddest moment in his life, and he told me that he was moved to tears usually only when he talked of Buddha, or thought of compassion–or heard, as he sometimes does every day, the stories and appeals of the terrified refugees who’ve stolen out of Tibet to come and see him.
Generally, he said, in his firm, prudent way, “sadness, I think, is comparatively manageable.” But before he said any of that, he looked into the distance and recalled how “I left the Norbulingka Palace that late night, and some of my close friends, and one dog I left behind. Then, just when I was crossing the border into India, I remember my final farewell, mainly to my bodyguards. They were deliberately facing the Chinese, and when they made farewell with me, they were determined to return. So that means”–his eyes are close to misting over now–“they were facing death, or something like that.” In the thirty-eight years since then, he’s never seen the land he was born to rule.
I, too, remember that drama: the fairy-tale flight of the boy-king from the Forbidden Kingdom was the first world event that made an impression on me when I was growing up, and, a little later, when my father went to India to greet the newly arrived Tibetan, he came back with a picture of the monk as a little boy, which the Dalai Lama gave him when he talked of his own three year-old in Oxford. Since then, like many of us, I’ve run into him everywhere I go–at Harvard, in New York, in the hills of Malibu, in Japan–and have had the even stranger experience of seeing him somehow infiltrate the most unlikely worlds: my graduate-school professor of Virginia Woolf suddenly came into my life again as editor of a book of the Dalai Lama’s talks about the gospel; at the Olympics, a longtime friend and sportswriter for the New York Times started reminiscing about how he covered the Dalai Lama on the Tibetan’s first US tour, in 1979, and found him great because he was so humble. “It sounds like he considers you part of the family,” a friend once said, when I told her that the Dalai Lama and his equally mischievous younger brother call me “Pinocchio.” But really, his gift is for regarding all of the world as part of his family.
At the same time, the world itself has not always been very interested in the details of his faraway country, and a tradition that seems to belong to another world. When Tibet appealed for help against China to the newly formed United Nations, it was Britain and India, its two ostensible sponsors, who argued against even hearing the motion. And as recently as the 1980s, I remember his press conferences in New York being almost deserted; when once I organized a lunch for him with a group of editors, one of them called up a couple of days before to call it off, because no one really wanted to come into the office on a Monday just to chat with a Tibetan monk. When first I visited him in Dharamsala, in 1974, I really did feel as if I was looking in on one of the deposed emperors of China or Vietnam, sitting in a far-off exile. As we sat drinking tea in his modest, colorful cottage, clouds passed through the room from the rains outside–all we could see through the large windows was mist and gray–and it felt as if we were truly sitting in the heavens, at least a mile above anything that felt real.
Yet one of the paradoxes of the Dalai Lama’s life–a paradox to answer the koan that has been his fulfillment of a spiritual duty in the world–is that it was, it seems, his monastic training that allowed him to be so focused and charismatic a presence in the world. In his early years in India, the Dalai Lama used the world’s neglect of him to organize his exiled community and to write his country’s constitution (in part to allow for his own impeachment). Even exile could be a liberation, he was saying (and showing his compatriots): it freed him from the age-old protocol that so shackled him in Tibet and it brought the forever feuding groups of Tibet together in a common cause. Most of all, though, he used his free time to go on long meditation retreats, enjoying a solitude that could never have been his in Tibet (or, now, in Dharamsala).
Robert Thurman, the professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia, and father of Uma, remembers first meeting the Dalai Lama in 1964, when he, full of spiritual ambitions, cross-questioned the young Tibetan about shunyata, or voidness, while the Dalai Lama questioned him, no less eagerly, about Freud and the American bicameral system. “It was fun,” Thurman says, using the word people often use of the Dalai Lama. “We were young together.” At the same time, the answers that the monk only in his twenties then gave to complex theological questions were less good, Thurman feels, than those offered by more senior monks.
When the Tibetan leader emerged from his retreats, though, and came out into the world–Thurman saw him on his first U.S. tour, in 1979–“I almost keeled over. His personal warmth and magnetism were so strong. In the past, of course, he had the ritual charisma of being the Dalai Lama, and he’s always been charming and interesting and very witty. But now he’d opened up some inner wellspring of energy and attention and intelligence. He was glorious.”
And yet that air of responsibility–the word he always stresses in the same breath as compassion–has never left him. I remember going to see him the day after he won the Nobel Prize, when he happened to be staying (as is so typical of his life) in a suburban ranch house in Newport Beach. What struck me at the time was that, as soon as he saw me, he whisked me (as he would no doubt have whisked any visitor) into a little room, and spent his first few minutes looking for a chair in which I would be comfortable–as if I were the new Nobel laureate and he the intrusive journalist.
But what I also remember from that moment was that, even as the world was feting him–congratulatory telegrams and faxes pouring into the rec room downstairs–he couldn’t let himself off the hook. “Sometimes,” he confessed, “I wonder whether my efforts really have an effect. I sometimes feel that unless there is a bigger movement, the bigger issues will not change. But how to start this bigger movement ? Originally, it must come from individual initiative.”
The only way, he concluded, was through “constant effort, tireless effort, pursuing clear goals with sincere effort.” Every time he left a room, he said, he tried to switch off the light. “In a way, it’s silly. But if another person follows my example, then a hundred persons, there is an effect. It is the only way. The bigger nations and more powerful leaders are not taking care. So we poor human beings must make the effort.”
* * *
Meeting him now, I find him a lot more business-like than he was in those days (and, of course, much more fluent in English); when TV crews come to interview him, he knows how to advise them on where to set up their cameras (and when we begin talking, he is quick to point out that my tape recorder is moving suspciously fast). He’s not less jolly than before, perhaps, but he does seem more determined to speak from the serious side of himself, as the years go on, and Tibet draws ever closer to oblivion. Where he used to greet me with an Indian namaste, now he does so with a handshake, though the Dalai Lama does not so much shake your hand as rub it within his own, as if to impart to it some of his warmth.
As we talk, though–every afternoon at 2:00 p.m., for day after day–he takes off his glasses sometimes and rubs his eyes; his aides say that in recent years, for the first time ever, they’ve seen him exhausted, his head slumped back in his chair (this the man usually seen leaning into the conversation, as if to bring to it all his attention and beady-eyed vigor). He doesn’t have much time for spiritual practice now, he tells me–only four hours a day (his duties increasing as he becomes a more senior monk). He still likes to do “some repair work, of watches and small instruments,” and he still loves tending to his flowers; one of the longest and most animated answers he gives me comes when I ask after his “four small cats.” But these days the only real break he can take comes listening to the B.B.C. World Service, to which he cheerfully confesses himself addicted.
This is the tendency of an engaging, still boyish character alight with curiosity; but it’s also the confession of a man whose duties are almost entirely tied up with the dealings of the world, on a minute-by-minute level. One thing the Dalai Lama is not is otherworldly. He can explain in precise detail why the Tibetan cause is weaker than that of the Palestinians, or how globalism is, at its best, advancing a kind of Buddhism in mufti. His references nearly always come from the day’s most recent news, and he watches everything–from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the tragedy in Rwanda–both to see how it illuminates some metaphysical theory and to see what other kind of teaching it can impart. Exile has allowed him, he will tell you, to become a student of the world in a way that no earlier Dalai Lama could, and to see a planet that previously he, and the Dalai Lamas before him, could glimpse only through the parted curtains of a palanquin. The best aspect of his traveling is that he can schedule meetings with scientists and psychologists and Hopi leaders, all of whom, he believes, can help him refine his understanding of his own tradition. Buddhists can and should learn from Catholics, from physicists, even from Communists, he is quick to tell his startled followers–and if the words of the Buddha (let alone of the Dalai Lama) are not borne out by the evidence, they must be discarded instantly.
This is one reason why he seems much more interested in asking questions than in giving answers; and much more comfortable as a student (which he’s been, in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, most of his life) than as a teacher. It is also why I would say his sovereign quality is alertness: watch the Dalai Lama enter a crowded auditorium, or sit through a long monastic ceremony that has many others nodding off, and you will notice him looking around keenly, for what he can pick up: a friend to whom he can unselfconsciously wave, some little detail that will bring a smile to his face. Alertness is the place where the slightly impish boy and the rigorously trained monk converge, and though the world at large most responds to his heart–the pleasure afforded by his beam and air of kindness and good nature–the specific core of him comes no less from his mind, and the analytical faculties honed in one of the world’s most sophisticated metaphysical technologies. It’s not unusual, I’ve come to see by now, for the Dalai Lama to remember a sentence he’s delivered to you seven years before, or to complete an answer he began ninety minutes ago, while lacing up his sturdy mountain boots. Sometimes, in large gatherings, he will pick out a face he last saw in Lhasa forty years before; once, as we were talking, he suddenly remembered something an Englishman had said to him twenty years before–about the value of sometimes saying, “I don’t know”–and asked me, searchingly, what I thought of it.
Again, the irony here is that the mindfulness he’s cultivated in meditation–on retreats, and at the hands of pitilessly strict teachers–is what has helped him in his travels; spiritual training–this is one of the lessons of his life and his example–has constant practical application in the world. Much of the time he’s speaking to people who know nothing about Buddhism–who may even be hostile to it–and he’s mastered the art of speaking simply, and ecumenically, from the heart, stressing, as he does, “spirituality without faith–simply being a good human being, a warm-hearted person, a person with a sense of responsibility.” Talking to his monks, he delivers philosophical lectures that few of the rest of us could begin to follow; speaking to the world, he realizes that the most important thing is not to run before you can walk. The title of a typical book of his mentions not “Enlightening” the heart, but, simply, “Lightening” it.
In a sense, he’s turned his predicament to advantage in part by learning about Western religions, and meditation practices in other traditions, as earlier Dalai Lamas could seldom do. And he’s also had to deal with a worldwide stampede towards a Buddhism for which it may not be ready (to such a point that, more and more as the years go on, he tells Westerners not to become Buddhists, but just to stick to their own tradition, where there’s less of a danger of mixed motives, and certainly less likelihood of confusion). Listening to him speak everywhere from Sao Paulo to Chicago, Philip Glass says, “The word `Buddha’ never came up. He talks about compassion, he talks about right living. And it’s very powerful and persuasive to people because it’s clear he’s not there to convert them.”
Pragmatism, in short, trumps dogmatism. And logic defers to nothing. “Out of 5.7 million people,” he tells me one day, his eyes glittering with the delight of a student immersed in one of Tibet’s ritual debates, “the majority of them are certainly not believers. We can’t argue with them, tell them they should be believers. No! Impossible! And, realistically speaking, if the majority of humanity remains non-believers, it doesn’t matter. No problem! The problem is that the majority have lost, or ignore, the deeper human values–compassion, a sense of responsibility. That is our big concern, For whenever there is a society or community without deeper human values, then even one single human family cannot be a happy family.”
Then–and it isn’t hard to see the still eager student playing his winning card–he goes on, “Even animals, from a Buddhist viewpoint, also have the potential of showing affection towards their own children, or their own babies–and also towards us. Dogs, cats, if we treat them nicely, openly, trustingly, they also respond. But without religion; they have no faith!” Therefore, he says triumphantly, kindness is more fundamental than belief.
Yet the deepest loss of all in the Dalai Lama’s often bright and blessing-filled life, is that all the friends he’s made worldwide, all the presidents and prime ministers he’s won over, all the analytical reasoning with which he argues for compassion and responsibility have not really helped him at all in what is the main endeavor of his life: safeguarding the people of Tibet, and sustaining a Tibetan identity among a scattered population, six million of whom have not seen their leader for two generations, and the other 140,000 of whom have not, in many cases, seen their homeland. Many of those who see him flying across five continents in a year (in business class) and delivering lectures to sold-out halls don’t realize that he’s working with a staff drawn from a population smaller than that of Warren, Michigan, and with a circle of advisors who’d never seen the world, or known much about it, before they were propelled into a premature exile.
Within the Tibetan community, he remains as lonely as ever, I think. His people still regard him, quite literally, as a god, with the result that even young Indian-born Tibetans who are fluent in English are too shy to offer their services as translators. And as fast as he tries to push democracy onto his people–urging them to contradict him and to make their own plans regardless of him–they push autocracy back onto him: most Tibetans believe everything the Dalai Lama says, except when he says that the Dalai Lama is fallible. None of this has been made easier by the fact that he’s clearly his country’s main selling point, so that it can seem as if the destiny of a whole people rests on the shoulders of one decidedly mortal man
In this context, he’s clearly grateful for the chance to meet foreigners, who will more readily challenge and counsel him–even criticize him–and he’s lucky to have a large and unusually gifted family around him, two of whom are incarnated lamas themselves. His younger brother Tenzin Choegyal lives down the road, and even as the Dalai Lama claims to be unconcerned about all the complications that arise as Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism go around the world, his kid brother (who shed the monastic robes into which he was born) is outspoken in calling the situation “a hell of a hodgepodge,” and referring to the West’s infatuation with Tibet, and the Tibetans who make corrupt use of that, as “the Shangri-La syndrome.”
Even in context, after all, Tibetan Buddhism is a vividly charged and esoteric body of teachings, a “unique blend,” as the British judge and Buddhist scholar Christmas Humphreys once wrote, “of the noblest Buddhist principles and debased sorcery.” Its core, as with all Buddhism, is a belief in suffering and emptiness, and the need for compassion in the face of those. But unlike the stripped-down austerities of Zen, say, it swarms with animist spirits, pictures of copulating deities and Tantric practices of sexuality and magic that, in the wrong hands, or without the proper training, can be inflammable.
The Dalai Lama’s very equanimity, and refusal to be autocratic (even if he had the time)–unlike their Catholic counterparts, he says, Tibetan and Buddhist groups “have no central authority. They’re all quite independent”–have left him relatively powerless as all kinds of questionable things are done in the name of his philosophy, and three-hundred-year-old rivalries that used to be conducted in the privacy of the Himalayas are now played out on the world’s front pages.
Three years ago, with no help from the Chinese, an unseemly mess broke out when two six year-old boys were presented as the new incarnation of the high Karmapa lineage, one of them endorsed by the Dalai Lama, the other by friends of the departed lama’s family. One of the most prominent lamas in the West was banned from entering America for many years after a $10 million sexual harassment suit was brought against him; perhaps the most famous rinpoche in the West was notorious for his women, his drinking and his brutal bodyguards, and left a community riddled with AIDS. Not long ago, three members of the Dalai Lama’s inner circle were found murdered in their beds, the victims, it was supposed, of some complex internecine rilvary.
The Dalai Lama takes all this in his stride–he was putting down insurrections at the age of eleven, after all–but the whole issue of authority (when to enforce it, and how to delegate it) takes on a special urgency as he moves towards his seventies. The finding of a new Dalai Lama when all of Tibet is in Chinese hands would in the best of circumstances be treacherous; but it became doubly so two years ago when Beijing unilaterally hijacked the second highest incarnation in Tibet, that of the Panchen Lama, placing the Dalai Lama’s six year-old choice under house arrest and installing a candidate of its own (the Panchen Lama, by tradition, is the figure officially responsible for authorizing the Dalai Lama’s own incarnation–and the maneuver suggested that the Chinese may have few qualms about coming up with their own puppet as the next Dalai Lama).
In response to this, the Tibetan has been typically canny. More than a decade ago, he reminds me, he said that “If I die in the near future, and the Tibetan people want another reincarnation, a Fifteenth Dalai Lama, while we are still outside Tibet, my reincarnation will definitely appear outside Tibet. Because”–the logic, as ever, is impeccable–“the very purpose of the incarnation is to fulfil the work that has been started by the previous life.” So, he goes on, “the reincarnation of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, logically, will not be a reincarnation which disturbs, or is an obstacle to, that work. Quite clear, isn’t it ?” In any case, he says cheerfully, “at a certain stage the Dalai Lama institution will disappear. That does not mean that Tibetan Buddhism will cease. But the incarnation comes and goes, comes and goes.
As ever, few of his supporters are equally ready to acquiesce in such lese majeste (when I ask a group of Tibetan officials if this one will be the last Dalai Lama, they all say anxiously, “No, no”). And many of them, too, have found it hard to countenance his policy of forgiving the Chinese (he has referred to Mao as “remarkable,” called himself “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist” and stepped back from his original demands of independence to calling only for an autonomous “Zone of Peace”). The pressure on him to forswear his policy of non-violence has intensified as the years go by, and Chinese repression comes ever closer to rendering Tibet extinct.
“In one way, yes,” he tells me, “my position has become weaker, because there’s been no development, no progress. In spite of my open approach, of maximum concessions, the Chinese position becomes even harder and harder.” Last year, all photographs of the exiled leader were banned in Tibet, and monks and nuns continue to be imprisoned and tortured at will, in what the International Commission of Jurists long ago called a policy of “genocide.” Yet the Dalai Lama takes heart from the fact that more and more Chinese individuals have been speaking out for Tibet (as they would not have done, he feels, if he’d been more militant); last August, at their invitation, he gave a special three-day initiation in Los Angeles expressly for those of Chinese descent.
“To isolate China is totally wrong,” he tells me forcefully, “China needs the outside world, and the outside world need China.” Besides, even China stands to gain from a freer Tibet. “If the Tibetan issue can be resolved through dialogue, and if we remain happily in the People’s Republic of China, it will have immense impact in the minds of another six million Chinese in Hong Kong and, eventually, twenty-one million Chinese in Taiwan. The image of China in the whole world will, overnight, change.”
That is the position he must take, of course, and a skeptic would say, confronted with his stubborn optimism, that it can be a little perverse to celebrate clouds just because they show us silver linings. Yet it’s worth recalling that the Dalai Lama’s policy of forgiveness is not an abstract thing. When he speaks of suffering, it’s as one who has seen his land destroyed, up to 1.2 million of his people killed and all but thirteen of his 6,254 monasteries laid waste. When he talks of inner peace, it’s as one who was away on the road, struggling for his cause, when his mother, his senior tutor and his only childhood playmate, Lobsang Samten, died. And when he speaks of forbearance, it’s as one who is still publicly called by Beijing a “wolf in monk’s robes.”
As I left Dharamsala, in fact–at dawn, with the Dalai Lama leading his monks in a three-hour ceremony while the sun came up–it struck me that the man has lived out a kind of archetypal destiny of our times: a boy born in a peasant village in a world that had scarcely seen a wheel has ended up confronting the great forces of the day–exile, global travel and, especially, the mass media; and a man from a culture we associate with Shangri-La now faces machine-guns on the one hand, and a Lhasa Holiday Inn on the other, while J. Peterman catalogues crow, “Crystals are out! Tibetan Buddhism is in!” It says much about the challenges of the moment that a spokesman for an ancient, highly complex philosophy finds himself in rock-concert arenas obliged to answer questions about abortion and the “patriarchal” nature of Tibetan Buddhism.
Yet to these twenty-first century conundrums, the Dalai Lama is aiming to bring a state-of-the-art solution. Tibet’s predicament, he tells me with practiced fluency, is not just about a faraway culture hidden behind snowcaps five miles high. It’s about ecology (since the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Yellow Rivers all have their sources in Tibet). It’s about natural resources (since “according to Chinese official documents, there are more than 166 or 167 different minerals in Tibet”). It’s about human rights, and a unique and imperiled culture, and a buffer zone “between these two giants, India and China.”
Most of all, though, it’s about a different way of moving through the world. Far from turning his back on the madness of the times, the Dalai Lama is taking it on whole-heartedly, to the point of working with forces that many of us might see as compromised (“We’re just fallen sentient beings,” Richard Gere says, touchingly, of the Hollywood community. “We need some help too”). If part of him is suggesting that monks can’t afford to be unworldly hermits, another part is suggesting that politicians need not be aggressive schemers. Compassion, he argues over and over, only stands to reason.
If the Dalai Lama were a dreamer, it would be easy to write him off. In fact, he’s an attentive, grounded, empirical soul whose optimism has only been bolstered by the breakthroughs achieved by his friends Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel. Havel, indeed, who became the first head of state to recognize the Dalai Lama, within thirteen hours of coming to power, has been a powerful spokesman for this new kind of statesmanship. The politician of conscience, he writes, need not have a graduate degree in political science, or years of training in duplicity. Instead, he may rely on “qualities like fellow-feeling, the ability to talk to others, insight, the capacity to grasp quickly not only problems but also human character, the ability to make contact, a sense of moderation.” In all those respects, the Czech president might well have been thinking of a canny Tibetan scientist with a surprising gift for repairing old watches, tending to sick parrots and, as it happens, making broken things whole again.