A favorite verse from Shantideva (8thC):
For as long as space endures
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
Dalai Lama is not a personal name but an honorary title
denoting the esteem accorded this important lama of the Gelugpa denomination.
It was bestowed by the Mongol leader, Altan Khan, when around 550 CE, a
predecessor visited the Khan's court. The title Ta.le means "ocean"
-- a vast and profound expanse of wisdom and compassion.
On July 6th 2009, HH Tenzin Gyatso will celebrate his 74th
birthday. We are grateful to the Dalai Lama, who since 2000 has made
available Gyuto Tantric University's Ramoche Monastery in Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh,
India, as a temporary
residence for HH the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa.
BBC March 31, 1959 archival footage.
- June 14, 2008 The Australian, "Dalai Lama: He's
no Foe of Beijing," by Greg Sheridan, foreign
The Dalai Lama has a dilemma. The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism
believes he is an honest friend of China and describes himself as pro-Chinese.
He does not seek independence from China for Tibet and the six million
Tibetans who live there and in surrounding Chinese provinces. Nor does he
support violence of any kind, not that directed at the Chinese state or
conducted by anyone else.
He proposes a middle way, in which China would grant Tibet a degree of
internal autonomy under a one-country, two-systems style of arrangements
somewhat similar to those pertaining in Hong Kong.
But the Chinese Government relentlessly portrays him as an enemy of the
Chinese people, so that now he frequently faces demonstrations and hostility
from Chinese, burning under the hot fires of nationalism that the Chinese
Government is constantly stoking.
I meet the Dalai Lama for 40 minutes in a private room at the Novotel Hotel at
Sydney's Olympic Park. It is his only one on one, sit-down newspaper interview
while in Australia. He sits cross-legged on a hard chair, in what is meant to
be his lunch hour during a gruelling day of teaching. He is here mainly to
instruct on meditation and life philosophy.
Officially, he has stepped aside from his former position of head of the
Now, he says, he is merely its senior adviser and it doesn't always take his
But in truth he is the best known Tibetan in history. A senior US official
tells me that one reason the Chinese so mismanage Tibet is that they simply
cannot comprehend the Dalai Lama's immense standing and good name throughout
the West, indeed throughout the world. Beijing wants to paint the
Dalai Lama as a narrow ethnic separatist. The Western public thinks of
him as a cross between Mother Teresa and the Pope.
I have met and interviewed the Dalai Lama before. He is an impressive man.
Unlike some, I am not emotionally bowled over to meet him. But I am impressed.
As before, he answers all my questions directly. He is good humoured,
self-deprecating in his way, makes no extravagant claims, and radiates
goodwill towards all the players in the tragedy of Tibet: even the Chinese
While I don't feel inclined to embrace Buddhism or take up meditation as a
result of talking to him, I do feel I've dealt with a man of integrity and
compassion who cares deeply about his people and the human condition more
generally, and a man who has told me the truth.
"Actually as far as social economy goes, I'm a Marxist," he says, with that
characteristic staccato laugh.
"I am more red than the Chinese leaders, who seem to be only concerned with
money. In Marxist theory there is a concern with the equal distribution of
wealth. So this has a moral principle which capitalist theory doesn't.
"I don't agree with the authoritarian side. Authoritarianism has ruined
From the Dalai Lama's point of view, Kevin Rudd pulled off the right balance
when he criticised Beijing for its human rights abuses while visiting China,
yet remained on good terms with China: "The Australian Government took the
right stand. While keeping genuine friendship and good relations with China,
it stands firm on matters
"There is an old Chinese saying that real friends can be very frank. If you
just ignore your friend's fault, you are not a good friend."
The Dalai Lama also gives the Rudd Government high marks for urging Beijing to
resolve the Tibet issue through dialogue with his representatives. China
cancelled the latest round of talks because, it said, of the priority of
responding to the earthquake victims in China. Canberra has quietly urged
Beijing to resume these talks soon, before the Olympics.
"Hopefully, the talks will take place within the next month," the Dalai Lama
He keeps stressing how pro-Chinese he is. He has never urged a boycott of the
Beijing Olympics and wants other countries to go to Beijing. He supported
China's entry into the World Trade Organisation and has consistently supported
all reasonable outside engagement with China. However, he also tells the truth
about China's behaviour inside Tibet, which is frankly appalling. He believes
Tibetans were killed in the crackdown following the Tibetan demonstrations in
March, although even he finds accurate information incredibly difficult to
He also accuses Beijing of undertaking cultural genocide in Tibet.
"The Chinese Government accuses us, they say these problems (demonstrations in
Tibet) are started from outside, by the Dalai clique," he says, smiling at
this anachronistic Stalinist vocabulary.
"So I want to carry out investigations. I say to the Chinese, please allow the
international community, the international media, to go to Tibet, and I say to
the international community and media, please go there and see what's
It is one of his most powerful arguments. If the Chinese are not violently
suppressing Tibet, why are they scared of permitting outsiders, especially the
media, to go there?
The Dalai Lama constantly urges non-violence and moderation on his followers
but he believes many of them are getting impatient with his moderate ways and
frustrated that even when the Chinese engage in formal talks, nothing changes
on the ground.
In the fifth round of talks in February 2006, he tells me, the Chinese
acknowledged that Tibetans were not seeking independence: "But then in
April-May 2006 the Chinese intensified their accusations against me as a
splittist, and political repression in nunneries and monasteries (in Tibet)
As a result, he says, his own people are criticising his moderate, middle-path
The Dalai Lama does not want independence for Tibet, but he would like
internal democracy: "Yes, we very much want democracy. Tibetan autonomy must
come within the framework of the Chinese constitution. In the early 1950s our
agreement (with the Chinese government) was very much in the spirit of one
country, two systems. If that was carried out, the crisis of 1959 (when the
Chinese militarily invaded Tibet) would never have occurred. But after the
mid-'50s, Chinese policy became more leftist."
The Dalai Lama believes that the cultural genocide being committed in Tibet is
partly intentional and partly unintentional. He lists some of the ways this is
"Subjects involving Buddhism are being withdrawn from schools. Up to the '70s,
Buddhist logic was taught in Lhasa (Tibet's capital). Not any longer.
Schoolbooks with words which carry Buddhist meaning are being removed.
Nunneries and monasteries are forced to emphasise Chinese political education.
Schoolchildren are forbidden to visit temples.
"Two-thirds of Lhasa is now Han Chinese. Most shops are Han Chinese. I met
some Tibetan students from eastern Tibet a few years ago who could speak no
Tibetan. They had asked the Chinese authorities (to be instructed in Tibetan)
and were told Tibetan was of no use." This is despite the Chinese at one stage
affording Tibetan the status of an official language.
He is hopeful of one day returning to Tibet after forging a compromise with
Beijing. He does not believe the communists can win forever through repression
"More suppression is only the seed for more crisis in the future, as has
happened over the last 50 years. The young people involved in the recent
demonstrations didn't witness the atrocities of the '50s, but it goes on from
generation to generation."
The Chinese people, he believes, ultimately want democracy and there are many
trends in China that he likes. But the big problem is the lack of accurate and
reliable information for the Chinese people, which allows the Chinese
Government to manipulate their emotions.
Although he doesn't use the word, the Dalai Lama is plainly disturbed by the
violent nationalism the Chinese Government intentionally stirs up among
He frequently encounters hostile demonstrations from Chinese nationalists
these days; when he can, he explains to them that he is not anti-Chinese. He
recounts a meeting with Chinese students in Rochester, in the US, in April
"I met seven Chinese students and while I explained my views, two listened
very carefully and at the end they smiled and were very calm and friendly. But
the other five had too much emotion, there was no desire to listen. Luckily
there was a long table between us or otherwise they would have taken physical
The institution of the Dalai Lama, he says, may pass away after he dies, or it
may continue. It is normally continued by discovering the new reincarnation of
the deceased Dalai Lama, but he is open to the community using alternative
methods to find a new Dalai Lama, or simply abolishing the position
The institution exists, he says, only to serve the Tibetan people.
Indeed, like Mother Teresa or pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama is a figure of
great religious and cultural stature, a global presence of little power but
Perhaps irreplaceable, certainly irrepressible.
- Sept. 23/06, Associated Press, International Herald Tribune :
Woodstock, New York: The Dalai Lama took Woodstock by surprise,
offering a speech on world peace to about 2,000 people who gathered in a
park on word of mouth alone.
The spiritual leader to Buddhists worldwide [sic] squeezed in the visit
to the artists' colony on Friday between scheduled appearances to receive an
honorary doctorate in Buffalo and a teaching event in New York City.
"All traditions teach love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and
discipline, perhaps with a different presentation, but the same
inside," the Dalai Lama said.
"God teaches us to love God and other people. Those who cause
trouble in the world, their love for God is questionable. Different
spiritual masters preach wonderful things and reduce human suffering, not
On the way to hear the Dalai Lama, the peaceful crowd funneled past a
white van, not realizing it contained an X-ray machine checking for weapons.
The crowd even applauded the bomb-sniffing dogs after they scanned the area
around the stage.
The Dalai Lama was scheduled to offer a private teaching session Saturday
to 500 Buddhists at a nearby monastery. [<KTD]
But Town Supervisor Jeremy Wilber called the last-minute public
appearance a "gift to the people of Woodstock."
The Dalai Lama fled to India following an abortive 1959 uprising in Tibet
against Chinese rule. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, he travels
widely as a speaker on religion and morality and a representative of Tibetan
April 2006, London's Daily Telegraph, "Westerners are too
self-absorbed" by Alice Thomson:
Tsering Wangmo is shaking
uncontrollably as tears pour down her cheeks. Still sobbing, she pulls up her
top and slowly turns around to show me a fretwork of scars. They criss-cross
her body from shoulders to waist.
"My crime," she explains when
she is calmer, "was to be found by the police with a picture of the Dalai
Lama. I was dragged through the streets of Lhasa by my hair, beaten with
electric prongs, then thrown into jail for three years."
'Whoever shows you
greatest kindness, they are your family'
Her waterlogged, open-air
prison in Tibet was shared with around 1,000 other women. "We were tortured,
raped, hung upside down for hours," she says. "Many died." On her release, she
discovered that her husband had been forced to marry a Chinese woman, so she
took her children and fled barefoot across the Himalayas to find solace with
the Dalai Lama.
She is one of thousands of
Tibetans who have made the trek to Dharmsala, an old British hill station in
northern India, to seek safety with their exiled leader.
Here, they are joined by
hundreds of Westerners who come, clutching their Lonely Planet guides, for a
glimpse of their guru. While Tsering turns her prayer-wheel in the refugee
centre, a rotund Austrian biscuit heiress called Heidi Gudrun is staying in a
deluxe suite at one of the new hotels that has sprung up nearby to cater for
Heidi seems just as miserable
as Tsering -- but for a vastly different reason. "For 15 years, I have tried to
lose weight," she says. "I have lost two husbands, I have had my stomach
stapled -- the Dalai Lama is my last hope."
It is the peculiar fate of
this Dalai Lama that he serves as a guru for overweight biscuit heiresses as
well as a living god to 10 million Tibetan Buddhists.
His status as a deity dates
back to when he was two. The monks who found him playing in a farmyard in
north-eastern Tibet brought him to the capital of Lhasa, where he was
pronounced the 14th reincarnation of Buddha after correctly pointing to his
predecessor's drinking bowl and false teeth in the Potala Palace.
Forty-eight years have now
elapsed since he was forced to flee Lhasa for the safety of India.
During that period, more than
a million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese because of their refusal to
stop worshipping the Lord of Compassion, and more than 5,000 temples have been
destroyed. Tibetans who shout his name in the marketplaces risk having their
tongues ripped out.
In the West, the 70-year-old
Dalai Lama can fill Wembley faster than Coldplay. There are films about his
life, his image is on yoga mats and he has guest-edited French Vogue. His
books on how to achieve happiness have topped the New York Times bestseller
Teaching the virtues of
compassion, kindness and tolerance to both East and West must make for a
complicated, exhausting life.
At 8am, as I walk past the
yak-tea stalls to his bungalow -- the Heavenly Abode -- people are already
queuing in the drizzle to catch a glimpse of his Holiness. The Dalai Lama has
been awake since 3.30am, praying and ordaining monks in the temple.
My first glimpse of the
living god comes as a short, squat man runs through the rain from his garden
into his sitting-room, his maroon robes flapping behind him. The broad face,
set into permanent laughter-lines, is unmistakable. He is chuckling.
The white-painted room
contains a man-sized bronze Buddha and a sofa and two armchairs that look as
if they might have come from John Lewis's furniture department.
After I have offered the
Dalai Lama the traditional kurta [sic -- katta] (a white scarf to bless), he throws himself
into one of the chairs and stretches out his feet.
"At least monks don't need
hair-dryers," he says, chortling. His readiness to break into laughter is his
most striking characteristic: his laugh is uncontainable and uncontrollable,
ricocheting around the room even when he is discussing atrocities.
"What shall we talk about
today?" he asks, rubbing his hands together as I tell him about my meetings
with Tsering and Heidi. He chooses to discuss the West before Tibet.
"It is fascinating," he says,
speaking in slightly stilted English. "In the West, you have bigger homes, yet
smaller families; you have endless conveniences - yet you never seem to have
any time. You can travel anywhere in the world, yet you don't bother to cross
the road to meet your neighbours; you have more food than you could possibly
eat, yet that makes women like Heidi miserable."
The West's big problem, he
believes, is that people have become too self-absorbed. "I don't think people
have become more selfish, but their lives have become easier and that has
spoilt them. They have less resilience, they expect more, they constantly
compare themselves to others and they have too much choice - which brings no
He has lived as a monk since
childhood, but the Dalai Lama views marriage as one of the chief ways of
finding happiness. "Too many people in the West have given up on marriage.
They don't understand that it is about developing a mutual admiration of
someone, a deep respect and trust and awareness of another human's needs," he
says. "The new easy-come, easy-go relationships give us more freedom -- but
Although he is known for his
tolerant, humane views, he is a surprisingly harsh critic of homosexuality.
If you are a Buddhist, he says, it is wrong. "Full stop. No way round it.
"A gay couple came to see me,
seeking my support and blessing. I had to explain our teachings. Another lady
introduced another woman as her wife -- astonishing. It is the same with a
husband and wife using certain sexual practices. Using the other two holes is
At this point, he looks
across at his interpreter -- who seems mainly redundant -- to check that he
has been using the right English words to discuss this delicate matter. The
interpreter gives a barely perceptible nod.
"A Western friend asked me
what harm could there be between consenting adults having oral sex, if they
enjoyed it," the Dalai Lama continues, warming to his theme. "But the purpose
of sex is reproduction, according to Buddhism. The other holes don't create
life. I don't mind -- but I can't condone this way of life."
He laughs when I change the
subject and talk about the West's attempts to become more spiritual through
yoga, massage and acupuncture. "These are just physical activities," he
says. "To be happier, you must spend less time plotting your life and be more
The Dalai Lama has been
criticised for becoming too obsessed with the fripperies of the West: he is
too much in awe of celebrities, say his detractors, and too keen to appear in
glossy magazines -- he has even been pictured in Hello!, alongside the
Duchess of York.
"Some say I am a good person,
some say I am a charlatan -- I am just a monk," he says, smiling broadly. "I
never asked people like Richard Gere to come, but it is foolish to stop them.
I have Tibetans, Indians, backpackers, Aids patients, religious people,
politicians, actors and princesses. My attitude is to give everyone some of my
time. If I can contribute in any way to their happiness, that makes me happy."
Many of the Western women who
queue up to be blessed, he says, have told him they feel they can talk to him
"I see women who have had
abortions because they thought a child would ruin their lives. A baby seemed
unbearable -- yet now they are older, they are unable to conceive. I feel so
sorry for them."
They need to discover an
inner strength, he tells them. "The West is now quite weak --- it can't
cope with adversity and it has little compassion for others. People are like
plants -- they can develop ways of countering negative forces. If people took
more responsibility for their own problems, they would become more
He does not believe that you
have to be religious in order to have a meaningful life. "But you have to have
morals, to strive for basic, good human qualities. I don't want to convert
people to Buddhism -- all major religions, when understood properly, have the
same potential for good."
Yet while he has been sitting
in his bungalow in the Himalayas, religion has turned ugly, with fanatics
stirring up hatred. Fundamentalism is terrifying because it is based
purely on emotion, rather than intelligence. It prevents followers from
thinking as individuals and about the good of the world," he says.
An avid listener of the
BBC World Service (as well as of many soaps), he was horrified to hear
about Britain's "home-grown" suicide bombers. "In any country or society,
there will be rich, poor, different races, different religions -- but this is
all secondary. Your country should be your common ground.
"This new terrorism has been
brewing for many years. Much of it is caused by jealousy and frustration at
the West because it looks so highly developed and successful on television.
Leaders in the East use religion to counter that, to bind these countries
Terrorists, he warns, must be
treated humanely. "Otherwise, the problem will escalate. If there is one Bin
Laden killed today, soon there will be 10 Bin Ladens. Awesome. Ten Bin Ladens
killed, the hatred is spread; 100 bombed, and 1,000 lose members of their
So does he think the war in
Iraq was wrong?
"The method was very violent.
Violence is always unpredictable -- it can produce a lot of problems,"
says the Dalai Lama, whose religion forbids him from killing so much as a
mosquito. It is pointless pressing him further: despite his outward
simplicity, he has considerable diplomatic skills when it comes to issues that
are best not confronted head-on by an exile who relies on the world to protect
him from the Chinese.
Recently, I tell him, Tony
Blair said that God would judge him on his decision to go to war with Iraq.
The Dalai Lama snorts and swings his Dr Martens-clad feet in amusement.
"Surely, history will judge. Buddha was always against violence, but I don't
know about God."
Mr Blair's pronouncement
seems to fascinate him, and he teases away at the subject: "During the Second
World War, Churchill prayed. That's fine. But God should be above politics and
political decision-making -- he is like the Queen."
This is a typical
pronouncement: oblique, mischievous, yet leaving you in no doubt that he does
not fully approve of Mr Blair dragging the Almighty into global politics.
The Dalai Lama is no innocent
when it comes to realpolitik: he regularly chats to Nelson Mandela, debates
ethical issues with the Pope, and knows many world leaders personally through
his attempts to highlight the Tibetan cause. Although he appears not to
approve of the war in Iraq, he nevertheless admires President Bush.
"He is very straightforward,"
says the Dalai Lama -- and it's clear that this is high praise indeed. "On our
first visit, I was faced with a large plate of biscuits. President Bush
immediately offered me his favourites, and after that, we got on fine. On my
next visit, he didn't mind when I was blunt about the war. By my third visit,
I was ushering him into the Oval Office. I was astonished by his grasp of
On Mr Blair, the Dalai Lama
is less forthcoming. When I ask what he thinks of the Prime Minister, he
replies: "He smiles a lot." Oddly, this doesn't come out sounding like a
compliment, and he refuses to elaborate, ducking expertly into another
subject. Now, John Major -- he'd like to meet him, he says. "I saw him on
television -- he looks rather gentle."
The Dalai Lama believes that
the British should look to the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he admires, for
spiritual and moral guidance.
But the Church of England, I
say, seems tied up in the tortuous question of whether it should accept
homosexual priests. And when the Archbishop visited Darfur, he did not exactly
dwell on the subject of genocide; nor have Western leaders in general.
"Sometimes," says the Dalai
Lama, "situations are unbearable -- it is easier for the world to turn a blind
But wasn't he angry when the
West refused to do anything while Tibetans were being slaughtered by the
Chinese? "We need to prevent these genocides happening in the first place. In
Africa, it is due to many factors: local leaders are obsessed with guns, and
weapons are encouraged by the West. Education should be pushed instead. Hunger
and drought also cause problems. These countries have become independent only
in the last few decades -- they are still learning. Religious leaders need to
show them the way."
He is curiously reticent
about discussing Tibet, insisting that he doesn't want to focus on his own
problems. "Some nomads still have a very low standard of life," he says
finally. "There are more cars, better medical facilities and schools -- but
you only benefit if you are Chinese."
I keep thinking of Tsering
and what she has been through. And surely the Dalai Lama must feel guilty that
so many are suffering in his name while he flies around the world, meeting the
great and the good.
"Buddhists are taught that if
there is something you can do about a situation, you must do it immediately.
But if there is nothing you can do, you can't worry - that is indulgent."
Anger, he says, is definitely
not the answer. "Anger prevents you making good decisions. I need to remain
calm and stable. It happened -- I am sorry. I will be here for her [Tsering],
but it is her religion that will give her the strength to continue."
Nor does he feel he should
have stayed in Tibet to protest with his people. "In Tibet, I would have been
a prisoner, a puppet leader. But it doesn't mean I ever forget about Tibet. I
never stop thinking about it, and I tell the refugees that if they can, they
must return one day or the Chinese will have won."
He has written dozens of
books on happiness -- but can exiles ever be happy? "I was happiest in my
childhood when my mother smiled, or my teacher let me off lessons. But as an
adult, life without challenges is meaningless. Now, I feel happy because my
flowers are growing in this rain even though I know that, at the same time, my
country is facing elimination."
I ask if his tours and books
have made him rich. "Everyone thinks I am. Even my friends. But the money goes
to the Tibetan cause [for refugees, such as Tsering]. I get 25 rupees [about
32p] a day from the Indian government. My senior officials get 75. We don't
Like all Tibetan monks, he
eats an early breakfast, then lunch and no supper. "My younger brother, who
lives with me, teases me and says I rise so early only to get to the table
first because I am so greedy. I eat what I am offered. It's the pig diet -- a
little bit of everything: porridge, meat, Tibetan dumplings, vegetables.
"That is what your girl Heidi
should do. No faddy diets. It is a waste of life to be always thinking about
the next meal if you don't have to."
The Dalai Lama's way of life
is frugal -- but not punishing. He doesn't have to squash into economy seats
when he takes off on his global tours, for example. "If I fly abroad, I fly
business class -- or my robes engulf everyone," he explains. "But first class
is an outrageous luxury."
His only other indulgence is
watchstraps. "I love them. My glasses, my shoes, my robes are always the same.
The watchstrap, I change -- I collect them."
But he would hate to own
anything else. "It is too exhausting. After a recent earthquake, my bungalow
needed rebuilding. I said I could spend 20 lakhs [about £25,800], but soon the
bills were going up. Just the foundations cost 30 lakhs. I finally said:
'Enough. I will live in half a house.' It made me understand your Western
Nor does he mind that he has
never married. "When I was young, inside the Potala Palace, it was almost like
a prison with my tutor. I used to wish I could be like the food sellers below
my window. If I hadn't been chosen, I might have become an engineer. I love
mechanics. I might have stayed on the farm and married my neighbour. We would
both be old now.
"But it wouldn't be an easier
life. I would be worrying about dying before her, leaving her alone, about my
children. In some ways, being a monk is simpler."
Not just a monk but a living
god. Does he worry about the hardships that will face his next reincarnation,
who will have to stand up to the Chinese while still a child? "If I die today,
the lamas are already discussing the 15th Dalai Lama. I hope he returns to
Tibet, even if I can't.
"But the Tibetans always say:
wherever you feel most comfortable, that is your home. Whoever shows you
greatest kindness and comfort, they are your family. So I am happy to die in
- Sept. 2004: Florida visit Garland
- June 8/01: "Buddhism's
Guru," by J. Beverley
- May 8/04: [Toronto]Globe and Mail, "There's something
Forget the Dalai Lama's photo ops and repeated grip 'n' grins
with celebrities, writes Ron Graham, because the mission at the heart
of his much-hyped visit to Canada was something even greater than the
campaign for a free Tibet. To Western eyes, his odd pronouncements and
constant giggles seemed strange, but the ritual that unfolded once the media
had packed up and left was something to behold -- enlightening, in fact.
It was typical of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, to play down the
significance of his 19-day stay in Canada, which came to an end on Thursday.
"I just whiz around," the Tibetan spiritual leader said in his
halting English. "Half dream, half reality. Old Tibetan expression: 'We
come and go and leave no trace, like a crow that has taken off from a rock.'
I talk some words, then I leave." And he laughed as though at the
emptiness of it all.
His Holiness often seemed incapable of resisting the comedy of life, much to
the bewilderment of those who see it as a tragedy. But he wasn't oblivious
to the seriousness of his purpose, or to the remarkable amount of public
adulation and media attention that he had received in Canada.
His celebrity sparked the news coverage, of course, and the news coverage in
turn fanned the flames of his celebrity. But, aside from the presence on our
shores of a Tibetan version of the Pope, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a
countercultural superstar all rolled into the body of a charming personality
who had known Mao, Nehru and Thomas Merton, the story wasn't at all clear.
In the absence of any sexual or financial scandals, which are the religious
reporter's bread and butter these days, the obvious hook was politics. And
what a dramatic hook it was: the unjust invasion of Tibet by China in 1950,
the savage killing of more than a million Tibetans, the wanton destruction
of more than 6,000 religious institutions, the ongoing suppression of the
Tibetan language and culture, and the Dalai Lama's own 45-year exile in
Almost all the reporting leading up to his arrival in Vancouver on April 17
and his subsequent visit to Ottawa hung upon the question of whether Prime
Minister Paul Martin would disregard the fire-breathing threats from the
Chinese embassy and become the first Canadian leader to meet officially with
the man China has denounced as a "splittist" and "wolf in
monk's clothing." Editorialists unanimously called for Mr. Martin to
show some backbone, and more than half the members of Parliament signed a
petition calling for Canada to broker a solution.
The last-minute compromise was more devious than defiant. To placate the
Chinese, the Prime Minister agreed to greet the Dalai Lama in a spiritual
"frame," which turned out to be a gathering of local religious
leaders at the home of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ottawa. Then, to
placate the Tibetan lobby, he agreed to include human rights in his
discussion of things spiritual -- if discussion is the right term to use in
describing a private exchange that lasted all of 15 minutes. It was enough,
however, to let the Canada Tibet Committee exploit the photo op
as a historic breakthrough.
With the political story now played out, the parliamentary media caravan
moved back to the sponsorship scandal and the timing of the federal
election. But the frenzy in Vancouver and Ottawa had served to generate 205
requests for press accreditation in Toronto and to boost ticket sales for
His Holiness's public address April 25 at the SkyDome.
Indeed, the number, diversity and attentive silence of the 29,039 people who
lined up outside the stadium for hours in the bone-chilling rain to hear him
discuss The Power of Compassion became the next story: He came, he spoke, he
There was no easy explanation, however, of why such a wide cross-section of
generations and cultures had elevated the Dalai Lama to the pantheon of
those very few human beings who seem to embody such simple virtues as
non-violence, love, self-discipline and secular ethics. And his words, which
one 14-year-old described as "life-transforming," tended to come
across as naive and trite when pulled out of context and separated from the
warmth of his presence. The only option for the reporters, given the lack of
hard news, was to fall back on soft copy about his giggling at his own jokes
and hugging Justin Trudeau.
"The media have important role for promotion of human values and
religious harmony," he said at a news conference in the Royal York
Hotel a few days later. "People get impression world more violent,
everything much worse, based on media. Can't see whole picture. Media
need long nose like elephant to smell front, back, top part, bottom part
[another giggle] to know reality."
By that point, however, media interest was understandably exhausted, as was
the man himself. He had been up since 3:30 a.m., praying, meditating and
teaching for nearly 12 straight hours. Half the chairs in the room were
empty, and the event garnered almost no coverage. Despite his reputation as
a master politician, the Dalai Lama showed no signs of having grasped the
efficacy of the sound bite. His answers tended to be long-winded and
rambling, and they weren't helped by his frequent hesitation for the right
word in English or sudden lapses into Tibetan.
Short of an assassination attempt or a monk caught drunk with a hooker,
therefore, the press leapt off His Holiness's bandwagon, leaving him to
carry on doing whatever it was he was doing down at the National Trade
Centre with the thousands of Buddhist followers who had come to Toronto from
four dozen countries, including 28 from China.
If the general public knew that he was still in town, few seemed to realize
that, for the price of admission, the events were open to everyone of any
faith, or no faith, and even fewer understood what a fascinating story was
unfolding in their midst.
According to Tibetan tradition, after the man who became known as the Buddha
attained his enlightenment in the sixth century BC, he taught a variety of
meditation techniques to his students, depending on the qualities of their
mind, so that they also might realize the knowledge and bliss he had
Some of the more esoteric teachings, having been passed down through secret
initiations over the centuries, were preserved by Sanskrit scholars in India
and then taken to Tibet more than 1,000 years ago. For traditional reasons,
one of them -- the Kalachakra or Wheel of Time -- was made available to
anyone whose heart feels ready to receive it, whether as a method of mental
transformation, a powerful blessing, or a wish for world peace.
The Toronto Kalachakra, the first ever held in Canada, was only the 29th
that the Dalai Lama has conducted. In recent years, more than a
quarter-million people have gathered in India whenever he presides over the
11 days of rituals, which centre on the construction of an extremely
intricate, highly symbolic mandala made of coloured sand.
Every line, circle and square of its exquisite geometric design represents
some part of the Buddhist cosmology, and the whole is used as both an object
of meditation and as a "palace" for the 722 Tibetan deities who
are considered manifestations of aspects of consciousness and reality.
Exhibit Hall C at the National Trade Centre, as huge and impersonal as an
aircraft hangar, seemed a rather surreal venue for such a spiritual
happening. About 7,500 chairs were lined up in six separate sections, from
the lowly one-day spectators at the back (who, nevertheless, had had to pay
$90 a ticket, $75 for seniors and children) to the VIPs, sponsors, patrons,
monks and nuns in the roped-off area up front, though most days the room was
only half-filled even though it was such a rare opportunity.
Flanked by two gigantic screens, there loomed a raised stage, lit, miked and
decorated with five painted silk banners as the backdrop, a square
altar-like platform under a golden canopy, two dozen monks squatting in
maroon and saffron robes, a gilded throne emblazoned with flames and
demonic-looking figures, and upon its brocade seat His Holiness, Kundun, the
To put its strangeness into perspective, The Ultimate Guy's Show --
"Big Toys for Big Boys" -- was competing across the road.
The first three days, from 7 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon with
only an occasional pause for tea and 90 minutes at lunch, felt like the Ring
Cycle without program notes or Surtitles, except that Wagner would have been
more melodic and much, much shorter.
Hour after hour passed in meditation and prayer, a rapid, deep-bass,
monotonic mumble amplified over the loudspeakers and interspersed with the
clanging of cymbals, the clattering of drums, and the ringing of bells.
After the ground had been purified and the deities pacified, dancers in
flamboyant embroidered robes and tall red crowns conjured up an invisible
protective ring by revolving in slow, balletic steps, with precise hand
gestures and trance-like chanting, non-stop for an hour and
However much this might have resembled a theatrical production, of course,
it wasn't supposed to be just an extension of the many celebrations of
Tibetan dance, song, art, medicine, cuisine and fashion that were being put
on concurrently at Harbourfront. It was an ancient preparatory ceremony that
made no concessions to such modern notions as attention span or mass
For long periods, in fact, the Dalai Lama did not lead the prayers from his
throne, but from a seat facing the rear of the stage with only the swaying
top of his bald spot visible to the passive audience -- not a few of whom
seemed as bored and perplexed by what was going on as someone who had just
walked in off the street.
After lunch on the fourth, fifth and sixth afternoons, however, while four
monks continued work on the sand mandala with an intense concentration and a
gentle chiselling noise, the Dalai Lama ascended his throne, put on an
orange Callaway Golf sun visor to shade his eyes from the spotlights, and
proceeded to deliver a series of three-hour lectures that finally unveiled
the philosophical, psychological and spiritual sophistication of Tibetan
To those who had been on the verge of dismissing the incomprehensible
practices as so much pagan superstition, the lectures revealed the majesty
of Buddhism as an expression of the human imagination and of mankind's quest
for knowledge, something as profound as Plato and Einstein, as stirring as
Beethoven and Michelangelo.
To those who may have been ready to write off the Dalai Lama as so much New
Age hype, they revealed him as a teacher and scholar who excelled in the
exposition and analysis of the arcane text inscribed on oblong sheets that
lay like musical scores upon his lap. He was animated, confident and
forceful, often using his fingers to emphasize a point or breaking into
funny anecdotes to illustrate an idea.
Compared with his talk at the SkyDome, where he hadn't even mentioned the
word Buddhism, there was nothing simplistic or obvious in what he had to say
about Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way by Nagarjuna, the great
second-century Indian master.
These were dense, intellectual discourses in which His Holiness articulated
the fundamentals of his beliefs with a clarity and rationality that made
them accessible to all. And no matter how long or obtuse his thoughts were
in Tibetan, they were transformed into elegant English by the astonishing
virtuosity of his translator, Thupten Jinpa, a handsome and nattily dressed
ex-monk now living in Montreal.
"Non-Buddhists can just listen," the Dalai Lama said at the start,
"and take what they want for their life," and he urged his own
followers to maintain a high degree of skepticism, objectivity and study.
Very simply put, at the core of all three lectures were the Buddha's Four
Noble Truths. The truth that existence is suffering, dissatisfaction,
impermanence. The truth that suffering is the cause and effect of ignorance,
attachment, desire for pleasure and aversion to pain. The truth that there
is a way to end suffering. And the truth of how to end it, which is the
cultivation of the mind and the heart to penetrate through the impermanence,
the ignorance, the attachments, the desires and the aversions, to reach
Selflessness, Emptiness, Nirvana, for the benefit of all beings, human or
This was the story the media hadn't, perhaps couldn't, cover in focusing on
the Dalai Lama as a celebrity. Yet it was the most essential thing about
In his role as the revered leader of the Tibetan people, for example, he had
inherited the burden of being the poster boy, chief fundraiser and most
effective spokesman for their liberation from China's ruthless domination.
"He's all we've got," one veteran campaigner admitted.
And a great deal of His Holiness's international popularity, especially
among the young, has been his insistence on the individual's moral
responsibility to engage in the pressing issues of the world, whether war,
poverty, population or environmental destruction.
But when he speaks of liberation as a Buddhist teacher, he is speaking of
liberation from the suffering of a deluded, afflicted ego through wisdom and
compassion. And when he speaks of responsibility, he means working for the
happiness of everybody, rich or poor, good or bad, friend or foe.
That is why, no matter how brutal the oppression of Tibet, he cannot condone
any hatred or violence toward the Chinese without violating his religious
vows. He goes further by asserting that our greatest enemies are, in fact,
our greatest friends. Nor can he wallow in the sorrow and nationalistic
yearnings of his compatriots without undermining the virtues he preaches of
equanimity and renunciation.
"Once I was ordained," he said at the news conference, "I was
cut off from family and society. Tibetan saying: 'Wherever you find
happiness, that's your home.'
"Yesterday, driving in car from university, road worker waves. I put
down window and shake his hand. Not very clean hand, but I feel very happy.
One hundred per cent innocent. Only motive sharing human friendship. So
Canada my home for last few days."
It is the realism of his Buddhist training, too, that led him to abandon all
demands for Tibet's independence and plead only for a self-governing
democratic province within China, even while his more impatient supporters
keep up the cry for a free Tibet and others say it's time for armed
resistance. And rather than pushing for Tibet's freedom in order to right a
historic wrong or establish an ethnic state, his goal is to create a
peaceful, tolerant society for the mutual welfare of everyone,
including the Chinese.
He even understands the indisputable irony that the Chinese invasion of
Tibet, for all its horrors, set into play the conditions that forced the
separation of Tibetan Buddhism from a corrupt, feudal and historically
militant state and allowed it to spread for the first time throughout the
"I am a simple Buddhist monk," he kept repeating, to little avail.
"My personality more spiritual nature." As a consequence, he often
sees events in terms of centuries, if not eons, and his activism is not
driven by any ordinary thirst for power. He has already passed his political
authority to the elected leaders of the government- in-exile, although the
presence of his "prime minister" in Toronto garnered much less
attention than the presence of Richard Gere, and he happily looks forward to
the day when he can hand his temporal power to a democratic government in
That day will never come, many observers argue, and even the Dalai Lama has
had to admit that Tibet's prospects appear "hopeless" from a
certain angle. Economic development, the militarization of the Tibetan
plateau and the coming of the new railway threatens to bring 20 million more
Chinese immigrants within the next 10 years.
The land is already being destroyed by dams and deforestation; the towns are
already booming with brothels and bars; and it may only be a matter of time
before Tibet is assimilated as irreversibly as Manchuria and Mongolia.
But that doesn't mean that Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama have to be
written off as lost causes as well. "Tibetan civilization now resides
with the 120,000 Tibetans outside Tibet," said Lodi Gyari, who was His
Holiness's special envoy on two recent negotiations with the Chinese
government, "though we hope to transplant it back some day, bringing
the wonderful gift of democracy with us."
For all its woe and dislocation, Tibetan civilization certainly looked a lot
more vital this time than it did 14 years ago, when the Dalai Lama last
visited Toronto. Public sympathy for the Tibetan cause has grown around the
world, His Holiness's books and videos are mega-sellers, and the ninth and
10th days of this Kalachakra saw the numbers double to more than 6,000 a
day. About one-third were families from Ontario's small and mostly
middle-class Tibetan community who had volunteered
thousands of hours over the past two years, raised $1.8-million to cover the
expenses of the event, and recovered almost $2.6-million in total revenues.
By the end, too, His Holiness looked even stronger, given a physical stamina
and mental strength that belied his 68 years. There was nothing downtrodden
or weary about his quick, muscular gait, and he never appeared to frown or
complain about anything except the bright lights ("What about my human
right?" he cried) or a lack of sleep. Technical breakdowns struck him
as funny, his own liturgical mistakes even funnier, and he radiated a
sincere lightheartedness, humility and optimism throughout it all.
There were flashes, however, when he also appeared as vulnerable and alone
as a child in a forest of wolves. For all his fame and position, he remained
just a penniless monk, after all, loose in a mean age of materialistic greed
and military might, with no power base other than the affection of millions
of people around the world, still as dependent on the kindness of others as
he had been when taken from his peasant farm as a boy and later from his
palace as a young man. Gandhi and
Martin Luther King, to whom he is often compared, never had to stand up to
the barbarity of Chinese communism, and even they were gunned down.
"As a Buddhist, I take refuge in the Buddha," he said, "but
as a Tibetan, I take refuge in international support."
On the final day of Kalachakra 2004, when more than 7,200 people showed up
for the closing blessing, they all recited the Prayer for the Long Life of
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. "We offer our prayers with intense
devotion," they chanted in Tibetan, "that Tenzin Gyatso, protector
of the great Land of Snow, may live for a hundred eons. Pour on him your
blessings that his aspirations may be fulfilled."
And then there was little more to do but sweep away, as a symbol of
impermanence and non-attachment, the sand mandala that had been built so
meticulously. The palace that had been home to the deities for the past 11
days was destroyed and they were freed to return whence they had come. The
sacred sand was taken to Battery Park, just below Lake Shore Boulevard near
Ontario Place, where His Holiness came with a dozen monks to pour it into
the water. The wind blew hard and cold that afternoon, and no one lingered
once the 15-minute ritual was done.
Back at the trade centre, His Holiness, off to France the next day, bade
farewell to the Tibetans, many of whom were in tears. The stall keepers at
the Kalachakra Marketplace were packing up their books, beads, paintings and
carpets. Friends new and old were making arrangements to meet up when the
Dalai Lama makes an appearance in Florida next September. The organizers
were already beginning to take apart the stage and put away the precious
And down at the lake, where just an hour before the reporters and
photographers had been jockeying for the best position, the last remnants of
the sand mandala bobbed on the waves and soon dissolved into nature once
again, coming and going, and leaving not a trace.
~Torontonian Ron Graham is the author of God's Dominion:
A Study of Religion in Canada, and has practiced Buddhism for 30 years.
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