He describes himself as a ‘simple monk from Tibet’, and once said in an interview: “I pray for Tibet every day. But, also, I pray for China. I’m optimistic. Of course, I’ve been optimistic for 37 years now!”
Just how optimistic the Dalai Lama was during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s maiden visit to Delhi is uncertain. Certainly, his political attempts to negotiate rangzen (Tibetan for freedom) for his people is an old tale. But there was reason for optimism as support came in from BJP leader LK Advani who spent a considerable part of his 20-minute meeting with Jintao urging him to explore the possibility of a dialogue to resolve ‘the aspirations of the Tibetan people’.
And while the Tibetan people made their presence — and protest — only too clear during Jintao’s visit, the Dalai Lama chose to remain just as conspicuously silent. Not a word from the exiled spiritual leader from Tibet, not even when a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman lashed out at him for trying to ‘deceive’ world opinion by staging protest rallies against Jintao.
But then, the Dalai Lama didn’t need to speak, not at this point in time. He has spoken, and at great length, about the plight of the Tibetans. “The real strength of our struggle is truth — not size, money, or expertise,” he said in an earlier interview to Robert Thurman whom he ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1964. "China is much bigger, richer, more powerful militarily, and has much better skill in diplomacy. They outdo us in every field. But they have no justice. We have placed our whole faith in truth and in justice.”
The chosen one
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of six million Tibetans who believe he is the 14th incarnation of the heavenly deity of compassion and mercy.
Born Lhamo Dhondub to a peasant family in a small village in northeastern Tibet on 6 July 1935, he was the ninth child of farmers. When he was two years old, a search party of Buddhist officials recognised him as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lamas.
Taken first to the Kumbum monastery in his home province, he was moved to the holy city of Lhasa before finally moving at the age of five to the secluded monastery of Potala, also known as Potala Palace. It was here that formal education and training for his role began.
This was the monastery that was to be occupied by the Chinese in March, 1959. Eight days after the takeover and disguised as a Tibetan soldier, the Dalai Lama crossed the border to India. “There was nothing dramatic about the crossing of the frontier,” he was to later say. “The country was equally wild on the other side and uninhabited. I saw it in a daze of sickness and weariness and unhappiness deeper than I can express.”
Granted refuge in India, the Dalai Lama set up base in Dharamsala and continues to live in a modest cottage with spectacular views of the Himalayan peaks, a constant reminder of the home he hasn’t seen for the last 40 years. With 80,000 Tibetans who had followed him into exile, the future must have seemed bleak. The United States and Britain had refused to respond to China’s actions; he was little known in India, let alone the world stage.
But the way ahead was clear: He had to help preserve Tibetan culture, and he began by setting up a system to educate refugee children in their language and culture. And, he sought to publicise the plight of his people globally.
The Holy-wood connection
Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama has single-handedly turned
Tibet into a cause celebre. His famous disciples include Richard Gere and Steven Segal and his Hollywood connection has resulted in a host of blockbusters — Brad Pitt-starrer Seven Years in Tibet, Martin Scorcese’s Kundan and the 2005 Dreaming Lhasa — that have publicised the cause of his people.
Through tireless travel — last year alone he is said to have spent over 200 days travelling — the Dalai Lama has been advocating a ‘middle way’ to resolve the status of Tibet.
In March this year to mark the anniversary of the 1959 invasion, he again stressed his goal of Tibetan autonomy rather than complete independence. It’s a goal that has been criticised by some of his own people. “Some Tibetans accuse me of selling out their right to independence,” he told Time magazine. “But my approach is in our interest. Tibet is backward. It’s a big land, rich in natural resources, but we lack the technology or expertise (to exploit them). If we remain within China, we might get a greater benefit, provided it respects our culture and environment and gives us some kind of guarantee.”
The now 73-year-old Dalai Lama continues to lead a spartan life, rising at 3.30 am to pray and meditate under the stars. A morning walk, or a stint on the treadmill if it’s raining, a frugal breakfast of tea and porridge, listening to the news on BBC and back to more prayers takes up much of his daily routine.
Though in excellent health, the obvious question: Who next? Who can match up to him in energy and enthusiasm? In an earlier interview to the Hindustan Times, the Dalai Lama had stressed: “If we cease to be a refugee community and can live in democratic Tibet, then I don’t think there should be a successor to me after I die."
The statement is relevant in the context of Tibet’s fear that China will foist its own Dalai Lama as part of its effort to tighten its grip on the region. So real is this worry that the Dalai Lama has already declared that he will not be reincarnated inside Tibet but in a free country outside Chinese control. A commander in exile, a colossal world figure, an apostle of peace — the Dalai Lama is all these and more. Only a leader of his stature can keep the dream of Free Tibet alive.
Email Aloke Tikku: firstname.lastname@example.org